The Skadivers' Tale

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The Search Party

THE SEARCH PARTY

Sam was getting bored playing with the flying lizard, and since the girls were applying hand lotion to his dry skin again, he wanted to explore a little, and let the girls have some time together alone.

“Diedra,” Sam said, “Did you see which way Hannegelt went? I’d like to catch up with them, if I can.”

“I believe they were following the stones,” she replied, referring to the arc of boulders.

Sam stepped over the packs and gave Genie a kiss. “See you later,” he said and jogged away.

He stopped running as he came to the tip of the curved ridge, and walked around it to survey the area. There was no sign of Hannegelt, so he continued on to see the boulders changing into a more ‘shaped’ grouping of cut stones. He could see the pattern end at the foot of a bluff where an old chain hung down. It was logical to assume they went that way, so Sam jumped up the chain as high as he could and then scrambled up and over the jagged ledge to find the stone door left open by Hannegelt and Kemann. He could see their footprints, so he knew he was on the right track. He pulled his flashlight off of his belt and shined it down the staircase. He called down, but was only mocked by his own echo. With one foot in, something in the back of his mind told him not to follow. This was another world, with magic and were-folk. Sam knew nothing of hidden passages, and so decided to go back to camp and get some help.

Back at camp, Genie had started giving Diedra some pointers on sword-handling. The hunting party was just coming back as Sam popped in from between the boulders. Surveying the present Company members, he was disappointed to not see Dextmann, but Sanndin was there beginning to prepare snakes brought in by the hunters. Three thick snakes lay before him and he was sharpening his knife.

“Sanndin, do you know where Dextmann is?” Sam querried.

Sanndin looked up at him, seeing his thoughts. “Not good, Skadiver.” He stood up and put his knife away. “We should go.”

“I really think we should have Dextmann with us.”

“What is it, Sam?” Genie asked.

“Looks like Hannegelt and Kemann found some ruins or something. They went down into the mountain. I didn’t want to follow them without some help, you know, in case things got weird.”

“In case things got weird? Good call. There isn’t one thing about all this that isn’t weird,” Genie said.

At that moment, Dextmann slipped into camp and sat down. Sam went to him.

“Dextmann, I need your help, and anyone else who wants to come…”Sam announced. “Hannegelt and Kemann have gone down into the mountain, in some ruins. I think a couple of us should follow.” Everyone but Dextmann stood up to volunteer. “But a few should stay here and watch the camp.”

Beamann and Axemann sat back down. “We will stay with the Princess, Skadiver,” Beamann said.

“Good. Everyone else then, let’s go spelunking.” They all looked at him with a question.

“He means cave exploring,” Genie explained, and the ‘aha’ registered on their faces.

“What is it, Dextmann?” Sanndin asked. “Will you not go?”

“I fear to go,” he started, “Tis ‘ruins’ may be more than that. The Skadiver may ken the parchment right. Mayhaps tis ruins be the old Xeltic Hold of the Early Times. If here they lived, having come from New Doranstea, and before moving to Olden. The priests of old had strange powers, unlike the priests of tis age, but of tis, I ken little. They do strange tings even now. Tis caves are likely to be haunt, hence I do not care to venture into them. They could be sore dangerous.”

“I need you, Dextmann,” Sam implored.

“I am a superstitious thief. True, many a queer dungeon have I seen, and the tings that crawl in them, I know.”

The Princess stepped over to him. “Dextmann, please go, in my service.”

He squirmed a little. “But, Princess, secret passages can be…” his voice trailed off. “Yes, Princess.”

“Thank you, Sir Thief,” she said warmly.

“Yes, thank you. Shall we go?” Sam asked.

“If you take my advice, Skadiver, we’ll be taking food, water, and torches,” Dextmann suggested.

“You really think we’ll need all that?”

“Tis may be more than you tink, but maybe less than you tink; best be prepared before entering secret passageways,” Dextmann said wisely.

“Dungeons and Dragons, Sam,” Genie giggled.

“Right, and we’re going in with an eighth-level thief,” Sam joked.

The suggestion was made that the camp be moved to the base of the ridge. It was perhaps a little better protected and all of the gear would be closer. So, all was moved to the end of the stones’ arc. They all struggled up the chain and over the ridge. As they stood before the open door, Dextmann smelled the air rising from the stair.

“Aye,” was all he said before leading the ‘spelunking’ group down into the stair. “We should be safe enough if we keep to their footprints. Best hold our tongues, lest we awaken that which sleeps.”

Quietly, the seven made their way down the winding one hundred steps. The footprints ended at the stone arch at the bottom. There were scratches on the floor where the stone had moved out.

“Looks like they got in,” Genie said.

“But how?” Sam pondered.

Dextmann looked at the dust on the dragons. “That.”

Genie gripped the dragon and attempted to use it like a lever, but it was fixed. So, she ran her hand along its neck to feel for anything. The dragon’s eyes began to glow green, and it began to open the stone.

“Aye,” Dextmann said with fear. “Tis the old magic. Bad.”

Sam could feel his reluctance, so he decided to goad him at once. “You and I go in, and, if it closes, you guys let us out. We’ll try to find something to jam it open. Let’s go.” He grabbed Dextmann by the shoulder and shot through the door. Seconds later, it closed.

Sam looked around with the flashlight, but there was nothing lying around to jam in the doorway. Shining the beam on the back of the door, he saw the indentation. The dust on it had been disturbed, probably by Kemann, who would have examined the door as well. The indentation with the dragon feature on it looked familiar to Sam.

“Dextmann, do you have that amulet that you stole along with that parchment?”

“Yea. I had the same thought. Here it is.” He took it off from around his neck and handed it to Sam. As Sam placed it into the indentation, the thief stood well back. The amulet began to glow gold. The stone began to move once again, and the way was open. The others peered in, and Sam smiled, holding the amulet out.

“We have the key,” he said. He turned to Dextmann. “You see, I told you I needed you.” Dextmann grumbled something. Sam turned to him. “Don’t give me any attitude, Thief. You’re the one who stole the map that got us into this mess.”

“You are dangerous casual, Skadiver. Tis old magic, and guarding what, we ken not.”

The search party moved into the passage and continued to follow the footprints in the dust, and they heard the panel slide closed behind them. Down they went, and the spiral passage seemed to go on forever, especially at the pace Dextmann insisted on going. Sam considered him a bit over-cautious. They finally came to the second door, which was smaller than the previous panel, and found it jammed open by a stone block.

“They’ve certainly been here,” remarked Sam.

“Yea, and have their wits about them,” Dextmann added. The others stayed silent, awaiting instructions and listening to the darkness behind them.

“Sanndin, can you sense them?” Sam asked.

“No, they must be deep in the stone.”

“Well, let’s go.” Sam hopped over the stone block and into the next passage. This was the immense cavern, and Sam’s light only lighted about halfway across it. As they followed the footprints, they crossed a clearly worn path. Dextmann got low to examine it.

“Aye,” he sighed.

The light revealed the river as they walked toward the sound of water, still following the footprints. At the water’s edge, they could see the ‘liquid skeletons’ swimming in the stream. The Gelts were fearful, but Sam assured them that they were just fish that had evolved and adapted to darkness. Many subterranean animals were blind and colorless.

“They went that way,” Dextmann said, pointing downstream.

Following the tracks, they came upon the place where Hannegelt and Kemann must have jumped over. They did the same and found themselves in the smaller cavern with the columns. Sam’s flashlight revealed beautiful streaks of bronze-like metal ore running in random angles in the stone. They followed the tracks to the central column. Dextmann carefully lifted out one of the remaining dragon torches and rubbed it. It began to glow.

“That’s some trick,” Sam said, also reaching for one.

“I think they went in here,” Genie said, pointing at the fragments of bone and the footprints that stopped at the column. The light showed the dust rubbed off of the dragon carving, so she reached up and rubbed it. And it opened.

“Let’s make sure the ‘key’ works before we all just go in there,” Sam suggested. “Master Thief…”

He and Dextmann stepped through as before, found the same indentation on the inside. The door swung shut, and the key was snapped in place. It glowed, and the stone opened.

The group came through and climbed down the ladder slowly and carefully. When they came to the fork in the passage, the trail was lost, for the soft dust floor had become slick, bare stone with traces of water coming from the left passage.

“Well,” Sam said, “which way? Sanndin, anything?” Sanndin shook his head.

“Keep left. All the passages we have taken go left.”

“That’s as good a guess as any, I suppose,” Sam said as they promptly went down the wrong tunnel.

For ten minutes they pressed on until they came to a hole in the floor. It was impassable.

“Hope they didn’t come this way,” Genie said.

“Yeah, don’t think so,” Sam said and dropped his dragon torch down into the pit.

“What are you doing?” exclaimed Dextmann. “You never know what is at the other end that you may disturb. Tis bad, Skadiver.”

“I wasn’t thinking.” But as he made the excuse, he could see several large creatures moving in a cavern below. Dextmann could see them to.

“Aye! I knew it!” he said. “Our chance of success grows less considerable. Now, we must hasten back to the fork and take the other passage.”

The party moved quickly back to the fork and covered the distance much faster than previously. They filed into the other passage and in several minutes, they came to the chamber with the two dragon heads beside the panel. Water was coming out in tiny stream around the bottom of the panel. Johamann rubbed the dragon’s neck and the group was nearly knocked over by the torrent of cold water rushing out of the chamber. As the flood subsided, they entered through the arch, but Dextmann stopped them immediately, holding them back. The door closed behind them, leaving them on a ledge.

Hidden in the inch of water that still covered the floor, he could just make out the edges of a hole. Sam hit it with his flashlight and revealed the perimeter. Shining it farther into the chamber, the light illuminated the greenish scum monster beached on the stone. From the other end of the chamber, a voice echoed across.

“Samuel!” Hannegelt shouted, “You found us!” He and Kemann climbed down off of the chest and began to cross around the scum monster.

Sam and Dextmann jumped across to the far side of the hole and met them. “So, yes, we found you, but I think we may have disturbed some large nasties down below. Best we get out of here.”

“The way is shut behind you,” Hannegelt said.

“Ah, but we have the key,” Sam said, as Dextmann held it up to see.

“I should have known,” Kemann said. “That shape. Let us open the chest then, as it uses the same key.”

At Kemann’s advice, Dextmann wore a mail glove to use the key in case it was further booby-trapped. Reaching from the far edge, to stay off of the trap door, he inserted the amulet into the indentation on the chest, and it glowed gold, and released its lid to the hinges. With great care, the thief stuck his dagger inside and lifted the lid with it. Once opened, he stuck the dagger upright between lid and bottom, in case it was a trap to close on whoever ventured a hand inside. Sam brought the flashlight to see what the chest contained.

Inside was a jeweled box and several large leather bound bundles. Dextmann cautiously lifted out the jeweled box and handed it to Hannegelt.

“Do not open the latch, my Lord,” he said.

“Old magic,” Hannegelt agreed.

“Aye, many devious devices may be in the box itself, awaiting the wrong person to open it. I have seen poisoned darts and pricking needles. There are stories of such boxes that even magically turn into manacles when opened.”

Hannegelt set the box down and opened the latch with the tip of his dagger. In it were seven golden rings, each alike with red inlaid stones in the tiny shapes of flying dragons. The rings lay on a folded piece of parchment, which had strange writing on it.

Suddenly, the lid to the big chest groaned, trying to close, and sent Dextmann’s dagger flying across the chamber as the heavy lid slammed shut.

“What was in those other bundles?” Kemann asked. A rumble in the far wall of the cavern caught everyone’s attention.

“We have not the time to discover that, and they may be too heavy for us to run with, and I think, run we must,” Dextmann said as he closed up the jeweled box and started away. “Come!”

The group ran to the edge of the hole before the door. Sam turned to Dextmann. “Give me the amulet.”

Dextmann gave it to him, and Sam jumped over the hole to land on the ledge. He very nearly lost his balance, having to halt the move right up against the stone door. But he recovered and used the amulet to open the door. Cautiously, he looked out to see if the way was clear, and it was. Very quickly, the rest of the group took running starts to leap the gap. The rumbling in the passage was louder.

“We are being sought,” Dextmann said, and they wasted no time in jogging back the way they had come.

Johamann stashed the jeweled box in the food pack while taking out some dried fruit for the moving group to eat while they ran. It had been a long night after an already long day’s climb to the pass, and now they found themselves running uphill and having to climb again. Kemann and Hannegelt had slept for maybe two hours before being awakened by the rising water where they had sat, but they were all near exhaustion, and the sweet fruit gave them a little boost.

They stopped for a moment to drink at the base of the stone ladder, but then made the ascent without further delay. By the time they reached the top, their thighs were burning from the effort. Once again, the amulet opened the column for their exit. There was some relief when it shut behind them again. But now they were in the cavern with the stream. Dextmann halted everybody before jumping over the water. He has Sam shine his light all around.

“What is it?” Sam asked.

“They cross through in here,” he replied.

“What crosses through?” Genie asked.

“Best we never ken,” the thief answered. “Go.”

The group jumped over the water into the soft sand on the far side and ran toward the far end of the cavern for the entrance. About halfway across, there was the sound of scraping and clicking behind them. Sam’s light swung around and showed a large dark object moving toward them. Several objects, actually. There was a sprint for the exit, and the group had almost cleared the cavern, but the creatures moved quicker than they had hoped. There was great anxiety as they waited for the door to open, so they could get out of the reach of these monsters. On the far side of the door, Sam was shining his light on the front beast. The light did not deter it at all, for, as he had earlier noted, things that live in the dark are often blind. But the light did show them what pursued them. Enormous ant-lizard-looking things that were eight feet tall and fifteen feet long, they had six legs, antennae, and fierce snapping mandibles. Hannegelt drew his sword, as did Sam, but the door closed at just the right moment, catching the first creature’s head at the neck and popping it off as the stone retracted. The head of the ant-lizard was big, and the mandibles continued clicking after its dismemberment.

“Let’s just keep going,” Hannegelt said. “I would rather not have to face these beasts.”

The Company agreed, and stepped up their pace as the passage wound way around and upward. Below them in the curved wall, which held the pathway up, the ant-lizards crashed through, and four of the enormous creatures swarmed into the cavern. Their erratic movement made Sam pause, and he could see that their antennae were moving rapidly to gather information. Perhaps they could not ‘see’, but they were by no means blind. He shined his light on them long enough to recognize that they had indeed picked up the trail of the ‘invaders’ and were moving to pursue.

Sam pushed the group faster, as he was bringing up the rear. It was good that the others had the dragon torches lit to lead the way up. But Sam knew that the ant-lizards would overtake them soon, so the only question was where that would take place. One thing he was sure of was that he did not want to get cornered at the end of this passage. For the moment, however, all he could do was run. The sloped path in the open cavern turned into a tunnel, which Sam had thought reminded him of lava tubes. Maybe they had been formed that way, but now that he had seen the inhabitants, and their size, he was beginning to think this whole complex was an enormous ant hill that had been used by the ancient priests. Maybe that was why they relocated to Olden, or maybe it was part of the security for whatever was in that chest, and whatever else might be hidden in the caverns.

Whatever the fancy theories, one thing Sam knew for sure was that the ant-lizards were closing on him. “We have to go faster!” he shouted up to the front.

Johamann stopped and readied his bow. Genie saw what he was doing and did the same. Sam saw them getting ready to make a stand, and yelled, “Shoot for the antennae!”

He kept the flashlight on the fast-approaching monster and caught his breath for a moment. Hannegelt came back to him with sword in hand. The archers let fly their arrows and one antenna was severed, but the beast was not deterred. It came down on Hannegelt fast, but he stepped aside quickly and cut through the other antenna as the head of the ant-lizard came around to try to catch him in its mandibles.

The moment that the second antenna was cut off, the animal went into convulsions, thrashing wildly in all directions and bashing itself to death on the walls of the tunnel. It lay there, and Sam hoped its body would be big enough to stop the others from passing, but they decided not to linger to find out.

As it happened, the others were slowed, but not stopped by their fallen comrade. Scraping of the walls could be heard from behind as the group hastened up the passage. They came to the door that had been blocked open and jumped through, but before they could get out of that cavern, the other ant-lizards pushed their way through that same door and were now in the cavern with them. There was no use in running, they had been caught. The only thing to do now was to make a stand with the nine of them against the three remaining giants.

If their behavior was predictable, the ant-lizards would not hesitate for a second, but come right at them. “Break into threes, and spread out!” Sam yelled. “Shoot for the antennae, but get ready for anything!”

They did as he said, and Genie, Johamann, Bowmann, and Sanndin got arrows knocked. Once again, they had limited success hitting the antennae, as they were such small targets on moving creatures. Sam jumped to the side as one charged him, and he hacked the foreleg at the joint. The ant-lizared dipped, but it had five other legs to support it, so it turned at him for a second attempt. The sweeping mandibles knocked Sam sideways, and he rolled under the beast to the right, which Hannegelt was holding off with sword hacks at the snapping jaws. Sam thrust his sword straight into this one’s thorax, and the weapon lodged in the thick ‘exoskeleton’ hide, and was wrenched out of Sam’s grip. The first ant-lizard was now trying to get at him through the legs of the one he was under, but Sam scrambled around dodging the legs of the one, the mandibles of the other, while trying to free his sword. The first beast, determined to get at Sam flipped the other one over to move it out of his way. Before either of the creatures could recover, Sam was able to jump to his sword and use his legs to dislodge it before leaping on to the attacker.

Meanwhile, Hannegelt took advantage of the injured, flipped ant-lizard’s position to sever its head. Kemann had cast a sleeping spell on the third, but was only able to make it disoriented. That was enough for the archers to take its antennae and send it into death throe convulsions.

That left Sam on the back of the remaining ant-lizard, who was thrashing about trying to free himself of the pest. The antennae-less, convulsing beast’s rear leg came across and hit Sam’s arm, sending his sword flying. It was too risky a shot for the archers, so Hannegelt went for another leg on the same side as Sam had taken one, but he wasn’t quick enough. The ant-lizard came around and backed him off. Sam was desperate, like he was on a bucking bronco with razor teeth. He reached down for his boot knife, and tried to gauge the motion of the creature. With a broad swipe with is knife in an inverted hold, he cut into the remaining antenna. The damage imparted must have been enough, because it sent his ride into its convulsions, too violent for any cowboy to ride. Sam was thrown to the stone floor fifteen feet away.

He lay there, stunned and bleeding from his scalp as the convulsing ant-lizard was finished off by the rest of the group. Genie ran to him.

“Sam! Are you okay?” she asked desperately.

He moaned as she lifted his head and held pressure on his wound. “Terrific. Makes our fire ants back home look pretty silly, huh?” he said.

Johamann brought his sword to him, and Dextmann found his boot knife.

“You have fire ants in Sky Hold?” Kemann asked.

Sam laughed a little. “I think he’s okay,” Genie announced. “Can you get up?”

“Won’t know if I don’t try.” He got to his feet with a little help. “Let’s get out of here, okay?”

“Tis my wish as well,” Dextmann said, handing him his blade. “Well done, Skadiver.”

More scraping was heard coming from the passage behind them, and everyone knew what that meant. They made for the first underground door at the base of the first stair as quickly as they could. The sounds of more ant-lizards were gaining on them yet again, but the door came into view before things got nasty again. When, at last, the door closed behind them as they ascended the final stairway, there was a huge sigh of relief. Winding their way up, a stream of morning light was cutting through the open arch, and the entire Company was re-united a few moments later. Terry was particularly delighted to see Genie emerge from the mountain. He flew to her and hummed loudly.

“I suggest we stay here the day and recover,” Hannegelt said, after everyone was down the chain and sitting upon the boulders.

“I’d be willing to walk a ways to get away from this ant hill,” Sam said.

“I like the way you tink, Skadiver,” Dextmann agreed.

Hannegelt and the others could see the logic in this, and so the Company picked up and wearily made their way down out of the Sanguin Mountains to make camp in a secluded glade in the foothills. It was a longer hike than Sam had wanted. With no sleep and a throbbing head, he barely had the energy to eat a little snack and drink the last of the wine before passing out with Genie in the sleeping bags.

It was dark when Sam cracked opened his eyes, and he rose with a start, thinking he was still in the caverns. But all was peaceful as he took in the camp site. Several of the Company were awake, and there was a small fire going. “Gen,” he nudged her gently.

She stretched herself and opened her eyes to see him leaning her way. “Hey,” she said, closing her eyes again.

“Aspirin,” Sam said, and her eyes popped open to the reality of the previous night.

“Oh…how are you? How’s your head?”

“Aspirin,” Sam repeated. “I’ll let you know after that.”

She dug into her pack and pulled out the first aid supplies and headlamp. “This would have been handy in the caves.” She found the aspirin and gave him a couple, which he took without hesitation and swallowed without the benefit of water. “Here, have some fruit. I’m hungry; you must be too.”

“That’s an understatement.”

Hannegelt heard them talking and came over. “Are you still with us, Samuel?”

“Yes, just,” Sam answered. “Let that be the last time I drop a torch into any kind of pit.”

“What are you talking about?” Hannegelt asked.

Dextmann, nearby, answered for him, “The Skadiver woke the beasts in the mountain. We are all lucky to be alive. We’ve been waiting for you to awaken to divvy the box.”

“If Kemann and I hadn’t been so reckless, none of us would have been endangered,” Hannegelt added.

“But neither would we have what the were-women sought,” argued the thief.

Kemann joined them. “The question to be answered is what are these things in the box, and what makes them so valuable that they should be hidden away in such a strong hold by old magic?.”

The group was startled by Terry flying in. He landed on a nearby rock and gulped down a lizard he held in his mouth. “He’s hungry too,” Genie said. “Is there anything else to eat?”

“Sanndin and Diedra have the snake of the evening,” Hannegelt said. “Eat, and we shall open the box again together.”

Bland roasted snake doesn’t take long to choke down, so in just a few minutes, the Company assembled to examine more closely the contents of the jeweled box. Kemann led the procedure. First he pulled one of the seven rings. It was heavy, for its size, and golden. It had the red inlaid jewel shaped like a flying dragon.

“Given the amount of old magic guarding these,” Kemann said, “I would have to conclude that these rings also have been embedded with magic. Of what sort, I cannot say.” He looked into the box. “There are seven rings. There is a parchment.” He pulled out the parchment and carefully unfolded it. “Perhaps the Xeltic Priests can decipher the language, but it is beyond my ken. There appears to be nothing else in the box. Adventurers’ Law dictates that these items should be equally divided amongst those who went into the mountain. As my share, I would like the parchment. Agreed?”

There was a general agreement. “I want the box,” Dextmann said. “I’ll have no part of the old magic rings. Agreed?” Once again, there was general agreement.

“That leaves seven rings for seven adventurers. Agreed?” Kemann asked. With the final general agreement, the rings were handed out and traded for better fitting on specific fingers.

“Seven rings seems like an odd number,” Sam remarked.

“Yes,” Hannegelt agreed, “there should be ten.

Sanndin looked down at his ring. “Ingebriggt had but seven fingers.”

A silence fell on the Company. Sam and Genie didn’t get it. “Who is Ingebriggt?” Genie asked.

“First of the Jaederon,” Kemann answered. “Sanndin is suggesting that these may be the Rings of Ingebriggt.”

“I take it there is a legend then?” Sam goaded.

“Legend indeed,” Kemann said. “Ingebriggt used the rings to control dragonkind. He wore all seven, and they gave him mastery.”

“That sounds sweet,” Sam said.

“Not for the dragons,” Sanndin put in. “It was terrible. Thousands of dragons died in his folly.”

“I see your point,” Genie said.

“Call Terry,” Diedra suggested, “and put the ring to the test.”

“We don’t know that these are those rings, and even if they were, we don’t know how to use them,” Sam said.

“It would be good to know, Skadiver,” Beamann advised. “Just try calling him to you.”

“Terry, come here,” Genie called sweetly. The flying lizard did not move.

“This time just think it,” Kemann suggested. “Think hard. Don’t worry; you don’t mean him any harm.”

Genie looked at Terry, who was looking at her. She held out the ring and thought, “Come to me, Terry.” The stone in the ring began to glow slightly, and shone in Terry’s eyes. With a flap of his wings, he landed on her outstretched arm. The ring stopped its glow, and Terry seemed very confused and flapped away back to the rock.

“It’s like he didn’t know what he was doing,” Genie said. “That could be awful.”

“The Rings of Ingebriggt,” Kemann said in wonder.

“That’s why Styric’s were-women wanted these,” Hannegelt said.

“What, to control dragons?” Sam asked skeptically.

“Exactly,” he answered.

“Wait, there are dragons? Like big, flying dragons here?” Genie asked.

“Of course there are dragons,” Hannegelt replied. “They just do not care for us, which you might expect. They keep to themselves. But if Styric had these rings, he could have a flying force.”

“But now we have them,” Kemann said.

“Are you suggesting we use them to build an Air Force?” Sam asked.

“Where are the dragons?” Genie asked.

“They are not far—to the north of Olden,” Sanndin said. “But we should not think to use the rings. It is said it was they brought about the fall of Ingebriggt.”

“And he was far more powerful a Wizard than lives today,” Kemann added.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Sam quoted.

“Using the power was likely his demise,” Diedra added.

“The parchment may tell the tale,” Kemann said. “We should get to Olden with haste.”

“Agreed. We leave at first light,” Hannegelt announced. “Till then, rest.”

The Company settled in and slept, still weary from the travels and trials. At first light, they readied themselves and began the long day’s march to Olden.

Hannegelt, distressed by the delay of the previous day, set an extremely fast pace. Thankfully, the terrain had leveled off as they left the Sanguin Mountain Ridge behind to traverse the plains to the east. There were tall stones scattered along the way, jutting upwards of fifteen feet above the red sands. Lines of trees and shrubbery crossed the way ahead, marking streams that would have to be crossed, but other than that, the sands were broken by only by scrub brush.

Monotony was the theme of this day, as hour by hour marked the same landscape moving slowly by. The only breaks were at the narrow streams, where they were able to fill water skins and sit in shade for all-too-brief respites from the march. Toward the end of the day’s light, they could just make out the hilltop on which Olden had been built. A decision had to be made, whether to continue into the night, or to make camp and reach Olden midday on the morrow. Arriving in the middle of the night was not very considerate to the hosts, and since they were going to be asking them for aid, it was decided that camp would be made for the evening. After nearly fifteen leagues, the Company was glad to stop.

The only foods they had were dried meat and fruit—and not much of that—the wine was gone, and the water skins low. Sam broke out his stove and one of his and Genie’s freeze-dried backpacking meals and shared that with Terry. The flying lizard ate some, but he was not a big fan of the turkey tetrazzini. All the while as they cooked and ate, the rest of the Company watched them as if to see the secrets of this Sky Hold ‘magic’.

After the events in the caverns, the Company’s spirits seemed to be sinking lower. Genie sensed this and sang a song (with Terry) around the small fire. But the group still seemed sullen after her song, so she goaded Sam into singing one, a cheerful one. Sam did not usually like being pushed into this sort of thing, and he still didn’t feel a hundred percent. So, slightly irritated, he agreed to sing, and the song he chose was one that would irritate Genie. The classical ‘art’ song’s tune was quick, and the lyrics clever, about the dozens of romantic affairs of a young man. He mentions, in the song, that he is not married still after years of women. Sam knew Genie was a little touchy about the fact that they were still not married after four years of cohabitation.

The song was enjoyed by everyone (except Genie), and so then, Johamann sang one, and then Axemann, followed by Princess Diedra. After the music, the Company seemed lighter and a bright conversation evolved around the campfire until all were asleep. Alone at watch, Axemann attended the small fire in the darkness.

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