The Isle of Dread by Bahumuth ================== The huge saber crashed against the center of the iron sword, throwing its holder back a few steps, and then again in an overhand strike. The tall, plate-mailed knight brought down his steel broadsword down with all his might. The muscular, dark-skinned island-man threw his crude sword to parry, catching the broadsword at its hilt. The Kikapa island-man, although naked, was very seasoned with his hilt less sword. Comparatively, the knight, mailed in white satin-draped field plate, definitely held the advantage. The Kikapa allowed the knight to come in at him and then fell back against the weight of the knight, causing the knight to lose his balance. He then used this advantage by stopping the collapse of the armor on himself with his leg and then swiped his sword hard against the knight's head. The crude sword of iron snapped in half. 'It pays to have good weaponry.', thought the knight. The Kikapa snarled and kicked the knight off of him, a split second before the well-smithed saber cut open his belly. The knight fell over backwards. The Kikapa quickly grabbed his blade by the backside and charged over to the downed knight. The knight waited for the precise moment and then rolled over as quickly as he could, causing the Kikapa to miss him by inches. The knight leaned up and struck with his gauntleted fist, hitting square in the groin. The Kikapa cried out in pain and the knight finished the job with a slice to the throat. Blood spewed from the Kikapa's mouth and he fell face first to the ground in a pool of blood. A collective gasp resounded from the audience, a surrounding circle of dark-skinned Kikapas. They looked in awe as their finest warrior was killed right in front of their eyes. They looked to the killer and to the party of newcomers to the isle that came with him, who watched the spectacle as they did. They had come to their village in piece a few moons ago in peace on a huge boat that up until then, they had only seen from afar, never before stopping on the isle except in legend. Amongst the foreigners were warriors who had shaped great metal around them to use as armor. One was a tall, skinny, magical person with long ears, who called himself an elf. Another was a short, gruff long-beard, called a dwarf. Another wore hide leather as armor, more perfectly tanned than any of the wise men had seen. There was also a man who could cast magic spells in a short black robe, and one of their young. There were two others that had come with them, but they were not present at the moment. Excluding the boy, they were all very muscular and fearsome people. They also had good food and valuables to trade for housing and simple information about the island. It was obvious the pale skins were used to the good food they brought because they never ate anything they had served them. But for all their wondrous items and magics, it had been learned that they couldn't get food and water from the land and had to carry it on their bodies. "Damn.", the knight said, obviously displeased with himself. He walked up to his party of mercenaries and took off his now-tarnished helmet, revealing a handsome man with long black hair. His name was Sir Kage Swiftsword. The other human fighter in the group, Billard Greenhand, gave Sir Kage a few congratulating pats on the shoulder. "Is that what you call training?", replied from Everett Speartip III, the elf of the party. Meanwhile, incomprehensible shouts began to come from some of the individual Kikapas, but whether the shouts were directed towards the party or themselves, they couldn't tell. "What's your quarrel? He attacked me. I had to kill him." Sir Kage quickly retorted. "I thought he just wanted to test his strength." said Everett. "That's what I thought too!", replied Kage, not pleased, "Then he got frustrated and his blows became real." Two of the Kikapas were now carrying their tribe's hero off while others argued amongst themselves in their language. "I still can not believe how low and disgusting some humans are." said Everett, "They're probably taking him off so they can eat him and have a decent meal for once." "Ah, shut yer yap, ye snobby treefucker!" growled Stalfor Fireforge, the dwarf. Stalfor was actually an old friend of Everett's (extremely old since both races were greatly long lived.) Normally, elves and dwarves had a common enmity between each other, and this showed up between the two of them at times. "Your dribble humors me, gnomling.", Everett retorted. "Are they going to attack?", asked Sir Kage. "I doubt it.", replied Denier Spellbook, the mage, "Tribal beliefs tend towards respect for the stronger man. They shouldn't be bearing any grudges." "That's why they're passing out spears.", replied Stalfor bluntly. The party looked to see many of the angered men grabbing spears from a man who brought a quiver of them. Some men were charging them at that second. "Let's get out of here! Now!!!", ordered Kage. "What about Marina?!?", cried Everett. "No time!", ordered Kage, grabbing Kirby by the hand, "We'll have to come back for the others!" Stalfor, with 65 years worth of military and mercenary experience in a still-youthful and vigorous body, easily sidestepped the charging Kikapa and swung his axe into the man's head. A second Kikapa caught Billard off guard on the side. The spear didn't penetrate his plate mail armor, but the momentum pushed him to the ground. The Kikapa raised the spear again to stab him in the face when someone tackled him. The Kikapa was on the ground when he realized it was the kid. He was surprised at the weight of the pale men, such that the momentum of a young child could overtake him. Before he could push the kid off, he saw an arm wrap tightly around his head, covering his eyes, and felt a sharp blade cutting into his throat. A rush of cold air entered into his throat through the slit, taking away any death cries he might have made. Albert Greegan, the leather-armored human of the party, let go of the Kikapa and wiped his dirk clean. Sir Kage rushed up, helped Billard up, reaffirmed his grasp on Kirby again, and resumed his course out of the Kikapa village. Kirby couldn't keep to speed with Kage, so he pulled him onto his shoulders. Billard and Greegan grabbed some of the loose baggage on the ground and made a run for it. Denier, the only one ahead of Kage, led the way out of the village. Looking back, Kage saw the rest of the party behind him followed by a now more organized mob of Kikapas, charging them and shouting at the top of their lungs, quickly closing in on the much more encumbered party members. Sir Kage stopped and shouted as loud as he could, "Everett!!! Stalfor!!! Bring up the back end!!! There's no way we're going to out run them!!!" He couldn't tell if they heard him. Everett and Stalfor were by far the strongest fighters of the band and had the best chance of holding off a horde of berserker spearmen for a short amount of time. Kage handed Kirby over to Greegan as he ran past. Kirby wrapped his arms tightly around Greegan as the rogue gripped Kirby by the back and shoulder. "What the hell do you think you're doing?!?", shouted Stalfor as he and Everett came to a stop in front of him. "We can't out run them! We'll have to hold them off while the others escape!", shouted Kage as Billard ran past them. "Great!", Stalfor cried gleefully. Sir Kage analyzed the charging mob. The Kikapas were holding their spears over handed next to their heads. All three of them were well trained in defense against untrained spear chargers, but Kage had never been so grossly outnumbered before. The elf's long swords sang as he unsheathed the weapons from the opposite sides of his belt. Just like Stalfor, Everett's race was long-lived, giving him many years to train himself with not only many different weaponry and fighting styles, but magic as well. Not only that, each of his long swords emanated with it's own unique magical enchantment. Everett's right sword glowed a dark red while his left shimmered between orange and red, like fire. "Come on! I'm ready for ye!!!", cheered Stalfor in the gruff voice he had. The three of them stood in their stance until the last second. Just as the first wave of men descended upon them, Kage and Stalfor brought their shields up, protecting themselves from the spears and brought their weapons in an underhanded swing into the chest. Everett had no shield but made the same defensive maneuver with his left long sword. Suddenly, they were all over them, screaming death chants into their ears. Sir Kage kept his shield high and tried to do as much damage to the unguarded chests and torsos as possible. His hardest problem was staying vertical though. He knew if he fell, he was in trouble. Stalfor knew long before most of his comrades were born that his choice in weaponry was not good in these scenarios. The axe holds a very committing swing, but its extra mass gives it a better bite. Stalfor used it for its betterment against armored enemies sacrificing the speed of a sword. His experience told him not to swing too hard. Nevertheless, the third chest Stafor's axe caved into sank too deep and wouldn't let him get his weapon back. He could have pulled his axe out of the body if it was on the ground and he could step on it, but the dying Kikapa was being held up like a shield against the rest of the angered spearmen. When a spear came in at his side he knew he had to give his axe up to the body and simply charge headfirst into the man. The man went down and so did Stalfor. Spears began hitting the back of his armor and helmet and soon the men simply began to jump on him, trying to crush him under their weight. Everett was by far the best off. His quickness with the enchanted long swords allowed him to dispatch his attackers quickly and efficiently. Bodies fell from his swords the same second they had come within range. All the while, the elf added insults to their fatal injuries as if the Kikapas could understand him. His right sword was now shining red with power. The enchanted sword fed off the wielder's confidence. The greater the ego of the fighter, the more precise the swing and deeper the cut. The sword couldn't be any more deadly in Everett's hands. It was obvious these Kikapas were untrained for true combat. None of Everett's attackers had even been able to get close to him. Then Billard joined him, with mace and chain in hand. The weapon looked like a chain whip ending with a morning star, a spiked ball. The morning star smashed open the face of an attacking Kikapa as the victim's spear broke against Billard's armor. Everett began casting. Suddenly, a great bolt of lightning shot out of his hands, striking through three Kikapas, killing them all and scattering some more. "Come on! Stalfor's in trouble!", shouted Everett. Everett led the way there, slicing into any that crossed his path. They made their way behind the men Kage was holding back. Everett ran past them, using his fiery long sword to slice into the distracted backs of the tribesmen while using the other to guard his front. Billard, on the other hand, stopped to pull back and bring his morning star crashing into one of the Kikapa's back, bashing the man to the ground instantly. Just then, Billard cried out in pain as a spear lodged itself in an opening of the field plate at the shoulder. He looked to see if Everett would help him with the enemy but Everett had already gone on ahead. The Kikapa tried to push the spear in deeper. Billard tightened his grip and swung as hard as he could in an upward arc. The attack was clumsy though, and it, arcing harmlessly to the side of his attacker. But the action startled the Kikapa enough for him to let go of the spear. He punched with the hilt of his weapon, hitting the Kikapa in the face. The spear loser's face dropped as he grabbed at it and Billard brought the morning star down on the unfortunate man's head. The sword slices Everett gave were just the distraction Kage needed to save himself. He exploded into motion, stabbing and slicing every man who had dared to turn his head for a second towards Everett. One man went down underneath Billard's morning star before Sir Kage could get to him. Another Kikapa looked back just in time as the edge of Kage's saber made an upward slice into his face, shooting a line of blood upwards. The Kikapa grabbed his face, knowing it was the worst thing he could do directly in front of his enemy and was no surprised when he felt a sword imbed itself inside his stomach. A weaponless Kikapa wrapped his arm Kage's neck. Sir Kage bent his head down and snapped it back quickly, throwing the weight of his helmet into the man's face. Sir Kage broke free of the grasp and shoved the Kikapa away from him as far as he could. The Kikapa tumbled onto Billard, who was trying to find some way of removing the spear from his arm. The spear snapped at the point and Billard screamed in pain. Everett was gleefully cutting into the backs of the men who had piled on top of Stalfor. One turned to counter, but Everett deflected the spear with one sword while bringing the other into the Kikapa's heart, saying "Can't you do better than that?". Two others tried to sneak up to the elf from behind, but his long ears detected the presence despite the rest of the noise of the battle. He instead surprised them by summoning a ball of energy into his hand, turning around and throwing it. The ball split into three bursts, one hitting one man and the other two hitting the other. The energy pulses caused no visible damage but caused massive internal injury, killing them. "Pathetic.", Everett gave as his parting words for their journey into eternal sleep. Just then, a deep roar bellowed from beneath the group of men behind Everett and 6 men were simply pushed aside, away from the dwarf. Stalfor, with spear in hand and shouting "THARKIL! THARKIL!", ran to the nearest Kikapa who was getting to his feet. Stalfor stabbed him in the face, savoring the “splat”. Running past him, he came upon of the two more targets. The Kikapa stabbed downwards at Stalfor, who dodged it, kept going forward, kicked the man's left leg out from under him, and brought the blunt of the spear against the Kikapa's back, throwing him to the ground. Stalfor flipped the spear around in one hand and stabbed it into the man's back. He loved his art. "Come on!!!", shouted Kage, who was now making a hasty retreat. The small force that had come to the island had slaughtered almost the entire war party and the others were scattered and reluctant to go after them. Everett thought of running back to the village and finding Marina. He knew Stalfor would go with him, but he would be better off getting everyone else to help. He joined Kage and began to run in the direction the others escaped. Viper couldn't believe he was able to trade his lantern and tinderbox for a man's daughter. He had instantly gotten bored for the past few days staying in the Kikapa village. Once the party had hit the island, they quickly befriended the nearby village. They planned to stay a week to hire supply carriers and plan an exact route to Temple of Vrek. Viper traded food for a room in one of the straw huts to stay and was given a proposition from the landowner. It took him a while to understand the man since they didn't speak Common tongue but he soon began to understand the negotiation. He was spending the third day with his new "wife" when the straw door was smashed open and a bunch of the Kikapas muscled him outside. He then saw some men with spears coming and he knew something was wrong. He acted quickly. A smash to the face sent the closest man from him to the ground. He ripped away from the rest of the men and ran back into the room and grabbed his humungous two-handed sword. Llana, his purchased, began screaming in her Kikapa tongue. "Calm down.", barked Viper. A Kikapa ran and Viper used the great amount of strength needed to bring the massive object over his head and brought it crashing down on the Kikapa with great velocity. The resulting magnitude brought the blade from the Kikapa's shoulders to the middle of his hip. Llana began screaming at the top of her lungs. Viper ran out of the hut and into a group of Kikapas, with spears, talking to each other. Two were immediately in front of him. His sword reacted before his mind did and they were both dead before they could retaliate. He was then running full speed towards where the ship they had come to shore, where the rest of the party should be. Not ten seconds later, he heard Marina Prayer's voice shouting. He ran in that direction and found Marina wrestling with three Kikapas. Viper ran up, stabbing the first one in the back. The other two, knowing they were outmatched let go and ran. Viper was immediately angered when he saw her war mace still hanging on her belt, her shield still strapped to her back. Marina was a battle cleric, a pilgrim in plate mail. Though she was outfitted for destruction, her spell lore and attitude were that of knowledge and healing. "Come on.", ordered Viper. "What's going on!?!", cried Marina. "I don't know. We've got to get to the ship.", said Viper quickly. They found the ship deserted. The slave rowers that had brought the boat to the shores had been released by Kage's command on an agreement he had made with Marina. "There's no way they're still in the village. They must have started towards the temple.", said Viper, "But which way?" "I wasn't working with them on that, but from what last I heard, they were planning to start off going in a northwesterly direct-", said Marina. "Are you sure?", asked Viper, who was now putting on some spare plate mail he found. He had left his other one in the room he rented. "I'm sure of what I heard. I don't know if that's the way they're going now.", she replied. Marina was truly disturbed. She thought the tribe was peaceful. She had been working hard to feed the poor and was succeeding in spreading the word of St. Judecris, matron saint of the goddess Lemeika, amongst many of villagers. Nothing was wrong. And then suddenly she was being attacked. She prayed for Everett to be all right. "Let's go before they find us here.", she said. "What do you mean we shouldn't go back right now!?!", questioned Everett, as the party headed straight north. "Billard and Stalfor are wounded. The rest of us barely escaped!", stated Sir Kage. The rest of the party was a half-mile away from village and still distancing themselves. "Barely escaped?", laughed Everett, "You saw how weak they are. We can easily break our way into the village.", said Everett. "Hey, the rest of us are here for the treasure. We aren't your soldiers.", retorted Greegan. "I wasn't talking to you, thief.", retorted Everett. "If they escaped, they escaped, and they may come to us. If they got captured, then they'll probably still be there in a few days. Right now we need time to assess our wounds and rest. Then we'll decide on what to do.", ordered Kage "We should go back.", said Kirby. Kage ignored him, "Denier, how's Billard?" "It's hard to tell. It would help if Marina were here.", replied Denier, examining Billard's shoulder wound. Everett threw his sword blade first into the ground as hard as he could. "Everett, this is the-" "Look!", interrupted Greegan. The others looked up to see several puffs of smoke rising in the air every second. "A head hunt.", said Denier. "A what?!?", asked Greegan. "A practice where all the neighboring tribes get together to go on a hunt for humans. If they catch you, they torture you before beheading you, keeping your skull as an award. I thought this village didn't practice it since I didn't see any skulls on spears.", defined Denier. "Are you serious?", Greegan snapped. "We've got to get out of here.", continued Denier, "The map says there are five villages, which means the war party will be... large . Plus they're great trackers." "All the more notches for me axe!", bellowed an excited Stalfor. Kirby tried to hold himself to stop from shivering. He couldn't let them know he was scared. "What do you know?!? You also said they wouldn't attack us!", accused Everett. "Kirby? Are you okay?", asked Billard. "I told ye we shouldn't be bringin' no damn kid with us!", Stalfor grumbled. "Everett, if you want to go back, I understand. But we have to get moving out of here.", stated Sir Kage, "I suggest you stay with us. You won't save Marina by running back there and getting killed and she probably made it out with Viper anyway." Everett then remembered something. He took off his backpack, opened it, and pulled out a crystal ball. "Will that tell us if Marina is okay?", asked Kage, interested. Everett didn't answer and began scrying. After a few minutes, he looked up and said, "They're in the ship." "Good. Then they're safe.", replied Kage, "Are you coming?" Everett nodded. Sir Kage began arranging travel formation. They would be traveling long and hard that day to try and distance themselves from the headhunters. As the march began, Kage's thoughts went back to how the whole campaign began..... ***** Sir Kage took the illness of his son badly. When none of the local doctors were able to cure Yoy or even assess his continuing weakness, Sir Kage sought the help of alchemists from the neighboring country of Glantri. Only after weeks of traveling did he learn that the alchemists would not even take a look at his son without 1,000 gold pieces. Sir Kage did not have the kind of money needed for these specialists. He had asked the king to lend him the money but the king had said it was bad times and that he was already in a trade debt. But Kage did have one thing. A map. The map of the Isle of Dread had been passed down through his family, though he did not know who had originally wrote it or had ventured to the isle. The map told of a temple in the northern mountains that held a great black pearl of innumerable value. It also warned of great lizards that inhabited the island. But the legendary pearl would be worth the trip, and with the money, he could not only hire alchemists to help his son, he would probably have a lot of gold left over. Greegan agreed to join immediately. He was a friend of Kage's if it could be said Greegan had a friend. He was a greedy man who was always trying to find a way to screw people out of their possessions. He was a man of light build who wore a red kerchief over his short blonde hair, and skilled with the dagger. It was bad custom for a knight to associate with his kind, but Kage had known him since childhood. After word was passed around in the mercenary community, Billard Greenhand and Kirby joined. Billard was a young man, new to the mercenary business, but still opted for the highest reward presentable. He had short brown hair and wore his father's chain mail. Kirby had followed him, saying he had been kicked out of the home. Sir Kage agreed to let Kirby tag along until Specularum, but no further. Everett, Marina, and Stalfor then joined, an elf, a human, and a dwarf traveling as a group. Everett, like his kin, was tall and pale, and he had long blonde hair. Stalfor, likewise for a dwarf, was short and stocky, and fitted a full brown beard. Marina was a beautiful blonde with a large bust. Everett and Stalfor were best friends. Marina and Everett were lovers. Kage had never met a cross-racial couple before. All wore plate armor and it also surprised Kage that Marina knew white magic and Everett knew black magic. It was commonly believed amongst knights that one could not cast spells in armor, but they proved otherwise. Then Viper joined. Viper was a quiet man, tanned and muscular, with a shaved baldhead. He was a former barbarian from of one of the mainland tribes far from Kelven, trained in combat since birth. He later traded his elk skins for plate mail and his spear for a steel sword to became a local mercenary. Then Denier Spellbook. Denier was a well-spoken young man with short black hair. He wore a short black robe tied at the chest and an enchanted dagger on his belt. He had attended a school for black magic in Glantri and had recently graduated. Then Furball, an elf from Silverglade village. But he quickly left after an unintelligible dispute over who stood where while traveling. Kage promised each of the mercenaries an equal share of the profits, for those who survived..... The party quickly made it's way to the nearest port city, Specularum. At first, Sir Kage planned to have the party all put in money to buy a ship. But more than one claimed to have nothing to spare and the rest were unwilling to put in large sums of gold to make up for it. They rented an inn room and Kage consulted with Greegan, Everett, and Stalfor on how to steal a boat. They devised a plan, but kept Marina, Billard, Kirby, and Denier out of it since they were the most likely to go against the decision. A week later, they had a sailing ship. Kage told Marina and the others that he was able to sell a deed of land to make the money. Marina offered to pay her part for the ride at this but Kage refused. Kage sent Kirby away, but the boy stowed away on the ship. Kage was suspicious of Billard having been involved in the stowaway after Billard promised to look after him. Stalfor had been the most objectionable towards Kirby being there and opted to have him locked up in the ship's basement for the remainder of the trip. It wasn't until they were out to sea when they learned how slow the ship actually was. Kage calculated that it would take six new moons at the rate they were going. Everett looked at the calculations and corrected him- eight new moons. Not two days out to sea and towards their prize, Greegan visited Kage in the captain's bedroom and began talking to him about killing Everett and taking the enormous amount of magical items he owned. Kage had also noticed Everett's expensive attire and weaponry, most of which he kept in his backpack, and had silently wondered if the money he needed for Yoy's cure had been sitting right beside him in the ditch two nights ago waiting for a private sailing ship to come in from the same nightly rendezvous it had been partaking the past week. Kage told Greegan no. There wasn't going to be any double crossing. Greegan tried to convince him, but to no avail. Later that day, Kage found out from Denier that Greegan had foolishly consulted the magician on the same idea and had been turned down by him as well. Kage felt lucky Denier said nothing about it to Everett and scolded Greegan for his actions. Greegan cared little. Two new moons later, a merchant ship appeared on the starboard bow. Kage ordered Billard to lift a white flag and then go below deck and check the rations. Billard knew a diversion order when he heard one but he complied. Kage then began to consult with Greegan, Everett, and Stalfor. The S.S. Assailant rode up to party's sailing ship and bridges were tied. The merchants were at first happy to find a possible clientele, but when they boarded they found only two people, a man who introduced himself as the captain of the ship and a dwarf. They had barely introduced themselves when suddenly a red dragon swooped out of nowhere, issuing a deafening roar. It quickly hovered over the merchant ship and breathed a cone of flame, setting the ship on fire. Marina was pleading for an explanation after Greegan had suddenly popped into her room ordering her to get what she could and meet in the hall immediately, but Greegan ignored her and instead had continued down the hall telling everyone else to gather their bare essentials and meet in the hall. Marina grabbed the repulsive man and demanded for him to tell her what was going on. A demonic roar echoed throughout the hall. "No time.", he replied, pushing her along. Kage stared surprisingly at the dragon and then shouted to get everyone on their boat before they burned to death. Screaming and hollering had already begun to resonate throughout the ship and the invitation was quickly taken. Stalfor helped usher the group of merchants that scurried like insects over the bridges as the flames continued to consume the Assailant. The stolen sailboat soon began to get crowded. Someone asked where the captain was. An axe quickly cut the ropes to one of the bridges. The red dragon gave an incomprehensible "Shooby Dooby Doo" before disappearing along with its flames as Everett dispelled the illusion and jumped to the merchant ship. Kage and Greegan cut the other two bridges free. Kage quickly took the helm while Greegan ran downstairs to take command of the slave rowers. The merchants looked back to see their very un-ignited ship sailing away with a dwarf waving and shouting goodbye to them. Stalfor was laughing at the stunt they pulled while Everett and Marina were arguing. Kage took a grimmer view towards the trade off than Stalfor, but that was because he was the only who knew there was not enough food on the sailing ship to get the merchants back to shore alive. ***** Islands were usually known to be warm. This ran through Marina's mind quite a lot as the unrelenting chilled winds passed over the barren rocky folds of the island in which she and Viper traveled on. But what really ate at her was that she knew a spell for cold resistance but had failed to meditate on it that morning, thinking spells of healing were more important for the setting. She wouldn't be able to memorize it until a full day's rest. they had already traveled over half a day. Viper had left his supplies in the village, so he shared off of Marina's food. A growl from behind the corner of a mountain wall stopped them dead in their tracks. A troll emerged, a large ugly monster with green, leathery skin and inhuman strength, emerged from around the corner. It descended upon them furiously. Viper pulled out his two-handed sword from his blackstrap and swung with all his strength into the troll. The blade cut into the troll's shoulder, through the bone, cutting it's left arm off and then slicing into its chest. The troll kept coming. Its yellowed claws sank into Viper's face, going through Viper's cheek and scraping against his teeth as it pulled large chunks of flesh out of his face. Pink blood flowing from the troll's left shoulder spilled over Viper's body. Viper's blood-choked howl sounded more like rage than pain, but it did little to distract the troll. A battle mace smashed into the back of the troll's head, issuing a cracking sound and causing the troll's hard head to smash into Viper's forehead. The barbarian fell to the ground, clutching his cheek and forehead but still holding onto his sword in the other hand. Marina now saw that the left arm was growing back at a rapid rate and was just now regenerating its hand back. The troll turned and lunged at her. It's face hit the shield she brought up. Marina batted away its claw with her mace. The troll continued advancing on her. Marina back stepped, while blocking and parrying the troll’s fierce some attacks. She swung a downward arc while keeping her shield to bear, but the troll as fast. It caught her hand and made a growl that sounded grotesquely cheerful. Viper saw that the creature could grow back its limbs quickly. He had never fought such a monster before. He figured he had to stab it in the heart to kill it, so he charged it from behind. The troll batted Marina's shield out of the way, forcing her to look into its disgusting face. A large blade then exited its chest, splashing pink blood on Marina. The troll attempted to turn around to claw Viper, so the barbarian started pushing downward on the blade with all his strength, trying to take out as many organs as possible. The tight leathery skin separated far from the cut, creating a gaping hole producing lots of troll blood and a horrible gut-wrenching stench. Viper then tried to trip the troll by kicking its leg out from under it. But instead of falling forward, the troll fell backwards. Viper's head went right through the hole in the troll's back. The warm insides of the troll shook around Viper's face as the troll squirmed as its stench nearly caused Viper to lose consciousness. Viper emerged from the front of the troll, showered in troll blood. He had somehow gotten one arm buried deep inside the troll's leg, which muscle had already regenerated over and held his arm in a tight embrace. Viper's legs trapped underneath the troll's weight. Claws began to rip into Viper's back. Marina began slamming her mace into the troll's face with all her strength, but the troll seemed to feel no pain and continued to rake into Viper's already tenderized back. Viper tried to turn around but he was held fast in place. His sword tip stuck out nearby, also trapped inside the invincible monster. Marina stepped on the troll's arm and smashed it's hand, breaking every finger bone. At least it wouldn't be using that claw. Bony claws grabbed her shin guard, pulling it, the bottom half of her clothes, and parts of her flesh with it. With strength she didn't know she had, Marina smashed the arm away with her mace and then was forced to pin it with her other foot. Spreading her legs eagle, she began awkwardly attacking the top of its head again with overhead swings. Tears streamed from her eyes as she brought the mace down again and again..... ***** "The band of thieves consists of seven men, one woman, and a child.", reported the Invisible Stalker. "Location?", asked the Jerek Holdfast, Specularum's ship loaner. "The Isle of Dread.", replied the Invisible Stalker. The magical humanoid failed to mention the ship the band of thieves now had was no the same one they took from one of the ship loaner's clients. But the Invisible Stalker didn't take to divulging information to those that summoned him to do busywork, especially for those that had him crossing seas for information reports. "A child? How old?", asked Jerek, surprised. But being a banker, he was close to the town council and was told of the large amount of criminal youth that plagued the poorer side of Specularum. "Around 30 of your seasons." replied the Stalker. "Then I want you to go back, kill the men.... and the woman, and bring my ship and the child back here.", ordered Jerek, seemingly to nothing but thin air. He detested the filth and crime that plagued the city and felt he would do the world a favor by getting rid of these hoodlums. The Invisible Stalker could hardly believe it. This human had just forced him to follow a ship that had been stolen over two of their lunar cycles ago just to bring back information and he was planning to kill them all along! What abuse! He privately swore to create a device that would force a human into the plane of wind to obey his every command. "One job per summoning.", relayed the Stalker, leaving only a short flash to mark his departure. "Damn.", grumbled Jerek. He would just have to ask his friend Falchonwind to borrow the magical incense that summoned the powerful creature for another day. But within time, the thieves would learn it wasn't smart to steal from Jerek Holdfast. ***** "You better be joking.", retorted Kage adamantly. "I swear, I don't have it.", said Greegan. Nearby, Stalfor was training 'tenderfoot' in some fighting tactics. Billard didn't care for the title. "Damn it! Fuck! Shit!", Kage continued his loud and profuse cursing while jumping and kicking. "What's wrong?" asked Kirby, knowing something was terribly wrong if Sir Kage would be acting like this. Stalfor walked away from the training session he was giving Billard during the brief rest period. "Greegan lost the second bag of rations! It has almost all the food we had left! Fuck!!!", continued Kage. "WHAT?!?!?", shouted Stalfor. "We left that village in a hurry. It's not like I-" "Why the hell didn't you check?!?", scolded Kage, "Why didn't you think about it!?!", screamed Kage, "Now we're in the middle of an island with three tribes hunting us and we have no food!!!" "Hey, orcfucker, it's your fault those apes are after us. Why didn't you-" An axe chopped into the ground a few inches from Greegan's feet. "DIE!!!!", Stalfor bellowed in his hoarse voice, and grabbed Greegan by his leather collar and began to shake him violently, attacking Greegan with longer, more drawn-out curses than Kage had been using. Kirby walked a few feet away and kneeled on the ground, covering his ears. "Calm down! Look, we'll just have to cut back on what's left of our and see if we can forage as we go along.", said Denier. "I can do that.", said Everett. Greegan pushed away from the dwarf's grasp and turned his back, but not attention, away from Stalfor. Stalfor shouldn't mess with like that if he knew what was good for him, he thought, patting his dagger. ***** Billard dropped Kirby in relief. Jungle trees had surrounded them for the past few miles. Sir Kage had called for a rest even though he didn't think it wise. It was bad enough that Billard and Denier were not used to traveling long distances all day, but Kirby had slowed them down considerably. His fear that Kirby was going to supply the handicap that would bring about the party's downfall was continuously growing. But what could he do about it? Sacrifice him for the party by leaving him behind? The only good thing was that the island was surprisingly cool for the summertime, and the cool breeze had allowed them more endurance than nothing but sun beating on your back. No doubt it would help the Kikapas too. A few minutes later, Kage was telling Kirby a heroic tale of how he faced four black dragons as he explored the depths of a merciless dungeon. "Then I decided the four wyrms would be too easy to kill with my sword, so I turned it and only used the flat of my blade on them! I struck them all down with a single blow, and realizing their deaths had been forestalled by my own mercy, they yielded to me and I was able to subdue them." "And then what happened?", asked Kirby. "I was instantly teleported to a weird city that buys dragons.", replied age. Kirby fell over laughing. Billard saw something. Wooden bridges that spanned across some of the trees, about twenty feet off the ground. It looked like someone lived here. Sir Kage wanted to take a closer look at it once he was told, but Greegan said he had the best chance of assessing it without being seen. After a while, he returned, bringing news that it was more than just two or three bridges. It was an entire community. Each tree held anywhere from one to five decks of various sizes which were linked to the bridges. He had also seen one or two figures walking around up there. The only thing he could say about them was that they looked like they were wearing furs. This was the best chance to steal food. Kage decided that he, Greegan, and Everett would go and try to find an entrance from the ground. "Wait juz a minute! I ain’t gonna play babysitter!", said Stalfor. "We'll be needing someone on the outside incase we need reinforcements. We'll need an ace up our sleeve incase things get too hot. You'll be in charge.", explained Kage. Denier said he could levitate to another part of the treeborne camp and look for food as well. Kage agreed. Denier climbed over the rope bridge. He immediately heard the rustling of leaves to the left of him. Fearing it was an approaching resident, he quickly made his way to the right. The bridge consisted of two ropes, strung together to make steps every foot or so. One had to watch their step while crossing it. The bridge ended at a tree with climbing steps nailed into it. Denier climbed up it, into a dark wooden room with a human-size bipedal cat in it. Luckily, the fierce looking creature was sleeping in a hammock. "Rakasta", he whispered, recognizing the feline warrior from a description in a book. Figuring it was safer to cross the room than wait and see if another was coming, Denier began to slowly creep to the other door. Greegan grimaced with every jingle of metal made by Kage and Everett's plate mail made every time they took a step. He kept a full twenty feet ahead of the other two incase he heard something and wondered why they had to come along when he was much more effective alone. Greegan found a long rope that seemed to serve as the entrance. He made it up easily, and quickly became frustrated at waiting for Kage and Everett to make it up. Greegan heard some fighting and motioned for them to stay there as he went to investigate. The bridge was connected to the a bamboo platform attached to a tree that both served as a ceiling for a room below it and a floor. Tools and boards were scattered across the platform, hinting that the tree home was constantly being renovated. A rope ladder attached to another platform high above that one hung nearby. Greegan poked his head into a hole stood at the base of the bridge and on the roof of the bamboo room. Inside were two juvenile-looking humanoids with cat-like features. They each held a spear and were sparring. Windows on the side of the room provided the only light for the room. Kage and Everett were ducking as much as they could on the low-brimmed bridge to hide from possible bridge crossers when Greegan motioned for them to come. They slowly made their way across the bridge and peaked in the hole to behold the resident creatures. Kage looked up to see Greegan climbing the nearby rope ladder. Denier made it across without waking the snoozing rakasta. He was happy to find that the next bridge took him to what seemed to be the kitchen. Clay pots and pans as well as wooden eating utensils lay scattered around the wooden room, lit by two windows. He opened what looked to be a breadbox to find large spiders. The resulting scream woke the rakasta sleeping thirty feet away. Greegan and the others had wandered into a dark, wooden room that held two hammocks in it. Nearby was a chest. Greegan checked it for traps. Seeing that there were none, he opened to find, he found some interesting items: a few gems, a hilt less sword that looked like it came from the Kikapa village, and a mirror. The mirror beheld the face of a rakasta and hoped that it was a magic mirror of some kind. Turning around, he saw that it was not magical, but a true reflection. The rakasta made a feline roar, which turned into a hiss, and attacked. Kage brought out is saber just in time to block the cat scratch, nearly cutting the creature's hand off. Everett sliced into it with his long swords, cutting off his ear and puncturing his lung. The rakasta fell down dead. But they knew they were in trouble. The roar it made would not go unnoticed. Denier thought to himself that he should have figured these creatures didn't eat the same as people did. The tarantula-sized spiders had immediately jumped on him when Denier had opened the box, scaring him. He brushed them off, but knew his cry might have alerted some of the rakastas. This was confirmed when one appeared in the doorway. Wearing an iron claw over it's natural one, the now awake rakasta charged Denier. Denier loosed a spell on the creature, crying "Stop my friend!". The barbaric feline stopped on a dime, not understanding what the mage had said, but now feeling he had to protect the man from those who would do him harm. Denier beckoned the rakasta to follow him. The way they had come was now being filled with advancing rakastas. Kage ordered to flee the other way. The next bridge they took led them into a straw room with nothing in it but two spears resting against the walls and no other alternate exit in it. "A dead end!", cried Kage. Greegan looked out the window. The rakastas ran into the room, surprised to not see anyone. The lead one ran to the window and then saw that the two intruders had been able to grab unto a rope bridge that was hanging just over the window and was now escaping by hanging onto the rope bridge "steps" as jungle gym bars and climbing away. "Get the bows!", ordered the lead in it's own language, "I'll follow them!". The others left and the lead began to climb out the window when he suddenly felt a sharp pain in his back. Greegan pulled the dirk from the feline's back and threw his body to the floor. He had been hiding in the shadows of the room waiting for the right time to strike. He looked out the window to see Kage and Everett going very slowly across the bottom of the rope bridge. "Move your ass!", he shouted. Kage swore he'd kill him for that. Climbing across the bottom of a rope bridge some forty feet off the ground with a suit of plate mail weighing you down was not the easiest thing to do. He thought of pulling himself up to get on top of it, but the weak bridge didn't offer the support for such a maneuver. Just then, a rakasta with a dirk, swinging on a rope from a higher level, dropped from above, grabbing unto the bottom of the bridge just in time. The resulting tug nearly shook Kage and Everett off. The rakasta seemed to have no trouble as she climbed right up to Kage and grabbed the dirk from her maw, still holding onto the bridge with one hand. The last thing Kage wanted to do was to let go of the rope bridge, but he was forced to hold his breath and release one hand to get out his saber in defense. The rakasta attacked with quick jabs. Kage did all he could to hold on and defend against the rakasta's attacks, but they were two quick. The dirk slid off his plate mail first but then scratched his arm and then his head. Kage closed his eyes and sucked in the pain to keep his grasp. He felt as if his arm would come out of its socket. Everett wished there was some way he could get in and help, but the bridge only allowed space for one on one. The second the rakasta let up on her attacks, Kage brought his sword in. The rakasta brought her sword in defense, but instead of the saber going for her body, it cut the rope step she was holding onto. She lost he grasp and fell. Feeling he couldn't hold for a second longer, Kage let his saber drop and grabbed on with his other hand and let out a sigh of relief. An arrow bounced off his plate mail. "Crap.", he murmured. He continued as arrows began to assault him and Everett. Everett wished he had been in front since he would be could be going faster. Greegan tried to find out where the archers were aiming from when he caught a figure. "Look!!!", he shouted to Kage and Everett, immediately ducking to the ground as an arrow flew into the window. They looked up to see Denier and a rakasta, running away from the same straw room they were trying to climb to. Everett shouted for Denier, who was making great distance away from them across a bridge in a diagonal direction from them, but the shouts went unheard. "DENIER!!!", cried Kage with all his heart and soul. Denier stopped and turned towards where he heard his name. Rakastas were following them so he frantically searched for the source and spotted Kage and Everett dangling from a rope bridge. "They're here!", warned the charmed rakasta, spotting three making their way across the bridge. "I have to hear what the others have to say!", Denier replied, drowning out Kage's shouts. "WHAT?!?!?", he shouted back. "TAKE OUT THOSE ARCHERS!!!", Kage repeated as arrows continued to fly past him and Everett and bounce off their armor. "Traitor!", shouted the oncoming rakasta in its hissing language. "Grimhollow, How is it possible?!?", asked the one behind him. Denier's defender came at them, parrying sword with his metal claw and scratching the lead attacker in the face, blinding him in one eye. "WHAT?!?!?", Denier repeated. "TAKE OUT THOSE ARCH-ers!!!", Kage lost his voice as he tried to get his message across as hard as he could. Denier looked up to see rakastas shooting arrows from a platform above him. The second attacker's spear buried itself into Grimhollow's pelvis. The blinded rakasta then threw his weight into the Denier's guardian and threw him off the bridge. The third looked over to where the intruder was. Denier was already climbing a rope ladder from the adjacent platform. "Phew!", breathed Kage, "It's a good thing they stopped.", referring to the arrows that had ceased to come at them. "Not good.", replied Everett, "Denier couldn't have made it to them that quickly." They continued across the long bridge as fast as they could. When Greegan saw that the arrows had stopped flying, he shouted "Hold on tightly!", and jumped onto the bottom of the rope bridge. Using the momentum of the jump, he threw his body in an upward direction and grabbed the rope side rail with his legs. He climbed to the top and jumped over the steps Kage and Everett were using as handrails and made it to the destination straw room long before they did. The rope ladder went forward as much as it did up, making it a bridge as much as it was a ladder. Denier had to crawl up it to get to a next platform. Above him was another platform made of boards arranged and nailed together in a grid-like fashion, which four archers were using as their floor. Denier could see that they had turned around and were now firing their arrows in the opposite direction from before. The square holes made by the grid were perfect. He cast a quick spell that shot three missiles of energy through three individual holes, hitting three of the four archers. They fell back, stunned and slightly injured, but were otherwise fine. Grabbing their attention, he tried to make his way back down the ladder, only to find three rakastas ready for him, the backmost one keeping a paw over what seemed to be an eye gouge. He turned back to find the archers were already on the other side of the ladder. Denier could now see where he had made a tactical error. He grabbed on tight to the rope ladder and pulled out his enchanted dagger from his sheath. The blade of the weapon shimmered black and was much sharper than any normal knife. It had been a present from his study master. Denier filled his mind with hatred, knowing that it would enhance the enchantment on his dagger more. Denier kept to the middle of the ladder as the rakastas advanced towards him. He hoped Kage and Everett would show up. "Damn the gods! Bless the gods!", cried Billard. "I'm going in. I'll meet ye back behind those trees over there.", ordered Stalfor. One of the rakasta grabbed Denier's arm. Denier cut both sides of the rope bridge with one swipe each. He and two rakasta fell. Another one, one of the archers, tried to jump back onto the platform his friends stood on but missed it by inches. Denier closed his eyes and began casting a spell, hoping he could finish before the ground rushed up to meet him. A giant web burst out from his hands, shooting out to all sides. The web ends caught onto nearby branches and broke Denier's fall just a few feet from the ground. Two rakastas hit it as well, getting as stuck to the web's sticky strands as Denier was. The third rakasta had jumped out of range of the web and landed upon the tree's root on his head, causing parts of brain to get stuck to the web as well. The blinded rakasta dropped his sword and crossed his arms over his chest in surrender. Greegan grabbed him, put his dirk to the feline's neck and held him in front of the three rakastas on the other side of the broken bridge who were aiming their bows at the adventurers. "Drop them or he dies!", shouted Greegan, pointing to the bows and then to the floor. The archers looked at each other. One threw down his bow and the others followed. "Now kick them over!", he said, making the appropriate gestures. They obeyed. Kage and Everett looked down to where Denier had fallen. Looking down, they saw Stalfor chopping his axe into two rakastas that were stuck in what looked to be a giant spider web. Only then did Stalfor chop Denier free. Kage and Everett shouted for their attention and then jumped down as well. Greegan kept his eyes on the other rakasta until the others made it down. He then stabbed the rakasta in the throat, pushed him towards the others, and jumped. "Are the others okay?", asked Kage, a rakasta sword from one of the archers' side belt. "No.", Stalfor replied simply as he freed Greegan, who likewise grabbed both a sword and a bow. The party quickly made their way to where Stalfor led them. ***** Viper helped Marina Prayer up the steep cliff. It was now well below freezing and skies looked as if it might rain. The temperature quickly went down every minute it got closer to dusk and every step they had gone up the mountain. After Marina had beaten the troll senseless, she had begun to work on freeing Viper. Somehow, she was able to push Viper's huge sword through the troll flesh and get it to him. Viper cut himself free, grabbed his backpack, grabbed her (which was quite unnecessary), and began making as much distance between them and the monster as possible. Viper then said that the troll blood would probably attract other monsters, so it would be best to take to the mountains. It would slow them down, but it would be safer where their smell would be less detectable to ground-moving creatures. "My hands are numb. Can we build a fire?", asked Marina. "Keep quiet.", replied Viper, "It isn't that cold." Marina hated that. "Then why are you shivering?" "What?", said Viper. Marnia walked up to Viper, saying "You've been shivering and sniffling more than me." She put her hand on Viper's head. He moved away, angry at her condescendence. "You're burning up! You must have a flu. Why didn't you say something?", asked Marina. "I didn't notice.", replied Viper, "We'd better continue." In reality, he had noticed it, but kept his mind away from it, believing his tribe's teachings that acknowledging the sickness helped it spread. Marina began casting a healing spell, but Viper told her to save it incase they really needed it. She had already used her white magic to totally heal the troll wound on Viper's face. Very different than that of black magic, which came from the very objective, very mathematical art of channeling the natural magic that surrounded the planet and focusing it for one's own benefit, white magic originated from various immortals, people who were born on that world, but had discovered one of the various, very challenging, very secretive paths to transcending the material plane. Few on the planet held the knowledge to even begin such quests, and fewer still could ever hope to get past the first step. Most immortals had followers, who took on the various philosophical or theological ideas of their immortal. St. Judecris advocated aid to the poor and needy as well as the worship of a higher power, Lemeika, goddess of love and healing. Some immortals dubbed themselves as gods and filled the role as deities to various cultures. Others even gave the title of god or goddess to their followers, just without the part about not dying. Marina had joined the followers of St. Judecris because she wanted to help people. She felt great empathy for people, especially when they were in pain. When the people she cared for were in pain or distress, she felt it too, and this started her need to help people. She attended a monastery in Threshold, an out of the way outpost city in the western part of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. White magic came naturally to her, but she still worked hard at it and became the best out of all of the students at the monastery at casting the spells. The monastery also spent some time on self-defense using weapons and armor, incase a holy war was ever brought upon the church. There was one problem. Marina hated combat. She could do just fine without swinging heavy objects in front of her to produce horrible and sickening wounds. Another problem was that she felt sorry for the victims. Even though she knew that anyone who attacked someone while unprovoked got what they deserved, she couldn't help but feel bad for causing such pain, in anyone. But she tried her best anyway and, at least to her standards, got pretty good at it. After the monastery, she joined the sisters of the temple to Lumeika in Threshold, which was where she met Everett. The elf and dwarf were always in the temple after wounds they received from one of their many mercenary missions. Soon afterwards, the three became close friends, and finally, Marina decided to simply join them on their work. It would help them better if she was able to get to the wounds soon after they had been inflicted and she wanted to spend some time with Everett. Soon afterwards, the two became lovers. Both Everett and Stalfor, reputably the finest warriors in the Grand Duchy, (especially by themselves) helped improve her combat efficiency as they traveled and she became better at fighting. But sometimes her emotions took control of her, like they did when she saved Viper from the troll. She had cried; cried because she was sad she had to bash the troll's skull in, but sadder still at the pain and helplessness that Viper was in. And crying was not taken kindly amongst those in the mercenary trade.... Viper and Marina climbed to the peek of the mountain and beheld an awe-inspiring sight. "Whoa.", said Viper. "How beautiful.", said Marina. A great volcano, with smoke rising from its tip high into the clouds, sat at the edge of the island. But instead of the smoke being ash black, the gas that was coming out looked pure white, like clouds, and lightning crackled from within the clear smoke. The volcano then rumbled and large pieces of what looked like white rocks burst out and showered over the mountain. "Strange.", said Viper. With that, they continued their march. A few hours later, they were crossing over a frozen lake, when Marina stepped on a weak spot and disappeared under the ice. "Shit!", cried Viper. He began to count as he took out his rope and ran to the nearest object, tying it around a tree stump. He then started to strip off his plate mail and clothes as quickly as possible. He would have to pull her out, and if she lived, build a fire. He had reached 69 when all his clothes were off and then dove in. A thousand daggers stabbed into him and his sight went away. The barbarian swam deeper into the lake, wondering how deep it was. He closed his eyes and tried to focus. When he opened them again, everything was blurry, be he thought he could see a glint from below. He released his breath as he went deeper to keep the water pressure on him constant. Finally, he hit the bottom. He was going to try to carry her as he climbed the rope but he now realized this wasn't going to work. He had very limited use of his arms and legs in the freezing water and lifting her and her plate mail would be impossible. He instead just tried to tie the rope around her where she lay, but he now had no use of his fingers and could only make a simple knot around her. It would have to do. He then bent down and pushed up as hard as his legs would push, at the same time pulling on the rope. He began making it back up the rope without her. His body was numb, his lungs ached for air, and he was feeling very drowsy. He closed his eyes and thought back to the endurance tests he faced to take to enter into manhood in his tribe. He had laid in an large ant mound as the insects surrounded him. He blocked the revulsion from his mind and allowed the repeated stings of thousands of fire ants as his friends and kin taunted him. He remembered how the taunts had helped him through it somehow, had stopped him from backing out and sweeping the painful ants off his body. He pictured them taunting him again in his mind. With some amount of renewed determination, he pulled harder and harder on the rope, determined to pull him self out from this icy death. He gave a great gasp for air as he penetrated the top of the lake. It was hailing. "NOOO!!!!!", he cried out to the heavens, feeling as if cursed by every god. Stalk naked and wet in hailing weather and freezing temperatures, Viper pulled himself out of the frozen lake and began to pull on the rope with all his strength, which at that point was nearly non-existent. Up and up it came, until it finally brought up a ghostly white Marina. Viper undid her plate mail and began pushing the water out of her stomach. Finally, Marina awoke slightly, vomiting what seemed to be the entire lake. She was incoherent though and suffering from shock. Viper began ripping off her clothes as small chunks of ice pelted them both. "No. Stop it.", she said, but with absolutely no energy to retaliate. Viper ignored her and ripped off her pants and undergarments and then unrolled his sleeping bag. It was fortunate it was made of thick furs, coated and hardened with animal fat for the best protection against the elements. He couldn't make a fire in the hailstorm. The only way they'd survive the night is to absorb each other's heat. He pulled her naked form into the sleeping bag, buttoned it, threw a blanket over their heads, and wrapped his arms around her tightly. In most circumstances, this would have been a pleasurable experience for Viper, but realistically, he couldn't follow through with that idea even if he wanted to. Viper drifted into a sleep he hoped he would wake up from as hail beat down on the both them from above the life-giving hides. Everett looked up from his crystal ball, fire burning in his eyes. ***** A flaming outhouse suddenly appeared in the sky over the central mountains of the Isle of Dread and came crashing down to the rocks below. The small wooden closet exploded upon impact. From beneath the remaining rubble a young man, blackened with soot but otherwise unhurt, climbed out from the flaming mess. The youth dusted off his gray tunic, revealing a small path of a flame sewed on the left side. "That's the last time I try that!", he said. With that, he started looking around, wondering where he was, and began walking in a random direction. ***** "How did the pirates take your ship?", asked the thin air. The starving merchant nearly jumped into the water in fear, but settled from falling back against the wall of the ship. "Where are you?", he cried. "How did the pirates take your ship?", the invisible stalker repeated. The creature had decided since it's task was to kill all of the thieves who took the ship, he would need some information as to their prowess. "First tell me who you are and where you are!", dared the merchant. "I am of the Sshai. I was sent by the shipmaster in Specularum. And I am right beside you." "Specularum! Great! You need to tell them of our location!" The merchant pulled out a piece of paper and started writing down their location. The stalker decided to let him finish then repeated his question for the third time. "Magic.", replied the merchant, "They used the illusion of a dragon to scare us onto this ship, which is now out of food. If you don't get word back in time, we will all starve to death before we reach the shore!" "Of course.", replied the invisible Sshai, "But you must answer my questions first. Who created the illusion and were there any other spells or feats you witnessed?" "None. And I don't know who did it. I never even saw any of them. I just saw the dragon and got word of what really happened afterwards. Here, take this.", said the merchant, holding out the scroll with the ship coordinates. Without a word or hint of departure, the stalker flew up and away from the ship towards the Isle of Dread, leaving the merchant talking to the breeze for a couple of minutes, before the grim realization set in. ***** Sir Kage gave the command to set camp at midnight. Everyone began to take off their armor and prepare watch shifts. "Enjoy it while you can.", said Sir Kage, "We start moving again in four hours." Billard laid down the critically injured body of Kirby gently to the ground. Kirby had been hit in the head by one of the rakastas' arrows. The arrow had penetrated the skull and had hit into the brain. Although they had field surgery to take out the arrow and cauterize the wound, it was doubtful that he'd live much longer. Even if he did live, there was no way to tell what the wound to his brain would do to the Kirby they knew. "I told ye we shuldna be bringin' no damn kid with us.", said Stalfor for hundredth time. Kage blamed himself. He should have sent the kid away the minute he saw him. What did that idiot Billard think they were going on? A picnic? Kirby had reminded him of his own son somewhat. Kage reminded himself that many more had died by the theft of the S.S. Assailant, but he had done that in necessity. He couldn't blame any of the merchants if they had done the same to him if it was their sickly son. But still, there would be so many fathers not coming home to their sons this year..... He knew he had to keep his mind on of something else or else go crazy. Kage began bagging up the white armor drapes. Although white was the best color for protection against the sun, it showed up the best at night. Generally, knights wore white if they planned to travel during the day and black if they traveled by night for camouflage. This caused a stigma to surface in child-lore about knights' colors since looters and sackers tended to travel by night while castle guard normally traveled by day. But then again, in child-lore, knighthood in itself signified you were specially chosen and had gone through tests of great endurance, though in real life knighthood was granted to hundreds and simply constituted you were working for a king. Everett stared into the starless night, eyes wide, and his face emotionless. The travesty that befell Kirby had made Everett worry about the welfare of Marina and made him check his crystal ball. He couldn't believe what he saw. He never would have believed Marina would have betrayed him. It seemed to him that you couldn't leave a human female in company with another male for a prolonged period of time, less her fickle emotions surrender to base lusts. Viper was going to pay for this, with his life. "Come on, tenderfoot.", said Stalfor, "Now's the time to be finishin' that trainin' ye been needin'." "NO WAY.", countered Billard in a very serious voice, "I am injured, exhausted and famished. I have no energy whatsoever." Not only was that true, Billard felt in no way mentally capable. Kirby's condition was his fault. He suggested for Kirby to tag along, he helped in stowing him away on the ship, and he let him into the Kikapa village. If Kirby died, the blood would be on his hands. "Ye still needa be learnin' the parry overhead strike, the feint lower stab, and the parry forward charge. Ye want to get one of those on yer untrained head if those dark humans catch us?", Stalfor replied pointing to the wound in his shoulder. "I'll do better if I'm fighting them while I'm awake.", mumbled Billard, curling up in his sleeping bag. But he knew he wouldn't be falling asleep soon. Not when the million of thoughts and fears over Kirby bombarded him. Greegan played with his dirk as he circumvented the camp. They had noticed smoke in the air earlier. Everett and Stalfor argued over whether it was from the Kikapas or what Denier called 'rakasta'. Why did the wizard schools make such outlandish names for creatures like that. Couldn't they just call them 'cat men'? Right now he noticed other dark shapes in the sky. Not smoke, but heavy black clouds and lightning not too far away to the west. He hoped it wasn't coming this way. They had had enough problems on this trip as it was. The rouge always kept an eye on Everett's backpack. He knew it would be easy for him to take a look into Magic Item Paradise if it's owner was a human, but Greegan had heard tales of the extra perception elves had while they slept. Those ugly mule ears they had weren't there just so people could laugh at them. Everett's magic items were a very large prize, but the risk was just too great.... for now. Denier finished studying his spells from his leather-bound spell book. The knowledge always gave him a sense of power and well being after studying the valuable tome. He closed it and snapped the latch to it shut. After placing it in his backpack, he turned over on to his back and stared up at the stars from inside his sleeping bag. It was a lot easier to see the vastness of the universe from here than shut up in his room at Greyrobe Duchy Wizard School. The school had taught him so much the nature of the universe: That every creature was made of independent organs that worked in conjunction to keep themselves alive, each made of cells working in conjunction to keep themselves alive, each consisting of a vast amount of particles after sub particles after sub-sub particles working under the magical laws of existence. At the same time, the world they lived on was in a universe too huge to ever prove that it wasn't infinitively large. The existence they understood was caught in a tiny view span of size, blind to both sides of largeness and smallness, unable to even estimate if there was a limit. For all they knew, entire universes could be held in every sub-particle of an atom. Or the universe as everyone knew it could just be a particle to another life form's universe. The same unanswered limit went for time as well- perhaps this was the millionth ascension of life since the dawning of time- and to the number of alternate dimensions, as uncountable as the grains of sand on a beach. Even the magical laws of existence were only relative to the conditions of both time and space, and each relative to themselves. All this he learned in a school whose original purpose was to find the grand scheme of a multi-universe that could never be comprehended. Denier sighed. Such truths made life seem so futile, sometimes. ***** The next day, Kirby was dead. Viper decided that two hours after noon was the best time to move. While the sun was directly overhead at noon, the extra two hours of warming the earth made it the best guess for the warmest point in the day. He had wanted to sleep the entire day, but he knew without food, he'd be even weaker the next time the sun would be at that point, so he made the conscious decision to wake up at that time. Marina woke up. Viper explained what happened to her and why stripping off their wet clothes were necessary. Marina knew it, but she still wanted the explanation. They both went back to sleep, hoping to recuperate more. Viper's subconscious woke him up at the right time. He climbed from his sleeping bag and quickly made his way to the pack. The pack was waterproof, and it seemed the hail did little damage to it. He quickly threw on some dry clothes and then made his way to Marina's pack. Unfortunately, being submerged, even the waterproof pack had been soaked to the brim and she had no change of clothes. "Looks like you're going to have to wear my clothes.", he said. "Do you have another pair?", replied Marina. "Nope. But I can bundle up some blankets." "I'll wear the blankets. It's my clothes that are wet. It's my fault." "Nah." After Marina was dressed, she began her morning prayer and meditation asking for spells of divine resistance to cold. While it was still pretty cold in the mountain range, they both decided it would be best to not cast the spells immediately incase they would be needed in an emergency. They were traveling again within the hour. It wasn't long before Viper noticed some footprints. They followed it to a campfire, where a young man dressed in gray plainclothes warmed himself to a fire. "Whoa." The young man jumped to his feet, startled by the barbarian's sudden appearance. "Sorry about that. I was just surprised." Viper was surprised. He wasn't expecting any non-Kikapas on the island besides his own party, especially not a boy. "Who are you?", asked Marina, sweetly. "Gandalph. Who are you?", he replied. "My name is Marina. This is Viper. We didn't know any city-dwellers lived here. How did you get here?" Gandalph chuckled and looked back into the fire. "Lady, you wouldn't believe me if I told you." ***** Less than a mile away, high in the mountains, lay an unfrozen lake that was fed by a few mountain streams. The lake began to ripple from a volcanic tremor beneath the surface of the lake. Then, bubbles. The lake seemed to boil as tons of carbon dioxide were released from the ground. The gas shot up out of the lake and immediately began rushing down the mountainside like a river. A centaur was walking through the woods when he heard the rumble. Ground shakes were common on the island, and he felt no need to worry. Then he turned to see what looked like a fog shooting out from the darkness of the trees. The gaseous river smashed into him, taking him with it. He wanted to cry out, but the carbon dioxide asphyxiated him, taking away the breath to do it. The centaur turned purple from lack of oxygen and then finally suffocated. And the river continued on. ***** Despite the fact that Gandalph said very little, the three had decided to travel together until they got out of the freezing mountains. Gandalph didn't seem to know anything about the surrounding area any more than they did. He was now wearing a gray cap and gloves that matched his tunic and had cut off the flame patch he had on earlier. Viper became very curious of the continued rumbling. He saw Gandalph pull out a few small, yellowed notes and began chanting. A spell! Gandalph finished the chant, which allowed him to levitate up. "So you're a wizard.", said Viper. "If the fates are willing.", he answered, replacing his notes. Viper could tell by his eyes that Gandalph saw something. "What is it?", he asked. "Uh, I'd take some cover if I were you." "What is it?" "Looks like an avalanche." Viper frantically looked around. The only possible way was up a tree, but these were huge pines, with its lowest branches some fifty feet up! "You're going to have to carry us up to one of these trees!", replied Viper. Gandalph did as Viper bade. Marina grabbed hold of him as he levitated once again, taking her to the closest branch. The avalanche was too close! Gandalph could now see that it look like something different than snow. Viper could hear it now. It sounded like the advent of a storm. Viper jumped and grabbed a hold of Gandalph as soon as the spell caster got within range. They made it up just seconds before the gaseous river rolled directly under them. Gandalph and Viper began coughing as they noticed the lack of oxygen. "What is that?", asked Marina, bewildered. "I don't know.", coughed Viper, looking down at the speeding fog, which disturbed him since he was knowledgeable in almost all kinds of natural occurrences. Gandalph came within range of a different branch than the one Marina was on. Viper tested his weight on it. "I'm not sure about this...", he said. "Oh, just get off me!", retorted the mage. Viper did his best to sit on the tree branch and keep his hands on the bark of the tree. Gandalph moved to sit next to him on the same branch. "No!", cried Viper, but then realized that Gandalph put no weight on the branch itself as he sat and crossed his right leg over his left. Viper tried to stand up to see how long this strange disaster was. He realized his folly when he shifted his weight wrong, breaking the branch he tried to stand on. The branch fell, and so did Viper. Viper reached out as much as he could and grabbed a hold of Gandalph's leg, which was still crossed over the other in the same sitting position he had before. "Help me!", cried Viper. Gandalph was casting. He finished the spell and then turned to Viper saying, "Let go of me!". With that, Gandalph kicked Viper's hand, breaking the barbarian's already loose grip. "Viper!", cried Marina. "Damn y- uh!!!", Viper cursed as he fell, and hit a magically floating disc just a few feet below him. Viper got up and tested his weight on the red-glowing circle. It was fine. He then looked up to Gandalph, who was relooping his belt. "I hate this island.", said Marina. She wasn't the only one. ***** The party stepped out of the forest and directly under a mountain. The storm has passed over the band the pervious night with nothing but a light rain. Everett had been successful in using Greegan's bow to shoot breakfast, a wild gazelle, allowing them to save their much compromised ration supply. They had also seemed to have lost the Kikapa war party. But Kage's group traveled wearingly. They had also noticed a strikingly uncharacteristic drop in temperature as the sun rose and had lately had to cover their entire bodies in the thick furs and gloves they had brought. Now before them it seemed they had found the source. However strange it seemed, it was below freezing here, and small wisps of cloud-like vapor rose from the volcano's mouth. The war party pulled out the mountain climbing gear Kage had ordered them to buy before the trip and they began climbing. Stalfor stopped for a drink as Kage continued to climb up past him. He lifted his canteen to his lips, but there was only a sip left. "Hey elf,", he said as Everett grabbed a ledge right below him, "I ran outta juice. Lemme have soma yurs, okay?" "Sure thing, Stale Floor.", he replied, lifting himself up and handing him his canteen. Stalfor took a sip and spit it out. "WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!?" "Uh, water.", Everett replied simply. "Ye waz gonna be leavin' yur home for weeks on end and ya tell me ya didna fill yur canteens with ale?!?!?", boomed the alcoholic dwarf. "Water's good enough. Ale will dehydrate you and...." Stalfor huffed. "All right. All right. Sins I dunna hav a choice, I guez i'll havta get used to this.... wuzi call'd again?" "Water." "Water.", Stalfor repeated. The mountain began to shake. "Everybody back down!!!!", Kage cried, but it was too late. Huge chunks of ice, propelled by highly pressurized gasses below the crust, shot out from the volcano. Blankets of ice showered the climbers as they kept their faces down to the ground with their arms over their heads. Every so often a small glacier would crash nearby them, foretelling a possible end to their life in the near future. But the eruption was small. It lasted less than a minute and then was over. After it was over, the party looked up in awe. "A volcano?", said Billard. "A frozen volcano.", said Denier. A channel leading deep into the ground where incredibly varying temperatures propelled super frozen vapors at high speeds through the crust. After the latest release of gas, the surrounding temperature was twice as cold as has been just a few minutes ago. Kage made sure everyone was okay and then convinced them to continue climbing. More than half way up, Billard spotted three figures below them. "Viper! Marina!", Billard shouted. Everett volunteered to stay behind to help them up while the others continued, and if possible, set camp somewhere nearby. "Greetings!", said Viper as the three climbed up to the elf. "Yeah...", replied Everett. It was freezing when Everett got to the top. He saw a rope bridge going over the mouth of the volcano, where the others seemed to have gone. He then turned and helped Marina up, who then jumped up and wrapped Everett in her arms giving him a long, passionate kiss. Everett explained that the others needed her and to try and catch up with them. Not knowing the extent of their needs, Marina ran off in a hurry. Everett let Viper and Gandalph climb to the top. Gandalph by now had taken his cap off, sewn the flame patch originally on his chest to his sleeve, and had dyed his hair green. Everett didn't know who this strange boy was and he didn't care. Viper knew when he reached the top, there was something wrong. He quickly analyzed the elf. Everett still had his two long swords at his belt. Viper did not like Everett. Everett was an arrogant prick who had tried to control the expedition from the start. But Viper respected his battle prowess. Viper knew the swords he carried were magical and knew well Everett's abilities in using them. If there was going to be a fight, he was going to be hard pressed. Gandalph finished his climb up. "I watched the two of you, you know, through my crystal ball.", said Everett, confidentially, and began to whisper some words. "Oh? What did you see, fairy?", Viper asked. "Here's a hint!", Everett shouted at the completion of his spell. He shot his arms out a great bolt of lightning hit Viper squarely in the chest propelling him back quite a number of feet. He hit the ground hard, his last thoughts being of how unfair it was that people like him could wield such power. "When you enter Hades, tell them a fairy sent you!", said Everett. He then turned towards Gandalph and started casting again. "Uh, I give up.", said Gandalph in an almost bored tone, half-heartedly raising his arms in the air. Everett stopped casting. "All right. Maybe next time you'll learn.", he said. With that, he walked on towards the party. Gandalph had no intentions on following. ***** The rest of the band had set up camp about 40 feet below the mouth of the volcano on the other side of the bridge. No one set up tents or unpacked though, they weren't planning on staying long! When Kage heard the sound of Everett's lightning bolt, he started back towards the sight. He met Everett, alone, coming in the opposite direction. Kage asked what happened. Everett tried to explain that Viper had decided not to go but Kage didn't believe a word of it. He kept going, knowing he'd come across Viper's body. Everett shrugged and went the other way, towards the camp. Marina had been wondering if she should tell Everett about the lake incident or not. She decided at length the best thing to do was tell him the absolute truth. It was the right thing to do and the best thing incase the true story ever came out. She chose to tell him just as he got back to camp. Marina finished her story with every detail of what happened. This unnerved Everett. Mostly because he believed her. In which case, he had done something that was not going to be taken lightly when everyone was soon to find out what happened between him and Viper. Just then, Kage made it back. "Marina, We need your help!" he cried. ***** Marina applied her best healing spell to the smoldering form of Viper. Most of the burns dissipated leaving only reddened skin. His chest remained blackened somewhat, and he kept a horrid scar there from that point on. The barbarian got up from where he lay, confused and disoriented. Marina got up, reeled back, and slapped Everett in the face. Unable to face up to the shame of what he had done, she turned around and walked off. How could he? She loved him with all her heart. They were connected in every way. His wants were her wants. His joys were her joys and his pain, her pain. How could the person she considered her soul mate be someone who could bring such destruction? Kage hated Everett. Kage had worked feverously to keep the group together, to make very different people cooperate towards a single goal. And Everett destroyed it with his carelessness. Kage wanted nothing more than to banish him from the group, and leave him stranded on the this cursed isle. But with Everett would go the most powerful warriors and only healer in the entire party, and his chances for stealing the pearl and saving Yoy would be slim. "Never attack someone in our party again!", he snapped, and turned around, following Marina. Everett laughed, "Or?" Kage ignored the comment. He didn't fear any of the others there and he cared little about what Kage or Viper thought of him. His one concern was Marina. It would be a long time until she trusted him again. Back at the camp, Marina was too hurt to listen to Everett's explanations. They spent their time apart. The news of Kirby's death hit Marina hard. She felt especially bad having been somewhere else, while her healing spells might have helped him. "Who's the boy?", asked Kage. And compared to the large, well-built and heavily armored warriors, Gandalph's small frame did make him look like a child. "Gandalph.", the mage replied, insulted. "What are you doing out here?", Kage continued. "I might ask you the same question.", Gandalph retorted. "Don't bother, he won't tell you anything.", said Viper. "All right.", announced Kage, "Let's start moving down. The temple has got to be here somewhere." Coming to the center of the volcano, they looked at the cold mist that rose out of it's gaping mouth, forming a circle in the air, as if the volcano was doing a perpetual smoking trick. They walked blindly through the cold mist, finding the ground taking a steep dive down. Keeping careful hold of the mountain, they slowly slid down the ravine though the cold mist blinded them. They then came to a long bridge, which took them even further down. At last they could see that in the center of the volcano, about 80 feet from the highest point, was a plateau with a lake in the center. In the middle of the lake was the temple they had been looking for. The temple had a very grand appearance and Stalfor felt a good deal of profound respect for them, although that didn't mean he wasn't going to steal their giant black pearl. Coming closer to the lake, they found a sleepy village on the outside of the lake. Not wanting to alert the natives of their presence, Greegan snuck into the village and stole two of their large canoes. They party piled into the canoes and sailed across the lake to the hidden temple. Greegan took the first look around. He was surprised to see no guards for such a building like this. "Deserted.", said Greegan when he returned. "Deserted?!? How do you know?", demanded Kage. "No guards. There's no way a civilization that built this wouldn't have guards.", says Greegan. "Who are they going to guard it from? The other tribes on this island probably stay away from here." With that, the party snuck into the dark temple through the huge entrance. Some of them pulled out their lanterns, providing the only light, and began creeping past the stone pillars. They could hear the beating of drums in the distance. Soon, a light appeared in the distance and they could hear voices singing along with the drums and the smell of strange smoke. Again, Greegan was the first to sneak up and take a look inside the huge room. Men and women by the dozens fell to their knees and worshipped the silver wyvern. Colored smoke and incense filled the hot room as warriors painted their bodies in lavish colored oils and lovers immersed their dark bodies in dry, glittering sand. Their shadowed figures danced around a communal fire as they sang and worshipped the gods that gave them their power. He looked up to see a bridge way on the second story of the altar room, held by pillars, leading from the same side Greegan was on to the silver statue on the other side of the room. All the worshipers were directly in front of him and in pits, but masked by shadow and smoke. He recognized the silver statue to be a wyvern, a mindless dragon-like creature with a stinger. He also noticed two ladders on second story walkways on each of the sides of the room also leading to the statue. Suddenly, horns began blaring. Greegan jumped back, scared that he had been seen. But then he noticed men marching across the central bridge, carrying a stone ark. They brought the ark directly in front of the silver wyvern. They then bowed to their knees and walked back the way they came. As Greegan began to start back, he realized his mind was a little fuzzy. He needed some fresh air. "Greegan? Are you okay?", asked Kage. "Yeah... the smoke... it really goes to your head....", he replied. "Well?" "Well what?" "Did you see the pearl?" "Uh... Yeah! I think so. They brought an ark up to their god- it's a wyvern. If they're giving a gift to him, it's probably the pearl, right?" The party then slowly entered into the temple, where the chanting grew louder and the smoke grew thicker. Kage watched as the crowd focused on the altar at the head of the great chamber. "This the plan: Everett, Stalfor and Marina, I want you to start a diversion over on the other side of the room, opposite the stone ark. Viper, Billard and Denier, you stay here. When the natives close in on Everett's group, I want you to come in from behind and try to stab as many of them in the back as you can. Greegan and I are going to go for the ark.", said Kage. He then looked at Gandalph and said, "You should stay outside." "Okay.", said Gandalph. Everett, Stalfor, and Marina were half way to their positions when they were spotted. A general call came out and then the entire temple became alive with motion. The rabble, at first unfocused in their devoting rants, some bowing incessantly on the ground, others dancing in intoxication, all of them turned around and cried out in one voice, one that deep into psyche of the companions. Within a few minutes, weapons were brought in and it was then they charged at the three trespassers. Viper was about to jump into the fight when only half of the natives passed, but Kage held him back. It was only when all the chargers had passed, that he signaled for them to go, and the four of them ran into the fray, slicing into the natives who had decided to stay back. The first three natives were taken by surprise and were killed easily and without alerting the others who were so focused on Everett's party. Billard drove his sword into a temple, while Viper chopped a head clean off. Denier stuck behind the two fighters as backup. Meanwhile, Kage and Greegan ran for the ark. With so many different weapons coming at them at the same time, Everett went into a defensive drill, using his long swords to bring the attacker's weapon high while Stalfor came underneath and attacked low. Marina hit a native in the ribs before having her mace hand grabbed by another attacker. With Everett's nearest sword busy parrying a spear, the elf brought his further arm over and stabbed the man in the shoulder, causing him to let go of Marina. Stalfor's sword then caught him in the knee, and he dropped his weapon. Marina then saw a female native about to hit Everett from behind, and she unleashed a spell on him, and the native froze in place, just a second before she would have hit her husband. Turning to see Marina's work, Everett backed himself up next to the frozen native to cover his back. Then the natives realized they were being attacked from behind, and for the first time panic set in the group. The natives weren't sure which way to face, since the elf and dwarf proved to be far better fighters than they ever could have imagined, yet the new warriors were already driving deep into their ranks. ***** Greegan helped Kage climb up onto the altar next to the wyvern statue. Behind it, carved into the wall, was a giant masked head with flames lighting the great holes forming its eyes. Here the smoke was the thickest, and Greegan nearly passed out. "Whoa, don't go now. You have to help me lift the lid. Now, on the count of three...." As Kage counted, they breathed in deeply, taking more smoke, and then tried to lift as hard as they could. The heavy stone lid inched up ever so slowly. Their faces turned a deep red as Kage slowly walked over to the side, taking the lid off. Sweat pouring down his head, Greegan's hand slipped and lid feel with a sound so great, that even the natives who were being routed in battle looked up to see their god being assaulted. All of them shouted out "Grinora!!!", and began to charge back towards the altar. Everett and Stalfor took the advantage to stab the adversaries in the back as they charged at Kage and Greegan like madmen. Denier ran to the edge of the temple and casting he spell, he levitated off the floor to a walkway on the temple's second level. Viper and Billard cut down three or four of them as they ran past, but the crowd became too thick, and both of them fell under weight. The natives stepped on them and kicked them as they ran past them, but it was clear that they were no longer the prime targets. Kage looked down into the stone ark to see a dark slimy compound that Kage couldn't identify. The smoke that they inhaled began to take hold of his senses, and he began to shake in fear at the enraged crowd charging the altar, totally forgetting about the ark. He grabbed Kage, "Kage, they're all coming at us... what the hell do we do?!?" Kage laughed. "It's just shit. The pearl is crap and they worship it...." "Kage!!!" Kage looked up and then motioned Greegan to fall back. As the natives began climbing up the side of the altar, Kage cut down on their hands. Some climbed onto the shoulders of their kin and tried to throw them up onto the altar, but Kage would stab them to death before they could get up. As Kage was severing many fingers on the altar, the other six companions charged into their ranks and stabbed them in the back. Few turned around to defend themselves, so intent on the care of the ark. On the far side of the altar, five of the native warriors had finally been able to get up on top without being seen. Greegan called for Kage as they attacked him, five on one. Kage kicked a native in the face and then ran to help Greegan, who was now fleeing down the altar from the five men. He came to the very edge of the altar, and deciding to take his stand in the corner until Kage could get to him, he threw his back to wall, and fell backwards. A secret door opened into a room hidden behind the altar. The five men ran into the secret room and Greegan kept retreating, down a hall, and into the room directly behind the giant stone mask. Two cauldrons of burning wood were in here to light the mask's eyeballs, and Greegan grabbed one of them and threw it into the face of the first native chasing him, burning him in the face. The second native, still in full charge, crashed into the first, and then into Greegan, pinning them both. Meanwhile, behind him, Kage could be heard trading sword blows with one of the other five warriors. Greegan punched the man on top of him. As the second man got off of them, Greegan grabbed the spear of the man with the burnt face off and threw him aside. The second native was about to attack when Greegan kicked the man's feet out from under him and then pulled the native down on the spear, disemboweling him. Guts poured all over Greegan's leather armor. The native's sword sliced into Kage's hand, taking two of the knight's fingers off. Kage cried out in pain, dropping his sword as he grabbed his hand. Another native took his mace, and slammed it into the side of Kage's head. Kage hit the side of the wall, splattering it with blood. Kage couldn't believe it. He knew he was better fighter than that native, but at one slip, he would never fight with his good hand again. "Ahhh..... you orc FUCKER!", growled Kage in outrage. Was it the smoke that had clouded his mind? Was it the will of some spirit or god thinking it ironic because of all the fingers he had just cut off just a few seconds earlier? How could he have moved his hand left instead of right? Kage had always known that the true warrior lived in the moment, that one second could cost him his life, but now that he was facing that reality so close to his ultimate goal, he couldn't accept it. ***** Denier looked down at the battle below him from the second story walkway on the side of the temple. He began casting a spell to protect himself, but it was interrupted by a blow to the head, knocking him out. Everett cast a spell and threw three balls of energy at three different natives, causing small explosions in the shoulder, chest and head of the men, wetting the smoot covered ground with gore. Marina cast a small healing spell for a wound Stalfor had taken to the forehead before the dwarf went back into combat. Viper, who was scratched up and bleeding in several place, impaled another native in the belly, skewering his liver, but the man's wife, standing right by him, grabbed her husband's blade and slammed the hilt into Viper's eye. Just as she was about to finish the stunned barbarian off, an energy ball hit her in the face, blinding her. Viper stabbed the woman in the heart as she grabbed at her eyeballs and then looked back at his savior, the young mage Gandalph. Billard, who was as hurt as Viper was, ran up to Marina and told her, "I saw Greegan and Kage running over that side of the altar, and then they seemed to disappear." With the last few natives retreating from the attack party, the six of them climbed up onto the altar and started heading for where they last saw their companions. ***** As Kage knelt on the ground clutching his hand, the two men in the room got on either side of them and began to advance. Kage didn't want to let go of his hand. He knew that it was only the pressure he was applying that was keeping large amounts of blood to gush out. But he knew he would have too. When the men got within three feet of him, he decided to charge the man on his right. He crashed into the man and tried to pull the native's axe away from him. Blood spewed from his fingers and Kage's face went white. The native twisted the axe so it would his bad hand, and Kage went numb. The other native brought his sword inches within Kage's back before Greegan stabbed the native in the back. Kage was punched in the face and went down, but Greegan then appeared over him and kicked him in the groin. The native hollered out and a dagger went into his mouth, impaling his head into the floor. Just as Kage regained consciousness, two more natives walked into the room with their weapons drawn. Greegan sheathed Kage's sword in his own belt and tried to pull Kage to his feet, but Kage was barely responding, and couldn't get to his feet. Greegan let go of Kage's hand and stepped back, right onto a trap door. The floor opened up under him and the thief fell into the darkness. Greegan fell into a large puddle in the middle of the room; his head hit the floor hard. When he looked up, he saw that he was in a small room surrounded by statues. Above him, where the trap door let in the light source, he saw Kage slowly crawling into the trap door after him. One of the natives grabbed Kage from behind. Greegan grabbed a long wooden staff that was lying next to him and hit the native in the face with it. The native dropped Kage and the knight fell into the trap door. Greegan then used to pole to close the trap door and to his delight he found the it fit into a groove in the trapdoor. The pole was actually used to lock the trap door on that side, and Greegan found the second groove on the floor that was used to secure it. The natives tried to pound the door open but it was locked now. Kage and Greegan looked around the small dark room, now only lit through the small cracks from the trap door. Some of the statues showed women holding children while others were likenesses of fierce monsters. They were well-fashioned but had long deteriorated because of the moisture that still permeated the place. A snake slithered around the head of one of the statues. There was s single doorway leading out of the room into a hallway. Kage grabbed a soot-covered cauldron rag to wrap his hand in and then took his sword back from Greegan. They leaned up against the statues away from the snake, and listened to the footsteps above them. The natives seemed to have given up or had left to try and make their way around to them. "Let's wait a few minutes and then go back up.", said Greegan. "Wait, look, this must be the inner temple. The black pearl, it must be here, not out there where just anyone could get it.", said Kage. "Kage, you're delirious. You're still thinking about that? If you don't get your hand looked into soon, you're going to lose consciousness again and die. We have to get back and find Marina.", said Greegan. Both of them knew Marina could close the wounds, but she couldn't regrow or reattach his fingers. "No! This is my last mission. This is for Yoy. I have to get it. I'll never fight again; I can't even provide for them anymore.... I HAVE to find it!", said Kage. And with that, he kept walking, deeper into the temple. Greegan stared at him. He knew Kage had finally lost it. The smoke, the loss of blood, he wasn't in control any more. No one was. But for some reason Greegan followed. Just as Greegan was took a step towards the passageway, he heard a click on the floor where he stepped and then the sound of metal grinding against stone as something fell towards him. Greegan jumped and rolled ahead, right into Kage, barely missing being skewered by a falling portcullis. The two looked at the gate that now blocked the way back to the temple's exit. Knowing Kage was useless with his hand, Greegan tried to lift the portcullis unsuccessfully and then cursed himself. He thought he could humor Kage for a few minutes and then convince him to follow him back up, but a single step in the wrong direction had now trapped him in inner recesses of the island cult. ***** The other six companions, now carrying torches, had stepped into the priest's quarters with the trap door Kage and Greegan had fallen through just moments beforehand, but now it was empty. The two natives had seen the party coming and had retreated deeper into the temple. Marina asked if anyone had seen where Denier had gone but no one had seen what happened to him. Not seeing the trap door, they walked past it into the passage, past the the overturned cauldron, and down a set of stairs. At the bottom of the stairs they came to a brick wall that had been laid to prevent any passage, but had then been broken through. The hole was just small enough for a skinny man to get through, so the party had to tear some more bricks out of it to fit their armored bodies through. The passage on the other side had a wooden floor that had been waterlogged in a previous flood. Viper's eye had become swollen to the point where he couldn't see out of it. A soaked rug lay in the middle of the hall, apparently for no reason. But when Everett, Stalfor and Marina put their full armored weight on it, the floor beneath them gave and the three of them fell, along with the rug, into a flooded torture chamber. A few minutes earlier, the two natives had ran through here, but knowing that the floor was weak here, and stepped lightly and one at a time to get past. "You all right down there?", asked Billard. All three were soaked, but Stalfor had to stand on his tip-toes just to keep the water below mouth level. "Yeah, we're all right. You have a rope?", asked Everett. "Kage had it.", said Billard. "Great.", said Everett, "You three keep going and see if you can find Kage and Greegan. We'll try and climb out." Viper, Billard and Gandalph continued down the hall, where they came to a private altar room where the two natives were hiding. They dropped their weapons and tried to talk to them in their own language. Viper walked up to one and sliced open his neck. The other tried to run past Viper, but the barbarian tripped him and then stabbed his saber into the native's back. They began searching the room. Inside an intricately carved box, Viper found an expensive looking statuette of what appeared to be a humanoid with a squid head. On top of a stone pedestal Gandalph found some jeweled bowls, some rhythm sticks and bamboo flute. Every time Everett thought he had a grip on the floor above him, the weak wood splintered and he fell back into the torture chamber. When Viper and the others came back, they told them that Kage and Greegan couldn't have come that way because it was a dead end. "They must be here somewhere!", said Marina. The others made another run back to the temple's entrance, but they still couldn't find them, and since they didn't want to split up further, Viper and the others decided to jump down into the torture chamber. The party moved slowly through the foul waters, past some old cells, and then through a door into a perpendicular hall. The party decided to go right rather than left, but had they searched the walls, they would have found a secret door leading into the same statue room Kage and Greegan had fallen into minutes earlier. Instead, they came to another door. It took a lot of effort to push it through five feet of water, but when they did, they entered into a giant chamber, heavily flooded. On the other side of the room, half underwater, was a gigantic oyster, with its huge mouth gaping open. In its mouth was something large, round, and black. Everett stepped towards it to get a closer look, but although the room appeared to be a ground level, both he and oyster were on raised daises, 15 feet above the chamber's floor. Both he and Stalfor stumbled into the dark waters below. Neither of them could see, but both of them felt great pinchers close around their arms and legs. Giant crabs were attacking them. ***** Greegan lit a torch and the two groped through way down the dark hallway. The wooden walls had large rat burrows chewed into them. When Greegan looked through, he saw another hallway on the other side that was flooded with water. The two then came to the end of the hall, where a well sat in the middle of the room. On the other side was a door, which Greegan tried to open, but found it to be stuck. "A dead end.", he said, "Now we're both stuck here, thanks to your insanity!" Kage looked down the well. "It's hot down here.", he said. Kage took the rope out of his backpack and had Greegan tie it off. Greegan took off his armor and went down first. Then feet touched water. Kage took off his armor and came down next with his torch. As the light source got closer, Greegan could see through the bubbling water that there was a hole in the bottom of the well leading out. He held his breath and dove down. A few minutes later he came back up and said "I found a way out. I see light on the other side of the tunnel.", he told Kage "Is the water hot?", asked Kage. "No, it's fine. Come on.", said Greegan, who went down again and swam through the water. Kage's grip weakened as he slid down the rope. The pain in his hand was too much and he let go of the rope, holding his breath as he fell into boiling water. ***** Denier woke up in a heavy sweat. He thought a scream had woken him up but then he took it to be a dream. He had been taken underground with his hands and feet tied together on top of a hill. Below him were bubbling mud pits. Nearby, a dark-skinned native woman with a skull painted on her face mixed ingredients in a bowl. She then came up to Denier and threw some of the mulch at him while chanting a spell in her own tongue. Below, he could see something stirring in the steaming hot mud pits. Denier really began to regret coming. When Kage had told him about the venture, he was led to believe the black pearl had been abandoned. He didn't think at the time he would be a part of such a uninitiated attack on an indigenous people. But after the natives had tried to kill them in Kikipas of Tanaroa, he was no longer very sympathetic to the people who lived on the Isle of Dread. Now they had caught him and were preparing him as some kind of sacrifice. Denier had thought a hunt for such a remarkable treasure would be one of the great stories of his life he could look back on, something out of legends. But now began to doubt whether any of those legends had been made without the theft and murder of others. "Listen to me. My spell book. You have it, but you can't read it. I could teach you magic with it.", he told the woman. But she ignored him and kept chanting. Denier tried to chant along with her and then spoke as if casting a spell but nothing worked. The woman then grabbed him from behind and pulled him to the ledge. Below the hill, in the boiling mud pits were Kopru, amphibious creatures who could communicate telepathically with the natives of the temple. Several times before the kopru had accepted tasks for them to do in return for a sacrifice. Now the priestess had called them again, this time to help protect their temple from annihilation by pale colored raiders of an unknown origin. The kopru accepted. ***** Everett chopped the pincers grabbing hold of his arm, and then the one leg. He felt as if both were broken, but against the pain, he swam towards the giant clam. Everett sank to the bottom but Stalfor tried hard to keep himself above water by doggie paddling. One of the giant crabs came up behind the dwarf, and Billard jumped on the crab's head and stabbed it in the eye. Viper jumped and the two of them stabbed the other eye together. Beneath the water, Everett slowly climbed back up unto the stairwell and began to disarm. Another crab started to come up behind Gandalph, but the boy heard the water part and jumped out of the way. The claw went for Marina next and she hit it aside with her mace. An energy ball from Gandalph then caught it in the chest and it went back underwater. The crab that had been stabbed in both eyes was now dead and Billard and Viper were now using the body as a raft. They rowed over to where Stalfor was desperately trying to keep himself afloat and helped him on. After Everett had disarmed, he jumped into the water and swam to the other side. Inside the half submerged clam was the treasure they had been searching for: the black pearl. Everett reached into the clam and grabbed the pearl and the clam instantly clamped shut on his back and everything went black. ***** Not able to reach back up at the rope and pull himself back up, Kage had no choice but to swim through the boiling water, through an underground tunnel, and up into a giant cavern full of mud pits. Kage pulled himself out of the water and began shaking in absolute pain. Greegan could see he had made a serious mistake when he saw Kage's deep red skin begin to blister in front of his eyes. The realized then that the magic ring he had on had protected him from the heat without him even realizing it. The water held felt comfortably warm to him. He had thought the bubbles had been some kind of gas escaping from below. "Take off your clothes.", Kage told Greegan, "I need to get out of these wet clothes. I need something dry. Hurry.", said Kage, as he shook, trying to take off his armor. His looked at his fingers, which was issuing forth more blood. He knew he had already lost a lot and now with his skin blistering, he felt that his chances were not good. "Help me!!", yelled Denier. Kage and Greegan looked over and about 30 feet away was Denier being held up by one of the natives, holding him out in front of one of the mud pits as five mud-covered squid-headed monsters rose from the boiling mud beneath him. "Denier!", yelled Kage. He grabbed his scabbard and unsheathed his sword with his left hand, throwing the scabbard to the ground, and charged forward. The tentacle-mouthed kopru climbed out of the mud pit to intercept him. As Kage covered the distance, rounding the mud pits, all five of the mud-covered monsters had gotten out and were now blocking his path to Denier. Kage no longer shook. His sword reached underneath the first monster's defense, stabbing it in the armpit. He then brought it out and low, stabbing the sword into the monster's kneecaps, causing the monster to fall to it's other knee. A second one tried to grab him with it's flipper-like arms, but he ducked the swing, coming in closer the monster and slicing it's chest open. Greegan came up behind him and did a running kick into the first kopru's face as it kneeled, holding onto its armpit wound. Pulling out his dagger, he plunged it into the chest of a third kopru. Denier looked down at the three other kopru still in the pool looking up at their next meal and the two fighting to save him. He now wished he had told Everett that Greegan had had some ideas about killing them for their magic items. The priestess threw Denier over the cliff and into the boiling mud. At first every pore in his body went numb, and then he went blind and the pain became unbearable. The boiling mud came in through his nose and mouth, burning the inside of his body. As the mud cooked his body, he could actually feel the muscle loosen from his bones. He kept hoping the kopru would come over and put him out of his misery, but the three of them stayed where they were and just watched as he writhed in pain. The priestess had always been willing to give them the sacrifice on land, but they liked the taste better when they were boiled alive. ***** With all their strength put together, the six companions were able to lift the clam's head up just enough to pull Everett and the great black pearl out. Everett's back was red where the clam had shut on him. Marina cast a healing spell on his back and the red went away but he did not wake up. Stalfor stuffed the giant pearl in his backpack. Just behind the giant clam was another half-flooded tunnel leading out of the chamber. Behind them, three more giant crabs began to climb up on the stepped dais that held the clam, so the companions retreated to the tunnel where the crabs could not fit. As they went through the flood hall, they could see giant rat holes in the walls. Looking through them, they saw another hall on the other side that wasn't flooded, one that Kage and Greegan had passed earlier. They then entered into a room with a door on the other side of it. As Viper crossed the middle of the room, he tripped a wire that was underneath the water. From the wall, a mist of oil begins spraying out which then catches on fire. Everyone yells out and tries to jump back, but oil continues to spray out and a few small fires are set on top of the water. Viper and Billard moved to the door on tried to push it open, but the wood had expanded from the water and it was stuck. "Hurry up!", barked Stalfor as he tried to keep himself and his friend's limp body above water. The smoke in the room began to make it very hard to breath in the room. Viper and Billard counted to three and then slammed their shoulders against the door, forcing it open. Suddenly, all of the water rushed forward, pulling everyone else along with it. Viper and Billard rode the wave until they hit a portcullis, and then was hit by the bodies of Everett, Stalfor, Marina, and Gandalph. Seeing a lever on the other side of the portcullis, Billard reached through the bars and pulled it down. The portcullis opened and the party was swept along further, down a painfully long set of stairs, into a giant cavern with boiling mud pits. ***** "Get Denier!", yelled Kage as he continued to fight with the kopru. He heard some commotion echoing through the giant cavern, but he didn't have time for it to register. He saw a chain leading from the hill into the mud pit. Thinking Denier might have grabbed onto it, he stabbed another kopru in the chest and ran over to the chain and began pulling. At the end it became stuck, but summoning his inner strength, he pulled with all his strength, and a great anchor came out, making a popping sound, and the mud lake began to drain out through an underground tunnel. Greegan dove into the hot mud to find three more of the kopru rising up to protect their dinner. One grabbed his arm while the others tried to surround him. Greegan instead sprang towards the monster that grabbed him, head butting it and then throwing it down to the bottom of the pool. He eluded the other two kopru while slowly making his way to Denier, but once he got there his suspicions were confirmed. "He's dead. Let's get out of here!", yelled Greegan. Kage cursed himself, made one more swing just to slow down the pursuit that was about to come, turned his back and ran. Greegan swam to the edge of the pool, pulled himself out, and started trying to catch up with Kage. The kopru pursued them, and the two had weaved across the land bridges that went around the cavern's many mud pits, each filled with more kopru that climbed out of the pit to join the chase. They didn't know where they were going, but then Kage felt a cool breeze coming from a nearby cavern, and the noticed the light they saw was coming out of it, so he headed towards it. The two ran through the cavern and directly to the edge of a cliff. Hundreds of feet above them were the light of day. Below them was the frozen volcano, which set forth a cold mist from hundreds of feet below. Behind them, the cavern passage was blocked by dozens of kopru. There was no way out. The kopru charged. Greegan stabbed the first one in the chest and then reeled back and punched another in the face with his left hand. Kage went low, cutting of the foot of his first assailant, an then finish it off with a slice to the neck. Another one slammed into him, taking him inches from away from the drop off from the cliff. Kage elbowed the creature in the back and threw the monster over, raising his sword just in time to split the fist of another of the squid men attacking him. Greegan grabbed the tentacles of another of the kopru to pull it up close enough to slit it's throat, but then he was grabbed from behind and another came up and slammed it's slimy fit into Greegan's face. Kage tried to run to Greegan's help, but the one who had its fist split jumped on Kage's back, pulling the fighter back. Another one of them came up and started to wrestle the sword out of Kage's hand. Greegan couldn't get his fist far back enough to stab the assailant who was holding him from behind, and so he was punched and kicked again and again in the face and chest. Greegan then stomped on the monster's foot, stunning it long enough to get his arm free and stab it in the stomach. But just as he did that, the kopru across from him turned reversed Kage's grip, and stabbed the knight with his own sword, piercing through his stomach, through his liver and out his back. Kage choked out in pain, and some blood came out of his throat and trailed down his mouth, and the kopru threw him down the volcano. Greegan backed off from the seven or so kopru surrounding him. Still more were coming. He had no room left to fight. He was bleeding severely. Without looking, he threw himself backwards into the darkness. ***** Stalfor and Marina dragged Everett's limp body back up the stairs they had fallen down, followed by Viper, Kage and Gandalph. As they had been swept down the hall, they had noticed a door that was near the portcullis, on the other side of the hall from the lever. They found the door to be stuck, but Stalfor fixed this by charging head first into the door. The door didn't open, but the rotted wood was no match for the dwarf's head. Going right through the door, Stalfor then plowed headlong into a well sitting in the middle of the hall. With a grunt he fell over, holding his head. "Are you ok?", asked Billard, helping Stalfor up. "'Course I am! Notin' can break me rock head! 'Special not some dumb ass well.", he ranted as he rubbed his head. "There's just something about doors that make them susceptible to dwarf heads.", said Gandalph, as he climbed in through the hole. The party continued down the hall until they came to a room that was blocked by another portcullis. Stalfor and Viper got on each side and successfully lifted it up while the others ducked and ran beneath it. They came into a room filled with many worn away statues, some of natives, others of monsters. As Stalfor came in to take a closer look at the stone masonry, he turned to see something slithering to his side. A snake slithering on the other statue spit a line of poison in Stalfor's eye. The dwarf dropped his torch and cried out. Viper told the dwarf to keep quiet and then took two steps to the statue and chopped the snake in half. Marina took a look at the eye and then placed her hand over it casting a spell. Her hand glowed momentarily and the dwarf's vision was restored. Viper pulled out a pole that was wedged between the ceiling and a dais on the floor, and a trap door above them swung open. As they climbed out in the priest quarters, three armed natives entered into the room, investigating the noise Stalfor had made. They began yelling and a general alarm went out into the temple area again. Viper and Billard clashed swords with the first three that entered the room. Stalfor then came up, helping Marina pull Everett up out of the trapdoor. As Marina pulled herself out, she said, "Wait! This must be where Kage and Greegan disappeared to! We have to go back for them!" "No way now.", said Stalfor, "They couldna be comin' this way 'cuz the door I busted down wuz jammed." Viper's sword found flesh, but Billard was having trouble fighting his opponent. The third brought then stabbed Billard in the waist with a dagger made out of animal horn. Stalfor charged head long into that native, throwing the native to the ground. The dagger slid across the floor and the native could only raise his hands up in defense. Stalfor, kneeling directly on top of him, brought his axe down again and again, chopping directly through the native's hands and into his face and chest. After three slashes, the native’s arms went limp. But the injury to his side had slowed Billard down, and as he fought the second native, he took another slash to the shoulder. Viper came up behind Billard's opponent, and stabbed him through his back, and out of his chest. The party then made a run for the exit. The natives had already begun piling down the staircases from the temple's second level and charging at them. Viper and Billard were in the front of the line, but they stopped at the staircase to stop the tide of natives from getting down the stairs where they could easily block their only exit. Viper cut a spear in half with his saber before kicking its owner in the groin. Billard blocked an axe that was coming for his head and then slid his sword down the axe's shaft to cut into wielder's fingers. Meanwhile, Stalfor and Marina dragged Everett through the temple as fast as they could. But before Gandalph could get to the exit, a native charging from them from the other side of the temple reached him and clubbed the child in the head. Gandalph blacked out and fell to the floor. Handing Everett's dead weight over to Marina, Stalfor charged after him, and cut down the native just as he was about to make the finishing blow to Gandalph. He then picked the mage up and threw him over his shoulder. Viper and Billard had slain two natives each by the time Marina and Stalfor got through the exit and out of the temple. Now it was their turn. "On the count of three, we run, all right?", said Viper. "Right.", replied Billard. Though he didn't understand the language, one of the natives on the staircase figured out what they were going to do, and went on the defensive until they reached three. When Viper and Billard turned to run, he lunged with his spear in hand, impaling Billard in the back. "Billard!", yelled Viper. He stopped for a second, thinking to run back and help, but he could already tell that death was instantaneous. The native had gotten pierced his heart, and just to make sure, the one Viper had been fighting ran up and sliced open Billard's next with his sword. Viper turned back and ran for the exit. Meanwhile, Stalfor had been loading Everett and Gandalph into the canoes when Gandalph woke up. He got out of the canoe and started running back to the entrance. "What the hell- come back!", yelled Stalfor as he went after him. Several feet from the entrance, Gandalph plopped down into a sitting position and took off his boot. He reached in and pulled out a false bottom and then pulled out a magical brown stone he had hidden beneath it. The stone was diamond shaped and, kneeling before the entrance, he began to concentrate. Stalfor and Marina ran up next to him, but hesitated to grab him. Viper ran through the door, motioning for them to run, and yelling "Go! Go! Billard is dead! Go!" Just as Viper cleared the temple's entrance, a great stone column rose out from the ground and blocked it, closing the natives inside. ***** Greegan felt as if he was flying. A terrible crunching noise blasted through his ears, making him def. Although he didn't dare to open his eyes, he felt his body being pushed up by cool air. It was only when he felt a light shining on him from all sides that he dared to look. He was being blown directly out of the volcano. He flew up several hundred feet in the air, along with tons of ice and frozen water. He screamed in horror as an iceberg the size of a boulder slammed into him. He grabbed hold of the ice boulder as the cold steam pushed him up into the air. The eruption stopped almost as soon as it started and Greegan began falling once again. He held on tightly to the ice boulder as it crashed into the rocky ground just a few hundred feet from its ring-shaped mouth. The boulder hit the ground first, cracking beneath the weight. Greegan slumped over and laid there for a good ten minutes, not moving a muscle. When he finally did, he looked around to see that he back on the misty mountain on the outside of the central lake, not too far from the village where they had stolen the canoes. He picked himself up and looked around at all of the ice and water the eruption had spilled onto the ground. Then he saw Kage. Running up to the knight, he could already tell that Kage was dead. His skin was totally white and he looked as if he had instantly frozen to death. The mist that had blown them out of the volcano had been colder than Greegan had realized. Once again his magic ring had saved him. He couldn't believe how lucky he had been. Unbeknownst to him, the anchor that Kage had pulled out of the boiling mud pit also acted as a cork. The boiling water had drained down deep into an ice reservoir, where it had melted the ice and caused a temperature variance that had caused the momentary eruption. The kopru had purposely dug out several of these channels so that they could help the natives from the temple show the nearby villagers that it was the temple-keepers who determined the temperament of the god deep within the volcano, allowing them to levy a hefty tax on the villagers. Greegan then limped over to the bridge the they had taken to get to the central plateau and waited there. ***** The party tried to put as much distance between them and the temple as they could. They felt the ground beneath them shake, and that only caused them to hurry all the more. In their rush, they didn't make any stops to determine if they were going in the right direction, and soon it became apparent that were not heading towards the bridge they had taken to the central plateau. As they traveled, Stalfor carried the limp body of Everett on his back. He then took note of a strange vein that was sticking out of the ground. Dropping Everett unceremoniously to the ground, the run over to it, and then shouted, "Just as I thought! Gold ore!" The others came up and took a look. Sure enough, the recent activity had caused a vein of gold ore to surface. "Yeah, we would be rich, except we don't have to tools or the time to mine it.", said Marina. Gandalph then pulled his stone out again and began to concentrate. A giant stone monster rose out from beneath the ground. Using the stone to control it, the stone giant began to pound its fist into the gold vein. Hundreds of small rocks flew everywhere and the others took cover as Gandalph pounded the ore into bits that they could carry. When he was finished, he dismissed the giant back into the ground, and the party began loading their bags with as much of the ore as they could carry. Then they began to head back to the bridge. To Greegan's amazement, the survivors soon showed up. The rest of the party, equally surprised that Greegan had made it, exchanged stories with him. They were saddened by the loss of Kage and Denier, but when Greegan heard they had found the black pearl, he seemed to forget about them. ***** Four days later, they had made it back to the tar pits not far from where they had landed. Everett had finally awoken, but he was still week and could only move half as fast as everyone else. The days had been rough on them though. It seemed as if the entire island was closing in on them, so they forced themselves into a continuous march, sleeping and eating very little. The days seemed to get hotter and nights colder. Every muscle in their bodies ached, but they dared not stop in their retreat from the cursed island. When they were on their ship, then they would rest. But they had not passed the tar pits when Viper was flung to the ground by an unknown source. Steel rang as everyone unsheathed their weapons, but there was nothing there to fight. Viper's head flew back with a "crack", as if something kicked him in the face, and blood shot out of his mouth. Everett and Stalfor descended on the invisible attacker, but their weapons only hit air. After a failed swing, Stalfor was punched in the temple and then his legs went out from under him. Everett tried to come in to help, but he was stopped short when something slammed into his stomach, knocking the breath out of him. Gandalph ran away from the scene and climbed up a tree. He watched as the invisible stalker attacked Marina and Greegan at the same time while the two of them just tried to keep a defensive posture. He thought about summoning his stone giant, but knew that if the warriors of it's own size couldn’t catch the attacker, then there was no way that his lumbering giant would be able to find it, and if he somehow lost concentration while controlling it, the giant would turn on him and they would have to deal with two monsters. He looked through the items he had in his backpack, wondering if there was something else he could do. He found the bamboo flute, and thinking that he had not yet tested it to see if it was magical, he decided to play it. If it wasn't magical, maybe this would at least distract it. Viper, Stalfor and Everett, still exhausted from their forced march, tried to surround the invisible creature as it beat the stuffing out of Greegan, while a ridiculous happy-go-lucky tune played in the background. Once again their swords only bit into air, and Everett was greeted by a punch to the side of the head. He fell to the ground, holding his head in pain. The happy flute song vexed him deeply and he yelled for Gandalph to stop it. The invisible opponent easily dodged Stalfor and Viper's attacks and made its way to Marina. The cleric screamed as she felt herself being lifted up to be thrown into a nearby tar pit. Just then, Everett's sword began to glow and he heard a voice in his head say, *I will save you*. Everett's sword then shot a ray out from its tip, hitting the invisible stalker, and revealing its location. Stalfor's sword also glowed and shot a similar ray at it, and the party could now see that the invisible creature was half humanoid, with a cyclone for legs. Stalfor charged headlong into the monster and tackled it, causing Marina to hit the ground hard. Everett, Stalfor, Viper and Greegan surrounded the monster, and attacked from all sides. Although the creature was fast, it couldn't block all the attacks at once, and finally, Stalfor snuck his sword into its torso, stabbing it all the way to the hilt. The monster, having come from the plane of air, did not bleed, but instead fell to the ground dead, and faded away like mist. The magical swords that Everett and Stalfor wielded had come from an abandoned wizard's school that they had explored a year earlier. When the blades had been found, they were glad to be taken from the loneliness of their existence there, but at the same time, they followed the command of their former masters, the Grey Robe, not to reveal their identities to anyone else without command. Everett and Stalfor had used the blades in many battles between then and now, but it wasn't until now that the swords knew they would parish without the aid of their powers and the swords would once again be left alone for years on end. They explained all this telepathically to Everett and Stalfor, who laughed in surprise and elation. The two graciously thanked them saving their lives and from that day forward the magical blades spoke to their wielders telepathically on a regular basis. ***** The next day, the party awoke to find Viper gone. The fact that his equipment was missing seemed to indicate that he had left willingly. Greegan suggested that they should leave him behind; the temple natives could be on their trail and that they had to get back to the ship as soon as possible. Not forgetting how Viper had saved her life, Marina begged that the party split up and looks for him. Everett, now acting as leader, swayed by the need to repent for his actions against Viper or at least the need to appear to repent, ordered that they should spend 4 hours looking for him. After that time, he would build a fire to signal the party back and they would leave without him. Despite Marina's offer to accompany him, Gandalph insisted that he would be all right searching for Viper alone. As he searched the island, he came upon a small cave in the hillside. The boy tried to approach the cave quietly, but there was a carpet of limbs and branches before the opening and he winced at each the snaps and crackles he made with each step. Then, just as he was about to peer into the cave, his foot stepped through some branches and into emptiness. Gandalph tripped and fell through the carpet of branches and into a hidden pitfall. Wooden spears stuck up from the bottom of the pit and one of them grazed his size. Gandalph hit his head and everything went black. Viper then stepped out of the cave. He shirtless body was covered with sweat and he held his sword out in front of him with a crazed look in his eye. The day before, he had found some berries while foraging and ate them without knowing that they contained a highly poisonous. As the day had gone on, he had felt himself getting increasingly ill, but said nothing, but that night he couldn't sleep. The illness had finally seized his mind, and he became insanely paranoid, believing that the other companions would steal his gold. While they slept, he had taken his gold and ran off in a random direction. When he had come upon the empty cave, he took out a shovel and working the whole night without sleep, he dug a pit and stuck wooden spears he carved out of branches at the bottom, and then covered the whole track with brush. Gandalph's cry had woken him from his light sleep and he walked slowly out of the cave still affected by his illness. Seeing Gandalph, he unsheathed his sword and slid down the pit with the intent to cut the boy's head off. But Gandalph was well protected. The boy mage had previously served a powerful cleric named Masterous and now wore a charm that would ward him from death. The very moment Viper took his sword to Gandalph's throat, a great light flashed from the boy's limp body and Viper was blinded. Viper fell back and scratched his back on one of his tree branch spears. Flying into a rage, the barbarian swung his sword at everything around him, cutting down most of the spears he had laid in the pit. When his vision returned, Gandalph was no longer there, and he shouted out in anger and frustration. Gandalph woke up alone in the middle of nowhere. He looked into the sky and saw Everett's smoke signal. Gandalph was late in returning to the camp and the other companions were relieved that he had not disappeared also. Gandalph explained what had happened. He knew he had been saved by Masterous' charm, but he had not seen Viper and had a hard time remembering exactly where the cave was. Marina wanted to investigate, but Everett and Stalfor said they were in no condition to fight another battle, and everyone else agreed that they would have to leave the barbarian behind. Fearing the circumstances behind Viper's disappearance and the spiked pit, Everett said that the party would have pick up the pace, marching longer hours with less rest stops. The poison would eventually leave Viper, and he would come to realize what he had almost done. But by then it would be too late. He later returned to the kikipa village and secretly met up with the native woman who was given to him as a wife. He convinced her to move to another village with him, one that bore no malice against him. They lived there for some time, but it was not an all-together happy marriage, and he would often beat her and sleep with other women. She would eventually bear him a son named Arta, but that's another story. ***** The companions were truly at the end of their ropes by the time they had reached the village where they had landed. Loaded down by gold ore, they moved at a crawling speed and all were soaked with sweat. Their socks were so wet that their toes were shriveled. They were able to sneak around the village without being seen, but when they got to the ship, they saw that it was under guard, with the lifeboats they had taken to shore now missing. The party backed away from the natives who guarded the shoreline to talk to each other without being caught. "Only one thing ta do. Take off all our armor and make a swim for it.", said Stalfor. "But then we'll be defenseless if something attacks us on the way back home.", said Everett. "Tough knuckles. We have ta give up some things ta get off this deathtrap ye know.", replied Stalfor. "We'll need to leave the gold ore behind also.", said Marina. "Are ye fucking mad woman?!?", retorted the dwarf, "Armor is one thing, but this here's gold! GOLD for Tharkil's sake!" "Then you carry it!", she said. The companions began to disarm and they dropped some of the gold ore they had been carrying. Then, coming to shore about 100 feet away from the guards, the companions ran and jumped in the water and made a swim for it. A horn rang out and they knew they had been found. Everett, Stalfor, Viper and Greegan were the slow to get ahead, as they tried to carry their heavily laden backpacks with them as they swam. The natives dove into the seawater with their spears and quickly caught up with them. Holding their packs in one hand, and their weapons in the other, the three began fighting while trying to keep themselves afloat. While Everett kept one of them busy with his long swords, Greegan was able to swim around that one and stab him in the back. Stalfor swung widely, trying to defend his gold and pearl-laden back, but only managed to hit his opponent with splashes. Everett then dove under the water and the native fighting Stalfor suddenly yelled out in pain as he felt his feet being cleft off his legs. Blood gushed out, staining the seawater red and the footless native tried to swim back to shore. The other natives, fearful of their kindred's fate, stopped their pursuit. When the exhausted fighters made it back to the boat, Marina and Gandalph helped pull them on board. The three collapsed on the floor of the ship, all of them instantly falling to sleep as they hit the deck. As the ship sailed out from the island, Gandalph and Marina looked out from their ship as the fading sun sank on the island, bringing to end another day on the Isle of Dread. "I can't believe it.", said Marina, "I can't believe we got off that island alive; that there really was a black pearl and we found it." "I'm going to expect a fair share myself.", said Gandalph. "Of course.", said Marina. She looked back towards the island as the sea breeze blew around her. "Kage was wrong about one thing though, thankfully, there weren't any giant lizards on the island." The sound of waves striking the ship was then broken by a horrifying roar of a gigantic beast from the island. ***** Everett was not too happy about the way the treasure had been divided once they had gotten back to Specularum. Not only had Marina and Greegan insisted that he take twice the amount of treasure to give to Kage's family, but the kid who had suddenly just shown up was to get a share of the gold they received in selling the black pearl also. Gandalph also got to keep all the items he found in the temple, which Everett had begun to suspect were magical, and had sincere doubts that Greegan was really going to use the extra money to help Kage's family. Gandalph met up with a cleric named Whata in the city, who was a former acquaintance of the young mage. She and the party exchanged few words, but after a long farewell, Gandalph parted from the company and began traveling north with her, towards Kelvin. That night, after Stalfor and Marina had fallen asleep in the inn rooms they had rented out, Everett picked up his sword. *Where are we going?*, it asked him telepathically. *To take back what's ours*, he replied. When the city gate was behind Everett, he cast a spell of haste on him and began running. He knew he could catch up with them that night. Gandalph the mage and Whata the cleric were still traveling when they heard a strange sound behind them. Everett unleashed a lightning bolt at the female cleric traveling besides him, but the woman blocked the bolt with her shield. Gandalph then cast a spell a giant web shot out and wrapped around Everett's legs. The elf fell to the ground, dropping his sword. The cleric then gave a whistle and two green beast-men with giant claws and long fangs leapt out from the underbrush. They had been following their mistress, Whata, but always kept far enough away from her when they traveled so that they didn't scare anyone she crossed paths with. The two monsters jumped on top of the elf and began to bite into him. One chewed on his leg, while the other put the elf's head between it's jaws and was about to crush his skull when Everett yelled out, "I give up! I surrender!" Gandalph stood proudly over the elf, feeling quite vindicated now that the roles that they had played at their first meeting were suddenly reversed. "Why are you doing this?", Gandalph asked. "The treasure and the magic items you took, they were ours! We didn't ask you to come along with us." "It was I who saved your party by closing the temple passage up. And if it wasn't for me, you would never have gotten any of the gold ore." "The ore was nothing compared to the gold we got from the pearl, or the magic items you kept!" "Is this how you treat your compatriots who risked their lives to drag your limp body around the volcano temple? Sneak away from them and try and kill me for a few extra gold pieces or baubles?" Gandalph took some pieces of gold ore, the rhythm sticks and the statuette from out of his backpack and threw it on the ground next to Everett. "There you go,", he said, "since they're so important to you. You could have just asked, you know." And with that, Whata signaled the beast men to get off him, and the four departed. Everett just stared at the ore and the trinkets Gandalph had left behind. ***** Yoy woke up and sat up in his bed. It was his sixteenth birthday. Although the sickness he had received while he was a child had been life-threatening, he eventually got over it without any help from the alchemists who had sent his father away to try and pay for their expensive cure. When his father never returned and no word was ever received from his friend Greegan, Yoy's mother had assumed that both had died trying to find the great pearl. A few years later, his mother had learned that the high-priced alchemists who had offered them a cure had been put to death for treating their patients with a nerve-numbing poison that only made their patients feel better long enough for them to be paid, but only quickened the journey to the grave. Although Yoy's mother was forever regretful for allowing her husband to leave on his foolhardy quest, she secretly gave thanks that he had not returned. When Yoy walked into the den, his mother gave him the key to the chest he had been waiting to open ever since he could remember. He turned the key and opened it up. Inside the chest were a crest and a letter. The letter read: "To my dearest son Yoy, It grieves me dearly that I have left this world leaving you only this letter as an inheritance. Although when I write this, I know not whether it will ever be read, for at this time you illness is in the gravest of situations, and I have been informed by men with more knowledge of the body than I that unless a cure can be paid for, you will not survive the winter. Yet I hold within my heart the hope that even though I may die, the gods may smile upon you and yet extend your life past my own. It is always been every father's wish that their sons will outlive them, and if you are reading this, then my own prayers have been answered. Take this crest before you and bring it to the king. It signifies your heritage and bestows on you the right to become a knight of Selenica. It may be hard work, but it will give you a means to live in all but the most desperate of situations, for a merchant will come upon hard times, but a knight is paid whether he is on the field or at home. I hope that the occupation will give you the same sense of pride and belonging that it has given me throughout the years. Take care of your mother. And know that I will be watching over you, and will be proud of you, no matter what roads in life you decide to take. I love you. Your departed father, Kage" The End ***** Author's Note: This story was based on Dungeons and Dragons Expert Game Adventure "The Isle of Dread" which came with the original D&D "Expert Set". Although I changed many of the concepts in the adventure, for example the frozen volcano, I nevertheless tried to keep at least somewhat faithful to the maps inside the booklet, so that the paths of the adventurers could be followed. Most of the events that happened in the story happened when I played the game with my friends in the 8th grade, which was some time around '91-'92: Everett Bradshaw, Keith "MC Viper" Freitag, Kevin "Greegan" Schottie, and Angelo "Gandalph" Bertolli. However, to add to the story, I invented some more characters to go along including: Kage, Billard, Kirby, Jerek, and Denier (the last of which was a real non-player character, but did not actually go on that adventure).