“Don’t wanna break up the fun. But we oughta get outta here. Sun’s gonna be down in a few hours. And I don’t wanna find out if there’s more of those things out here.” Katima announced.
“Good call,” Camon acknowledged. “I guess we got caught up in the carousing.”
“Carouse later. Let’s scat,” she advised.
No one objected. They retrieved their packs and stowed the artifacts that they had recovered. Katima started back out of the ravine and back towards the rafts. They all moved swiftly in a single file line, checking over their shoulders for anything else that might want to threaten them. They made it back to the rafts in half the time it had taken them to get to the ravine. They all then boarded them as quickly as possible, Camon being last. They all pushed off from the island back into the swamp. Katima took the lead as they poled their way back to the bayou, then turned back the way they came to the east. Rather than rejoin the rafts, they kept the three smaller rafts and worked down the bayou as it snaked through the swamp. There were fewer obstacles this time due to the smaller sized rafts and that they had cut down the overhanging vegetation on their way in. The passage back to the ruins was uneventful, and they were relieved.
Just as the sun was going down, they caught sight of the ruins and got back to the west side of the city. Camon climbed the rope and then helped others do the same. Katima stayed on the rafts and helped get the gear off the rafts before also helping attach the rope to the rafts so Camon and Jorn could pull them out. She finally attached the rope to the last raft and climbed out herself. Camon and Jorn then lifted the last raft out of the water. They laid the crafts aside to dry.
They lit a fire on the stone walkway with fading light, and before too long, everyone was gathered around, weary from the day’s excitement. By firelight, Ghing was busy writing in his journal all about the day’s happenings while the others ate and drank around the fire. There was not much in the way of merrymaking that night. But everyone was wired from the day, too awake to sleep just yet.
Katima then asked, “You told your story and all. Tell me, Paladin, why’s all this a big deal?”
“I guess I didn’t explain that part,” Camon said. “Everything we found out there today – the site, the artifacts, the undead, the magic – all of it proves something about the past. But why I’m here is about the present. Seeking this out, as the old man Satda said to me, is about understanding the past so we can understand the present. He says that’s what prophecy is.”
“Essentially. Either thematically or in this case, literally.”
“What’s the big deal though?”
“There’s someone out there that’s essentially trying to recreate this for some reason that I don’t know yet. I believe that somebody is trying to raise a demon lord like in the legend and create a war in the world again. Knowing the legend is true and that there’s elven magic behind it means that it’s a real possibility.”
“You’re trying to stop that?”
“If I can,” Camon replied somberly.
“But aren’t the elves benevolent?” Achara asked. “Why would elves do this?”
“I didn’t say it was an elf, I said it was elven,” Camon corrected. “I wish it were so, but elves are not the only ones who can use elven magic. And even so, among the elves, there have been ideological disagreements in the past. Schisms have formed. They don’t go to war over such matters as humans do, but these schisms have led some splinter groups to do some pretty awful things, even though they believed they were doing the right thing. And for an elf, that is what matters.”
“Elves can’t do ‘wrong,’” Ghing added. “Unlike humans who can choose, they are always bound to do the ‘right’ thing. They call our freewill the Gift of Men. However, as Camon said, the ‘right’ thing in their head might be severely misguided.”
“This though, would seem to be completely against everything the elves stand against. Demons are the offspring of corruption, the dealings of the Dark. For an elf to do this would be…unsettling,” Achara commented.
“Yes,” Camon agreed. “Which is why I don’t think it is the elves, per se. It would have to be someone who has learned the elven arts. I’ve never known of a human that is capable of such. But that doesn’t mean that such knowledge and power can’t be imbued, as we’ve seen with Jorn. So what we’re looking for is not so much human in origin.”
“Where do we go from here then?” Achara asked.
“We see Ghing safely back to Rhattaay, then see if we can’t root out whoever is behind this. We have some clues about what we are looking for, so it should make it easier.”
“We’ll be back at the river in two days,” Katima said.
“Yes, indeed,” Achara nodded.
They all talked for a while longer before the first one, Jorn, drifted off to sleep when no one noticed. They all took it as a cue, and soon everyone except Ghing was asleep, who had agreed to take the first watch. Achara relieved him halfway through the night, and they all awoke early the next morning eager to be underway. After a quick meal, they got their things and started back towards the wharf.
Instead of deconstructing the rafts, they all drug them across the ruins back down the causeways. It was tiring work, but it saved them a lot of time on the backside from having to rebuild the rafts for a third time. Once back at the wharf, they plopped the rafts back down into the lake and poled off into the lake, leaving the ruins behind. Ghing often looked back over his shoulder as they went back across the water. Dragonflies darted across the lake, buzzing here and there. The sun peaked over the trees in the east, creating a warm glow that all of the travelers appreciated after being under the canopy of the swamp for several days. The wind was still this morning, so they were unhindered by the wind from any direction. After a few hours of crossing the lake, they returned to the shore where they launched. Katima and Achara went ashore first, followed by Ghing and Jorn, then by Camon.
“Not yet noon. We made excellent time.” Katima said. “If you’re feelin’ spry, we could make it back to the river by nightfall or maybe just right after.”
Again, nobody objected. They abandoned the rafts at the bank and set off into the swamp along the levee that had brought them there. Katima knew the way well. She went swiftly across the ground almost instinctively, dodging every hole and ducking under every branch. Her companions followed her moves closely. Katima gave them a quick break for a meal but did not linger. They pressed on through the afternoon, still moving as quickly as they could manage without running or sprinting. Even Jorn was able to keep up with his bad leg. Camon noticed the pain in his eyes, but Jorn said nothing of it as they pressed forward through the swamp.
The sun went down while they were still in the swamp. They stopped to take a breath and eat some food. Katima rigged up a pair of torches with some fallen limbs and strips of cloth. She soaked them in some oil and used flint and steel to light them. She gave the other to Jorn, who was at the back of the line, and they all continued forward as twilight passed into night. The sky was partly cloudy, and the moons did not offer much light under the canopy of trees. About an hour after sunset, they came to the river and then turned back south along the levee that ran along the river. Finally, they could see the lights of the outpost ahead.
Achara, who was right behind Katima, reached out and grabbed her hand and hissed, “Stop!”
“What’s up?” Katima insisted.
“Quick! Extinguish the torches!” she exclaimed.
Without hesitation, they hurled the torches into the river, and they went out.
“Explain yourself,” Katima demanded.
“They’re here,” Achara warned.
“Who is they?”
“The ones who have been tracking us. It’s the same presence I’ve felt all along our journey from when I first picked it up in Rhatneua months ago. They went dark after we went to the library, but they’ve been on our trail ever since we manned the barge from the Gypsy’s Domain.”
“Are you sure?” Camon asked.
“As the sun rises in the east,” Achara said. “They are here. I can feel them as if they were standing next to me.”
“Then that means they know where we went,” Jorn said. “And we have to assume that they also know about Thawbai, the university, and everything else.”
“Prawadi…” Ghing mumbled.
“I’m sure she’s safe,” Camon assured. “If they made a move against the university, they would be hunted down and killed for sure.”
“What do we do?” Achara asked.
“We can’t just parade into the outpost,” Camon said.
“I can go in,” Katima said. “There’s a trapdoor in the floor in the storeroom at my tavern. I can open that and see what’s up.”
“We’ll wait here,” Camon said.
Katima left them and disappeared into the shadows near the edge of the swamp. Camon, Achara, Jorn, and Ghing sat down on the sandbank overlooking the river. They tried to make out details of the outpost from their position. No one said a word as they waited for what seemed like an eternity. About half an hour later, Katima returned.
“Girl’s right. Three strangers showed up yesterday with five thugs. They have been intimidatin’ everyone ‘bout our whereabouts.”
“And Thawbai and his crew?” Camon asked.
“Gone. Left after the strange men showed up.”
“They have to know where we went. But why are they intimidating everyone?” Achara asked
“Because they can,” Jorn said.
“Any idea where they are staying?” Camon enquired.
“Moored at the outpost. They were all at the tavern drinkin’ my ale,” Katima snarled.
“There’s no way out of this that doesn’t involve a fight. You know this, Camon,” Jorn said.
“Eight of them against us,” Camon said. “Tell me more about the strange men.”
“All short. Ugly. Dressed in charcoal gray clothes. Looks like a uniform,” Katima said.
“None that I saw. But the thugs? Dressed to kill.”
“And there’s no Imperial presence here?” Camon asked.
“Imperials? Hah!” Katima laughed. “They take our taxes, but what do we get? Nothin’ except occasional harassment. We do have a warden, though.”
“Whacking them without probable cause would look like assault, or worse,” Camon said.
“Trust me. The warden don’t want them here either. Whatever you do, he’ll look the other way. Maybe even help.”
“What’s their vessel look like?” Camon asked.
“Didn’t see it,” Katima said.
“We could lay a trap,” Achara suggested. “They don’t know that we know they are there.”
“Girl’s right,” Jorn agreed.
“I really don’t want to make a mess of this,” Camon objected.
“Camon, they want her captured, and they want you dead. Probably me too,” Jorn said.
“I got an idea. I could slip something in their drinks. It’d make ‘em sleepy. You could take em’ out, no problem. Show up, and they’ll pick a fight. It’d be easy pickin’s for ya!” Katima said.
“If we all weren’t tired from two grueling days, I would agree,” Camon said.
“That’s the best plan I’ve heard yet,” Jorn said.
“It’s the only plan,” Achara said.
Camon exhaled deeply, “Maybe we could just talk to them.”
“Maybe you could just kill yourself too,” Jorn rebuked. “Talk, talk, talk. That’s all it is with you, isn’t it? This demands action!”
“Calm down, Jorn,” Camon mollified. “Maybe we can do all three. Katima could go in and do her drink thing. After they have had around, I could show up and gauge their response. If I can talk them down, then we don’t have to fight. If they pick a fight, I’ll flee to the docks, where you guys will be waiting, and you get your fight.”
“Don’t make things too complicated,” Jorn warned.
“It’s not. It’s a simple plan with a contingency.”
“Fine, we’ll do it your way.”
“Good. Katima, do your thing. We’ll follow in about an hour. Jorn and Achara will be in the docks, and I’ll go in. You can rejoin them once I’ve entered the tavern. I’ll get a drink at the bar, and that will be my sign that everyone is in place. Ghing, it’s probably best that you stay here.”
“I’m fine with that,” he said.
“Good, now go.”
Katima got up and darted back into the night back towards the docks. The others just waited in silence for the better part of an hour. They watched the moons drift through the sky and dance on the river’s water as it wavered back and forth, creating eddies that made the light look alive. The interplay of clouds, moonlight, and water movement made the whole display look like an orchestrated dance set to the sounds of the bullfrogs croaking and insects chirping. The sights and sounds were augmented with fireflies flickering near the river’s edge. It was a bit of peace, but tense with expectation.
Jorn could hardly sit still. He removed his blade and started working it with his whetstone. Achara, Camon and Ghing sat just enjoying the moment of peace that had been mostly absent since they set foot in the outpost. They hadn’t taken time to be still and silent in days, so the rest was welcomed. The evening’s peacefulness almost lulled Camon to sleep, but just as he was about to get comfortable, he looked up in the sky and then stood. “It’s time,” he said.