Chapter 14: A Fall from Great Heights
The dwarven city of Mirabar was made to stand against any enemy. Its walls were thick and formidable, and Roon understood quickly why the existence of a portal inside the city was made a great secret. They found an inn called The Whispering Cup and spent the night with plans to find a way out to the Valley of Kedrine the following day.
They went to the docks after breaking their fast and tracked down the harbourmaster. Any boats large enough to fit them, and, Evelyn kept reminding them, the horse she’d found, were far beyond their price range. They looked also for a boat to rent, but the man told them they were not like to find anyone travelling east into the Spine of the World. “No one sane would go that way,” he told them with a laugh.
They picked up a few things around town as they searched for rumours about the giants, and Roon bought a deck of marked cards and some weighted dice for his next match against Thia. Thia, meanwhile, purchased a few scrolls and tried to explain smartly to them what the spells inside the scrolls would do for her, but they all just nodded and feigned interest. They encountered a surprising number of humans in the dwarven city, so they didn’t get too many odd stares for their mismatched group. Finding no definite way out of the city and no direction except ‘follow the river east’, they decided to spend another night in Mirabar, Roon nervously wondering how many towns were being torn up that very minute by more giants.
On their second day in Mirabar, they decided to pack early, buy their food rations, and go through the northern gates of the city. The guards, though confused by their desire to travel east, allowed them through without too many questions, though one did peer into Evelyn’s bag of giant hearts with a raised eyebrow. As they passed the gate, Roon turned to Bran and said, “you know, you don’t have to come with us.”
“What do you mean?” the rogue asked blankly, bending his neck so he could speak quietly to the gnome.
“Well,” Roon hesitated, looking back at the rest of the group, “it sounds like this next bit is going to be dangerous, and… I just mean that you might have a better job of stealing things if you stayed back in the city.”
Bran looked at him curiously.
Roon raised a hand. “Look, it’s not that I don’t think you’re up for it, I’m only saying that you told us when we met you that you’re only looking to make money. I get it. In fact, that was me up until a few months ago. But these are high stakes. People are going to get hurt, and people are going to die. Some of us,” he gestured behind him, “might’ve been roped into this destiny thing, but that doesn’t mean you have to be.”
“If the world’s about to end,” Bran said seriously, straightening, “then I’m not going to sit and watch it go.”
Roon shook his head as the dark-skinned half-elf strode ahead of the rest, and his short stride brought him back to Kilian’s side. His friend was quiet, deep in thought. Roon felt a shift in his mind as something familiar drifted back in, and with a smirk, he dug a hand into the earth and pulled up a handful of pebbles, then began pelting Thia with them. The elf gave him a scathing look. “I could melt you, you know.”
Roon dropped the stones and looked around innocently. “Sorry, who?”
Beatrice purred and leapt into the air to soar over their heads.
They travelled for the better part of the day before the snow set in. Kilian waved a hand and the precipitation fell around them, leaving their clothes warm and dry. “That’s a useful skill,” Thia said admiringly. “I’m curious, how did you pick up on your abilities?”
Kilian cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. “I was—born with them, according to my mother.”
“Was she like you?” Opal asked curiously.
Kilian shook his head. “I don’t think so…” he paused for a long while, as if contemplating whether to say more, then finally spoke up, “she lives in Nightstone, you know.”
Roon, of course, knew this. It was why they’d travelled from the sea in the first place, only to find the town half destroyed by giants. He’d left Kilian to his personal business in the matter, and never asked why the sailor didn’t seek out his mother while they were there. He asked now, however. “Why didn’t you look for her?”
“I guess because I was afraid,” he passed a hand through his gray-streaked hair. “Or, to keep her safe. I don’t know… I left when I realized my powers made me different. I could control the weather, and that made some people afraid of me. I decided, why not become a sailor? That way, my powers would at least be useful. Once I was on the sea, I never left.”
“I get it,” Roon said softly, because he knew what it was like to run from the past.
They continued until nightfall, then made camp off the overgrown path. Thia lit a fire with the snap of a finger, and once they’d gathered enough wood and set up the giant’s tent, Bran began cooking their meal, adding sprigs of plants and sprinkling spices, occasionally wafting the scent to his nose until he was nodding contentedly. He added the meat and the thing began to sizzle. Roon’s stomach growled.
“Did you ever play any games as a kid?” Opal asked Evelyn, who seemed darkly delighted in the question.
“Oh, yes,” she said in her eerily soft voice. “My friend and I used to play the nail game,” she said in a dramatically hushed voice.
Everyone else looked confused. “Sorry,” Kilian said, “the what?”
“You don’t know the nail game?” She straightened. “Well, basically you just stick nails on a chair and wait for someone to sit on them. If no one does, then I’d have to go sit on them instead.”
They were all quiet for a moment, and Bran began, “that sounds…”
“Horrible,” Thia said matter-of-factly.
“And, you never got caught?” Roon asked, impressed.
Evelyn shrugged. “I mean, no one could see us.”
“Ah,” Roon said, “so your friend was,” he searched for the words, “invisible?”
“Imaginary,” Thia coughed.
“No,” Evelyn said sharply. “Not imaginary.”
There was another awkward pause, then Opal said, “did you have any animal friends? Most of my friends were animals!”
“Oh, yes,” the white-haired girl’s eyes brightened again, “my friend and I would capture frogs and break their legs, then see whose frog could move the farthest before it died.”
Opal’s mouth dropped open, and the surprise of the situation made Roon snort into his drink. Opal quickly stood, then said stiffly, “I—uh, I’ll be right back.” Then the druid hurried away into the trees and they could hear sniffling in the darkness.
“Uh,” Thia got to her feet, “I’ll go check on her,” then jogged off.
“So,” Roon said as Bran began passing out their dishes and dropped slabs of freshly cooked meat onto them, “anyone else care to share?”
On their second day of travels, about the fourth time that Thia used the adamantium staff, she got a ping a few miles away. “More adamantium,” she said, holding up the staff and pointing north. “That way.”
“We’d better go,” Kilian said, and no one argued as they left the path and trudged through the snow, which was rather difficult for Roon’s short legs, so Evelyn helped him onto her horse’s saddle next to their bags. Somewhat humiliated but also glad for the rest, he used the opportunity to examine his sketches of the previous adamantium pieces they’d found on their journeys.
It wasn’t until an hour later that Roon noticed the strange shape in the snow ahead of them. He stood in the horse’s shortened stirrups and pointed it out. “Can you brush some of the snow off with a bit of wind?” He asked Kilian, and the sorcerer complied, shooting a gust of wind across the planes.
The snow shifted but was too weighted to move off the form. They needed to be closer.
“I’ll send my owl,” Thia said, throwing up a hand, through which shot her tiny fey owl. Its gray body soared overhead and began circling toward the mound. Her eyes were glazed white as she stared through it, and she relayed what she saw disbelievingly. “It’s a large shoe.”
“Or a giant shoe?” Roon wondered, carefully sliding off the horse’s back and immediately feeling his legs buckle from the soreness of sitting astride it. He rubbed the inside of his thighs with a grimace and said, “is it just the shoe, or the whole body?”
“We’d have to go closer,” Thia shook her head, and the owl popped away.
Evelyn immediately drew one of her rapiers and ran straight for it, not slowing until she’d climbed the thing and planted the tip of the sword into it. There was a clang as the steel passed through snow and into thick armour. Gritting her teeth, the girl shuffled forward and tried again to stab the mound. This time, with slightly less effort, the blade slid in. It sounded like she was cutting ice. “It’s dead,” the girl announced, and there was no doubt to the accuracy of that statement.
Kilian instructed her to hop down, then blasted the snow off the entire thing as they moved closer. The snow swirled away, revealing the frozen body of a fire giant, its skin cracked and ruddy in its colouring. “It must’ve died from the cold,” the sorcerer said.
“What would a fire giant be doing all the way out here?” Roon wondered, walking around the corpse and poking at it. “It’s been here for at least a few days, if not more.”
“How come you know so much about dead bodies?” Evelyn asked.
“I’ve been around plenty of cadavers,” Roon told her, thinking back with mixed feelings to his days in the school of illusion.
“Look!” Opal called, waving them all around the other side, “another body!”
Kilian blew the snow from this one too, and sure enough, it was a second corpse of a fire giant. “We should check the bodies for any clues,” Kilian said, looking around nervously, “and then we should get out of here.”
Thia gripped the adamantium staff with both hands and after a moment announced, “the adamantium’s not here. It’s still north.”
“So, we keep going,” Roon said.
“They must’ve died looking for it,” Opal said sadly, pulling on the giant’s satchel until the seam ripped and the large contents spilled out: a life-sized statue of a dwarf, a huge bundle of rope, and a wooden coffin.
“What’s that?” Evelyn asked excitedly, bounding over to the coffin and wrenching it open. Inside was the frozen, long-dead corpse of an elf.
“Pleasant,” Thia said, lifting her nose at it. “What a way to treat elves.”
Roon rolled his eyes just as Bran came ‘round to them, looking worried. “There’s another strange hill,” he said, pointing behind him, “through the trees a way.”
“Another giant?” Kilian asked.
Bran shook his head. “It’s too big to be a giant.”
“It doesn’t look so strange to me,” Evelyn said as they passed through the trees to have a better look at it. It was still a hundred feet away.
“Perhaps not to human eyes,” Bran said, and Roon had to agree. There was a strange texture to the snow.
“The adamantium is coming from that spot,” Thia confirmed, tucking the staff back into the bag of holding.
Bran loaded his crossbow and held it up. “Wait here,” he told them, then ran forward a dozen more feet before planting a knee in the snow, taking aim, and firing.
The bolt soared through the air and struck the snow with a distant, unsatisfying puff.
Then, barely an eye-blink’s second later, the hill reared up and ROARED.
“Oh, shi—“ Roon began as a massive white dragon unfurled its wings and took to the air, screaming and spilling snow off its long, scaly back.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have shot it!” Bran shouted back to them as the thundering, flapping wings took the heavy beast upwards.
It screamed again, then turned its long neck towards them.
“Bran, what have you done!” Kilian screamed over the wind, then produced an electrical energy in his hands, which he released in a thick, blinding bolt of lightning. The lightning crackled and careened through the air, merely skimming the beast as it rolled out of the way. Its leg was seared in a black streak from the heat of the storm.
It landed heavily and the earth quaked under the impact. Nearly rocking off his feet, Roon whispered a quick incantation and his companions glowed with the blessing of his deity. Cloakshadow might be one for mystery and tricks, but he was as powerful a deity as any. If there was ever a time to need his strength, it was now. With a nervous grin, Roon conjured an oversized, ethereal hand with the middle finger jutting out, and it swung into the side of the dragon’s head as it landed, knocking into it and making it growl ferociously.
The rest of them, realizing they’d have to fight the beast now that it had been angered, started shooting what they could. Bran ran back to them and shot his crossbow as the dragon stepped ever nearer, a menacing presence. Evelyn shot green blasts of energy that barely seemed to poke the beast, and Thia grabbed a fistful of rocks from under the snow and threw them up. They began to circle her, glowing red hot. She shot them, one-by-one, aiming for the dragon’s eyes. Then, in the midst of it all, as the dragon outstretched its wings and was about to take flight again, Opal shouted, “Hello, great and noble white dragon! How—how are you?” She was clearly nervous. “Uh—how are you liking the snow?”
The dragon hesitated, its wings dropping a fraction of an inch. It now stood half a hundred feet from them. The rest of them paused in their attack.
“The—uh—the snow,” Opal continued loudly, “really makes your scales gleam! So—so BEAUTIFUL!” She cleared her throat, staring at the dragon expectantly.
Kilian lowered his hands, waiting to see how the dragon would react.
The dragon tilted its white head, and Roon could’ve swore it grinned maliciously before it charged on four legs, its wings pressed to its sides.
Kilian released a bolt of dark energy, and Evelyn backed up with her sunblade out and glowing, but the dragon’s long neck uncoiled, shooting directly at the girl and slamming into her, knocking her off her feet.
“Evelyn!” Opal screamed.
The dragon looked up, and Evelyn wasn’t moving on the ground. It opened its maw, looking down at her, about to take a bite—
Roon slammed into it again with his giant middle finger high in the air. This time, the dragon snapped at it, but its teeth hit air as the giant hand waved tauntingly at it. Bran stood next to Roon and was missing with every shot he took. The ones that did hit were bouncing off the dragon unharmed. The half-elf was terrified and breathing hard. “Stay steady,” Roon warned, shooting a magical bolt at the dragon. It soared and left a streak of white light behind it and bounced of its thick scales. “Go for the eyes,” he decided, “or the mouth.”
Opal stretched out and suddenly transformed into a massive snake. The serpent struck, wrapping its thick, muscular body around the white dragon and drawing it a few massive steps away from Evelyn. Opals fangs appeared and dug into scales, snapping down and drawing thick droplets of blood, which splashed hotly into the snow.
Roon conjured his duplicate and it ran to Evelyn, casting a healing spell over her forehead. The girl sat up quickly and got to her feet, scrambling out of the way as snake and dragon grappled one another across the field. The dragon roared angrily and pushed out its wings, snapping its head and throwing the snake off its form. Opal hissed and raised her serpent head, slithering backwards in the snow.
“FEAR ME!” Thia screamed.
Roon turned, and the elf’s black hair was streaming around her face as though she were underwater. Her eyes were completely black, and her voice was low and resounding. It echoed as if there were many of her. “FEAR ME,” she shouted again, and the dragon recoiled from the sound, looking suddenly terrified.
As she did this, Opal transformed back to her genasi form and a thundercloud began to take shape overhead. Roon could’ve swore he saw the druid smile before she threw out her hands in front of her and the storm cloud shot over the dragon’s head and lightning rained down on it.
“NOOOOO!” The dragon roared, jumping out of the storm and using its half-opened wings to fly forward several dozen feet.
Roon didn’t have time to scramble back as the massive beast landed just in front of him, looked down at the tiny gnome, and shot a wave of ice over him.
Bran narrowly avoided the stream of ice as he rolled out of the dragon’s line. Roon’s duplicate disappeared as the tiny gnome was engulfed in ice. The dragon stepped over the frozen form, narrowly missing it with a spiked tail, and turned its long neck at the black-robed rogue. It raised a paw and was about to strike when, from behind it, Evelyn came running up and shot it in the side of the head with green fire. A moment later, several small magical darts stuck into its cheek and Thia shouted in triumph at the shot. Momentarily distracted from the rogue, the dragon puffed out its chest just as Opal’s thundercloud moved back over it and more lightning struck.
Bran ran back to Roon’s frozen form and shook it, trying to wake the gnome, then decided to drag him out of harm’s way.
“Ready to fly, Evelyn?” Kilian shouted, and the girl nodded.
The sorcerer cast his spell and the girl shot up, somewhat unsteadily, into the air and soared straight for the dragon’s eyes, her blades out.
The dragon again backed away, nearly stepping on Bran as he paused from dragging Roon and shot his crossbow at it. It snarled, and at the last second, clamped its jaw over the half-elf, lifting him from the ground. Bran dropped his crossbow as he was pinned between two large teeth. The dragon seemed to purr in satisfaction despite the tiny Evelyn flying around its head and battering its scales. The cloud of lightning still crackled above it. With a muscular leap on its large legs, the white dragon took to the air and beat its wings, flying up through the dark cloud and past Evelyn, who shot back several feet in the air from the violent gust of wind pushing her down. It flew up and up, quickly getting away with Bran still clamped in its jaws. The tip of its wing hit Evelyn as she glided up after it, and she was battered down, then dropped a few feet and hung there suspended and unmoving.
“Bran!” Thia shouted for the half-elf, but from what they could see below, he was unconscious, his back grossly bent inwards over a tooth.
“Shit. Shit. Shit,” Kilian said continuously under his breath as he considered his options. “SHIT!” He threw up both hands and shot another thick bolt of white-hot energy at the dragon, who was now fifty feet in the air and still climbing. The lightning struck the joint between wing and shoulder and it screeched again and barely kept aloft.
As this happened, the flying spell over the unconscious Evelyn dropped, and the girl dropped with it. It was as though a weight had been thrown into her chest as she suddenly plummeted. Kilian ran beneath her falling body and shot a gust of wind upwards to slow her fall. A second later, Evelyn dropped heavily into his arms and they both collapsed in the snow. The girl was bleeding severely in the head. He gently laid her down and stood, watching the dragon rise further up. Hopelessness flooded the sorcerer as he watched.
He glanced over at the frozen statue that was Roon, then back down at Evelyn, then to the sky, the white, winged form shrinking as it raised to at least a hundred feet above them. Then, with a sickening punch to his stomach, he pulled in a cold breath of the wintery air and watched the dragon release Bran. The half-elf’s dark form rolled unnaturally as he fell.
Thia ran breathlessly to Kilian’s side, watching Bran drop. “He’s dead. He’s already dead,” she said despairingly. “How can we stop it? Wind, Kilian! Do it again!”
“I—I can try,” he shot the wind up, but he knew the fall was too far. He couldn’t make the rogue fly without touching him first, and there was no way to reach him. It looked like his back was broken by the way he tumbled through the air. The wind would slow his fall somewhat, but not enough.
Thia dropped to her knees in the snow and poured a healing potion down Evelyn’s throat. A moment later, the girl gagged and sat up wearily, looking around. “Evelyn!” It came out as one word, so frantic were her words. “It’sBranhe’sfallingcanyoustopithe’sgoingtohittheground.”
Evelyn shot to her feet and stared. “I—don’t—I can’t—I don’t have anything.”
Kilian gritted his teeth, all his concentration on shooting the wind continuously up. He had to shift his footing to stay directly beneath the plummeting form. He saw in his periphery that Opal was running toward them. Then, the dragon dove after Bran’s body, mouth open and ready to spray ice over all of them. Its stomach rumbled and Kilian made a choice. He stopped the gust of wind slowing Bran’s fall and instead shot a bolt of fire straight into the white dragon’s eye.
The aim was true and seemed to consume the front of the diving dragon. It exploded, the creature roared its last, and with a thunderous boom, the white dragon slammed heavily into the ground near them, narrowly missing Roon’s frozen form. It smoldered and hissed in the snow as the firebolt petered out. A moment later, Kilian jumped back as Bran hit the ground with a sickening thud.
Opal rushed up and cast a healing spirit around them, which shimmered over Bran and nudged him. The half-elf didn’t move. Opal had tears in her eyes as she moved the spirit over to Roon’s frozen form, which slowly began to melt and stir. The gnome shivered and Kilian helped him over, and he looked down at Bran, then bent carefully and placed two fingers on the half-elf’s neck. There was a long moment of silence and Roon pulled away and shook his head sorrowfully. “It’s too late for him,” Roon said, “even as a healer—I—this is beyond me. His spine…”
“We should bury him,” Opal said.
“Damnit, Bran,” Roon swore angrily, standing and shouting at the half-elf’s body. “I told him not to come with us. I warned him it wouldn’t be safe. It,” Roon took a deep breath and lowered his voice, “it wasn’t his fight.”
“But it’s still ours,” Kilian said seriously.
They buried Bran in the field next to the fallen white dragon. Roon took Bran’s black cloak and wrapped it around his crossbow, then stuck them both in the ground as a marker for his grave. They took the disguise hat from his body, but left the rest, and Kilian bent and placed a small token on the top of the grave. “He told me he used to be a sailor,” he said softly. “Rest, Bran.”
“Probably a pirate,” Roon said proudly, hiding a few tears that leaked from his eyes.
Opal reached into her pack and took out her pan flute. She played a lilting tune as the cold snow swirled around them.
“His last act was to save Roon,” Thia said, nodding appreciatively. “He was a good person.”
Roon felt a guilty twist in his stomach. He hadn’t seen how Bran had died, only the result. “I didn’t know,” he whispered.
When the last few notes of Opal’s song drifted away, they gathered their things and turned back to the white dragon. Evelyn found her horse stomping in the snow near the trees, Beatrice sitting comfortably on its saddle licking a paw.
Solemnly, Thia took out the adamantium staff and let it direct them further.