Chapter 17: A Bit More Destiny
As they stepped out of the All-Father’s temple with Harshnag in the lead, Thia pulled Kilian and Roon back a bit. “I’m concerned about Evelyn,” the elf said, glancing over nervously at the white-haired girl, who seemed to drift on the pads of her feet.
“What do you mean?” Kilian asked.
“The skull,” Thia said.
“She definitely doesn’t know dwarvish,” Roon agreed, “and I saw her using that skull to read the door. It’s weird, for sure.”
“But not really dangerous?” Kilian wondered. “I mean, it doesn’t seem like she’s been harmed by it, if there’s anything coming from it in the first place.”
Roon said, “Evelyn’s always been a bit, er…”
Thia nodded, tight-lipped. “I still think we should keep an eye on it.”
As they started across the stone bridge, trying their best not to look over into the dark chasm below, they heard a rumbling in the sky. The air was thick and the clouds low. They rushed across the bridge and saw, at the peak of the mountain directly in their path, hovered the strangest sight Roon had only read about in books.
There floated a large sleigh with wide skis and a billowing balloon atop it, holding it aloft. On the back of it was some sort of rudder. Thia jumped behind the rocks and gestured for them to follow suit. Harshnag shrugged helplessly, there being no place for a twenty-some foot giant to hide. A man poked his head over the top of the sleigh and looked down at them. “Hello there!” he cried cheerfully. “Wait just a moment, I’ll come to you.”
With that, a rope ladder unfurled and clattered on the stone below, and a dark-skinned human man in puffy purple pants, a turquois tunic and a velvet-lined crimson and ivory vest descended the ladder. Hesitantly, they all stepped out from behind the rocks. The man bowed with an impressive flourish and gave them each a white-toothed smile. Roon couldn’t help but instantly like him.
“Who are you?” Thia demanded coldly.
The man’s smile twitched on his face as he looked in her direction. “Marteen, at your service. I and my men have come on behalf of Klouth, the great red dragon, to offer you our ship, and our assistance, in repairing the giant ordening.”
Kilian raised his eyebrows and looked down at Roon, who shrugged. Harshnag shuffled uncomfortably. There was an eternal animosity between giants and dragons.
“How did you know where to find us?” Thia asked.
“The great one of the North has eyes everywhere,” Marteen smiled politely.
“And what does a dragon care about the ordening?” Roon asked doubtfully. “Why let us use your floating—ship thing?”
“Klouth knows the importance of your destinies. Our ship will help you cross his vast dominion, avoiding the perils below.” Roon had to admit that a respite from walking would be incredibly warranted. “War against the giants is inevitable, and the great dragon wants you to forge ahead and face your destiny. If you can slay the leaders of the giants, you may yet prevail in repairing the ordening.” Marteen swept out a hand dramatically. “If you succeed in quelling the giant threat, Klouth only asks that you come to his hidden vale and face him.”
Thia stared at the flamboyant man. Roon looked up and saw several other curious human and half-elf faces peering over the edge of the floating sleigh, watching the exchange. “Do you mind if I take a moment with my companions?” Thia asked, and without waiting for an answer, she grabbed Evelyn and Opal firmly by the arms and dragged them aside, and the rest followed. “I don’t know about this.”
“A flying ship would be very helpful,” Kilian said.
“It sounds kind of fun!” Opal added brightly.
“I say we go and take a measure of these people. It would shorten our journey to find these relics.” Kilian said.
The elf sighed, and Roon took that as confirmation. He turned and walked back to the peacock-clothed man and said, “I have two questions for you mate,” he held up two fingers, “can we take the giant with us, and do you like to gamble?”
“Yes,” the man said, then beamed, “and definitely.”
“Good enough for me,” Roon smiled, and turned to his friends, “I trust him.”
Kilian nodded. “If you trust him, then I say aye.” He looked to the others, who all nodded their agreement.
Roon trotted toward the ladder, “c’mon Beatrice.” The tressym meowed and fluttered after him with feathered wings.
“Er,” Marteen sized up Harshnag for a moment, then looked back at the rope ladder and said, “I’ll get them to lower it a tad, shall I?”
Within minutes, they were all boarded and lifting higher into the clouds. The ship seemed to suffer no extra effort in carrying the giant aboard. As they floated along, they scanned Harshnag’s map of the relics and chose the nearest location, known as the Great Worm Cavern, and directed Marteen. Kilian walked along the deck, the wind brushing through his long, silver-streaked hair, and he looked more comfortable on the flying ship than he had in weeks.
Harshnag, on the other hand, spent the next four hours bent over the stern of the sleigh-ship, vomiting profusely.
They travelled over snow-dusted mountain tops in icy cold wind until reaching their destination in late afternoon and landing the sleigh a fair distance off. Roon placed a hand on each of his friends to bolster their strength. “Just in case,” he said as they began to walk through the sparsely scattered trees to the base of a large cliff.
The cliff had been worked by human hands. There was a carved opening with two glittering pillars of ice, flanked by twin ramps of packed snow and ice leading to a ledge. They stayed at the edge of the trees and Thia pointed up at the ledge, where a few distant, dark figures were walking about. “Do we know what sort of relic we’re looking for?” Kilian asked Harshnag, and the giant shrugged.
“The people are likely more barbarians like those we met in the temple,” the frost giant told them.
“Perhaps we should speak with them,” Thia suggested.
Evelyn pointed to the lower entrance. “There’s no one standing guard down there. We could sneak in.”
“If, in fact, the relic is inside there, and not with the people up top, being guarded,” Roon said uncertainly.
“I agree with Thia,” Kilian said, and started forward across the snowy field, the rest of them scrambling after the sailor.
Harshnag wisely stayed back by the treeline as Kilian called up to the man stationed along the ledge.
An older, rather grizzled man popped his head over the edge while brandishing a spear. “Who are you?” He demanded, his voice caught up with the wind.
“Lost travellers,” Kilian replied confidently.
The man’s head disappeared, and they waited patiently for a full minute before he reappeared. “This place is property of Wormblood of the Great Worm Tribe. Leave now.”
“Did he say worms…?” Evelyn asked vaguely.
“Please, we are travel worn and tired,” the sailor called up pleadingly. “If you could just give us a night’s rest and some provisions, we’ll be on our way.”
Roon raised his eyebrows appreciatively at his friend’s decisive cunning.
The man atop the ledge hesitated again, this time moving away for only a few seconds before calling back, “alright, we can give you some provisions, but then you must be off.”
Evelyn reached into her bag and pulled out a jar containing a handful of dirt and a wriggling worm. “Do you think they’d let us in if I showed them this?” the girl asked.
Thia grimaced at the little creature and said, “uh, no, I don’t think so.”
Kilian replied to the man. “Can we at least talk to your leader? We need a bit more than provisions,” he paused, then added hopefully, “some of our party are wounded.”
The wind picked up, and the man’s reply was lost.
“Sorry?” Kilian called, and the man repeated his answer.
“I’ll send some men down.”
They stepped back and waited while a few men descended the ledge with baskets. They reached the bottom of the field before the lead man paused, a flash of fear streaking across his face. He grabbed one of the others with one hand and with the other, pointed to the globular necklace hanging over Thia’s shirt—the one she’d stolen from the barbarian chief they’d killed in the Eye of the All-Father. “T-that’s—they’ve killed the chief! Protect the women and children!” The other two dropped the baskets of food, turned on their heels, and vaulted back up the ledges, one of them slipping on the ice and desperately scrambling back up and after his fellow barbarians.
“Well, wait!” Roon cried, “we’re not here to hurt you! We’re just—looking for something…” he finished lamely, because they were evidently too distraught to listen. “Now what?” He asked.
Evelyn shrugged. “I guess we could just kill them all.”
“We’re not killing women and children,” Roon scolded. “Or anyone innocent, for that matter.”
“What’s happened?” Harshnag asked, appearing out of the trees and approaching.
“Thia’s ugly face scared them away,” Roon explained.
“Well, she is an elf,” the giant said with an understanding nod, then pointed at the top of the ledge where all the people had disappeared. “There’s the relic, right there. At least, I think.”
“Well, let’s just nip up and grab it, shall we?” the gnome suggested.
“They may attack us,” Kilian pointed out.
They had been awkwardly standing at the base of the field for over a minute. Evelyn drew out her blades menacingly. “Alright, alright, let’s just get up there and see what it is,” Thia said, tromping toward the righthand ramp and making the ascent.
The rest followed quickly, except Roon, who paused and turned back, quickly peeing a kind yellow message in the snowy field. SORRY. Then, he trotted up after them.
They climbed the ledge and found several tunnels leading deeper into the mountain where, presumably, the people had run to hide. At the top of the ledge, protected from snow by the cave ceiling, stood a large stone altar. Roon pushed through drifted snow and approached it skeptically, looking for religious symbols. “Well, I think I’ll just add…” he started to say, reaching into his bag of holding to grab a pot of ink and a brush.
A voice inside his head spoke very suddenly, shocking him and nearly causing him to send the ink smashing. “Welcome, kindred spirit.”
“A-are you the altar?” Roon asked aloud, and his friends looked round at him.
“I am the spirit of this tribe.”
“What’s your name?” he asked, straightening.
It sighed patiently inside his mind. “I have no name. I require your service, Roon.”
“Not like a—blood sacrifice or anything?” He asked tentatively.
It paused. “This tribe has been led astray by an evil chieftain: Wormblood.”
“Well, actually, I think we might’ve already killed him,” he said.
“Roon, who are you talking to?” Kilian asked, but the gnome ignored this with a wave of his hand, gesturing to the altar.
“Then lay upon my altar the proof of this defeat.”
Roon turned and looked at Thia, where the chieftain’s amulet sat around her neck. “Can I see that necklace for a moment, Thia?” He asked.
The elf glared down at him suspiciously and he snapped his fingers impatiently. “That is a scrying amulet,” she warned. “It is very valuable.”
“Yeah, but the voice inside my head wants proof that we killed the chief, and I have a feeling if we don’t offer it to him, we’re going to explode immediately,” he said reasonably.
“Voices in your head…” Kilian said skeptically. “What?”
“Well, obviously I’m very spiritually inclined,” Roon said, gesturing to the whole of himself. “That’s why it chose to speak to me. The altar, I mean.”
They all stared at him, then began to argue all at once in a clattering of voices. “Calm down, alright?” He demanded of his friends.
“You shouldn’t be hearing voices,” Evelyn said sensibly.
“Do you want to explode?” He shot back.
“Be careful with it, Roon,” Thia said. Slowly, she unclasped it and handed it to him.
Roon took a few steps forward and gingerly placed it on the smooth stone slab and stepped back again. The amulet vanished, and before Thia could protest, something rose from the stone altar. The figure was ghostly and massive, with a long, serpentine body and outstretched, feathery gray wings reminiscent of Beatrice’s. In fact, the tressym took that moment to fly down next to her gnome master and hiss at the creature, which thoroughly ignored the cat in return. Instead, it turned its serpentine, slit eyes onto Roon and nodded appreciatively. He held out his hand to shake the snake’s, then quickly, awkwardly realized it had no arms. He pulled back and it seemed bemused. “Step forward,” it said, the voice ringing out to all of them.
Evelyn stepped forward immediately, and the rest followed suit. Its wings unfurled even wider and wrapped around them, and the serpent pressed its nose to each of their foreheads in turn. Roon felt a sudden weight at his neck and looked down, seeing a necklace there. He looked up and saw they each had one.
“What is it?” Evelyn asked.
“A charm,” it said, “it will help you in dire need.”
“What sort of,” Roon started to say, but it sank back into the altar and disappeared. “Okay, bye, love you!” Roon called, waving at the altar brightly. “Well, that was weird,” he grinned at his companions, tucking the necklace into his shirt and picking up his ink pot again. He walked to the altar and painted the symbol of Cloakshadow next to the carved symbol of a flying snake.
They had nearly forgotten Harshnag behind them, but now the giant pointed a short way off where a large gong was upright with a pipe next to it. “That must be the relic,” he said.
On closer inspection, they saw that the gong was in fact a mounted shield made for giants and inlaid with dragon scales. “Should we hit it?” Evelyn wondered.
“Certainly,” Roon said, and together the two of them lifted the pipe and with a clang, it hit the shield and vibrated. The sound rang out and echoed through the cavern and across the snowy fields.
A second later, the ground outside vibrated and there was an explosion of stone and ice as three cobra serpents, much larger than the one they met in the temple, skittered out of the ground on dozens of tiny, beetle-like legs.
“Honestly!” Thia shouted in exasperation.
But Evelyn was grinning as she drew her rapiers against her arms in two streaks of crimson blood.
Despite some difficulties involving a storm sorcerer trying to help his companions fly towards the battle and then losing concentration on his spell, with the help of their frost giant friend, they were able to dispatch all three horrid creatures in a timely manner. By the end of it, the giant took the worst of the damage, and Opal conjured a healing spirit in the form of a large, floating platypus, and the giant hesitantly stepped inside, his injuries knitting together smoothly.
They spent very little time there after that, only pausing to pick through the area where the creatures appeared. Feeling that they had already stolen from this tribe and not wishing to inflict any more suffering on them, they returned to the airship where Marteen greeted them happily. They boarded and were soon making their way back to the temple of the All-Father, to speak again with the oracle and present their relic gift.
The airship docked before the stone bridge, and the group of them, again led by Harshnag, tramped through, back to the stone archway. They touched the frost giant’s axe to the ice symbol, and the portal appeared again. Each hopped through, feeling the familiar cold of the mountain as Harshnag carefully placed the dragon-scale shield on the ground over the oracle’s runes.
The runes pulsed for a moment, and the six lanterns flickered back to life. The shield melted into the ground and disappeared. Then, a carving in the wall of the circular chamber came to life, still locked in the wall, but moving its stone mouth. It looked very much like a frost giant. A familiar, haunting voice spoke without inflection or emotion from its mouth. “Your path is clear. Use the conch to reach the court of King Hecaton. Travel east over mountains and snow to distant spires. There, on a cold mountainside, you will find a village of yak folk. Below that, the fire giant Duke Zolto. The conch you seek is in his quarters.”
“I think we ask six more questions,” Opal said quietly, looking at the six lit lanterns.
Kilian stepped into the circle. “How will bringing more relics from these altars of Uthgar help us achieve our goal?”
“You will find favour with the gods,” came the response, and a lantern went out.
Kilian took a long breath. “How can we get an audience with Duke Zolto?”
“The duke does not seek audience with little folk.”
“We should ask about Klouth, the dragon who sent the airship,” Kilian whispered to his friends, who all nodded. He straightened, stared at the carving and reuttered the question.
“No ancient dragon can be trusted. Especially not Klouth, the red dragon.” The third lantern darkened.
“Should we ask what his motivations are?” Thia wondered, and Kilian nodded and asked the question.
Again, the response was emotionless. “Klouth seeks chaos in the court of the giants.”
They contemplated their next questions for a few minutes before deciding. “Why does the blue dragon Iymrith seek to destroy the ordening?”
“She, like all dragons, seeks chaos in the court of the giants. She did not destroy the ordening.” The lantern flickered out. They had one question remaining.
“Where are the daughters Mirran and Nym now?”
“They reside in the court of their father, in the maelstrom.” The room was cast in a dull blue as the last of the lanterns faded and only light from the portal remained.
Kilian stepped back and Harshnag pointed to the portal. “Let’s leave before the portal does,” he suggested, and they all jumped through. The moment they appeared back in the temple of the All-Father, there was a loud, deafening roar and a thunderous sound. They turned and saw a massive blue dragon bursting into the entrance, its thick tail crashing against stone pillars and sending some of them crumbling while others cracked dangerously. Harshnag instantly had his axe drawn and shouted, “RUN!”
Thia cast something over her whole body and became a blur as she shot for the entrance past the dragon. Kilian and Roon threw themselves behind the statue of the All-Father and looked around it, trying to see a way past the mighty creature. It snapped at Thia, but the elf managed to get around it and out of the temple. Evelyn ran next and the dragon ignored her, snapping instead at Harshnag as he took a swing at it. The giant was dwarfed by the ancient beast.
Roon saw Opal ducking dangerously close to the swinging tail of the dragon, but he couldn’t see if she’d made it through. “See you soon,” Roon said to Kilian, touching his leg and casting a ward of protection over his friend. Then, he turned and ran past the statues of the giant kinds, hiding behind the last just as the dragon turned its head at him. There was a monstrous crack of lightning as Kilian rounded the statue of the All-Father and struck the dragon full in the chest, but the energy seemed to do it no harm. He used the distraction to dash after Roon. Harshnag was drawing the dragon further into the temple. He feinted with his axe, then spun behind the statue of the All-Father and cleaved the pillar behind it in two. Instantly, the ceiling of the temple began to crumble. “GET OUT OF HERE!” He roared at them as they ran, then wrapped his giant arms around the dragon’s neck and tried to drag it down.
Kilian reached Roon and said, “are you ready to fly?” Before the gnome could respond, the man touched him on the head, and he flew up into the air on unsteady feet. Kilian rose up next to him as the dragon turned to the entrance where Thia, Evelyn and Opal now stood, shooting various spells at it. It opened its large maw and shot a stream of lightning. When the air cleared, Roon could see no more of his companions, and hoped they had managed to jump out of the way.
The ceiling was crumbling worse than ever as the giant pulled the dragon back to his attention. Roon shot forward through the air, hoping Kilian was doing the same, and landed breathlessly outside the door, looking around for his friends. He saw Thia unconscious, but Evelyn and Opal seemed to have missed the brunt of the attack. He quickly dropped from the air and healed the elf to consciousness, then peeked past the entrance and saw Kilian had fallen, struck down by a piece of falling stone. He was running again, his flight spell lost. The dragon turned, throwing Harshnag off itself for a moment. Roon conjured his spiritual weapon and slammed into the beast. Evelyn was shooting blasts of green fire at it. Harshnag made for a grab and had a firm grip on the dragon’s tail, now.
“Thank you,” Kilian shouted to the giant. “We will never forget you!” The sorcerer ran for the door.
“We can’t leave him!” Roon shouted, and his companions renewed their efforts at shooting the dragon through the falling debris. The dragon, it seemed, was slipping from Harshnag’s grasp. It was unfurling its wings, about to take flight.
“KEEP RUNNING, YOU FOOLS!” Harshnag screamed.
After a moment’s hesitation, Kilian dashed through the door and grabbed Opal’s arm, dragging her with him. They all turned and ran after him, crossing the stone bridge toward the floating airship which, luckily, seemed to be intact and unharmed by the dragon. Gasping for air, they clambered up the rope ladder and Kilian, who boarded first, shouted to Marteen to get the ship in the skies. The captain shouted orders to his men as Roon was dragged up last onto the deck of the sleigh-ship and the ladder was pulled hastily onboard. Roon leaned over the railing and stared at the temple, which shook with dust and the sounds of the ferocious battle within. He closed his eyes and sent a message into Harshnag’s mind. “Try to get to the portal,” he told the giant quickly. “Get out of there if you can,” he paused, feeing panic rise within, and said in a gentler voice. “Thanks for everything, Harshnag.”
Harshnag responded, sounding strained and ragged of breath. “Flee. Your destiny is not to die here. Your destiny is elsewhere.”
With that, Roon opened his eyes and watched the temple of the All-Father cave in on itself in a great cloud of dust, the stone walls crumbling and falling into the chasm below.