The winds had died down over the night, so the boat moved along slowly by the force of its wings alone. The forest was still and silent. Except for the occasional arrow in the side of the boat, one could almost think it was a perfectly peaceful afternoon. Glancing at an arrow that had just struck, Asharae said under her breath, "Goblins have no brains in their heads. They'd have a much better chance of killing us if they hid their position."
"Scare," said Kruzz from where he was huddled against the side of the boat. "They want to scare us. It is good to make your enemy afraid."
Arching a delicate eyebrow at the troll, Asharae said, "And sneaking up on your enemy to strike them in a vital spot is twice as useful."
Kruzz sneered at her and said, "Very much an elf way, small and weak."
"Weak?" asked Asharae, glaring at him. The troll shrunk back under the heat of it. "You're the most cowardly creature on this boat. I'd sooner send the girl --" She gestured at Eylee, who blinked. “-- then you to fight for me. You're a disgrace to what is already the most pathetic race on Norrath, which makes your opinion somewhere on the level of dirt to me."
"Quiet the both of you," snapped Kaltuk.
"Listen to the dwarf," said Bayle, staring at them both hard, "we have other things to do right now than squabble."
Asharae glared one last time then looked back toward Twiddy and Fiddlewiz. They were adjusting the small, gnome-like bundle they had placed within a compartment atop a large single-wheeled contraption. Fiddlewiz lifted the goggles that covered his eyes and Eylee noted that they were heavy with sorrow. The gnome placed a hand on the wheel of the cycle and through the scarf that covered his mouth said, "If I don't see you again, good-bye."
Twiddy glanced at the others and said, "The Professor rode this all over Norrath before retiring it to work on the Cloudskipper. This is an emotional moment for him."
Fiddlewiz drew back, clasped his hands behind his back, crouched, and nodded. Twiddy gestured to the group to stand on the opposite side of the boat as the cycle. The halfling crawled to the helm and took the place of Roadyle, who had been steering while the other two worked out their plan. "As soon as I bring her down, Fiddlewiz will send the cycle in one direction. You all should go the other."
Fiddlewiz darted up from his crouched position to fiddle with the controls of the cycle one last time, jamming them in place and double-checking the positioning of the small rockets affixed to its back. The gnome stuck up his thumb and Twiddy steered the ship closer to the ground. "Now!" said Twiddy in a voice just above a whisper. Fiddlewiz lit the fuses on the rockets. Eylee held her breath as the fire ate its way down to the backs of the rockets and then in a burst, the cycle was propelled across to where Fiddlewiz had set up a small ramp to take it up and over the side of the craft. She could hear the crashing of branches and screaming of goblins as it continued careening off into the woods.
Bayle gestured for them to move, and Eylee stood up quickly, slipping off the opposite side of the ship. All but Fiddlewiz, Twiddy, and Roadyle did the same, with the mage staying on board to cast periodic glyphs of warding on the sensitive areas of the boat. As soon as the other seven had hit ground, the Cloudskipper retreated back up into the air, where they would be circling periodically, scanning for a signal that the party was ready to be retrieved.
As quietly as they could manage, the group slipped through the undergrowth. There were no games this time, nor any squabbling. Everyone held their tongues and kept a watchful eye about them. They could hear a distant commotion where goblins were no doubt contending with Fiddlewiz's fearsome cycle.
"Asharae," said Bayle, drawing in close to her, "can the Scryona give us a more specific location?"
Her expression look annoyed for a second and then she shrugged, pulling the orb from its sack, letting it come to rest on her palm where it glowed intensely. The young woman closed her eyes and breathed in deeply, tightening her lips and focusing in on it. Illisia paced around them, watching closely. Kaltuk said a small prayer, tracing a sigil in the air that flared up briefly before disappearing. Eylee began to chant to herself a story of strong heroes and battles won.
"There," Asharae said suddenly, and her arm shot up. Eylee traced the length of the Teir'dal's slender finger with her eyes, peering in the direction the young woman pointed. Far off through the trees, she thought she caught a glimpse of lightning and a touch of darkness. When Asharae opened her eyes, they glowed the same orange as Scryona, and she began walking directly toward the corrupt energy. A shiver passed down Eylee's back as she stared at the Teir'dal; she felt distinctly that there was little of Asharae in the figure that shambled ahead, and much of Scryona.
"Asharae, wait," said Bayle. He reached out to touch her shoulder, but she kept walking so that his hand passed uselessly through her hair. "Come on!" He gestured everyone forward with him.
Eylee gripped her drum in both hands. She'd never thought to use it as a weapon until their fight in Innothule Swamp with the void-touched trolls, but with its long, slender body, it had proven remarkably effective in bashing things. Kruzz walked near her, and she noted that he was gripping his meat cleaver so tightly that his knuckles had gone an almost white-yellow. Everyone else held their weapons at ready, except Nurgg, who simply wrapped strips of cloth around his fists as they walked. Bayle stuck close to Asharae, claymore raised and eyes constantly searching.
Suddenly, Illisia turned to Eylee. The young woman barely realized what had happened before the hunter had shoved her to the side and fired an arrow over her head. A goblin stumbled from the trees, dropping a short sword he'd been holding above his head. This face was stuck in a cruel death mask, a grin twisted by pain. One of Illisia's arrows was buried deep in his chest, right where the heart should be.
Then there was chaos. Goblins streamed out of the trees, screaming, dancing from side to side, and menacing them with a whole manner of crude weapons. Some jumped from above, one landing on Nurgg's shoulders and biting at his ears. The ogre ripped the goblin off of his back and roared, throwing the goblin against a tree with a sickening thud. Eylee began swinging her drum and chanting songs of bravery and luck, thinking all the while of all the things she might never do after that day. You can't think like that. Illisia doesn't think like that. I bet she thinks of what she'll be doing when this is over.
Eylee cried out and charged at one of the goblins that had come in at Kaltuk. To her surprise, the goblin next her snapped backward in tandem with her cry, howling and gripping its ears. There's so much I need to learn about this magic. She only gave herself the luxury of being surprised by what had happen for a brief moment, and then she pressed on, bringing her drum into the legs of Kaltuk's aggressor. The goblin tumbled into the ground and with a fluid motion Kaltuk brought the head of his hammer down onto the skull of the creature, where it landed with a satisfying crunch. Then he turned to smack another goblin in the jaw with the body of the censor that dangled from his other hand. The dwarf tipped his head to her, but his eyes were not Kaltuk's eyes. They were the eyes of a seasoned warrior, impassive to all but the motions of battle.
She scrambled on, checking in on each of her companions. They all seemed to be holding their own. Illisia was a blur of motion, her twin swords felling goblins as she whirled with such fluidity that it seemed she could be doing a dance. Nurgg brought his fist in to crush the skull of one attacker, and then picked up the limp body of the goblin he'd just killed to be used as a club against another of them. Asharae continued walking and Bayle fought goblins off from either side of her. Eylee started as one goblin stepped directly in front of the entranced Teir'dal, but without comment, Asharae lifted a hand and from her palm shot an orb of that same orange light. When the ball struck the goblin, he screamed and then scratched at his skin furiously. In moments, he had dissolved.
Then Eylee noticed something curious. Where that goblin had been, a cloud of purple and black smoke remained. The orange light that had struck the goblin lingered and then enveloped the black energy hungrily. Asharae then whispered a word and the now orange and black mixed energies flowed into Scryona in a quick stream. The Feir'dal didn't puzzle this long, there was no time to be distracted by such mysteries; as her eyes passed through the scene, however, she noticed flashes of similar black and purple clouds around all of the goblins.
They had to have been touched by the Void. "Be careful!" she screamed.
In that instant, she heard Kruzz scream. He was backed up against an embankment, two goblins menacing him. But what was worse was that one of the red-eyed Void beasts they had seen in Innothule was stalking toward him, snapping at the air with its pincers. Kruzz swung his butcher knife in front of him wildly but to little effect. Eylee glanced over at Nurgg, who had also noticed their green-skinned companion's problems. He nodded to her and the two of them ran toward the troll.
Eylee shouted as she approached the goblins and one of them fell to his knees, blood running from its ears and eyes. The other turned to her and she brought her drum into his neck, knocking him forward. One of Kruzz's wild swings finally struck true, the large, jagged blade cutting through the flesh of the remaining opponent's neck. The goblin stabbed downward as he fell, sword piercing the troll's foot. Kruzz let out a scream of pain and began hacking at the goblin's corpse furiously.
Though concerned for him, Eylee turned to check on Nurgg. The ogre had launched himself headlong at the large void beast and now had it in a grapple, pounding it with his fists. The beast swung its pincers this way and that, and let out high, eerie wails, but it couldn't manage to get its grip on the ogre, nor could it shake him off its back. She noted a gash above Nurgg's eyebrow, which was bleeding down into his eyes, but so far he seemed to be holding up. Still, she felt she had to do something.
Another shout lingered at the back of her throat, and she stepped toward the beast, letting it out. The creature look as if something had struck it and then went completely still, as if paralyzed, giving Nurgg the chance to reach down and tear out a number of its eyes. Chucking aside the dangling bits of gore, he reached in through one of the empty sockets and pulled out brain matter from inside. It was done. The beast collapsed, letting out a series of short bellows until its body broke up into wisps and then nothingness. Eylee turned back to Kruzz. The troll had stopped panicking long enough to pull the sword from his foot and was busy retreating into the brush.
"Where are you going?" she called, but Kruzz vanished into some bushes. She shook her head and turned back to the fighting.
Bayle had seemed to decide Asharae was safe enough on her own, and had moved on toward what appeared to be the leader of their attackers. This particular goblin had been the source of the commands shrieked in Goblish and wore an elaborate headdress from which feathers and beads dangled, and he fought with a scythe-like sword that, even at a distance, Eylee could tell was stained with blood. Though Bayle's claymore was swift, the chieftain managed to dodge nimbly around every one of his swings. The goblin leader cackled every time Bayle's claymore fell to the side harmlessly.
Eylee watched as Bayle's strategy shifted. Instead of hacking at the goblin, he drew back, sword at the ready. The goblin glared at him and danced around, shouting, "Why you not attack?! Afraid of little goblin, are you?" The goblin bared his teeth and swung his sword around, trying to menace Bayle. Bayle didn't respond though, he simply circled.
Finally, the goblin screamed and charged at Bayle. The plainsman stepped out of the path of the sword and brought the claymore around, cutting deeply into the goblin's calves. He must not have severed the muscles, as the goblin raged through the pain, crying out and launching himself at Bayle, managing to slice deeply into his arm. Eylee's breath caught in her throat as blood welled up through the plainsman's torn shirt and Bayle stumbled back, one hand releasing the claymore and moving to cover the blood. Suddenly Kaltuk was by his side. The dwarf called out to the heavens, "Brell, you had best do this lad a fair turn!" The blood suddenly stopped flowing, and the dwarf smiled in satisfaction. The goblin cried out in frustration, charging at Kaltuk. As he passed by Bayle, though, the young man brought the claymore around, driving it through the goblin's torn leather jerkin, into his chest, and all the way out the other side. The chieftain hit the ground in two distinct halves, leaving behind the same dark cloud as all the others.
With that, the battle seemed to be well under control. The remaining goblins had moved to place themselves between the group and the Void portal, which the party had long since grown close enough to fully observe. Asharae threw orb after orb of orange light at the wall of goblins, eyes fixed toward the portal intently, and with every goblin that fell, Scryona fed further, sucking in that energy. Eylee looked at the portal more closely. A circle of inky black, it was surrounded by a concentration of the purple and blue storms they had seen in Innothule. Within its proximity, there was a gradually intensifying acrid smell that burned the thin membranes of the nose when one breathed in too deeply. From within its heart, the sounds of more of those beasts could be made out, and it was evident that they were getting closer.
Bayle seemed to have noticed this as well. "We need to close it, quickly!" he shouted.
Eylee ran forward with the others as they moved in, lending their physical attacks to Asharae's onslaught of magic. They grew closer and closer and just as Bayle managed to stand in front of the portal, more beasts became visible inside of the Void. The plainsman dropped his claymore and ripped the staff of Theer from the cords binding it to his back. Illisia stepped in beside him and brought down the few remaining goblins that tried to rush him, dispatching them with practiced blows.
Bayle rubbed the runes of the staff furiously until they began to glow and the staff leapt from his hands. It began to spin in front of the rift, and as it did, the edges of the portal seemed to become elastic, turning and curving and collapsing in on themselves. There were bellows of frustration from within the Void. One of the beasts managed to stick its arm through but Illisia quickly hacked it off. The edges of the portal continued collapsing inward until, with a rushing of air that had the quality of an inverted wind gust, the whole thing vanished.
Bayle bent down to retrieve the staff, and they all turned to Asharae. The orange glow vanished from her eyes, then from Scryona, and as if released from a marionette's strings, she went limp and collapsed. Kaltuk rushed to her side and began tracing sigils over her. In a moment, she opened her eyes again.
"Water," she whispered.
"Ale," said the dwarf, with no hint of apology, as he opened his skein and dumped it down her throat.
She coughed and sputtered, sitting up and wiping liquid from her face. "Water does not equal ale," she said sharply.
Kaltuk chuckled as he rose. "She'll be alright," he said.
"What happened?" asked Bayle. "What did you feel?"
Asharae seemed to consider her words before saying, "It was as if... Scryona had spoken to me, and asked for permission to feed. I let it, and then I did exactly as I was told." She shook her head. "I have so much to ask Baron and Baroness V'Nol." Her eyes gleamed in a way that worried Eylee.
"I see," said Bayle. His voice was impassive but his forehead creased with worry. He shook his head and said, "I wish we could have nothing to do with corrupt Teir'dal tinkering."
Asharae fixed her gaze on him and smiled almost sweetly. "But you must, mustn't you?" Her voice rang with a note of something like triumph.
Kaltuk looked at Asharae uneasily. "You may like to think you had the power there, lass," he said, "but it was the thing that did, not you. The more we know about it, and the less we have to use it, the better."
Illisia stepped up and glanced around, asking, "Where's Kruzz?"
"Hiding," said Nurgg, crossing his arms firmly across his chest. With that, there was a rustle in the brush as Kruzz appeared and limped toward them.
"Wounded," said the troll, voice full of pain. Not a single gaze, however, softened with pity at the sight of the troll's wounded foot.
"I could have fixed that," said Kaltuk, eyes narrowed at him, "but as you were too worried about your own hide to help the rest of us fight a few puny goblins, I believe you'll be stuck with the facilities of healing that the gods gave ya. You trolls patch up quickly, it shouldn't be too long." The troll glowered and limped back.
"Don't give me another reason to question why you're with us," said Bayle sharply. "I'm tempted to leave you here."
"Please do not," said Kruzz, falling on his knees in front of Bayle, "please do not. I promise to fight."
Bayle turned away, disgusted. "Very well," he said, shaking his head, "but this is your last chance."
"One more than you deserve," muttered Kaltuk.
"Illisia, would you...?" Bayle motioned to the staff and then to his back. The barbarian woman nodded and then reached out to touch the staff, brushing his hand. The two held eyes for a moment, and something washed through Eylee that was a mix of jealousy and wistfulness. It was doubtful anyone else had caught it; only the most curious observers, such as Eylee, would make as much of it as she had, but there was no question in her mind that something was growing there. It lasted only a moment, though, and then the barbarian woman glanced away and took the staff, strapping it onto the man's back and smoothing away the bunched cloth of his shirt. Bayle wiped his claymore in a patch of scrub and then sheathed it over top of the staff. "We'll send out a signal for the others," he said. "I doubt they have gotten far. Illisia, come with me. The rest of you, search them for anything that might be relevant."
"Or valuable," said Asharae with a smile.
Bayle stared at the young woman for a moment and then said, "Loot the bodies if you like. I won't stop you. But though they may only have been goblins, I will not be defiling their bodies that way."
The pair of warriors vanished into the thicket. Eylee found herself watching the paths of their hands, imagining that one might quietly take hold of the other. A voice interrupted her thoughts. "What are you staring at so dopey eyed?" asked Asharae, narrowing her eyes at the young woman.
"Nothing," said Eylee, doing her best to sound flippant.
Asharae followed her gaze, seeming to consider the implications. "Ah," she said. "I see. Well, I am sure they will make ugly, stubborn babies together one day. If they live. Which is doubtful."
Eylee glared at the Teir'dal. "Why do you have to say those kinds of things?" she asked. "Do you really not care if we live or die? If you live or die?"
Asharae seemed to consider her words. "No," she said, "not really," and turned to continue her work.
Eylee gazed at the Teir'dal, anger raging. Spinning away, she tried to drive off her anger by focusing on the task at hand: finding anything that might shed light on the nature of their battles and where they should go to next.
As night fell, they found themselves back on the Cloudskipper. With more time to settle in, they made themselves permanent bedding in corners of the ship, laying out bedrolls and fashioning pillows of burlap sacks below deck. Twiddy and Fiddlewiz had finally organized the contents of the messy cargo hold well enough to accommodate individuals larger than themselves. Nurgg made his spot above deck, preferring not to be cramped, as did Kruzz, because the rest of the party had yet to stop glaring at him. Asharae set up a place within the hold but very separate from the others, using her cloak to fashion a sort of tent between stacks of crates.
Eylee curled up on her bedroll, exhaustion consuming her. When sleep didn't come, she turned, finding herself staring at Kaltuk's back.
"Kaltuk?" she asked. "Have you managed to sleep yet?"
The dwarf grunted in response.
"You've done this many times... fought battles...?" she asked.
After a moment, he responded, sighing heavily, "Yes, I have, lass. I was a member of the Storm Guard of Kaladim, once."
"How do you shake away the looks... the looks your opponents give you when they die?"
He turned so that he was facing her, studying her with his pale blue eyes. Reaching, he swept a lock of hair out of her face. "You remember," he said, "that what you were doing was right." She considered his words and then nodded to him. "Sleep well, young one." He turned back the other way and within minutes, he was snoring loudly.
Eylee tried to do as he said, but a thousand thoughts weighed on her mind. Finally, she fell asleep, but her dreams were of beasts from a place outside of time, and she tossed all night in fear for Norrath.