The Sands of Shurax
Nomadic legends speak of a great worm slumbering beneath the sands, stoking the fiery heat of the desert. Tales told how the beast would awaken when the desert grew too cool, emerging from its slumber to bake the world above. For centuries the desert has grown and extended, proving, say the tribesmen, that the worm grows stronger.
Until a year ago, the legends were mere fable. Then the tremors began. Scholars grew concerned and began to investigate, but the desert tribes knew the truth: the Ravager was awake.
It emerged two months ago, hot as the sun itself and as tall as a mountain. The beast destroyed an ancient desert city, reducing it to particles of sand. For a few horrifying days, it remained above ground, and then it crashed down, disappearing into the earth, leaving a massive tower of luminescent crystal behind.
Even as the legends foretold, the crystals remain, acting like lenses that amplify the sun’s energy, heating the desert even more. The site is uninhabitable, and the heat blisters the skin of any who venture too close. Some even say that those who venture too closely begin to change, their bodies mutating.
The bedouin legends spoke truth. The Ravager of Shurax has returned to the world.
A Legend Unearthed
“Quarro, slow the camels!”
“You hardly have to tell me sir.” Quarro set about the business of slowing the long caravan train, because the ground was trembling again. The tremors had come every few days, for more than a month. At first, they had been a curiosity, but now they were getting worse.
The caravan proceeded at a measured pace, and Quarro turned to what he felt was the important business, cheering up Noscal, his caravan master. “Why so glum? We shall reach Illum for today’s early morning market and turn a nice profit.” The moon was low in the sky, and the chill in the air felt refreshing.
Noscal sighed. These days, he always looked morose. “It’s the ruins,” he said. “Our history, our legacy, is far more important than mere coins. Doesn’t the sight of them raise your spirits?”
“Never seen them. Don’t care about them.” Quarro replied.
“But you should, and I do. I visited many in my youth. The way this ground trembles, the next one I visit will be reduced to piles of sand.”
“But the tremors, leveling the sand, it’s been good for us. We haven’t broken an axle in six moons. Our caravans have never traveled so safely.”
Noscal shook his head. “Some of the ruins were beautiful. And some held ancient libraries that housed magnificent tomes. We can learn much from the history of the world by visiting these places. Those friendly Illumon who have agreed to buy our wares, a few of them, Greidl, Satmith and Cerbon: they promised to lead me to the ruins of Fordon this time. Said to be a gorgeous place, with great sandstone sculptures. And I’ll bet it’ll all be reduced to rubble. This trembling earth is the death of our glorious ruins. And what causes it, I say? Where do the tremors come from? The very devil’s awake down there.” He peered back toward Quarro pleading his case earnestly.
Quarro forced a smile. “You know of the legends. Perhaps the living rock slides a little below, to reach a sturdier place. Allow me to cheer you up over a drink at Illum. We’re only two parasangs away, and the tremors have stopped again. Let’s make time!”
“Forward, make time!” Noscal called, and the merchants urged their camels forward.
The caravan was approaching the last hill that hid Illum from view, when a deep rumbling and a slight quake shook the earth. This one was closer than the others, and it stirred the camels into vigorous protest. Quarro’s eyes widened and he blurted out: “Sir, let’s stop. Let’s go back. The other way.”
“Min Sijak, are you serious?” Noscal said, surprised. “We’ll have to junk all our wares if we don’t get to Illum. Forward, I say.”
The ground trembled beneath them again, causing it to swell underfoot in small waves. A sharp judder, and then once again, the earth lay suspiciously quiet.
“I’ve been thinking,” Quarro said. “These tremors: every step we’ve taken on this blasted trip, they’ve gotten worse. Stronger. More frequent. Maybe Illum’s their center. Maybe what’s causing the earth to quake lies in wait there. Please, master, accept my word this once. Let’s just leave.”
Noscal smiled with only a bit of confidence. “We’ll discuss it over a drink in Illum. It’s a fine place to cheer you up. Forward.”
They crested the hill as the sun was rising, and the sparkling city came into sight. Quarro continued to drive the lead camel, but it was moaning now, resisting his tug and shuddering even when the earth stood firm.
The merchants shouted in glee at that first glimpse of Illum shining in the sun, but the earth beneath them gave a mighty yank, and their cheers changed to cries of horror. In the distance, in the center of the city, a violent and cataclysmic eruption shot a massive tower of rock into the air. It was a hundred feet wide, and hundreds of feet tall. A blast wave of sand and debris launched into the air, causing the caravan and its creatures to rear back in sheer terror.
The monolithic tower was no rock. It was alive. Its breath was a living cloud. Its radiance dimmed the sun, and its blast of heat, even at this distance, made the men stagger back.
The thing began to move. It turned and twisted, and opened a massive trichotomic maw, so big it was an impossibility to fathom. Glassy plates all over its hide reflected piercingly bright light from the rising sun. And then it hit the earth with a monstrous howl that could be heard for miles around. It caused a tremor that made the camels roar and knocked the men of the caravan off their feet. Quarro heard screams behind him, and footsteps, as half of the merchants ran off.
The titan rolled away from them. It roared and twisted and turned. The date palms south of the city caught fire from its bright light and heat, and abruptly burned to ashes. And then the creature lay still, towering over the place, almost still.
“Sir,” Quarro said. “The city is gone.” The entire city had vanished under the massive creature’s thrashing weight.
“The deaths,” Noscal said. “Our friends: They’re all gone. Oh, weep for them.”
Quarro rounded up the remaining merchants. They gathered in a small group and offered up prayers for the spirits of the Illumon. And they stared at the city’s wreckage. One of the remaining merchants bowed low to Noscal. “Sire, we have lost our market. We are ruined. Lead us away from here, before the thing attacks us.”
Noscal frowned, looking determined as ever. He drew out a bulging purse. “Men, I’ll make up your losses! Let’s stay here and watch. It is history itself that we witness.”
“Sir,” Quarro said, “what if it attacks us? Shouldn’t we flee at once?”
“If it wants to chase us, how could we escape?” Noscal said.
He paid each man enough and bade them watch. They unpacked, setting up sun breaks for themselves and their camels, keeping a wary eye on the creature. Every hour or so it moved. They could feel the ground tremble, along with a blast of heat, whenever it did. It seemed to be heating up, the sun amplifying and warming its hide. Already the temperature here had risen to a dangerous level.
“Do you know what it is, sir?” Quarro asked.
“We all know,” said Noscal. “We’ve all heard the same legends, but never wished to see it. You’re looking at the Ravager.” The men shook their heads in disbelief.
“What else could it be? The tales say it will go aground soon. Care to wait and find out?” Though none wanted to stay, they believed their only hope in surviving this event was to stick together.
They set watches that night. As the moon rose, the thing stirred and the ground quaked once again. They had moved the caravan back a good ways, and were glad that they did, a massive fissure grew around the beast.
Some hours later the Ravager gave a mighty wriggle that made the ground beneath them roll and jerk. It curled around and then crashed downward near its entry location. In a mountain of sound, the beast plunged back down into the earth, its body taking nearly a minute to disappear into its depths.
Thick dust lingered in the air, that would take hours to clear. Though the Ravager had disappeared, part of the monster remained behind. What had looked like glassy plates on its hide were great red-hued crystals, and they had torn away and peeled off the monster as its hide rubbed against the earth. It was now a jagged, angled tower of crystal that scraped the sky.
The sun made the tower glow fiercely as it rose. The area around it became hotter than the heart of the desert, for like a lens, it was amplifying the sun’s light. The tower focused the sun’s brilliance in a hundred places at once. The caravaners stood in disbelief as they watched a grove of great acacia trees shrivel and burn in half an hour. The patch of burnt earth near the tower expanded as the day progressed.
“It’s time to leave,” Noscal said. “We’ve seen all we can see. We must warn the people before they find out about the Ravager, the hard way. It isn’t done with us yet.”
Not a joke nor a laugh punctuated the journey back from Illum. But when Dria’s main gate came into sight, the merchants lightened up. At last they could restock and get some rest. But it was the sight of the great city-state itself that brought them much-needed cheer.
Dria’s gate towered above them, the elegant high arch, wide enough to admit three mammoths side-by-side, built from fired blue brick and accented with touches of turquoise and lapis. A rectangular pattern of desert creatures adorned the bricks in gold. Behind the gate, the jumble of roofs and domes that comprise the entrance quarter of the city loomed before them, baked ceramic tiles in a riot of colors.
“Quarro, my good man, I give you the hardest task,” Noscal said. “I must prepare for our return to Illum. Only my good word will secure the necessary tools and preparations. You must bring news to the tribunal about what we have seen. You still have the shard?”
“Yes, of course. I can do this, it shouldn’t be difficult,” Quarro said. “I almost remember how to find the Adminstrative Sector. I might have to ask a citizen for directions along the way.”
“Here’s another twenty gold to loosen a few tongues,” Noscal said. “Let’s meet tomorrow morning inside this gate. I must know how the Tribunal reacts to our news. And now, excuse me.”
Being a Caravan Master eased Noscal’s way through the gate. Quarro got in line with the commoners to enter the city, resigned to undergoing the usual examination when it was his turn.
“Sire, sire, an alms if you please!”
Quarro gave a few coppers to the beggars who pestered him on his way inside. They usually clustered under the gate itself, since the guards policed its inner courtyard. Today there was only one guard on duty, strange since there were usually many more. That one guard dressed as colorfully as the nearby citizens, his striped thawb trimmed in the leaves of silver that announced his office. When Quarro approached he drew a long, wicked knife. “I’ll not have another Hanta dog creeping into Dria. Who are you? Give an account of yourself.”
Quarro stared at that knife, wishing it would return to its hiding place under the guard’s thawb. He bowed slowly. “I’m just a caravaner, Noscal’s second. Let me show you...” He reached slowly for his pouch, and showed the guard a letter from Noscal that he kept for just such moments as these.
The guard examined the letter and lowered his knife.
“Buy new robes as soon as you can. Your dress resembles the Hanta. They mean to overthrow the Tribunal’s rule. I nearly gutted you myself on account of your appearance.”
“I’ll take your advice! Where are all the other guards?” Quarro asked. “I usually see a dozen here.”
“The Hanta have lost their minds. They’re causing trouble. We don’t know how they snuck into Dria, hiding their blood-stained white cloaks and their devil masks. They’ll be dead men before sundown, if they don’t run and hide after drawing blood, the foul cowards!”
“I’ll keep an eye out for them.”
“You’d better, if you want to stay alive. Go in peace. Add some decency to this city. Dria needs all it can get.”
A traveler might expect to find signs everywhere, pointing to the government offices. But a quarter of the city is always under construction, and Dria’s districts are poorly marked. The city was designed to make it as hard as possible for an invading army to find their way. Quarro’s memory was good, but he soon blundered into a suk lined with merchant stalls. As soon as he explained his desire for new robes, the nearest merchant clasped his hands and drew him into his stall, while two others rushed over to recommend their own wares. His merchant sang the prices of his clothing, while the heady scents from a nut grocery in the next stall reminded him how little he had eaten that day. Every price the man named was undercut by one of his competitors, making it hard for Quarro to think.
When he realized his chosen merchant was lowering his own prices to beat his competitors, Quarro raised a hand. “Enough! I’ll take these three.” He removed three robes from their hooks in the side of the stall, then wasted no time in shedding his old ones, which he left piled in a heap in the back of the merchants shop. The merchant objected only briefly. Quarro knew the merchant would try to sell them for a small profit, but didn’t have the time to care. Before he left, he stopped to buy a bag of almonds and lavender-scented pistachio nuts, and a few additional items before making his way into the heart of the city.
It took another hour to exit the great market, then he passed through the old wall. Beyond it all activity and chatter seemed to quell. The Adminstrative quarter looked deserted. Empty streets. The few merchant shops were silent and shuttered. Even here, the narrow alleys curved so that Quarro could not see far ahead. What lay beyond the next corner? The total quiet spooked him.
His instinct didn’t fail him. Passing the next building, he heard hushed footsteps. Three masked men came at him with their janbiyas drawn, surrounding him. The silver trim of their white cloaks flashed in the afternoon sun, and the blood stains on their cloaks—some looked fresh—matched the designs on the red devil masks that hid their faces. They did not speak, but they drew closer. He could hear their ragged breathing.
Quarro tensed. He would have time to make one move when they closed in. Perhaps a skillful push and a dodge, and he might escape, although the odds looked slim. The Hanta rogue before him abruptly started, and a torrent of blood ran down his neck and under his mask. He pitched forward, an arrow in his head. Quarro ducked his falling form and ran toward the archer. It was a woman with a flowing blue cloak and wide eyes of gold. Her hair was as dark as shadow, pulled back into a tight knot. She had another arrow ready to fire. How had she nocked it so quickly? That arrow’s not for me, not for me, I pray, Quarro thought as he ran.
The woman released the second arrow, it sailed past Quarro’s ear, slamming another man’s head into the stone, piercing deep despite his mask. The Hanta went down and lay still. Then she lowered her bow and waved him to come closer. When he risked a look back he saw there were more Hanta now, but they were delaying their pursuit, either to check on their fallen companions, or from fear of the next arrow. They poured into the alley, and then ran in pursuit.
“This way.” The woman grabbed his arm, and her strength was fierce. She propelled him on her way, raced ahead, and he followed.
“That way, go!” They turned into a square and she opened a nearby gated door. Looking up, he saw a tower, a four story building of wood in great disrepair. “I can defend us from above,” she said. She ran up the stairs and he followed, careful now, and falling behind. She seemed to know every missing step and soft spot but he needed to climb with care. He listened for their pursuers. Surely they were behind! But he heard only muffled shouting outside.
He arrived at the rooftop to see her looking out a ruined barricade. She still held her bow, but her arrow was not at the ready. “Come look,” she said.
He stared down and saw that the guards had arrived. They outnumbered the Hanta three to one. But this battle was ending the way Hanta battles always did, with the evil fellows slipping away and running off. Everyone knew how the Hanta fought: to fight another day. They did not have to win; they only needed to weaken the fabric of civility that Quarro, and the other Drians, valued so much.
“That’s two dogs who won’t escape,” she said. “My work is done. You may thank Rehn’Vali, that is I, for your life.” Her voice was hushed, husky, and compelling. As she turned away, he noticed her amulet. Not many wore such elegant decoration.
“Rehn, you saved my life so that I can give important news.” But the woman was off again, crossing the roof to a pillar from which a rope stretched. “Wait!” he cried, as she grabbed the rope, apparently planning to glide to the next building, some twenty feet away.
“Be quick,” she said. “You’re not the only one in danger today.”
“You must hear what we saw in the desert. You work with the Tribunal, don’t you? That amulet.. Look, I was with Caravaneer Noscal. We saw the beast rise out of the desert and flatten the city of Illum.”
“You saw a mirage. Come now, you’re a seasoned traveler.”
“No, I speak true. It can only be the Ravager! It was as tall as a mountain, it has returned to Shurax. We got as close as we dared. In less than a moment,” he snapped his fingers, “Illum was destroyed. We watched it for a full day as it soaked up the heat from the sun.”
She let go of the rope and relaxed. “Ah. Yes, I understand.” She stepped toward him, smelling his breath. “Are you a drunkard? And I thought you were stumbling from fear back there.” Her smile was intoxicating.
He shook his head. “You know the legend of the Ravager as well as any, do you not? Look at this!”
He drew from his pouch a thing he had feared to carry. It gave off its own heat without its own fire. It had to be a cursed thing, but it was much too important to leave where the Ravager had surfaced. He held it up, and the long, sharp crystal glowed a deep red. “It’s warm, he said. “Feel its warmth. This is but a fragment. A whole tower of this exists where Illum once stood.”
“No,” she said, her golden eyes shining. “This… seems impossible. Tell me all.”
Quarro quickly recounted the destruction of Illum to her astonishment.
“Where can I find you?” she said.
“Master Noscal prepares a new caravan outside the city gate. I’ll be there. Ask for Quarro. But…when will you, how will you inform the Tribunal?”
“They already know,” she said. “Because I am one of them. Noscal’s caravan will have more visitors tomorrow morning. My associates will want to hear the story firsthand, and they will want to know more.”
- - -
Quarro was unable to find Noscal that evening, but he found him the next morning, dickering with merchants and lining up camels for the next trip.
“Kismet led me to a member of the Tribunal yesterday,” Quarro said with a smile, and he recounted his adventures.
“I’d like to see this golden-eyed beauty,” Noscal said. “I guess we will be giving our reports to others today. I must delay our travel plans.” He turned to a few of the merchants and barked orders.
“You’ve got your wish,” Quarro said, looking toward the city gate. Arbiter Rehn’Vali walked toward them. Her posture was assured, and she radiated an athletic beauty, drawing nearly everyone’s attention. She carried no bow today, but she was accompanied by twenty heavily-armed bodyguards.
“Master Noscal, I salute you,” she said. “Come with me, both you and Quarro. We will spend the day in conference with the full Tribunal and its councilors. We shall see what can be done to reward you for bringing this timely news.”
Quarro silently chuckled at Noscal’s obvious dismay. He knew the little duneling wanted nothing more than to return to pick through the ruins of Illum. He’d have to make do with recounting the story to the Tribunal first. Adventuring would have to come later.
It’s late afternoon in Nemsynet’s gladiatorial arena, a bloody place called “The Pits.” The Governor of Games walks into the arena to a chorus of boos. He shushes the crowd and says, “Give a hand for the last gladiator of the day.”
The crowd boos, and a hundred playing cards sail over the fence that surrounds the arena. It’s a big crowd, filling all eight levels in the stands. The sandy floor is wide, with plenty of room to run, for the coward who fears death. One gambler’s card pack strikes the Governor’s arm, but he ignores it with a smile.
Shouting over the boos, he cries, “It’s our favorite champion, The Curse of Chembris: Ormvu!”
A herculean, olive-skinned hobgoblin walks through the gate, and the crowd goes wild with cheers. He riles up the crowd, striking the air with his steel Khopesh for a volley of swipes. His punches, hooks and slices are so precise, the crowd can almost see the imaginary adversary he cuts down. They roar their approval.
The crowd’s cheers change, and they chant, “Gauntlet, gauntlet, gauntlet!”
The Governor of Games signals for silence, and they hang on his words. “In a preliminary bout, three of our House Gladiators charged Ormvu and he defeated them all. You’re right, the gauntlet is next. And if, but only if Ormvu defeats our previous champion, he will face the Mammoth!”
The crowd hushes in anticipation. Ormvu crosses to the gauntlet at the southernmost side of the arena. He stares up at its great weapons, hung close together from central poles, swinging back and forth, all out of sync. The crowd quiets in anticipation, for no one tackles the gauntlet like The Curse of Chembris.
The hobgoblin hurries up the steps and charges the first set of swinging axes. Everyone gasps, but he stops at the last moment and backs off. He makes a trial run and stops again. And then he’s all business, quickly past the first axe, hesitating only a moment, past the second, the third, then the fourth! Most gladiators take one weapon at a time, stopping to find the precise moment to dodge each one, but Ormvu seems to have figured it all out at once.
He reaches the mid-platform, where he could ride round a few times to catch his breath. But instead he speeds up, grabbing a whirling horn and throwing his weight forward, putting him dangerously close to death at the hands of a cleaving falchion. But he plants his feet; again, waits just a moment; and dodges forward, past the great blade, past a heavy war hammer from the right, and finally a battle-axe from the left.
Just one double-edged falchion remains, and he stops. He reaches forth a tentative hand, and to the surprise of the crowd, he’s holding one of those playing cards from the arena floor! The falchion slices the card in half, and Ormvu dodges through. Once again, he has beaten the gauntlet. He raises both fists high, and the crowd chants, “OooooormVU! OooooormVU!” The Governor of Games strolls to mid-arena, all smiles to address the crowd.
But a strange thing happens. The ground shudders and jerks violently. It rolls, and the stands around the arena roll with it. People shriek and rise to their feet. One spectator pitches over the fence that separates the crowd from the arena, a knife in his back. Nemsynet is like that.
The ground jerks a few more times and then stops. People murmur, “Earthquake!” Some of them stand where they are, but others run, jamming the exits.
The Governor of Games turns to the chief of the stadium guards looking confused. “Did we do that?”
The guard whispers back. “Umm, no. Calm them, fast.”
The Governor of Games stands tall, and he shows them a smile. “All is well, sit down. This is just a little treat our wizards prepared for you. And now...”
The crowd calms, uncertainly. The Governor of Games whispers back to the Guard chief. “Find out what it was and fix it!” And again, he turns to the crowd. “I know what you’re all waiting for. Bring out the Manglerrrrrr!”
The gladiator known as the Mangler trots out to a chorus of boos. A willowy dark-skinned Tarrian of incredible strength, he swings his two-handed sword over his head like a twig.
The crowd knows all about him. He and Ormvu fought once before, and Ormvu is one of his few opponents who lost without getting killed. The fans scream a flurry of numbers, betting gold on the outcome. It may be a lucrative afternoon for some.
Two fans in the stadium are neither booing nor betting. “We need him. I’m confident of that,” Rehn’Vali says to Quarro. “Ormvu may be a showman, he has the charisma for that. But what timing! His skills are wasted here. He could lead our forces against the Ravager.”
“He’s been fighting here for years. What makes you think you can persuade him to do anything else?” says Quarro.
“I’ll meet him in the gladiator pens. First, please take this package, it should be enough for the purchase” she says smiling.
- - -
Ormvu comes to, nauseous and in pain. A sawbones stares down into his face. The gladiator feels a flash of anger, and he clenches a fist trying to control himself.
“What day is it?” the sawbones asks.
“What difference does it make?” he growls angrily.
“You stubborn dimwit. What is your name, then?”
“You know my name. Everybody knows my name.” He smiles.
“You have to say it, or else you’re not fit to go out there again. Your name.”
Ormvu looks puzzled. “Did I win? The Mangler?”
“You don’t remember? It looked like you could never get past his great sword to land a blow. Your khopesh flashed, here, there, never close. You dodged some wicked blows.”
“I wanted to KILL him.”
“You ducked through the Tarrian’s guard and managed to give him a push with the blunt end of your weapon. That just angered him. He cut your leg. It’s bad- still bleeding. But then...”
“But then,” Ormvu said. “TELL ME?”
“Well, suddenly your khopesh was in your right hand. How do you do that? It was in your left, then it’s in your right. He wheeled to face it, but you hooked his sword and you pulled. He dragged his sword free to prepare a blow, but he forgot about your left hand. And you—”
“I remember.” The hobgoblin made a nasty grin. “My left arm looped down and crushed his head. And the crowd! They chanted my name!”
“Well, that’s how you broke it,” the sawbones said. “You staggered about in pain just long enough to be declared the winner, the Mangler lying half dead on the ground, and then you passed out. I’ve tried to splint it for you. Give it a few moons, maybe your arm’ll heal correctly. You can’t go back out there, you can’t defend yourself.”
Ormvu filled with rage. His skin turned deep green, and the sawbones shrank back out of reach. “Easy, easy. I’m just telling you how it is.”
The gladiator tried a calming breath and narrowed his lips, and some of his anger drained away. “I’m going back out there. I’ve never fought a mammoth. This could be my only chance.”
“It’s your no-chance,” said the sawbones. “You’re not fit to fight.”
- - -
Back in the stadium, the crowd was getting ugly. The Governor called for quiet, then consulted with a man in a bizarre, yellow peaked hat. Smiling, he turned back to the crowd, “And now, for your enjoyment, H’vra-et, the Quake Bringer!” He delighted in his quick thinking, blaming the beast for the strange quake that had occurred earlier.
They let the mammoth loose, and she charged into the arena. The Governor’s quickly made-up title struck fire in the stands. Half the crowd yelled, “H’vra” while the rest yelled “OooooormVU!”
She was an adolescent, standing three times as tall as a man. Some brave soul had climbed up her trunk to paint a fiery red snake on her face. Her legs were taller than the fence at the edge of the stands, and her tusks were almost as long as her legs. She ran around the perimeter, reaching her trunk into the stands, smacking fans. She sucked up card decks and spit them high into the air, where they fluttered down among the sand. She kicked at the fence, knocking a dozen boards flat. It took a crowd of guards using hooks and bludgeons to persuade the beast to move toward the arena’s center.
And then Ormvu came out, and the guards melted away. The full crowd chanted his name, but when they saw how he approached the mammoth, they groaned.
His left arm was bound to his body by a rope. He walked slowly, limping, keeping his weight off his right leg. A lumpy bandage surrounded that lower leg, stained with blood. The crowd went silent.
Ormvu faced the mammoth. She regarded him and swung her trunk, knocking him to the ground. She bellowed and charged but he rolled away and scrambled to the side, pushing himself up with a groan.
Ormvu stayed close to her, and he kept moving, making the great beast shift her weight to confront him. And he waved his sparkling khopesh, darting in and back, not getting close enough to make contact or to take another whack from that trunk. The crowd wondered: What could the wounded Curse of Chembris do?
Ormvu was thinking that he had tricked her. He could move faster than she had shown. He ignored his pain, dodging quickly, raising an Oooo! from the crowd. She turned, but he wasn’t there! He was almost behind her, where he could strike low, under her side. Once he got the beast to bleed heavily, he could wait her out, wait for her to sink and fall.
But the gladiator wasn’t so foolish as to dig in at his first opportunity. He needed to know what the beast could do, how it would react to a hit. So, he dashed in, punched with the blunt tip of his weapon, and dodged back.
The mammoth reacted, raising a leg for a kick, but Ormvu was already out of range. H’vra-et faced him. Her eyes sparkled, and she nodded her great head, as if she were a human adversary, acknowledging a skillful hit. But this was just a beast, wasn’t it?
He tried the same maneuver again. But with a great effort, H’vra-et spun far enough to keep him face to face. Had the beast caught onto his trick that fast? He feinted the same maneuver and dodged the other way, ignoring a new wave of pain. The mammoth was fooled, and her other side was exposed. He went in again with a khopesh punch, carefully watching the beast’s leg and trunk, to make sure of how he would need to escape after digging in for the crippling wound.
She kicked and swung her trunk in response, and now Ormvu could judge the limits of her reach. He faced her again, planning his finale. He would rake the beast’s belly, spilling a lot of blood. And yet, he marveled. For every attack, he would have to try something different. The mammoth always caught on to him at once. Surely her mind was not faster than most of the humans he had fought?
She eyed him again, nodded, and briefly bent her knees. It reminded him of his last bout with his own master, who had honed Ormvu’s skills. A burst of anger filled him. This was a beast!
He moved again, making a double feint. But before he could close in, the mammoth dropped down on her belly and bellowed, swinging her trunk.
Ormvu laughed then. How clever! It protected its vulnerability, but if he moved quickly, he could approach its unprotected rear. He circled, faster than the mammoth could twist to face him. It divined his intent, and rose to its feet, even as he prepared to slice. The crowd saw Ormvu’s plan, and he heard shouts of encouragement as he closed in.
His khopesh flashed between the mammoth’s legs, but he held it back, barely touching. There were murmurs form the crowd. What had gone wrong? Why hadn’t Ormvu cut the beast?
She granted a respite, turned, and swung her trunk at Ormvu again. How many of those trunk hits could a hobgoblin survive? The crowd gasped.
But there was no hit. The mammoth now held back, raised her head, and gave Ormvu another nod.
He shook his head in amazement. “Queen of beasts!” he said. “My animal friend! You do not understand my words, but we understand each other!” He stood right in front of the Quake Bringer, and she did not attack him. Ormvu began, slowly and painfully, to unwrap the long, thick rope that held his left arm pinned to his body.
The crowd was uneasy now, and the stadium guards spread out, fearing an uprising. Some of them yelled, “Kill it!” while others yelled, “Coward Ormvu! Coward!”
After all, their precious gold was on the line. The gladiator, who had so often worked crowds into a frenzy, paid them no attention. When the rope was free, his left arm hung awkwardly.
Ormvu stepped close to H’vra-et and patted her trunk. He knotted his rope around a tusk. It was a flimsy bond, but the mammoth made no attempt to get free. She raised her trunk and trumpeted an impressive, high, clear tone that quieted the arena. Ormvu took the end of the rope and gently tugged. The mammoth took a step in response.
He led her to the gauntlet. Many in the crowd now realized what was happening, and they began to cheer. Close to the gauntlet now, she reached in with her trunk and knocked a massive war hammer to the ground. Ormvu laughed, and the crowd laughed with him. She picked up the hammer and easily flung it halfway across the arena, dispersing the crowd of guards there. The crowd cheered, and the mammoth bent her knees in response.
Then a surprising thing occurred. She acted swiftly, surprising even Ormvu. She swung her trunk between his legs, then lifted him up, planting The Curse of Chembris astride her back! Ormvu raised his good fist and the crowd went wild, tossing coins and gambling cards into the arena.
The Governor ran into the arena, proclaiming, “H’vra-et has yielded to Ormvu. A great victory! The Quake Bringer lives to fight another day!”
Ormvu lifted his right fist high, and she responded by raising her trunk and curling it to resemble the gladiator’s fist. The crowd thundered and cheered for a long time. Nemsynet is like that, too.
Ormvu gestured, quieting the crowd, still on her back. “Governor!” he called. “I say this noble beast need never fight again. Give her the good life she deser...”
In a flash of impatience, the Governor interrupted: “It shall be considered in time, Master Gladiator. Let us recognize our Champion, Ormvu!”
The crowd’s response drowned out all other noise and Ormvu could scarcely hear his own labored breathing. The duo was led quickly away, while all the crowd stamped their feet to honor them. Once inside, Ormvu was separated from the beast.
The sawbones was waiting there. “You fool, your left arm has to heal. Don’t play around with it like that.”
“I won, didn’t I?” says Ormvu. “I’m still alive. You were wrong.”
“He was wrong because you are one in a million,” said a woman’s stern voice. “I am Rehn’Vali, one of the councilors who rule Dria. You and I must make plans.”
“My Lady.” Ormvu gave her a small, stiff bow. It was all his injured body could manage.
The sawbones said, “Even a counselor, with great respect, My Lady, can wait for a hero’s wounds to be salved. Give us some time.” He led Ormvu back to his table, got him to lie down, and ministered to his arm.
Rehn’Vali followed them, uninterested in waiting. “We shall talk here because time is short. Ormvu, Curse of Chembris, I’d like you to consider joining us. We lead a group to face a titan: the Ravager of Shurax.”
Ormvu chuckled between gasps of pain. “The Ravager. A myth.”
“Did you feel the earth tremble today? That was the Ravager. I carry proof. It is time for you to leave your life as a gladiator and become a true hero. I offer you ten thousand gold now and more later.”
Ormvu did his best to make a deferential nod, a challenge since he was lying down. “My lady, ten thousand gold convinces me you are serious, but to me it means nothing. My life is here. I love it. The people love me. As soon as I heal, I’ll win again and they’ll talk about me for years. How does that match up against some chance to fight a Ravager?”
“How many years will they chant your name? Ten... Twenty?”
Ormvu closed his eyes. “I’ve never given it a thought. Twenty, surely.”
“Think. After you kill the Ravager, you’ll be Ormvu the Exalted, Champion of Shurax, well-known for a thousand years.”
“A thousand!” he says. “I would be the one who killed the Desert Bringer, the Ravager of Shurax. They will sing of my deeds.”
“You’ll join us, then?” Rehn’Vali says with a smile.
“One condition: I will ride into battle on the back of H’vra-et. The Quake Bringer will deal the Ravager a taste of its own terror. Procure her for me.”
She smiled brightly, “I purchased her before the event.”
“Noscal, did you know the oasis was just over that last dune?” Rehn’Vali’s eyes gleamed, showing approval. “We’re fortunate to reach it, we can restock our water supply and rest awhile.”
“I can lead you anywhere I’ve already been, my lady.” Noscal was impressed by Rehn’Vali’s sense of command. Like many Janni women, she radiated poise, certainty, and athletic beauty. Golden-eyed, her skin was bronzed from hours of target practice with her tall, composite bow. But nothing compared to her sense of purpose.
The woman turned her attention to Quarro. “So then, we’re after Ravager Crystals. Ormvu is late. He told you he was only a day behind us?”
Quarro, Noscal’s chief assistant, stroked his neat goatee, looking worried. A Drian, he was fully bald at age 33, taller than Noscal and shorter than Rehn’Vali. “My lady, yes, but that was a week ago. The mammoth has a care for his injuries, she walks slowly. I cannot say when he will come.”
“Very well.” Rehn’Vali chuckled. “We’ll await the Quake Bringer and her pet gladiator. Until then, let us speak of our goal.” She pointed east beyond the oasis, where a distant tower of jagged crystal sparkled in the sun. It was easily ten miles away, yet it stood taller than anything else on the broken horizon. “That remnant is where Illum once stood?”
Noscal’s face flashed red with fury. “We watched the beast destroy an entire people there, and we were helpless to intervene. That light,” he pointed at a tiny speck of brightness atop the tower. “The sun reflects off it, baking the land in near-impassible heat. It may be difficult to approach it now.”
“Indeed,” said Rehn’vali, “but we must, and we will. Our goal is to gather as much of the crystal as we can, and perhaps we can even bring the structure down. Maybe we can find something of use against the monster.”
That afternoon, while the caravan restocked their food and water, Quarro looked out across the dusty barrens. “Look there, far off.”
Rehn’vali smiled. “Our fearless duo!”
H’vra-et, the Shuraxian mammoth, made her way to camp in a stately walk that out-paced any running human. The great beast lifted Ormvu down from her back and then bent her knees in a deferential bow. Ormvu leaped forward and spread his arms. “Here I am, healthy and whole. Did you miss me?” Without awaiting a reply, he smiled, showing his canines. “You did, didn’t you. You’d be amazed at how far I can see, riding atop her.”
“Bet we saw you first,” Quarro said. “You can’t miss her. Raiders wouldn’t miss her either. She’s a prize to be taken down in the desert. Raiders are common, here.”
Ormvu looked determined. “They’ll have to deal with me first. I’ll be on my guard.”
“All of you, draw close,” Rehn’Vali said. “We must discuss tomorrow’s journey.” Her golden eyes sparkled as she outlined their plan. “Quarro obtained one of the Drian packs while in Nemsynet, the kind that open into dimensional space. Thank you, sir.” She held up the bag of holding. “It will carry the crystals. Any amount of them. Noscal, how should we approach the Remnant?”
“Crystals tear off the hide of the beast when it tunnels back under the earth, leaving a great jagged tower behind in its wake. The crystals absorb light during the day and grow very hot, affecting the land around it. We should get as close as we can, wait for nightfall, and arrive at the tower as the heat dissipates.”
Quarro raised one finger to make a point. “Few have visited a Remnant, but in Nemsynet I heard that a legion of men did. Only one survived the sickness from the crystals’ heat and light. Look at this, even I have suffered from carrying a crystal.” He took off his gloves and lifted his sleeves, revealing densely scaled skin that shimmered in a pattern of ivory and bronze. “These appeared after I journeyed from Dria. It has even spread to my chest.”
Ignoring Quarro’s odd plight, the hobgoblin broke in. “So then, we get in fast, we hit it hard enough to shatter pieces from it, then we leave. Got it. Quake Bringer and I are ready!” He turned to H’vra-et.
“Ormvu...” Rehn’Vali reached up and tapped his shoulder. “Your mammoth would perish from that heat. She will stay here to protect the others. It’ll be just the four of us, moving in as fast as possible.” The Janni half-expected a fight from the stubborn gladiator, but he grinned instead.
“Sounds like an excuse to get rid of my partner. But yes, your advice is wise. Good, she will protect the oasis. Can we leave now?” He stared down into her golden eyes, a playful smile across his sharp-toothed face. Quarro and Noscal felt Ormvu’s bravery lift a weight from their hearts, but seeing him flirt with such a beauty was simply too much. It was all they could do not to laugh.
The group of four set off next day at noon. Moving in the heat was difficult, a challenge that cost them time and water, leaving them sweaty and exhausted.
They halted at dusk and took inventory of their location. The tower stood some two miles away, bent slightly, fragile looking, white and yellow and glowing red. The ground here was warm, and—so near to the remnant—it had suffered. Massive fissures opened in the rock and great rends tore into land that was once a flat expanse.
They rested for hours, waiting for the glow of the crystals to diminish. A new moon hung low in the sky, and it would have been quite dark had it not been for the fierce glow of the still-cooling remnant. Gathering their gear, they made their way closer. While they stumbled through difficult terrain, a crimson fog rose and surrounded the tower, blocking the moonlight and shrouding them in half-darkness. The air grew heavier and oppressive as they drew near.
“We aren’t alone! We’re surrounded!” Ormvu pointed out a horde of newcomers, cursing with frustration that he hadn’t noticed them sooner. Had he not been so concerned with losing his footing, he wouldn’t have been taken by surprise.
The strangers circled them quickly. It was a curious group, humans and ork-kind, every one of them mutated in some remarkable way. The woman who faced Ormvu swished her amber scorpion’s tail, dripping greenish poison. A pair flanked Noscal, each with an extra arm, and one had an extra eye in the center of his chest. Others were covered in scales similar to Quarro’s. A thin and gangly fellow had long talons and a beak, and stood three times the height of a normal man.
“Must we fight?” Quarro asked. Ormvu drew his khopesh, cautiously pointing it down.
The crowd cleared a path for their leader to approach. He was duneborn, one of a race born to the desert. He was hairless and short, but these features were not what made him extraordinary. Thin lines of sand dripped unceasingly from cracks in his dry skin. A purple glow from the unblinking eye centered in his forehead shrouded him, and this glow coalesced into extra arms.
Ormvu held out his own arm to protect his group, but Rehn’vali signaled for calm. “Who are you people?” she asked.
Rehn’vali, Ormvu, Noscal and Quarro all heard a voice dry as dust in their minds. The mutants, judging from their reactions, heard it too. “I am Banst, the Unseer, and we are the Kindred, reborn in the red light. You’ve come too far, and for that you may pay the price of deathly illness. You are in danger of losing yourselves here. Tell me your purpose. Why make the trek to this desolate place?”
Banst opened his mouth, awkwardly showing that he had no tongue. A hush and a pall fell upon the place.
The hobgoblin responded. “We are the Ravager’s Scorn. I am Ormvu, the Champion of Shurax. I am here to slay the Ravager.”
Rehn’Vali suppressed a groan and gently pulled Ormvu’s shoulder. She did not care for his idea of diplomacy.
“This is our home. His crystals bring us new life. Why kill him?” As Banst spoke, his people inched forward, looking ready to attack.
“Do you not know what occurs when the Ravager strikes?” Noscal said. “We saw hundreds die here when he destroyed it. How can you—”
“Rehn’Vali laid a hand on Noscal’s arm and looked into the leader’s eyes. “Sir Banst, it will always be thus, when the Ravager surfaces: hundreds killed who have no way to resist. We desire some of these crystals, to study them. It isn’t our intention to kill the beast if we can help it. Would you consider helping us?”
Banst turned away and evidently consulted his people. There was no sound. Perhaps he was reading their thoughts. At last many of his people nodded approval and the crowd departed, leaving the newcomers alone with their leader.
“It is as you say, woman. We understand the Ravager brings death. Our people can live a hundred generations on the crystals here, but you must leave our home undisturbed. Do not touch the tower! It has become ours. You may gather the crystals around its base, but know that they will deeply sicken you.”
The four of them approached the tower and scouted the ground for loose crystals. They were a challenge to gather, but with concentration and mighty effort, they freed many to drop into their magical pack. They had spent two hours gathering when Quarro groaned. “Oh, no. The sun rises, we must leave!”
A shimmer of light illuminated the crystals atop the tower, heralding the sun’s rise. “I saw this happen from afar,” Quarro said desperately. “We are lost if we do not hurry!”
“Lost to such little light? We have time,” Ormvu said.
But even as he spoke, the greatest crystals atop the tower picked up the sunlight, growing brighter and brighter. The air turned hot, and then uncomfortably hot. Soon they would be bathed in the heat and light of a dozen suns.
Rehn’Vali cursed, then called for everyone to begin their trek back.
As she spoke, they heard Banst again in their heads: “Take my way, it is the only way.” They had not seen him, but a complex route appeared in their minds: a short walk to a great rend in the land, not terribly deep, but hundreds of feet wide. It led to an underground cavern with a small pool of liquid, and from there, to a narrow tunnel leading west.
“Catacombs!” Noscal said with excitement. “We have always known that some of the Ravager tunnels become complex catacombs.”
Hundreds of dust swells rose about the fiery tower and streamed after them. Ormvu reached the entrance first, followed closely by Rehn’Vali. Noscal and Quarro were last, and by the time they arrived, they could barely breathe.
Banst appeared from inside the rift and pointed the way down. “You must hurry.”
“Quickly!” said Rehn’Vali, as the tunnel itself heated up. Ormvu followed Banst, and the others followed Ormvu.
“Lady,” Ormvu said. “Your instincts were sound. She would have died here. I owe you thanks!”
“The way goes down,” Rehn’Vali said smiling. “It’ll be cooler ahead. There may even be water.” She lit a torch and put her arm around Quarro, helping him forward. Their tunnel twisted and wound deeper under the earth, and for some time they traveled.
Banst showed them to a small pool, where they rested and restored some strength.
“The scales on my arms are hardening,” Quarro said. “I’m not sure if it is a good thing or bad thing!” The others looked at him in astonishment. He was now covered from head to toe in the strange scales, looking more like dragonkind than human.
Banst spoke once more: “You’ve been born anew in the red light. Welcome to the Kindred.”
A Grim Discovery
Ormvu led Rehn’Vali, Noscal, and Quarro through the winding tunnel. They all marveled at the thick scales growing out of Quarro’s arms.
“We’re near the oasis, I sense the moisture,” Ormvu shouted. The fearless hobgoblin rushed ahead into the darkness that the half-jinn’s torch did not yet penetrate.
The group caught up to him staring down at a chasm that blocked their way. Rehn’Vali held her torch high. Their tunnel continued a good twenty feet beyond the gap. Noscal took a stone and dropped it. It bounced on unseen rock, more than a second later.
“That’s a deep gap,” Quarro said. “A slow climb. If I can anchor a rope, we can go straight across.” He took a four-pronged grapnel out of his pack, tied it to a rope, and hurled its heavy end far across the gap. Then he carefully dragged it toward him, exulting when it stuck fast. He gave the rope a great yank, and it held. “Now we climb.”
Ormvu gave pause. “No, no, look down. There are fresh footprints down there. I could see them before Rehn’s torch arrived. Someone’s down there!”
Rehn’Vali leaned down and shined her torch across the chasm. On its far side, less than twenty feet below, they could see the top of a massive archway lined with salmon-colored marble whose blue-black veins seemed to run down to the bottom.
Noscal exhaled a long breath. “It’s one of the great, lost grottoes. I wonder if Banst knew about it. What a find! They hold great treasures. Even if none of its wonders can help us against the Ravager, we must see it. Quarro, help me down.”
“Can we do it quickly?” Quarro asked. “I’m feeling queasy, just need to rest a while. Let’s get to the oasis soon, maybe see what can be done for my scaly arms.”
Rehn’Vali ignored him. “Fresh footprints, Ormvu? What ever is going on down there? It’s a risk, but I think we better see.”
Quarro gave her a plaintive look and bowed his head.
“My good man, I think you’ll be fine,” she said. “But suppose there’s a robber below, intent on plundering something. Something we might… need?” She was resolute, and Quarro understood.
She took a rope of her own and knotted it firmly around a nearby boulder. “As tall as a giant; must be enough. We can scale down now and go across later.”
“I may lack the strength,” Noscal said. “I haven’t scaled a rock face in thirty years.”
Quarro sighed and picked him up. He grabbed the rope and began the descent, saying, “Lady, you better be right.”
Ormvu followed, and Rehn’Vali ran down the sheer surface like a dancer, her torch aloft. At the bottom, she held it high and they all gasped the entry’s magnificence. Hard rock had been cut away to make a sparkling arch.
“My mammoth could walk right through there!” Ormvu said.
The floor was checkered with carnelian and schist. Blue lapis inset in the floor depicted a snakelike form. Noscal pointed: “That’s not a snake. Someone drew the Ravager’s likeness here.”
A dim light beckoned through the opening. “Ormvu, take the lead and follow those footsteps for us,” Rehn’Vali said. She and Ormvu passed under the archway, Noscal following.
“I hate to leave our ropes here,” Quarro said. “What if they’re gone when we return?” But if he stayed, he’d soon be alone in pitch blackness, so he followed.
The path under the archway took two quick sharp twists into a vast chamber alight with torches. Rehn’Vali said. “These were all lit today. By whom?”
“Whoever it is, he’s in trouble,” Ormvu said. “Listen!”
They did, but only Ormvu could hear. “Hey- I know that voice,” he said smirking. He ran forward, pushing through an ajar door leading out of the chamber. The others ran after him down a long tunnel.
They could hear shouts in a Phororan dialect. “Wait. Stop!” Rehn’Vali said. “It may be a trap.” But Ormvu charged around another corner. She shrugged. “We’d better follow. He’s going to need help.”
The next tunnel was dark and narrow. They ducked to avoid its low ceiling, all of them wondering how someone as large as Ormvu had gotten through it. It was a miasma of clicking and clacking, the noise of thousands of legs skittering across stone, and smelled an acrid, pasty smell that made them gag. The tunnel opened into an immense, round room with a thirty-foot-wide pit at its center. Atlas Beetles crawled around the pit, most of them bigger and longer than a man’s thumb. Ormvu stood at its edge.
“Help,” a man cried. “It’s hard to breathe down here.”
Ormvu stretched out to look down. He lost his balance and teetered on the edge. His head slipped down out of sight, but Quarro and Rehn’Vali grabbed his legs and held him steady.
“That’s a friend down there,” Ormvu said, and he pointed. They could all see a tall warrior covered in beetles, swatting at them, reaching for a dangling rope that was just out of his reach. The top end of the rope seemed suspended in space, a few feet from the edge of the pit.
“Hold me tight,” Ormvu cried, and he reached, reached, far out to grab the rope. It was a magical thing. It coiled itself around his arm, and its other end extended and dropped lower to the ground. The man in the pit managed to grab it, and he jumped and pulled himself to climb out.
“Hold on!” Ormvu yelled, but Quarro and Rehn’Vali were ready, holding steady while Omvu helped the newcomer up.
The man crawled out, and Ormvu clapped him on the back. “Caeledd, old friend, I never thought to find a Templar in such an awful place!”
The man brushed the remaining beetles off his tunic and announced, “Caeledd al Tul, Templar of the fourth order of the Agra, and...uh...possibly rather foolhardy, at your service. Kismet favors me this day, I see.”
“Rehn’Vali, councilor to Dria, at your service, sir Caeledd. You had great luck, we just happened to notice this grotto on our way past. What are you doing here?”
“Is this indeed, one of the lost grottoes?” Noscal asked.
“It’s not lost to me,” Caeledd said. “I’ve known where it was for eighteen months and more. Our people have been excavating this place. But two months ago, all correspondence from them ceased. I came to investigate. I climbed down to the bottom of our excavation, and that’s when the pit just opened and dropped me into it, and then the swarm appeared out of nowhere.”
“Where’s your excavation, then?” said Noscal. “No sunlight reaches us from above, and no sign of them at the surface.”
“It may have been blocked, the ground has been shifting much lately. But we’re here now. There’s a great library nearby! Or at least, there was.”
“Of course, of course,” Noscal said. “We thought to find something, a powerful artifact perhaps.”
“It’s the library I seek,” said the Templar. “Do you know of the new danger that threatens us all, the Ravager? Scholars believe that it may claim each of the cities, in turn.”
“We saw the monster destroy the city of Illum,” Noscal said.
Caeledd’s eyes widened.”There’s no doubt it’s awake, then. I must tell Librarian Ree and report back to the Agra. One of these old libraries holds a tome about the titans of our world, one is described as “an ancient creature that created the desert.” I’m certain it will reveal secrets about the Ravager, possibly telling us how to destroy it. Let’s find it!”
“Search with care,” Rehn’Vali said. “Watch for more traps.”
They looked around, but there was no other way out of the round room. After some time examining a panel in the far section of the room, Noscal began tapping the wall behind them. “There must be a hidden door in here somewhere.”
They all started tapping and knocking, and suddenly a wall opened to reveal a thin corridor of stairs heading upwards. After some time, they came to another vaulted room lined with many empty shelves. They each spread out and passed down an isle, and then met at the center of the room. A single dusty book was all that remained in the room.
“This must be it,” Caeledd whispered. As they crossed the center threshold, a puff of black acrid smoke whirled between them and the shelving. It plumed and then disappeared, revealing a tall, black-robed, black-turbaned sorcerer with glowing eyes.
“You fools should not have come here,” he said. His voice sounded dark, remote, terrifying. “This place doesn’t suffer the living!” He raised his arms to cast a spell.
“Circle him, carefully,” Rehn’Vali commanded. She fired her arrows, while Ormvu, Caeledd and Quarro encircled the man. Her volley came fast enough to interrupt his spell, but he turned into a wraith, disappearing and reappearing a few feet to one side. The half-jinn kept drawing and firing while the wraith jumped again and again to avoid her arrows.
The sorcerer resumed a rotted and very much undead human form to conjure a quick spell. They all felt the energy drain out of them, and they had to drag themselves to keep the villain surrounded.
Noscal hung back near Caeledd. He had taken out a small flask, from which he spilled drops of poison on his short dagger.
Rehn’Vali was firing arrows more slowly now, while the adventurers tried to get in close for a safe attack.
“My last arrow,” Rehn’Vali said. “Quickly, now!”
Her arrow struck the sorcerer in his side. He plucked it out, grimacing at the pain. “No one injures Magnus Grim! Gypsy, you die first!”
He waved his arms in a savage spell. Noscal faced Grim’s back. He dove forward and plunged his dagger into the sorcerer. But his strike was off. Grim spun to face him and took the knife-slash on his wrist. He never touched Noscal, but the spell he had prepared for Rehn’Vali found a new target, and Noscal fell like a grain sack to the floor.
Ormvu and Caeledd charged Grim. He turned into a wraith again, popping a few feet away from them but close to Quarro, who gave the thing a mighty shove to force it back toward his comrades.
Ormvu knew what to do. He yanked hard at the wraith’s neck with his Khopesh, and the creature turned back into its awful human form. Caeledd’s sword slashed through the air, cutting the vile creature’s head off. The short, tense battle was over.
Quarro shook his hands in pain. “I’ll never touch a wraith again. That thing was monstrous cold.” He knelt at Noscal’s lifeless body. “My dear master! He only faced you for an instant. I should have taken that blow.”
Noscal groggily opened his eyes. The whites of his eyes looked yellow as sand, but that yellow faded quickly to white, as his eyes opened in fright.
“You’re alive,” Rehn’Vali said. “I sure thought Grim killed you.” She looked at the others. “We’re lucky to know its name. Anyone hear of this Grim?”
“The...the...there’s nothing about him in any of the archives,” Noscal stuttered as if he were dealthy cold. The others just shook their heads.
Caeledd seized the one book on the shelves. “It’s in a foreign tongue. I can’t read it, but the Librarian Ree might.”
“Let me see,” said Rehn’Vali. “Hmm. Yes, we’ll have to take this book to the scholars.”
“There have to be more books,” Caeledd said. “There just have to!” In frustration, he pounded on the empty shelves, and then he stood back in amazement as books began to appear, here, there, on high shelves and low, until the library was full of books thin, thick, and tall, all shapes and sizes.
“Hmm, an illusion. You’ve got the touch, Caeledd,” Rehn’vali said. “We need to examine these. Who knows what else we can use.”
“Books…” Noscal said, his thought trailing off.
“He and I will be of no use here,” Quarro said. “I’ll take him back to the surface, tell the others what we’ve found here.”
“Good plan,” Rehn’Vali said. She let him get half way down the stairs before shouting back “Quarro, be careful!”
Ormvu, Rehn’Vali and Caeledd split up to examine the tomes. Ormvu was looking at one that had great pictures of weapons, and descriptions of their use. He looked deep in thought while looking at its images. Caeledd suddenly screamed with delight. “I’ve found it! Look at this one. There’s a picture of the Ravager on the spine, and its title: The Titans of the Old World”!
During a rare rain-squall near the oasis, our heroes took refuge in the main tent. Caeledd opened the second book they had found in the library, turning quickly to the seventh page. “Look at this!”
“I see children’s pictures,” Orvu grumbled.
“Ancient hieroglyphs,” Rehn'Vali said. “We need to take this book to Phorora. I’m sure librarian Ree will be able to read it.”
“I can read some of it myself,” said the Templar. “Look at this page. This little picture, Ormvu, means ‘Ravager’. It says here: The Ravager is one of the protectors of the world.”
“Protector, my foot!” Quarro said. “If it does to the rest of the world what it did to Illum, it can protect all the desert sand it wants.”
“But it also says the Ravager is one of the titans,” said Calaedd.
“Right,” Noscal said. “I’ve heard gypsies tell this story. Doesn’t legend say there were three of them?”
“That makes sense,” Rehn'Vali said. “Three titans were the world’s protectors in Janni lore. In time of old, when they were no longer needed, they were put into a deep slumber. None knows how or where. Caeledd, if the Ravager is a titan, why is it wreaking destruction?”
The Templar sighed. “I managed to read something on the next page as well.” He turned to the next leaf and pointed. “A god, or someone good, will awaken a titan and direct it. Titans don’t wake up on their own.”
Rehn'Vali nodded. “Someone found the means to wake the Ravager. And can’t control it, or won’t. Maybe Ree can suggest what we should do.”
“Now look at this,” the Templar said, pointing to the same page. “Its crystals can be purified in some way. And if I’m reading this correctly, they might be used to quiet the monster.”
“How would we use them?” she asked.
“I’m just guessing, from a hint in the text. I think the crystals might put it back to sleep.”
“A possibility,” said Rehn'Vali. “That would be excellent.”
“Put it to SLEEP?” Orvu raged. “That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard. What happens the next time it wakes? I was LOVED in the arena, and I treasured every victory. I didn’t give that up to put something to sleep! What happened to Ormvu the Exalted, Champion of Shurax?? You promised the people would sing my name!”
“Easy, Ormvu, easy,” Rehn'Vali said. “Maybe the book will tell us how to kill it. It might be easier to kill the thing once it’s asleep.”
“Kill a sleeping Ravager??” Ormvu said. “Oh, I can just imagine people singing my praises for that. I might as well get fame for killing babies. I don’t like this. You can serenade the Ravager on your own. I’m leaving.”
“Please, don’t give up,” Rehn said. “Look, take some time to think about this.”
“Friend!” Caeledd addressed the grumpy hobgoblin. “Let’s have some good sport, and then you can decide. We’ll head back to the grotto. There’s likely more to find there. We were in too much of a hurry before. And think about this: suppose you can pacify the Ravager? How long will people sing about that?”
Caeledd turned to Noscal. “There’s still likely to be a great artifact down there, don’t you think?”
Noscal’s eyes flashed an eerie yellow, smiling before he closed them in thought. “You might find my treasure down there. In grottoes, rings are often hidden under the books. Dig under the shelves, see what you find.”
Ormvu looked at Rehn'Vali. “If I find an artifact down there, may I keep it?”
“I can’t promise without knowing what it is,” she said. “But if you find it, that will be greatly to your credit.”
Quarro was staring at Noscal, looking perplexed. “Noscal, did you say: My treasure?”
Noscal shook his head hard, like someone waking from a dream. “I don’t think so. Why would I say that? Something valuable is likely to be there. The grottoes you know...fine hiding places.”
Rehn and Noscal discussed the caravan’s next moves, and the journey to get them to Phorora. While Noscal made preparations, Ormvu fed and tended to the great mammoth. “Good H’vra-et, we’ll see action soon enough,” he said. “Wait for me.” Then he and Caeledd left the oasis for the grotto.
Noscal, Quarro, and Rehn'Vali prepared to leave, along with twenty helpers and a dozen camels carrying food and equipment. The sun slowly sank, a welcome sight for the travelers, because darkness would make travel easier. But in the twilight, forty men crept close and rushed the oasis from all sides.
“Rehn, we’re surrounded!” Quarro said.
“We’re outnumbered,” Rehn looked worried. “Don’t try to fight them, it’s kismet.”
“Surrender!” an angry, coarse voice called out. As the attackers closed in with raised scimitars, a squat gray pony cantered up, carrying a dwarf arrayed in many folds of brown and red fabric.
“Surrender for your healths, already. Don’t make us fight! We’ll take it out on you if we must.”
Noscal hissed, “It’s old Baal, a Tarrian slaver.”
The dwarf wheeled to face him. “And who is this who claims to know me again?” He anxiously scanned their faces. “I know not one of you blasted strangers. Don’t address me! You are unfit!”
He wheeled his horse again to face the monstrous mammoth. “And what have we here? Five tons of meat? An’drow!” He addressed one of his henchmen. “How long will it take to prepare this night’s meal!?”
“Minutes,” the man answered. But his guards burst into laughter, some of them shouting “Hours,” and others, “Days.”
“I’d hate to leave it here, it’s a right monster,” Baal said. “Just leaving it behind, I’d HATE that.”
“It will follow us,” Quarro said.
Baal sneered. “The mammoth will do that, or your head will eat sand.”
Quarro went up to H’vra-et, patted it the way he had seen Ormvu do, and hoped for the best.
“You are Baal the Enslaver,” Noscal said in disgust.
“And I’ll thank you never to address me, don’t waste my time, halfling!” The dwarf smiled and burst into a volley of harsh laughter. “And what do you know, you’re all my slaves! Oh, and how convenient, you have this handy caravan ready to take you somewhere.”
“Actually—” Rehn'Vali said, but Baal cut her off.
“No, NOT actually. You AREN’T proposing anything anymore. You’ll do what I say, right now, and that’s it. Men, kill a few of these idiots so they know we mean business!”
His attackers drew near, and Rehn said, “All right, you’ve made your point. We surrender.”
“Smart lady,” the dwarf said, and he wheeled his steed around, spurring it to charge straight at her. She easily jumped aside, then addressed her companions, “By surrendering, we might save our lives. Let’s do as the dwarf says.”
“Thank you,” Baal said. “But don’t let me catch you giving any more orders. Or you could give me an order, if you wish. Something like, ‘Please, sir dwarf, cut my throat.’”
Rehn'Vali bowed her head.
Baal’s attackers moved in close, prodding all the people who had planned to go with the caravan. They bound their captive’s arms in giant hair ropes and placed the group in a reasonable travel order.
“Now march, and don’t slow us down,” Baal said. “Laggards, I hate that!”
“Where are you taking us?” Quarro asked.
“SHUT IT!,” Baal boomed. “You’ll find out soon enough that we’re going to Tarri, the only city in the world where I can get a decent night’s sleep, and a great place for you to lug rocks.”
* * *
Ormvu and Caeledd had great luck. They found their way back to the grotto and explored the area with more precision. In the six hours they had searched, they found an old work area with a desk holding a few sheets of parchment, half eaten away by time. Caeledd collected a dozen ancient coins, three of them pure platinum. Ormvu found a ring, amazed that it was just where Noscal had foretold. It hummed in his hands with power when he showed it to Caeledd.
The two discussed their findings as they headed back to the oasis.
“This is strange, it sure doesn’t feel like a coincidence,” Caledd said. “Something more is going on here. How could Noscal know we’d find a ring?”
As they climbed back through the cleft in the rock, Ormvu noted the way Caeledd’s pack bulked and swayed, and he guessed: “Clever fellow! Rehn thinks she’s taking that book to Phorora, but you have it stowed in your pack!”
“I didn’t expect you to notice,” Caeledd said. “I was on my own before you fellows saved me, and I mean to take the book to Phorora myself, to get the whole thing translated. I can move faster across the desert than any traveling caravan.”
“Please don’t let them read it. The Ravager is mine to destroy,” Ormvu said. He was about to plead his case, but at once, Ormvu stopped, sniffing the air. “We’re fools,” he whispered. “The desert’s alive with men here. They must’ve arrived while we were in the tunnel, and they’ve closed in on the oasis. We’ve got to help.”
He and Caeledd snuck back in time to see the caravan moving off. Its sparkling torches illuminated their friends in chains, and also showed the size of the enemy force.
“I’ve got a plan,” Ormvu said. “Help me break through and get to H’vra-et. “She’ll charge them and they’ll all scatter.”
Caeledd looked determined, “Right now it’s more important to get this book translated. Come with me, speed me on my way. We can help them later.”
“How will we know where they are!??” Ormvu shouted angrily.
Caeledd took out a spyglass and handed it to Ormvu. “Look, that’s Baal’s caravan. Note the Tarrian banners. That’s where he’s going. Phorora’s near Tarri, we’ll head there first. This world might hang in the balance.”
Ormvu said, “I won’t leave them. I’ll go alone if I must.”
Caeledd clapped him on the shoulder. “Then so be it. You have my wish for the best luck! May the gods grant their will to you. I’m off!” He stole into the night.
Ormvu knew that Caeledd was no coward. But whatever was important to the Templar now left him alone to rescue his friends. Unsure how to charge the attackers and try to get quick control of his mammoth, he followed them through the night at a safe distance.
At sunbreak, the attackers, the caravan, and all the newly enslaved people settled down, pitching tents for protection against the sun, preparing for a few hours of sleep. The dwarf was everywhere, complaining about their slow work, warning them to eat less or be beaten, and threatening to kill some of the camels and make Rehn’s people carry more meat by hand. As they all lay down to sleep, the ground beneath them began to dance and judder. A half-mile away, the Ravager appeared, its long body slipping emerging as tall as a tower into the sky and coming down in the sand with a pounding smash. It slid a quick five hundred yards toward them and dove back into the ground, leaving crystals everywhere in its wake.
“What if it comes up under us?” Quarro said.
“I like that,” Baal said, quite happy with himself. “Quiver, dragonkin. Be afraid.” Quarro wondered at the dwarf’s next words, gently whispered: “It can’t harm me. I’ve been promised.”
They looked everywhere for the Ravager to appear again, but the ground-shakes slowly eased and stopped.
“That’s my first sighting,” The half jinn said. “Such size. I had no idea.” She reached for the book, seeking some reassurance that the mystery of the Ravager was safe with her. But it was not in her pack! She distinctly remembered Caeledd giving it to her and wondered whether he might have stolen it back. Right now, it would be safer with him in any case. She said nothing, not wanting to betray any information to the dwarf.
On a ledge a hundred yards distant, the hobgoblin also sighted the Ravager for the first time. I’m going to kill that thing, he told himself. But his heart quaked, and his olive skin turned cold. The Ravager was monstrous large. It was much, much bigger than H’vra-et. How would he find a way to kill it?