The Tyrant of Kepala
Book 1, Chapter 5 - Upriver
“Par Tilian, I tell you. That’s where we should go. I happen to know of a lovely place we could go to ground. Shelter! It’s just what our aching bones need!” Wallace mused to nobody in particular. He sat at the boat’s stern and lazily manned the rudder. “We stay this course, we’ll be there in three days’ time.”
“Does he ever shut up?” Zerkanti asked, also to the same nobody in particular. She was crouched amidships meticulously tending to her weaponry.
“It’s been more or less continuous for three days. I think not,” Tala answered. She stood beside Zerkanti, scanning the riverbank, her bow drawn. Echo shared her watch, sitting steadfastly by her side.
From the prow of the boat, a giggle game from Gia, who was huddled beside Rodrigo. She was making gestures at the water, and occasionally a splash of water would punctuate her giddiness. Rodrigo was speaking to her indistinctly, in tones that smacked of playful encouragement.
A heap of clothing stirred at Tala’s feet; Brehon was coming around from a long slumber. “My head hurts,” he groaned. He was now dressed in a strange mix of The Alchemist’s white convalescing robe and the armor he had received from Master Izar. “How long was I out?”
“Half the day, this time,” answered Tala, not breaking her eye line with the shore.
“Doesn’t surprise me, you were nearly done for,” added Zerkanti, not looking up from her work.
Brehon let a moment pass in silence, then said, “Again, my thanks for the aid. I had no idea I had been wounded.”
“Wounded and nearly done for by the look of you!” belted Wallace. “You have these stout-hearted compatriots of yours to thank for it. And myself, of course. And believe you me, they risked life and limb to see to it they didn’t leave a good man behind.”
“Remind me who you are again, good sir?” Brehon said, sounding unusually confused.
“I am Sir Wallace Tilian, young man. And I knew your father, the great Wodan, hero of the Liberation of Sira Zelaad. You come from legendary stock, my boy. That’s how I know this is a company of heroes. That’s why I travel with you now. We seek shelter from The Empty One’s bootlickers while we plan our next move.”
“He comes on a bit strong, but you get used to it,” said Rodrigo, turning his attention to the rear of the boat, keeping a hand on Gia’s shoulder. “He fights well. Better than you. And he helped to get us out of that backwater town where we almost ended up dead.”
“No thanks to your so-called friend,” Zerkanti jabbed.
“It wasn’t my fault! How could I have known?” Rodrigo protested.
“I suppose we should know better than to trust your reference in the future,” Tala spat.
“Leave him alone!” shot Gia. She had sat bolt upright with fury in her eyes. “If it weren’t for him we’d all still be rotting in an Imperial Jail or burned up in that observatory, or worse! You ungrateful vipers!”
A hush fell over the boat. The silence between them hung like an anvil over the boat for a long moment. Then Brehon heaved himself around to face the prow. “On behalf of us all, m’lady, I apologize. Of course Mister Rodrigo did not mean anyone any ill will. I, for one, find it in my heart to let any lapses in judgment pass as dust under the bridge as I’m sure they were meant with nothing but the most forthwith of beneficences, and… and…”
“I think our young friend is tired,” chuckled Wallace. “What I’m sure he meant was that we’re all in this together.”
Brehon wheeled his still slightly dazed gaze around to Wallace. “You are a great leader of men,” he said.
“Never mind all that now, we need to settle on a destination,” Rodrigo said, waving a dismissive hand.
“Ironfall,” Zerkanti said absently, still not looking up from her work.
“People, do you never listen? Master Izar said not to go to Ironfall. He warned us about it, saying ‘the place became its name’, whatever that means! Should we not honor the old man’s wishes and stay away from scary places with terrifying things in them?” protested Rodrigo.
“The Prophecy said we must go,” said Tala, facing Rodrigo at last, lowering her bow.
“Prophecy? What prophecy?” asked Brehon, his voice rising.
“It happened while you were out,” said Zerkanti, “we came upon some sages of a, ah, mystical origin who were involved in… a ritual. Upon one of the stones was a prophecy that Tala translated.”
“Translated… from what?” Wallace asked cautiously.
“The old Draconic,” said Tala, reservedly.
Wallace and Brehon let out exasperated sighs simultaneously.
“Now we’re putting stock in Draconic prophecies to guide us?” asked Brehon, incredulously.
“Yes, we are,” Zerkanti hissed at Brehon, her eyes afire.
“And what did this so-called prophecy say, then?” asked Wallace.
Tala waited a moment, and then recited the prophecy again, “_His stolen throne of blood and stone cannot be felled by blade alone. Guard the last of Hunter’s Moon with the crown of Ironfall’s doom_.”
Another long moment passed. Brehon knitted his brow in deep thought. Then Wallace finally broke the silence, “Ironfall’s doom sounds a bit daunting. I’d prefer a nice bed and breakfast near Lake Tilian if it’s all the same.”
Tala’s gaze shifted to the rear of the boat, and she lifted a finger to silence her companions, and they obeyed. She shifted her finger to point aft of the boat, and then the others saw it; a large crocodilian head moved through the water, keeping pace with their craft. Then another head, twin to the first, appeared beside it. It also kept the boat’s pace. Then a third appeared. And a fourth.
“My friends, we do appear to have a crocodile at our prow,” said Rodrigo quizzically. The others wheeled around to see there was indeed a fifth head keeping pace just ahead of the boat. He turned about to see the four others at the rear, and a panicked look overtook him. “Well it isn’t friendly, whatever it is!”
Rodrigo raised his bow and drew back. “No, wait!” Tala screamed.
Rodrigo’s arrow plunked into the water beside the fifth head with a furtive splash, and the crocodile head turned in place. Then the head reared back on a long, serpentine neck. It was no crocodile at all. A wave of terror washed over them all as the remaining four heads also reared back on serpentine stalks of their own and as one hissed a gravelly rattle at the boat’s crew.
Quickly grasping a dagger, Zerkanti flung it at the nearest head. The blade found its mark, but to no apparent effect other than to attract the attention of all the heads which turned as one to face her. Another hissing rattle came from the chorus of serpentine mouths, and from the prow of the boat, Gia screamed in terror as if in answer to a challenge. Instantly she was surrounded by a crackling bubble of otherworldly force, surrounding her in a soft glow.
All of the serpentine heads suddenly snapped downward beneath the surface of the water as though they were being pulled on a single, giant string. For a moment a terrible silence hung over the small vessel. Then the water beneath the boat began to roil and swell.
“Hang onto something!” Rodrigo shouted.
With a violent, yet muffled thud, the bottom of the boat was struck from underneath, lifting all of her passengers into the air and over the side as the craft shuddered amidships, large cracks appearing in the hull. Unable to withstand the strain, the small boat broke in two and began to sink.
The force of the blow had pushed them all toward the banks of the river, and they began to wade ashore in a bedraggled mob, all heading to the location inland where Echo had, by some quirk of fate, appeared, neither wet nor shaken.
From behind them, the five heads once again rose in unison from the water, but now the single body to which they were attached rose from the river underneath them. They bellowed in a chilling keen at the fleeing group who awkwardly scrambled away from the riverbank.
“There!” Brehon shouted, pointing to an old tree with a mass of gnarled roots at its base. Beyond its roots, an ancient stone door appeared in the gloom.
“Get to shelter, go!” shouted Wallace, the last out of the river. He drew his longsword, raised it in front of him, and stood his ground against the many-headed terror that rose on powerful legs from the shallows of the river. The rest of the group scuttled toward the door and one by one darted inside, save Rodrigo, who turned to see Wallace standing alone against the hydra.
“Wallace! Get out of there!” shouted Rodrigo.
Wallace ignored the rogue’s pleas and swung his sword at the nearest throat of the beast, cutting a bloody slash across it. The hydra screeched and three of the heads struck at the old warrior, snapping at his armor. A fine spray of blood arced away from Wallace as the biting jaws pulled back. He cried in agony and fell to one knee.
Rodrigo sprang forward and grabbed his companion by the back of his well-worn leather jerkin. A single serpentine head descended upon him like a lightning bolt, but the young man twisted out of its path and its jaws closed around nothing but river mud. The two men stumbled to their feet and made a break for the doorway, the massive hydra thundering behind them. They leapt through the doorway and landed with a skittering crash on the slick stone floor. A split second later, the full mass of the giant creature slammed into the wall behind them. The old stone broke loose from its settings and collapsed under the shock, barricading the door behind them.
They sat on the cold stones, catching their breath in the darkness, as the sound of the hydra beating against the wall sounded in muffled cacophony outside. Gia raised her hand and a soft glow came from her palm. The shaken and soaked band looked to each other in relief. All were there, all were alive. They breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“What is this place?” Gia wondered aloud.
“It looks like a temple,” Tala said.
“Or a tomb,” said Brehon, gesturing to two large urns on either side of an archway on the far side of the room. They bracketed a door to a darkened hallway, leading down a long passage. The room smelled of mold and ash.
“The only way out is through, looks like,” said Rodrigo.
“This could not be safe,” said Zerkanti.
“Safer than that thing out there,” reasoned Rodrigo. He motioned to Echo, who was staring intrepidly down the hallway. “Look, the dog is fine with it!”
“The wolf, you dolt,” chided Tala.
“See? It’s fine!” said Rodrigo with a shrug.
Brehon, treating Wallace for his wounds, said, “Why was there a boat, again?”
His question went unanswered as the band of adventurers walked silently into the darkness, lit only by the light that shone from the young princess.
They moved down the dank hallway with Zerkanti in the lead, her elven eyes undeterred by the dark. The scent of ash grew more intense in the air, and they could hear the rushing of water from some underground tributary of the nearby river. They headed toward a dim glow at the end of the corridor and emerged into a large, cavernous chamber. Columns lined the walls of the great hall at regular intervals, curving upward into a central structural beam that ran the length of the room, disappearing into the darkness ahead.
“I don’t think this place was built so much as grown. These arches look like ribs,” said Tala.
“Maybe it’s a dead god,” Wallace grumbled.
“There are no gods, you fool,” Zerkanti said casually.
“Fine. A titan, then,” supposed Wallace.
“One must appreciate fair Zerkanti,” mused Rodrigo, “who has as recently as a few minutes ago confronted a monster, seen magic reshape the world, and experienced the most peculiar luck, yet believes that no gods could be responsible for this all.”
“If this be the will of your gods, then they are twisted and cruel. With a bad sense of humor,” Zerkanti said.
“Izurra be praised,” said Rodrigo, kissing his first two fingers, then holding them aloft.
“Izurra can go shit in a hat,” Zerkanti grumbled.
“Quiet, you two. Look!” said Brehon, motioning toward a man-shaped form lying prone on the floor. The form was blackened and cracked with ash, as though something had burned this body to cinders. A hush fell over the group and they pressed on into the great hall. Ahead of them, two more bodies that had met a similar fate lay on the floor, their forms twisted in a tangle of final agony.
“They’re wearing old Kepalan Army uniforms,” Wallace noted aloud. “Look at the metallic sash across that one. They were rangers.”
“Some kind of expeditionary force?” Rodrigo offered.
“Whoever they were, they weren’t lucky,” said Gia with a sigh of fatalism.
As the group pressed forward, a dais came into view at the far end of the room. Atop it stood an altar, and beside the altar lay a skeleton. It was charred blacker than any of the other bodies, and its outstretched arm was frozen in a final gesture, grasping at a polished black obsidian stone that sat on a central pedestal of the altar. All in the group save Zerkanti stopped in their tracks. The lone raven-clad elf advanced on the altar as if enraptured by the tableau before her.
“Zee, stop,” Tala said.
“Don’t you see it?” Zerkanti asked without turning back to the group.
“I don’t see anything,” said Wallace.
“Who are you?” Zerkanti asked, apparently to the skeleton upon the altar.
Then they all saw to whom Zerkanti spoke as a pale, ghostly apparition of a man in an officer’s uniform rose from the form of the skeleton. As one, the rest of the group gasped while a chill ran through them all.
“I’m called Katamaska,” the specter said, his eyes wandering without focus over the group. “Have you seen my brother? We came here seeking a stone for the king, but we were separated. I haven’t seen him in… it seems like so long.”
Gia stepped forward, raising her hands in a curious gesture that bent her wrists at right angles, and just as quickly pulled them back. “Soldier, you have served well. What did you seek here?”
The hazy form of Katamaska fixed on Gia and looked at her in awe. “Princess Gia! But you are grown and… how can you be here?”
“It’s a long story, Katamaska. But I’m here to help,” she said in a soothing tone. “Tell me what brought you to this place.”
“King Jory sent us on a royal mission to find and retrieve the Scrying Stone, Your Highness,” said the ghost. “And though we were separated from our companions, we few succeeded. There it is.”
The hazy, transparent form of Katamaska swiped through the air repeatedly at the black stone atop the altar, his hand passing through it each time. A vexed, frustrated look came over his face, and he continued, “But you see, Your Highness, I cannot move it. I try and try but I can’t finish my mission. I’ve failed your father.”
“He has no idea he’s dead,” Wallace whispered to Brehon, who nodded in agreement. Tala immediately hissed a shush at them.
“What happened to you, Katamaska? Can you remember?” asked Gia.
The apparition looked about the room for a moment, and then in a far-away voice, said, “Poison and fire. We were overtaken by poison and fire.”
“Poison and fire. Right. Well, thank you for the information, officer. We’ll be on our way then,” said Rodrigo, placing a hand on Gia’s shoulder.
“Wait,” said Gia, “what about the stone? Why did my father want it?”
“The power to see, Your Highness. The power to see far and hidden,” said Katamaska’s ghost.
Zerkanti had crept around the left side of the room and was investigating a large hallway that branched off the left side of the main room. A pit, twenty feet wide and at least as deep, lay in the middle of the hallway. Zerkanti peered over its side and saw the tenuous motion of something large and multi-legged moving in the dark. She turned and moved back to Tala, who was still fixed on the unfolding conversation between the princess and the ghost.
“We’re not getting out that way,” Zerkanti said, motioning to the left hallway. “Some kind of nightmare in that pit blocking the way.”
“I think I see light coming from the other passage,” said Tala, and the two elven women and the wolf began to move toward the portal on the right. All of them kept a cautious eye fixed on the exchange that continued in the center of the room.
“Who was your partner, your brother in arms?” Gia asked of Katamaska.
“Reikung was his name, Highness. He was a great soldier and leader of men. But our craft was destroyed by some monstrosity that came from the river, and we were driven apart. I tried to find him and his men, but we found ourselves here. I know not what trick was played on me that I’d be delivered to the object of my quest, and then this curse be on me that keeps me from bringing it home.”
“You mention fire and poison, sir,” Rodrigo interrupted. “What this what killed you?”
“Rodrigo!” Gia gasped, her eyes wide in panic.
“Wait, yes, the fire,” the ghost soldier said with pain in his voice. “There was burning and… there were fangs and stingers. Everything turned to blood and ash…”
“Katamaska!” Gia said, trying to calm the tortured spirit, “I can help you fulfill your mission so you can rest.”
Gia raised a hand before her and the stone on the altar began to first shake, then shift. Within the bowels of the temple, a low rumble sounded.
“Princess, I don’t think we should be too quick to…” Wallace started, but he was cut off by another boom.
Gia raised her hand, and the obsidian stone lifted off the altar into the air. It flew to her outstretched hand in a shot and she held it aloft. The wraith bound to the altar smiled in relief, and began to vanish into the gloom, but suddenly the room was bathed in blinding light. When the shock of the initial glow subsided, a man-shaped figure composed of fire and air stood behind the altar. It darted left and moved swiftly in the direction of the princess.
“Gia, drop it!” Rodrigo shouted, grabbing the black stone from her hand and tucking it into his pouch. The fiery figure immediately shifted its course toward Rodrigo. Rodrigo darted backward and away from the elemental guardian.
“This way, there’s daylight!” Tala called from the right-side opening in the room. She, Echo, and Zerkanti stood at the portal at the foot of a staircase that led upward.
“Not before I dispatch this fiend,” said Brehon. He fixed his gaze on the fiery sentry and unsheathed his sword. He dashed between Rodrigo and the guardian and slashed at its fiery heart. His sword connected with nothing but empty air as it passed through the guardian’s body harmlessly. The burning figure raised an arm and spouted a gout of flame at Brehon that singed his once-white cloak and heated his armor to an orange glow where it struck. Brehon recoiled in shock.
“We don’t have time for this! Go, go!” shouted Rodrigo.
The group rushed as one up the stairs, toward the source of sunlight at the top of the inclined corridor. The burning sentry followed after them, slowly but steadily closing the gap behind the fleeing gang as it crushed and burned everything in its path. They scrambled up the steps, fleeing the elemental fury of their pursuer. Their muscles searing in pain and their chests pounding, they reached a stone archway at the top and saw sunlight streaking through the green canopy of the jungle beyond.
Wallace was the final one to reach the landing. “What are you waiting for, get out the door!” he shouted.
Rodrigo, peering out the door, reported back, “Well, sir, it’s something of a steep drop, and…”
“No time!” Wallace shouted, backlit by a fast approaching conflagration. He rushed toward the huddled group with his arms outstretched and gave them a shove. They lurched forward as a group and, one by one, stumbled over the threshold of the doorway and down a steeply sloping set of stairs that stretched as long as the flight they had just ascended. Their careening tumble was cushioned by vegetation that had grown over the steps, and they landed in a heap at the foot. They looked up to the doorway that they had just been pushed out of and saw the fire elemental flare in the doorway for a moment, and then fade from view.
They all sat, once again, on the ground, inspecting the cuts and scrapes they had suffered. Mercifully, all of them seemed merely beaten and not broken. They all breathed a sigh of relief.
For a while they sat there, saying nothing. Wallace was the first to break the silence, saying, “If we’re going to make it, we need to be a more disciplined company.”
“We’re not soldiers!” Rodrigo shot back.
“Clearly!” snorted Wallace.
“We should listen to Wallace!” said Brehon, rising to stand by Wallace’s side. “He’s a great leader of men. I’d gladly follow him into battle any day!”
Wallace looked to Brehon contemptuously. “You have almost as little discipline as the fancyman over there, boy! Your loose-footed antics are going to get you and everyone else killed if you don’t learn to act like you’re a part of a team!”
“I don’t need this. I was fine on my own,” said Zerkanti, shaking her head and turning away from the group, her arms crossed. “You pink-skinned men go tear each other apart, I’ll make my own way.”
“Run back to scrad country, then, you coward!” belted Brehon.
Zerkanti turned back to Brehon with venom in her eyes. She rushed to him with her black-handled dagger drawn and held the point of it to the big man’s throat. “Don’t you ever call me that, you pinheaded prick! I’ll cut out your tongue and feed it to the pigs!”
“Zee, stop it! Don’t!” Tala said with her hand on her kindred’s shoulder.
“Why don’t you let her? The flatheaded ox clearly has a death wish,” Rodrigo sarcastically quipped.
“All of you, stop! Stop!” shouted Gia. “We’ll never get anywhere if we fight each other!”
“He started it! Him and his ordering everyone about,” Rodrigo said, jabbing a finger at Wallace.
“You need discipline, you fop! Give me a week with you in a barracks and I’d teach you how to…” Wallace trailed off, his gaze drifting away from Rodrigo and over his shoulder.
A beat passed, then Rodrigo said smirkingly, “What? Have you forgotten yourself mid-sentence, old man?”
The hush had overtaken the group now, and they looked around, realizing that they were not alone. Emerging from the jungle, a dozen and a half lizard-like men had appeared. They wore loincloths and carried crude weaponry with adornments made from animal skins and feathers. Their green, scaly skin that camouflaged them in amid the vegetation was thick, and their big jaws were lined with rows of sharp teeth that curled up in a curious grin beneath cold, staring eyes.
“They’re right on top of us!” blurted Brehon, who drew his sword and leveled it at the nearest of the lizard folk.
In unison, the reptilian savages crouched into a fighting stance and leveled their spears at the bedraggled party, hissing a threat in what sounded like a guttural and broken version of Draconic. Wallace drew his sword as well, and shoved Gia and Tala behind him.
“Wait, don’t… I can talk to them!” started Tala.
Brehon turned to Gia, saying, “Not to worry, Princess, I will defend you!” He raised his sword over his head, preparing to strike.
A scream came from the little princess, and a wave of thunderous, invisible force came emanating from her. It pushed her companions forward and the lizard kin backward, and they all thudded to the ground, pushed out from her like the spokes of a ramshackle wheel.
For another long moment, there was silence, as everyone lay stunned around the small, red-haired girl. Then a single one of the lizard-men scrambled forward to his knees and prostrated himself, his head pointed in the direction of Gia. He uttered something meek and differential in her direction.
“He says you are a queen to them, and they beg you to spare their ‘tiny lives’,” said Tala, propping herself up on her elbows. “He also said something about you being too good to walk among them, and I think they want to bring you to their camp.”
Echo let out a snarl in agreement.
“Who are they?” Gia asked softly.
Tala turned to their leader and spoke in a graceful form of Draconic. “He says they are called ‘The River People’,” she said.
“Tell him that I come here in peace, and that I would be honored to visit their camp,” Gia answered.
Two of the other lizard folk disappeared into the foliage as Tala continued to speak to their leader. Rodrigo leaned close to Gia and whispered, “I can understand as well, Little Star. They seem to be some sort of hunting tribe that occupies this area. That temple we just tumbled out of was something of a haunted place to them, and they’re thinking we are possessed of some kind of great magic to have defeated the temple’s guardian.”
“That fiery thing?” she asked.
“One can only assume. Now he’s saying something about taking us to ‘The Master’, whoever that could be,” whispered Rodrigo.
Tala turned back to the group and said, “They say it’s a short hike from here. They have requested that they be allowed to carry the Princess.”
As if summoned, the two foraging lizard folk reappeared, carrying what looked to be a hastily assembled sling chair fashioned from branches and vines.
Rodrigo and Gia shared a look. “It beats wearing your feet out, Your Highness,” Rodrigo sighed.
Gia, assisted by Wallace and Brehon, ascended to the makeshift sedan chair and was lifted aloft by four of the lizard-men. Their leader barked a marching order and the two parties began to march as one off into the jungle.
They reached a clearing in the dense vegetation that was filled with a bizarre array of statues and icons arranged in a circle, thirty feet wide. It appeared to be a mix of borrowed gods and heroes of several different and often competing nearby deities. It seemed to Gia, from what she knew of the studies of the pantheons of the world, that these lizard folk cared not at all for which god they were worshiping, but merely of the amount of power that the deity wielded.
Once inside the clearing, they set her down. At the opposite end of the large circle was a stone throne, covered in moss and worn with centuries of age. Atop it sat the fattest man any of them had ever seen. Sweat glistened off his pink skin, and the remnants of his Kepalan military uniform clung to his corpulent body, patched together with a similar pastiche of the feathers, bones, and animal skins that adorned the lizard folk.
“So Princess Gia Corin lives after all,” said the man. Despite his hippopotamic size, he spoke in a high, affected voice, worthy of a chorus tenor.
“And whom is it that I have the honor of addressing?” Gia said, slipping into an air of formality she seemed to adopt when speaking to military types.
“It is General Legarto Reikung, Your Highness,” he said, with a particular emphasis on his own title.
“You wear a Kepalan uniform, General, such as it is, but I cannot recall a general of the name Reikung who served my father,” Gia said with a touch of a challenge. Wallace and Rodrigo shared a look.
“Your Highness, I rose to the rank of general of my own merit as the master of these simple folk you see before you. I am their master, general, patriarch, and savior, you see.”
“And how did this come to this pass, General?” Gia continued to probe.
“I was commanding a mission for the late king, Your Highness, and our party was pulled asunder by fortune most foul, you know,” he said. “We were set upon by a most heinous monster of the river and I was separated from the rest of my group. Fortunately, I was able to convince these creatures you see before you that I was imbued with great magical power and was thus their natural leader. A bit of parlor trickery in the jungle goes a long way, Your Highness, don’t you know.”
“You were in the company of a man named Katamaska, weren’t you?” Gia asked.
The General looked confused for a moment, then said, “Yes, but how…”
“We came through that temple of yours by the river, General. He was inside. He was searching for you,” Gia said, her voice becoming grave.
“He’s alive? How could he be after so long… and the guardian..?”
“The guardian was formidable, but not a challenge for my companions and me,” Gia said, her voice rising.
“Now see here, girl…” the General started, hoisting his bulk up from his lounging position.
“I am The Copper Princess, and you are a false idol, Legarto.” Gia held a hand above her head and a blazing light shone from it, crackling with magical energy. “You would become the petty lord of a band of superstitious people and desert my family’s service in their hour of need? You are nothing but a slug.”
The light from Gia grew brighter, and several of the lizard folk surrounded General Reikung. He shouted something at them in his own broken form of Draconic, but they were undeterred. They rushed toward him and seized him. As a group they hoisted the enormous man over their head and began to convey him away from the group, toward the route from which they came. Toward the temple.
“Tala! Ask them what they’re doing!” Gia shouted over the clamor.
Tala turned to one of the River People for a quick aside, and then returned to Gia, saying, “They mean to return him to his friend in the temple. I think they’re going to sacrifice him to that flaming guardian.”
“Stop! Tell them to stop!” Gia said hurriedly. Echo ran ahead of the group and fixed himself in the path of the lizard folk carrying the helpless general. Tala barked an order at the group of reptilian hunters, and they stopped. One of them in the lead looked quizzically from Gia to Tala and asked an unintelligible question.
“He asks why you would show kindness to someone who was full of such trickery and so weak,” Tala translated.
“Tell him that there is strength in mercy, just as there is weakness in being a tyrant,” said Gia.
Tala spoke in Draconic to the group of lizard folk, and they slowly lowered the hemming and hawing fat man to the jungle floor. He heaved to one knee and glared at Gia, completely out of breath.
“I had a good thing here, Princess. When your family was murdered, I had nowhere to go, so I made the best of it. Better to be king of the swamp than a head on a Hollow Man’s pike back in Sira Kepala,” he said.
“You’ll have to make your own way now, Legarto,” Wallace said. “I don’t think these nice folks are going to let you boss them around anymore.”
As a group they returned to the stone circle. Tala had been conversing with one of the smaller ones at the head of the line. “This one is called Pic,” she said. “He says he can lead us out of the jungle, but he asks if we would like to stay.”
Gia smiled at the diminutive lizard man, then said to Tala, “Tell him that I would serve him much better by being on our way. Tell him that I was meant to find him and free him from the tyranny of a coward. Tell him that they’re ready to lead themselves.”
Tala and Pic shared a spirited and animated conversation as they walked. Pic waved the group forward and gestured to a path away from the circle. They took the path and departed.
To the rear of the procession, the weeping Legarto Reikung knelt in the muck. On light feet, silent as death, a pair of doeskin boots approached. He looked up into the ghostly eyes of Zerkanti Silvermane and his heart fluttered with fear.
“Men like you don’t do well without simpletons to hold them up, pink-skin. Do the right thing and go visit your friend in the temple. You owe a debt to him. Or maybe you could just go do the backstroke in the river. I can think of five pairs of eyes that would be happy to see you,” she said. Then like a gust through the branches, she was gone, and the erstwhile general was left alone in the jungle.