The Tyrant of Kepala
Book One, Chapter Two
Rodrigo opened his eyes in the late morning, and for a moment had no idea where he was. Then he heard the voices of his companions ringing in the adjoining great room and the clockwork shifting of the mechanical dome’s gears He smelled the scent of balsam and firewood in the air, and he remembered. The observatory. I’m safe.
He looked around the room and saw none of his unlikely companions. For a moment, he panicked. Where is she? Did they take her? he thought frantically. Then he heard the familiar laughter of Gia ringing in the distance, outside the hall. He rose on shaky legs to greet the day – and his companions.
“Morning fogs and sleeping dogs, tripping on logs and dining with frogs,” came the lilting voice of Brinco the Bard from behind him. He approached from behind, carrying a pole strung with four pheasants over his shoulder. He cut an oddly elegant figure for someone with the trappings of a game hunter.
“What?” croaked Rodrigo.
“A song. It brought down the house in Kepala before… well, before.” Brinco looked pensively at the floor for a moment, then he raised his smirking face with a twinkle in his eyes. He pointed at his pole full of game. “Dinner!”
Only then the young highwayman realized that he had slept straight through the morning and into the late afternoon. The bard trotted off toward the canteen, leaving Rodrigo to wander farther into the room. Tala and Zerkanti were already awake, sitting back-to-back on a bench beneath the apparatus of the telescope. They were both attending to their recently acquired weaponry in silence.
“Well. You are both awake, then,” said Rodrigo, awkwardly.
“We are fey kind,” said Zerkanti without looking up, a hint of a smirk crossing her face.
“We don’t sleep like you people,” said Tala, also beginning to smirk.
Rodrigo stood there before them, fidgeting from one foot to another. “Where, is, ah…”
“Your redhead is out the front, bathing in the stream. The heroic ox is outside with her, attempting to woo her by cutting down trees in her vicinity,” Tala answered. “You may wish to make yourself known. Human women are often susceptible to such displays of forceful handiwork.”
“She is… in the river and… oh, dear,” said Rodrigo. He rapidly made an about-face and charged in the direction of the stairwell.
“Did you really take his horse?” Tala asked Zerkanti.
“At least I returned his hat,” the dark elf answered matter-of-factly.
Rodrigo emerged from the door of the observatory and heard a deep voice singing an unfamiliar song in the near wood. He emerged into a clearing and saw Brehon, stripped to the waist and wielding a woodsman’s axe upon an unfortunate pine tree. He was glistening with sweat in the afternoon sun, and singing off-key.
Brehon turned to face Rodrigo and smiled. He placed one foot upon a fallen tree trunk and his hand on his hip. “You’re finally up! Well, that’s good. I was just down here chopping these trees down to provide firewood for everyone, and protecting the princess. You’re alright, aren’t you, princess?” he raised his voice, so as to be heard in the distance.
Another giggle emanated from nearby in the direction of a trickling stream. Rushing past Brehon, Rodrigo broke into a run, heading toward the source of Gia’s voice.
He found her in the nearby stream. The water, flowing cold out of the mountains just ten yards to the north of her, was inexplicably steaming and frothing about her. Gia Corin giggled and luxuriated back into the stream, playfully splashing about in her own personal steam bath. Rodrigo was puzzled.
“Gia… are you doing that?”
“I made the water steam…” said the last princess distantly, as though talking in her sleep.
“Are you sure this is the safest place to be right now?” Rodrigo asked, looking over his shoulder. In the near distance, Brehon resumed singing.
“We have enough time for a bath. There’s always time for a bath,” mused Gia in her reverie.
Zerkanti appeared. “Best get back upstairs. Izar is about and he wants to see us.”
The group gathered before the old wizard and awaited his words. On the floor before him were several small traveling packs. Master Izar looked at the young travelers before him all in turn, and then spoke.
“You will have a hard road ahead, yes, yes. It’s only right that I give you some trinkets to help speed you on your way. It’s only right,” the old master said. He first motioned to Gia Corin, still wringing out her damp hair. “This world is full of things that would as soon see you dead as look at you, Little Star.. Maybe this would make you harder to be looked at.”
Gia stepped forward and opened the first package, and inside she found a cloak made of finely woven fabric. The color of the fabric seemed to move and shift against the background of whatever she held it against. “Will this make me… invisible?” Gia asked, her voice full of wonder.
“Not invisible, but certainly unremarkable,” answered Izar. Then to Rodrigo, “The Copper Princess isn’t used to not being noticed, eh? You may have to help her learn to keep her head down, young man, eh? Now then for you.”
Master Izar indicated a small box on the floor before him, and Rodrigo picked it up. “A shine for your boots when the mud of bad luck gets too thick, eh?”
Rodrigo looked inside the box and found a brilliant emerald set in a platinum ring. He immediately closed the box and tucked it away, hoping his companions had not seen what he had.
The old wizard now looked to Tala Ravenwood. “Young archer, you may want to use these if you have trouble with anything that clangs and bangs,” Izar said as he pointed to a polished oak case on the floor, “and that if you want to be cordial to your friends in the wild.” Tala knelt next to the case and opened it to reveal five silvered arrows that hummed with an otherworldly crackle and a ring of silver. Izar grinned amusedly at her and continued on.
Pointing at the last and largest of the packages on the floor, he looked to Brehon. “From the hands of the finest craftsman in Kepala, before the fall,” he said. “May it be as sturdy as your convictions.”
Brehon opened the case to reveal a shining breastplate, gauntlets, and grieves. Emblazoned on the chestpiece was a pair of wings, mark of Castagal, a legendary armorsmith from the old kingdom. “Thank you,” Brehon said respectfully.
“What about me?” asked Zerkanti.
Master Izar raised his eyebrow and smirked even wider. “Did you manage to open the box, young Silvermane? Did you puzzle out its secrets? Well, young one, I have little for you beyond that but information. Which I do believe is your stock-in-trade, yes? Yes, yes, it is at that, isn’t it?”
Zerkanti looked frustrated. “Where can we go then? Where will these fools not draw the attention of The Empty One like lightning to a rod?”
Izar turned to regard the oculus of the dome. “I’ve already told you that Sira Zelaad is where you will find freedom and the free men. That’s where you go, young Drow.”
Rodrigo stepped forward. “More to the point, sir, Zelaad is a long way from here. Where shouldn’t we go on the way there?”
The master turned again to face them and cocked his head. “Well, were it me that were traveling, I’d not go to Ironfall. Not anymore, oh no. Bad things afoot at Ironfall since the place became its name, eh?”
Eagerly Zerkanti pressed on. “Master Izar, what happened at Ironfall? Wasn’t there once a great council there? One that my people met to…”
“I know of the council of which you speak, Silvermane, yes,” said Izar. “You see, the thing that not many know about that council is that until the…”
A terrifying crash overhead interrupted the old master in mid-sentence, and pieces of debris from the dome rained down from overhead. Master Izar turned to face the breach in his home just above the dome’s mezzanine. Through it stepped the grim and spindly shape of Dal Emreden, the twisted servant of Kotu who had confronted them the night before. On either side of her, two Hollow Men climbed through the gap in the dome.
A fire came over their host’s eyes as anger crossed his face. “How dare you, witch? How dare you defile my sanctuary?” Master Izar raised his hand and a bolt of fire shot from his open palm. Dal Emreden raised her hand and deflected the attack, and the flames fell furiously to the floor.
The group of misfits scattered to and fro as they began to brace for the confrontation. Rodrigo immediately bolted to the door of the stairwell, but from below, he heard the cacophony of several dozen boot-shod feet marching up the steps. In the echoing chamber, he heard a high voice say, “This is your chance to redeem yourselves, boys. This is how you’ll prove your worth to me, my father, and Lord Kotu!” From the high, grating cackle that followed, Rodrigo knew exactly who was leading the troops upstairs.
“It’s Vask,” he said, sprinting back to the antechamber. “He’s got dozens of troops with him.”
“Right,” said Brehon. He ran to a bookcase flanking the door and overturned it in front of the portal, partially blocking the entrance.
Tala and Zerkanti shared a weary look. “Well, we’re not getting out that way,” Tala said. Zerkanti pulled the black-hilted dagger from her belt and set her eyes on the shadowy figure looming through the gap in the dome.
Beyond the antechamber, Master Izar was spouting an angry string of curses in Zelaadi, leveling as much anger at the intruder as he had kindness at his guests. The two Hollow Men stepped haltingly over the mezzanine’s railing and jumped to the floor with a loud metallic thud. Dal Emreden seemed to float on tendrils of inky darkness down to the floor beside her minions.
Tala sunk to one knee and calmly opened the case Master Izar had given her, pulling one of the silvered arrows from it. She readied her bow in her other hand and fixed the nearest armored invader in her sights.
Retreating from the doorway, Gia reached within herself to find the power to silence the dark woman as she had before. “Sleep! Sleep!” she cried frantically, but the shadowy figure only advanced, extending a hand to her. The Dal extended a claw-like finger to Gia, and the princess tried to wheel around to escape, but her body would not obey. She willed her body with all her might to run away, but she was rooted to the spot.
Brehon came charging in from behind like a bull, straight at Dal Emreden, sword poised for a vengeful strike. The Dal turned her attention to him and she raised her other hand. A flashing bolt of crackling energy tore across the room and struck Brehon squarely in the chest, knocking him back into the antechamber twice as fast as he had charged into it. Behind the Dal, the fire from Master Izar’s spell had begun to catch upon the bookcases of the observatory.
Tala exhaled calmly and released her arrow. It flew straight and true through the observatory and pierced the chest of the nearest Hollow Man. A keen ringing along with the terrible rushing of air was heard, and the armored figure vibrated violently. Then the armor sprung apart as though blasted from within, revealing the astonishing sight of… nothing at all. Tala gasped as she realized that the Hollow Men were just as empty as their names foretold.
“Of course,” Zerkanti breathed as she sneaked through the shadows around the corner of the room, noticed by no one.
Rodrigo had grabbed Gia by the wrist and was attempting to pull her loose from her unseen restraint while Dal Emreden’s gaze remained fixed on the last princess. So intent was her gaze that she did not see Brehon, who had risen to his feet and was once again charging at her anew. He struck her hard in the face with his warhammer, and the dark woman hit the floor hard. The Hollow Man beside her swung his greatsword at the young warrior, but Brehon deftly dodged the crushing blow.
Like a raven alighting upon a branch, Zerkanti emerged from the shadows and landed directly atop the prone figure of Dal Emreden. The dark witch screeched and clawed up at the elven assassin, but failed to connect. With a bright passion in her eyes, Zerkanti pulled her face close to the dark woman’s and hissed, “Now you die, scary lady!” and plunged her envenomed dagger straight into the Dal’s throat. A horrified rattle came from the woman’s form, and she began to thrash, throwing the dark elf clear.
“Get out of here! Leave now! Run for your lives!” shouted Master Izar, turning his attention to the stairwell and Quinneth Vask’s approaching band. The wizard swept his hand upward and uttered a word in an unknown language, and the five adventurers were swept up by an unseen force to the mezzanine, over the head of the remaining armored construct. “Go now!” he repeated.
Tala understood and knew. She closed her eyes and whispered a word she recalled her bard benefactor teaching her, and a thick fog began to fill the room behind them, masking their view of the far side of the observatory.
Peering through the hole in the dome, Rodrigo could see the forms of a dozen more armored suits glinting in the twilight as they ascended the cliff face below the observatory. They did not look up and they did not slow. They simply continued to claw their way relentlessly upward. “Er, everyone? We may have trouble…” he said.
Zerkanti appeared silently beside him and looked down the cliff side. “No,” she said, “See there?” She pointed it out, and suddenly it resolved into view. An uneven set of stairs was carved inconspicuously into the side of the rock, wide enough for a single person to walk.
Behind them, Master Izar’s fury was consuming the room. Fire had begun to rage across his half of the observatory, and a string of Zelaadi insults was pouring from him like a swarm of angry hornets.
One by one, the fugitives emerged from the breach in the dome and stepped down to the narrow stairs. They quickly descended the cliff face, unnoticed by the armored drones of the Tyrant. By nightfall, they were at the bottom. In silence, they looked from one to another, and then up to the mountain peak of the observatory with heavy heads and hearts. Fire consumed the building and smoke billowed through the air. Weakened structural timber cracked like boulders being split in half by angry gods. In the glowing light of the conflagration, the group stole away into the forest.
That night, they came to a small clearing and huddled together for safety and warmth. Tala agreed to take the first watch and Zerkanti the second, as their fey blood allowed them to not so much sleep as meditate for just a few hours a night.
When the fugitives rose in the morning, the first thing that became apparent was that one of their sentries had relieved Brehon of his trousers in the night and flung them into a nearby tree. Zerkanti could barely contain her giddy glee. Wordlessly, and making eye contact with no one, Brehon simply removed his cloak and folded it into a kilt around his waist. With a grunt, he trudged off toward the river, muttering something about finding breakfast.
“You’re only going to encourage him,” Tala said to her fellow elfkind as she passed. “Any attention is the right kind to his sort.”
Zerkanti began to laughingly protest Tala’s stoicism, but was immediately silenced by the astonishing sight of a large wolf at Tala’s side. He had a tame look about him, but ferocity smoldered in his eyes. “This is Echo,” said Tala. The wolf sat.
Zerkanti nervously took four steps backward and then turned to see Gia and Rodrigo drawing a map in the dirt. She approached.
“And see, if this is the river here, we can take it to The Crux and be at Fel’s Hope in fewer than two days,” Rodrigo said, worrying a thumbnail.
“I think I like it out here. Out here it’s quiet and nobody is trying to burn us or throw us in irons,” said Gia.
“What do you hear, you two?” asked Zerkanti, approaching them.
Rodrigo looked up and mopped his brow. “We’re going to have to get to some sort of settlement. It’s too dangerous staying out here unprotected for long,” Rodrigo said to his fellow rogue. He looked over Zerkanti’s shoulder to Tala. “Is that a wolf?”
“Last night I saw a tin man fall to pieces and a cackling boy take down a master of the high arts,” Zerkanti said with a touch of bitterness. “The overgrown pup is the most normal thing I’ve seen in some time. So, what, do you reckon we make for Zelaad like the old man said?”
“I don’t see what our other option is. Gia’s going to need cover, and we stay out here too long, sooner or later it’s curtains for us,” said Rodrigo.
“Don’t talk like that, mister highwayman, we have a lady who knows the lay of the land. And look at the dog!” Gia said as she hopped to her feet and shuffled over to greet Tala’s new companion.
“She going to be alright?” Zerkanti asked, cocking an eyebrow.
“It’s how she copes,” sighed Rodrigo. “Ten years on the run and I think when the pressure gets too great, she lets the carefree girl in herself take over. Honestly, I think we could all learn a thing or two from the example.”
“I’ve never known the luxury of the carefree girl life,” she deadpanned.
Rodrigo raised his voice and addressed the group. “We move to the river, people. Follow it toward the sunrise, and soon we’ll get to Fel’s Hope. From there, it’ll be smooth sailing to Zelaad.”
“And who put you in command of this brigade?” Brehon groused.
“As you wish. Stay here. The princess and I are heading east.”
Brehon fixed his jaw, turned, and joined the group as they walked east into the rising sun.
They walked in silence for the better part of an hour along the banks of the river. Brehon took the lead, while Gia and Tala struck up a conversation. They were giggling to each other over some whispered joke as Gia stroked the wild rabbit that she had convinced Tala to spare from the morning’s breakfast ration. Tala whispered in turn from the rabbit to Gia, and suddenly they both broke out into a torrent of laughter. Behind them, Zerkanti and Rodrigo brought up the rear and talked in hushed tones.
“How long has it been, being on the run with her?” Zerkanti asked.
“Better part of a decade now,” said Rodrigo.
“And you’ve kept her hidden this whole time? How?”
“Town to village. Village to festival. Festival to traveling circus. Traveling circus to trader caravan. You stay moving and nothing sticks to you for too long. I thought it’d been long enough that everyone had forgotten whose face was on the coppers.”
“I guess not long enough,” the Drow said, sympathetically. “So this thing of yours, this bursting-seamed braggart act of yours… this is all just theater to you, is it? Your name isn’t even…”
“My lady, my mistress, my sweetmeats and biscuits!” Rodrigo said loudly, interrupting Zerkanti. “Let us never say that our professionalism did not warrant a small amount of off-duty fun!”
Zerkanti slapped him hard across the face and glared. Gia and Tala turned at the cracking of the slap, shrugged, and went back to their conversation.
“Thank you,” Rodrigo resumed in a hushed voice. “It’s in all of our best interests that you keep anything you might know from being volunteered. What they don’t know can’t harm them. Or you. Or me.”
The two looked away from each other and walked in silence for a bit.
“Well, thank the gods that the old man gave us what he did before we had to go on our way, eh?” said Rodrigo lightheartedly.
“There are no gods,” said Zerkanti flatly. “There’s just the good and the bad and the storms that rage all around us, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. You get lucky, you don’t get caught outside when the lightning strikes.”
“No gods?” Rodrigo smirked. “My relentless temptress, it is a foregone fact that not only do the gods walk down here in the mud with us lot, but that they have a decidedly cruel and twisted sense of humor. Oh, yes! Yes, indeed. I have never met one, but the day I do meet a god face-to-face, I shall definitely give him a piece of my mind as to how much of a cruel blaggard he is. I’ll tell you that for free.”
“For your sake, you’d better hope I’m right,” said Zerkanti, cracking the faintest of smiles.
They resumed walking in silence for a time. Wanting some solitude, the sullen Zerkanti walked to the head of the line, passing up Brehon by a good fifty paces. There she walked in silence for a long while, letting her thoughts consume her. In her reverie of rumination over the injustices of the past and the seeming hopelessness of their mission, she began to seethe. She wondered why she didn’t just break from the group and run into the wilderness on her own. No, she thought. Better to stay with this group of daydreamers till the next settlement, then I’ll make my own way.
In the distance, she heard the creaking of wooden wheels, and she stopped in her tracks. She held up a hand and gestured for the group to halt, and they did. One by one, they scattered to the sides of the road and sequestered themselves in the underbrush. Clinging to the cover of the roadside foliage, Zerkanti peered ahead. She spied a column in the distance led by two men on horseback, followed by a dozen lightly armed footmen. Behind them were four horse carts pulling cages. Cages that were filled to the brim with human cargo. She knew at once from their bullying swagger and their cruel faces who they were. Zerkanti rushed on fleet feet in silence back to her companions.
“Slavers!” she said, motioning for them to stay out of sight.
All obeyed, save Brehon. The young kilted man rose alone and stepped to the center of the road. His palm went to the hilt of his longsword and drew it. He stood there like a tree stump in the center of the muddy low road. Tala and Rodrigo locked eyes and nodded to each other, and drew their bows.
“Get off, you miserable pillock!” barked one of the mounted slavers at the fore of the column.
“You’re holding up the official business of Lord Kotu, you are!” bleated the other.
“My name is Brehon Veld, and I will have words with thee!” shouted the young man.
The column of slavers broke into a riot of sardonic laughter. “Get out of my way before I…” the lead slaver said before a ranger’s arrow pierced his chest, cutting his threat short. Before he could react, Rodrigo’s arrow found the throat of his companion. Both mounted slavers fell to the ground and their horses instantly panicked and began bolting, dragging their former masters in the mud by their stirrups behind them.
The column of slavers sprung into action, drawing a motley assortment of daggers, clubs, axes, and rapiers. Brehon charged into the thick of them swinging his sword to and fro, cutting down two of the miscreants before they could even raise their weapons. The remaining ten of his companions rallied together and coiled to overwhelm Brehon, and were so intent on their target that they did not see the small girl approach from behind him. Arrows flew from Tala’s bow and pierced the eye sockets of the nearest wagoneers, and the wolf, now not docile but ferocious and vengeful. sprang into action, tearing one of the mounted men from his perch.
Gia stepped out from behind Brehon and thrust her arms out before her. A surge of unseen energy blasted forward and knocked all but one of the slavers to the ground. She laughed giddily as she raised a casual finger and unleashed a ray of paralyzing frozen air at the man driving the nearest cart.
From Zerkanti’s elevated vantage point by the side of the road, she looked on in awe as a small girl broke the backs of ten men twice her size. The caravan drivers began to whip their teams to turn about in an to attempt to escape her companions. Zerkanti was so enraptured that she was surprised by the snapping of twigs in the brush behind her. She wheeled and trained her eyes on the foliage, and within it she saw at least twenty shapes moving in a mob toward the road. Their bald grey heads, pointed ears, and protruding lower tusks made her blood run cold. She broke into a run through the brambles toward her companions.
“Orcs! Orc raiders about to hit us!” Zerkanti shouted above the cacophony of battle.
Tala turned to look in the direction behind Zerkanti and spied the same fearsome sight that her Drow companion was fleeing. Emerging from the underbrush, six of the gray-green-skinned monsters rose to their full height and snarled at the reluctant heroes and their unfortunate foes.
Again Rodrigo and Tala shared a knowing look and loosed arrows from their bows, each of which struck the lead orcs in the chest But rather than falling, the beasts seemed only to become enraged by the shafts that had found their marks. The orcs bellowed and began in a loping run toward the slaver caravan.
The chaos of battle had truly taken hold as the orcs joined the fray. The remaining slavers who could get to their feet began to panic and flee into the woods, straight into the claws of the orcs. From the dankness of the thick trees, the screams of the miserable wretches were heard as they met a merciless but just fate.
Overwhelmed by exhaustion, Brehon locked eyes with the nearest orc and fixed his gaze. “Drink,” he commanded tersely, and the orc immediately dropped his club and ran to the banks of the river. He began scooping mouthful after ravening mouthful of water into his face.
The diminutive yet furious Gia reached in the direction of a nearby orc, and a fire flashed in her eyes. “Eat your friends alive!” she called in a guttural scream to the orc. A mad look overtook his face as his eyes rolled back into his head and he sunk his jaws into his nearest companion. The bitten orc dropped his club in panic. All of Gia’s companions shared a nervous look.
Distracted by the chaos of battle, the liberators did not see the orc chieftain leap to the driver’s seat of the lead slave cart and crack the reins. The horses, already straining at their reins from the stress of the fighting surrounding them, broke into a run immediately and started the cart full of human cargo at a fast clip down the road. Rodrigo broke from the fray and ran to the hijacked wagon. “They’re stealing the carts! They’re after the slaves! Everyone grab a wagon and get after that one!” he bellowed.
The young rogue reached the back edge of the rumbling wagon and grasped onto its barred cage. He locked eyes with its miserable human cargo, and his heart burned as he met the eyes of the people in bondage within. His limbs burned as he pulled himself aloft and scrambled atop the cage. The orc driving the cart frantically cracked the horses’ reins, urging them faster away from the battle. Rodrigo eyes burned as he viciously dove down from atop the cage onto the orc in the driver’s seat below. The orc raider clawed at him and pushed him forward over the front side, bouncing him between the structure of the wagon and the backsides of the horses driving it. Rodrigo cried in anger as he hoisted himself away from the ground and around the right side of the driver’s seat.
He launched himself back at the orc from his flank, renewing his attack. The orc unleashed a furious torrent of blows against Rodrigo and one caught him squarely in the nose. Blood and tears filled his face as he struggled to fight back. Unleashing a savage cry, Rodrigo sprang at the orc and shoved with all of his might away from him, and the green savage was launched out of the driver’s seat and off of the cart. The slave wagon buckled twice as the orcish brigand was ground under its wheels.
Rodrigo took the reins of the cart and drove the horses on. He looked behind him and saw the reassuring sight of Brehon and Gia mounted in the driver’s seat of the next cart in line, safe and free of marauders, a few dozen yards behind his own, waving at him in a salute of victory. They drove along the muddy road for a few miles, and brought the caravan to a halt. The young rogue-turned-hero dismounted the cart and collapsed, exhausted, into the mud.
Behind him, Brehon could be heard breaking the locks off of the slave cages with his mighty warhammer. A wasted and pale man was the first to step out of the cage and onto the road. He looked impossibly small and frail next to the strapping warrior.
“You… you look just like old Wodan’s boy. You’re not from Arrain, are you?” said the old man to Brehon.
“I am,” said Brehon stoically.
“You must be that young man who squired for Wodan at Sira Zelaad. Aren’t you? Who can I say freed us?”
“A friend,” Brehon said with a reassuring grin.
Rodrigo sank to the ground, letting out a rush of exhausted breath. Zerkanti approached and stood over him. From his point of view, she looked as tall as the trees. “They’re giving the slaves the horses and the rest of our food. Tala says she can always find us more. Get up, highwayman. Looks like you’ve found yourself on the side of the angels.”
The five of them stood in the road and watched the caravan recede into the afternoon sunlight. Finally Tala spoke. “We best get off the road. I don’t think we made any friends with that little bit of charity work back there.”
“We only gave them what was their right,” said Gia, as if stating a natural fact. “If we didn’t help them, who would?”
“Maybe she is Jory’s kid after all, eh, lucky one?” Zerkanti said to Rodrigo with a grin.
They faded into the wilderness, far from the road. That night they made camp in a clearing deep in the woods. Zerkanti took first watch, and this time steadfastly guarded her slumbering companions. After two hours, she heard a rustling at the perimeter of the camp, and she trained her dark vision in the direction of the noise. Once again, she spied the domed head and pointed ears of an orcish raider, but it quickly dropped from view and a bloodcurdling cry came from it, accompanied by a wild snarling.
She peered into the gloom and saw Echo, muzzle stained with the ochre blood of his prey, looking kindly up at her. Then in the darkness, she looked up and saw dozens of other pairs of glowing eyes. As she saw their forms taking shape in the moonlight, she realized she was surrounded by a pack of wolves much larger than Echo, silently staring back at her. Tala appeared behind her.
“I think they’re on our side,” the ranger whispered to her elven kin. A wolf howled in the night, as her companions fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.