The trek through the desert while leading the refugees away from Ks’vere was grueling and dangerous. The adventurers planned carefully, scouting out the hazardous wasteland and fending off the unpleasant predators that prey on the unfortunates that stumble through their territories. Between oases, the group encountered a brooding purple worm and its larvae. The monster was ill equipped, however, for hunting heroes. The invertebrate was felled without any danger to the caravan of refugees.
On the sixth day, the caravan reached the trading outpost Ks’vala. Alarmed by the sudden arrival of over two hundred people and several dozen wagons, a half elf named Shynali calling himself the “Keeper” of Ks’vala insisted the caravan would overwhelm the rural town’s resources. Stubborn and close-fisted, Keeper Shynali was eventually ‘convinced’ to help the refugees after the party offered him a generous bribe. Too bad those gems will turn to worthless rocks by the end of the day.
Niche worked tirelessly by Kelorian’s side and together they look on satisfied as the last of the caravan stragglers settle into the makeshift camp at the edge of Ks’vala. The sun is setting behind the low adobe buildings, accompanied by sounds they hadn’t heard in days: cheerful voices, childrens’ laughter, and music. The refugees settle around their campfires as the sun sinks, feeling safe at last. As Kelorian watched, tired but proud, the golden halo of the setting sun flared momentarily before the last edge of the sun disk slips out of sight. Momentarily dazzled by its rays and a strange brightness spreads through his mind, only when Niche shouts his name does he finally shake it off. Kelorian hurries forwards to meet with the townsfolk and their leader, but in the back of his mind the feeling remains, strangely comforting.
Cenes watched with dark eyes as the Keeper Shynali stalked away with his payment tucked safely in his cloak. Idly her fingers pet the ragged black raven perched on her shoulder. Ruffling its feathers as she muses lost in her own thoughts, the bird croaks softly and peers at the warlock with his one good eye. Tiresome, she was glad they were not staying here any longer than needed to make sure the refugees were safely sheltered. They were already building campfires and pulling the wagons together, creating a perimeter between themselves and the open desert. Sufficient, in time they would need more, but that was not for her to worry about. Her task was unfinished. Invisible on her brow, the mark of the dark goddess burned cool against her skin.
“Do not worry that the others have left you. They were only stepping stones for you to reach this far. For each time you might have been cast down by this task, one of them has fallen instead. That is their sacrifice. Now child, seek the place where the water dances and never wearies, where fire eats earth and wind sings a song that is never good.”
Away from the city for the first time in a long while, Kesp is reminded of the desert’s beauty such as that had enfolded his secluded monastery. Away from the horde of people, the desert is not the wasteland everyone calls it. As the sun sets the sands cool. Snakes stir, ready to begin a night’s hunting for lizards and tarantulas. A desert thrush sings, and a burrow owl answers plaintively. Somewhere farther away, a pack of jackals yips excitedly, fading into the distance.
“A warrior that meditates on revenge keeps fresh the wounds inflicted on his mind and body, which otherwise would heal and do well,” says a kindly and familiar voice.
Kesp spins about, fists clenched and his lips parting to retort some remark to the unwanted advice giver. Startled, he finds no one standing near.
Nafai laughs, a rumbling sound that makes the halfling girl on his shoulder shout with laughter. At her brother’s urging, he lifts her higher and she spreads her arms for balance. Gently, he swoops the tiny creature downward to the ground where she squirms out of his grasp and runs to join the other children. The mageforged is a quiet monolith of metal and living wood, and the children swarm around him like sprites around a tree. At ease and carefree, he strolls along surrounded by their effervescent chatter and bubbling laughter.
A sound carries across the sand, ever protective; he turns warily – his glowing eyes glancing every way for signs of danger. With the sun below the western mountains the desert has turned to cool shadows. The flare of light at the edge of camp is sharply visible. It lasts for only a second, and moment later Frufalcon crests the dune, running.
Frufalcon waited impatiently for the others, anxious to return to the city. Six days since leaving Ks’vere was an uncomfortably long time without knowing what Havok might be doing in the City of Five Gates. His thoughts strayed to Nkosi. In comparison to Frufalcon, the human mage was young, but brilliant. To have mastered the mageforged ritual at his age was a sign of pure prodigy. Fenwir could see now why the old Master Anar had chosen the young princeling to be his apprentice. Frufalcon owed the young man his life for the skill and power the human mage could wield. Without it Frufalcon had been doomed to a life in jar, which was no life at all. The mageforged glanced down at his hands – strange appendages of metal and wood and yet as flexible and as sensitive as his own mortal hands had been. That was another thing, as best he understood, he was essentially immortal now – barring excessive damage. Yes, Nkosi had given him a whole new life and he wasn’t going to let the mage stand alone against the evils facing him now. The construct’s hands clenched and unclenched. He could not risk waiting longer, he resolved. With a sharp gesture, Frufalcon cut the shape of runes into the air and intoned three short commands. The runes arrayed themselves into a glowing arch. Frufalcon spoke the final word and opened the space between here and the Magus Tower and stepped forward to pass between.
The archway roared to life and Frufalcon was forced to stumble back with an alarmed cry. He batted at crackling flames licking at his arms and torso. The portal warped, vomiting a tidal wave of heat and fire. Twisting and shuddering, the runes ripped apart, sending tatters of flame spinning in all directions, before sizzling out of existence. Only a scorched circle of glassy sand remained in the spot where the portal had been summoned.
Frufalcon extinguished his burning limbs in the sand when he fell away from the exploding flames. He sat, stunned, for a long moment, until his mind shook itself out of inaction and realized all the possible consequences of what it had just witnessed. Staggering to his feet, the mageforged ran to find the others with dread in his heart.