Soncho was an annoying mix of impatient and exhausted. The night and morning long run that they had all done to catch up with the slave caravan that had captured Sage, coupled with the adrenaline of the stand-off with Kensaku and his mooks, left everyone in the party ragged. Everyone except the ex-slaves, of course. Now that they’d had some of Qodesh’s nourishing gruel and life-giving water, they were feeling much more invigorated. And because they weren’t really able to expend that energy walking back to their homelands and out of this wilderness, they spent it instead pestering the party, especially Soncho, about what they were going to do next.
There were ten slaves. Six of them were elves who had been captured somewhere in the battles over the eastern jungle (which they insisted on calling the Elven jungle), and so they had various stages of combat experience and were eager to catch up with Kensaku and take out some of their frustration on the ogre nation via him and his mercenaries. The other four were humans who had nothing in common besides the fact that they all had a slightly elvish look about them via wispy blond hair or fine, bony features. One was a carpenter, another a candlemaker – both had fallen on hard times. Another was a beggar off the street who swore he’d been press-ganged, and still another was a convict sold into slavery as punishment. They just wanted to get back to civilisation. They all shared that eventual desire in fact, and were united by that one thing: none of them really wanted to be where they were.
And yet they were stuck there. Without an escort, they were highly likely to die on the way back. Even if they could dodge past the more dangerous things in the wild – land sharks, ankhegs, tigers and rice kracken (Hunter was still of the opinion that these were not a danger to the average person) – they would starve, because not a one of them had any survival skills. They’d be lucky to find enough water. Even Soncho’s own party were rather perilously low on supplies, and the whole group were fairly reliant on Odate and his heavenly provisions from Qodesh. Well, everyone except Ashana’s new eagle companion, who had no desire to eat gruel and was thankfully perfectly capable of finding its own prey – although watching it eat a juvenile tiger was more than a little disturbing.
And as it turned out, not even all of Soncho’s group were completely in agreement about what they should do next. While none of the party were against continuing, Odate did make a pretty compelling argument: perhaps it would be better to give up now, turn back, and head home. It might even be that by sacrificing his claim to the discovery of whatever race created art, Soncho could gain more insight into the nebulous gift of sacrifice that Cass had been exposed to on the desert plateau. It was a compelling argument. People were compelled. Even Soncho seemed to consider it carefully. But then as the sun set in the west, highlighting the craggy rocks of the mountains that lay not more than a couple of days’ walk from where they were, he shook his head. He couldn’t give up, not now. But he also knew that Kensaku was well over a day ahead of them now, and there was not a great chance that he would beat the ogre sage to the plateau. So he made a compromise with Odate and the rest of the party, and with the ex-slaves. He wanted to make it to the mountains. That was his goal, after all. He never really wanted to go onto the plateau, not since he heard about the origins of the stone pig in Terrkan. He had always wanted to explore the mountains themselves more thoroughly. So if the party escorted him to the mountains, and everyone – including the ex-slaves – spent a full day searching the mountainside for evidence of the artistic gift and found nothing after a day, he would consider that they had concluded their mission competently, and they could turn back and return him to Mae Lin.
A new day dawned, another few mouthfuls of bland, nourishing gruel were eaten, and the party set off towards the mountains. As they had been doing, they continued in that sweet spot between the falling sand of the plateau and the lusher soil of the wilderness, following the makeshift path that avoided both the annoyance of sand in one’s face and the chance of being attacked from underground by some sort of deadly monster thanks to the rockiness of the ground. It was even pleasant travel for a few hours. At one stage, the path narrowed a little and a copse of bamboo jutted into the path, but it was scarcely big enough to hold an ambush by Kensaku’s party, so they passed it confidently – and set off a lashing trap set by bending back a large branch of bamboo, studded with sharpened sticks. If flung forward, biting into Sage’s shoulder, and the little kender cried out with pain, and fell back onto her haunches. Everyone was suddenly on edge – was this an ambush after all? But after a few minutes, it was clear that the mercenaries weren’t around, or if they were had missed their chance of surprise, and this was just a trap left behind to discourage their continued travel.
It wasn’t a big wound, but one of the wooden teeth had dug deep, and within a minutre or so she was feeling nauseous and looking very pale. Hunter looked over the branch – very clearly a trap, probably made by that dwarf who was with Kensaku, and the prongs were likely coated with some sort of poison, but he didn’t know what type. Sage started to fade, talking in an even more rapid voice as she lapsed into unconsciousness. Odate shook his head – he could cure her ills, but poison was beyond his capabilities. If she couldn’t overcome the toxins herself, there was very little he could do besides identify the poison – it was some sort of snake venom – and extend her life a few hours. So they sat and waited. Ashana and Odate prayed. Hunter wet a cloth and put it on Sage’s forehead. Reich had a few spell components that could break a fever, and gave them to her. And they waited.
Hours passed, but eventually the kender awoke, wondering what all the fuss was, and desperate for a drink. Apparently her body had been able to overcome the poison – though at considerable cost to her energy levels – and Odate was confident she would make a full recovery, especially if aided by Qodesh’s touch. But that left them with another quandary: it was clear that if they kept following the easy path, they would run the risk of stumbling over traps and causing more injuries. And while Sage was a robust enough ranger to shake off such a wound, one of the slaves would have easily succumbed. As would have Reichstag. Searching the ground ahead of them was a possibility – Hunter was reasonably confident in his skills – and even Odate and Ashana could ask their gods to reveal the whereabouts of traps to them for a time, but all this would extend their travel time by days. Morale was already frayed. They also knew they couldn’t go on in the wilderness proper, as a group this size might scare off some smaller predators, but attract others that were either larger or more cunning, or both. That was not an attractive proposition. But neither was turning back.
So they elected their other option: walking through the sandy rain falling from the plateau. Though it would slow them down and make the trip considerably less comfortable, it was far less likely that the dwarf would have placed any traps in there. At first they tried to have Hunter still check for any evidence of traps, the regularly falling sheets of sand that stung the eyes, chafed the legs, and got into absolutely everything, made it next to pointless. Thankfully, it was also far less likely that even if the dwarf had set traps he would have been capable of guessing where in the sand they are likely to pass. So while their travel time was miserable, slow and annoying, it was not deadly.
Two days passed. By day they pushed through the sandy wind, and at night they would return to the wilderness to empty their shoes, pockets, hair, pants and bags of sand before realising they also needed to beat and out of their food pans, camping mats and ears. Then they would sleep. Or at least try. It was on the third day that grass and sand gave way to rock underfoot, and even the barefoot ex-slaves were rejoicing. They began to beat a path to the north, knowing that their enemies had likely gone south to try and ascend to the plateau, and also knowing that there would be less sand that way. They made camp at the base of the mountains, and discussed the plan for the next day: leaving the pack mule and cart ox behind, everyone would climb into the lower reaches of the mountainside, where they would then fan out and search for any evidence of intelligent life, and especially of any kind of art. This required a little bit of explanation to the slaves, who had absolutely no concept of art at all, but eventually they fell somewhere between “things that look like things but that aren’t those things” and “you’ll know it when you see it”.
The next morning came, and with it a little bit of excitement and even expectation. After all, not only were they searching for something new and special, but they had also finally reached their destination, and everyone knew that tomorrow they would be heading back home. Even Soncho showed a little relief, as well as a small hope that he would have something to show for this long and difficult trip. Climbing into the mountains, the group of them began to spread out – far enough to cover ground, but not so far that they couldn’t easily reach one another in case of trouble.
Of course the kender found something. It started off being a bit of stone that was a funny shape – it was all wavy and different from the stone around it. Then she found more bits and pieces that were similar – wavy and smooth and wonderfully strange. It was just as she discovered what looked like a carving of a stone foot that she heard Soncho calling for help. People moved from their positions on the mountain face to make their way closer, and Sage was beaten only by an elven ex-slave who had also been close by. There was Soncho, surrounded by some stone statues.
Soncho had not just called out in surprise though, he had really wanted aid, and it took a moment for Sage to realise why: these weren’t just statues. Soncho was standing face to face with a life-sized statue of his ogre nemesis, Kensaku; hands thrown out in front of him, mouth twisted in a fearful cry. As more of the group started to arrive, they all began to recognise that these statues were of the mercenaries too. They were perfect replicas, faithful down to the last detail. It wasn’t until the first ex-slave to arrive spoke that anyone noticed a problem.
He said simply, “Oh, look, a chicken.”
Sure enough, next to a large leather bag that looked as though it had fallen from the minotaur statue’s shoulders, was a very strange looking bird. It was big for a chicken, but when it poked its head out from the leather knapsack, where it had apparently found some hard rations to peck at, it had the distinctive cockerel crest and pointed beak. What separated it from its egg-laying cousins was its leathery, bat-like wings with little hooks at the elbow, and a long, lizard-like tail with a tuft of feathers only at its tip. As it saw the elf, it began bobbing its head up and down, and making a low, burbling clucking sound, much like a mother hen might if she were protecting her chicks. The elf stuck out his hand in an attempt to mollify the angry bird, but it seemed to be naturally aggressive, because it suddenly crowed and flapped at him, pecking him in the hand.
And then he turned to stone. Not all at once, either – that would have been alarming, but not nearly as terrifying as watching the grey rockiness spread across his hand, ranging up his arm, freezing his movement as it went along. He screamed in terrible pain as the stone crept along his skin, spreading out of his shoulder and rushing down his leg to the ground. “Help me! Help me!” he cried vainly, before the stone stopped his throat, and within the space of a minute he had transformed into a pitiful, frightening statue. Soncho couldn’t even gasp, he was so scared: he was standing right beside the beast, and worse yet another one had emerged from amongst the circle of silent monuments to their awful power.
But then one of the ex-slaves did more than gasp – he screamed in utter fright and terror at what he had just witnessed, and the chicken-monsters instantly turned their attention to the noise. Odate called out to Qodesh in prayer, a slight desperation even in his voice at the horrible demise he had witnessed. Sage was already trying to string her bow in order to engage the devil-hens from a distance, but when Soncho saw that other people were in danger, he ripped his travelling cloak off his shoulders and started waving it at the creatures. He was still afraid – his voice was breaking as he shouted to everyone to run away – but he was still doing it. He even managed to cover one of the creatures with his cloak, which caused it to pause for a few moments in the typical stupor of a bird with its eyes masked. But then he had to whip the cloak back to protect himself from the other bird, freeing the first from its simple-minded paralysis.
The ex-slaves did not tarry; they turned tail and fled down the mountain screaming and crying and running as fast as they could. But again, their sudden movement brought the attention of one of the creatures, and as it turned to pursue, flapping its wings like a territorial rooster, and it was only Ashana’s quick feet and large shield that stood in the monster’s way. It sqwarked angrily at her and pecked savagely, but she kept it at bay, though her sword couldn’t seem to find its mark (she wasn’t trained in paladin to poultry combat). Reich drew forth his magical power and send a flaming arrow towards the chook, and the searing flames impacted beside it, giving it a shock and a moment of fear. A regular, non-flaming arrow loosed from the kender’s bow soon after, and stuck into the other creature’s wing, making it stumble. It seemed as though things were going their way.
But then as Hunter sought to follow up with his sling, his footing slipped on a pile of shale, and the stone went wide, striking Soncho right in the back of the head. The sage was stunned; he stumbled about a little, as though drunk. He had to stop and shake his head, as though trying to clear it, and he just kept calling out, “Run, run! Get out of here!” Then, as he reached down to grab his robe – his only weapon against the enemy – the death-chicken craned its neck and pecked him on the back of the hand. He immediately withdrew his hand in shock and pain, but it was too late – the creep of the stone was inexorable, and with his last faltering movements, he spun around and shouted, “Go!” before the stone overtook him and he was trapped in place.
But they did not go. Another flame arrow from Reich’s fingers this time engulfed the beast in flames, and it sqwaurked and crowed and cried as it burned. The other was impaled by a second arrow, before Ashana’s eagle swept down and grabbed it in its powerful claws, efficiently snapping its neck before beginning to feast on the remains. The battle was won… but Soncho was lost.
Or was he? Neither Odate nor Reich had any hope of turning their employer back from stone to flesh, but they both figured that something must be possible. If only they had a way of transporting him in the meantime… the cart! No, it was too far away, and no-one could transport a full-sized statue made of stone down to where it could safely be brought. Then the goblin snapped his fingers – there was a spell he could research that might hold the key to their dilemma. It allowed him to turn objects into little figurines, one-twelfth their normal size, and even into paper if he wished. It would last about a day, and could certainly be used to change the sage into something more portable for their return trip. It would require him to do some more study, but he felt he could master the spell in a day or two.
But then Odate and Ashana both raised the question that everyone was secretly thinking in their heads: what about Kensaku and his mercenaries? They had clearly suffered a similar fate, and although they were jerks (especially that dwarf – Sage’s shoulder still stung) this seemed like a fate worse than death. If they had the capacity to bring one statue back to civilisation, did they have the capacity to bring the rest? The answer, of course, was yes – but at a cost of time. Reich would need to memorize the spell a number of times, and that would take effort. But with the ox cart, he should be able to keep his studies up on the move as they returned eastward to the roads. So it seemed like yes, they would be saving not only Soncho and their unlucky ex-slave, but also their enemies. Sage spent the next couple of days exploring the mountains, hoping against hope to find something as interesting as the tiger carving. Alas, it was not to be, but she did discover something of interest: cart tracks, barely noticeable, headed up into the mountains.
They went back down the mountain to the base camp, where the ox cart and Emergency Breakfast were waiting, along with a gaggle of very upset ex-slaves, who got even more upset at learning of the plan to save not only the ogre but his minions too, and that doing so would mean an even longer trip through the wilderness. But at the end of the day, what choice did they have but to stick with the party, their food and their protection? It looked as though everyone would be learning about sacrifice now. At least they wouldn’t have to go back into the mountains with those cockatrices – that’s what the elves had named them, and when elves named something, for some reason it usually stuck.
And in the excitement of everything Reich had nearly forgotten – but the weight of the stone tablet in one of his pouches reminded him that they were hardly leaving the mountains empty-handed.