Haden looked around at the oppressive yet apparently empty jungle. “So what do we do now?”
Talan pointed away from the clearing. “It there’s a path here . . . of sorts. It looks like some large animals came through here recently. VERY large animals, look at this.” Thick branches more than ten feet from the ground were snapped in half, revealing green wood sticky with sap, and some trees had even been uprooted and trampled underfoot. Water seeped into wide, roundish footprints with short triangular toes.
Sheen poked Talan in the shoulder. “Here, you’d better carry this sword. Maybe it’s useful for something.”
“Thanks,” the ranger said absently, shoving the blade most of the way into his backpack, the hilt still protruding. Sheen looked at the tracks.
“I don’t see any other way to go. Let’s give it a try, at least, they may be herbivores.”
“It’s not like we have a lot of other choices,” Talan said. They set off. Talan kept his eyes on the ground, examining the tracks, while Sheen hopped from log to log, trying to keep her feet dry. Haden splashed heedlessly through the puddles, looking for all the world as though he was enjoying himself. Joris brought up the rear somewhat nervously, stopping every few dozen paces to look behind.
“It looks like someone or something was driving this creature, it was moving at a fair clip,” Talan said after a while.
“Wouldn’t it have left tracks too, then?” Haden asked.
“Yes,” Haden said, pointing out some boot prints in the mud. “Hunters.”
“Maybe the ‘Vile Hunt’ Pwyll was talking about,” Sheen offered. Haden tilted his head back to look up at the far-distant canopy.
“What a strange bird . . .” he said idly. Talan’s eyes flicked upwards.
“That’s a pteranodon.”
“Gesuntheit,” Haden said.
“A what? What is that, a dinosaur?” Joris asked.
“Yep,” Talan affirmed.
“A missionary in Silverymoon told me they have them in Chult, I never thought I’d see one, though.”
Sheen frowned. “I think it would be more important to ask, a.) does it eat meat, and b.) is it hungry?”
“Yeah,” Talan said, and they resumed walking, somewhat more quickly than before. “It does make me wonder what else is out here.”
“This is actually rather pleasant,” Haden said after a while.
“You mean apart from the heat?” Sheen asked.
“It could stand to be a bit cooler, I suppose,” Haden replied.
“And the strange beasts,” Talan added. “Speaking of which, I get the feeling that if we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone.”
“And the humidity . . .” Joris said, wiping sweat off his forehead with an already-damp rag.
“And let’s not forget the bugs and the mud and the rotting vegetation . . .” Sheen continued. Haden kicked her in the leg.
“Don’ t be so gloomy.” Sheen stuck her tongue out at him.
“It’s much better than the masque,” Talan said, grinning. “At least we all have comfortable clothing.”
Haden lowered his voice suddenly. “Look alive, people, we may have company.” He pointed his chin at the trees ahead. Joris squinted into the greenish half-light.
“I see them, too.” Ari, trotting along at Talan’s side, began to growl slightly.
“Just when we were getting comfortable,” Talan said. He reached down and scratched Ari behind the ears. She stopped growling to wag her tail for a moment, then resumed. Sighing, Sheen hefted her spear and walked forward into the trees.
“Hello? Who are you and what do you want?” The only response was a whooshing sound from above as an immense net of vines and creepers plummeted towards them. Sheen raised her spear to try and deflect it a bit while the men dove out of the way. The heavy weight landed on Sheen’s shoulders and bore her to the ground while lizardmen rappelled down from the trees on all sides.
Haden rolled to his feet and threw a dart at the nearest lizardman, but it vanished somewhere into the underbrush. The lizards charged waving large, knobby clubs while Talan took his sword to the net, trying to help Sheen get loose.
“God-stealers!” bellowed one of the lizards in a tongue that sounded like Draconic. Sheen tore free from the net and rolled across the ground as Joris waved his holy symbol in the air, calling on divine power. The shouting lizard froze in mid-strike.
Haden parried a club awkwardly with his rapier and smacked the flat of the blade against the lizard’s nose, causing it to wince in pain and dodge backward. Ari jumped on a lizard as it attempted to club Talan, who punched it in the gut with the hilt of his sword.
“Throw down your weapons!” Sheen shouted in Draconic. “We mean you no harm!” Joris raised his shield defensively as the shouter started moving again, but the lizard simply yelled, “Do it!” The lizards hesitated, then shrugged and lowered their clubs.
“What’s this about god-stealers?” Sheen demanded. “What’s going on here?”
The lizardfolk leader shrugged. “You not god-stealers. Voorix be dead if you were. I am Voorix. Who you?”
“I’m Sheen, and these are my companions: Talan, Joris, and Haden. We came here to help Pwyll, do you know him?”
“Pwyll. Not god-stealer?”
Sheen looked over at Talan helplessly. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“What is a god-stealer?” Talan asked in Draconic.
“Dark hunters, from beyond the Home in the Clouds.”
“Are we in the Home in the Clouds now?” Talan asked after a moment of blank confusion.
“Yes. Our home, Home in the Clouds. The great gods, those we worship, dark hunters come to take them away. Masks always helped us, saw one mask taken by dark hunters.”
“What do the dark hunters and the masks look like?” Talan asked.
“Mask we saw was ear-pointed, like you, maybe.”
“The Verdant Guild?” Sheen asked.
“I’ve never had much to do with them,” Haden said, “But I have heard that they all wear animal masks.”
“I’ll be the dark hunters are the Vile Hunt, then,” Sheen speculated.
“I think you’re right,” Talan said.
“And the great gods are . . . the dinosaurs?” Joris asked. “They’re actually petitioners, the souls of the dead, who take the form of animals in the Beastlands.”
“That’s a bit creepy to think of, actually,” Haden said.
“People who come here when they die love the wild,” Joris said.
“Still, there’s a difference between loving the wild and actually wanting to be some kind of animal,” Haden replied.
Sheen looked at Voorix. “Do you know where we can find either the Masks or the Dark Hunters?”
“Dark Hunters took Mask. Were here. Went down path,” Voorix explained, pointing a claw down the direction the group was already traveling. “Son is tracking.”
“We’ll go after them, too, and . . . help,” Sheen said.
“I come,” Voorix said. He turned to look at the other lizardfolk. “Hoist net. More hunters may come.” With the new addition to their group, they resumed walking again. “Dark hunters and horned evils together are god-stealers. Take gods to bad, dark place,” Voorix said conversationally as they walked.
“Like one of the Hells, do you think?” Haden asked after this was translated. Voorix looked confused, not understanding the language.
“If the dinosaurs are petitioners, could demons or devils be stealing them for some reason?”
“Maybe,” Joris said. “I’m not sure why they would, though. I’m even less sure why Baltazo would be interested.”
“What’s the difference between the dark hunters and the horned evils?” Talan asked Voorix, his face dark with suppressed fury.
“Horned evils not . . . how to say . . . people. Made from evil.”
“Fiends, then,” Joris said.
“If they’re as annoying as that lemming, we may be in for a tough time,” Sheen cautioned.
Joris stared at her blankly for a moment, then laughed. “Lemure, Sheen. Lemure.”
“When you say that they’re stealing the gods, how are they stealing them? Have you actually seen them?” Talan continued, ignoring the conversation going on in the background.
“They hurt gods, chase them into dark place. We fear to go there.”
“They chase them into a portal?” Haden asked.
“To the two trees,” Voorix said when Talan repeated the question. The lizard steepled his hands in the shape of an arch. “Two trees.”
“That sounds like a portal to me,” Talan said.
“Right,” Haden said. “Well, this may not be an insurmountable problem, then. Let’s move a little faster, though, shall we?”
“Clearly something that needs to be stopped,” Joris said, jogging now to keep up with Haden.
“Clearly,” Talan growled. They had gone on for another mile or so when they heard something moving around in the underbrush next to the path. It was obviously not making any effort to be quiet. Sheen hefted her spear, then shook her head as another lizardman burst out of the shadows.
“Father!” it called out.
“Vorssh!” yelled Voorix.
“Evil ones try to catch hammertail god by water! Come!” shouted Vorssh and set off running without a backward glance. They dashed through the jungle to another small clearing, Sheen concentrating and manifesting her battle powers as she ran. Ahead they could see a massive dinosaur with thick armor plates, spines, and a great knobby tail beset by three roughly humanoid attackers. Nihmron stood not far away, directing the operations.
Haden walked out into the clearing, oozing nonchalant, and idly ran one finger along the blade of his rapier.
“For every giant there are fleas,
thinking themselves king of the trees,
watch them gloat and dance
watch them float and prance
they’ll soon lie under the weeds.”
“You!” Nihmron growled, and everyone winced as a pillar of fire dropped out of the sky and struck the ground where Haden was standing. There was a terrible cloud of foul-smelling smoke. Then Haden coughed once.
“THAT was a NEW SHIRT.”
“I’m thinking he’s okay,” Talan said.
“Looks like it,” Sheen nodded. “Get them!” The ankylosaur, seeing its attackers distracted, helpfully smashed one with its tail. Instead of becoming a smear in the mud, however, the creature bounced back to its feet and attacked Sheen. She poked it with her spear, finding that it looked strangely . . . familiar. “It’s Halitsu!” she groaned, catching a sword blow on her arm.
“Legion devils!” Joris said. He waved his holy symbol around and threw a spell at Nihmron, who was trying to cast another spell. The druid waved a dagger furiously as he fell silent in mid phrase. Voorsh catapulted himself onto Nihmron’s back, but the druid dodged and ripped the young lizard open with the dagger.
“AIEEE!” Voorix screamed and ran across the clearing, somehow managing to avoid the legion devils. Talan and Ari attacked one of the devils while Haden waved his sword uselessly at another, connecting but having no effect.
“Damnit, I need a magic weapon,” Haden hissed. “Talan! Use the wooden sword!”
Talan ducked away from one of the devils, reaching around to the hilt sticking out of his pack. Sheen drove her spear entirely through Halitsu, but the devil didn’t stop moving, pulling itself towards her up the haft of the weapon and backhanding her across the face with a spiked arm. “Haden, you and Joris go help Voorix!” she yelled, spitting blood.
Talan managed to pull the wooden sword free as Joris and Haden ran past him, bringing it over his shoulder and straight down into the chest of the legion devil attacking him. The creature howled as blood spurted, then all three of the devils dropped down dead.
Voorix caught up with Nihmron and clubbed the druid fiercely. Haden jumped over Voorsh.
“Do we want him to talk?!” the aasling yelled, hesitating.
“NO!” Sheen screamed.
“Right,” Haden said, and skewered the druid through the chest. Nihmron coughed blood and fell to the ground, grinning horribly as he died.
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