Voorix cradled the body of his fallen son mournfully. Joris sighed and looked at the other members of their small adventuring company. “Is anyone hurt?” he asked quietly.
“A bit, but I’ve got it,” Sheen said, letting her remaining power drain into her wounds, which closed rapidly.
“I’m fine,” Talan said.
“Then I’m going to help the dinosaur,” Joris announced and made his way towards the enormous ankylosaur crouched on the far side of the clearing. It bellowed as he approached but was too exhausted to avoid him.
“Be careful getting out of the way of that tail, Joris!” Sheen called as the dinosaur regained its feet and began eyeing the cleric unpleasantly. Joris scurried quickly away. The ankylosaur snorted derisively and trudged into the brush. It was rapidly hidden in the undergrowth, but chewing noises became audible a few moments later.
“Thanks for doing that, Joris,” Talan said. Joris smiled.
Haden stood up from investigating Nihmron’s cooling body, a crude medallion in his hand. It was a circle of greenish metal stamped with a baatezu on one side and a peculiar symbol on the other. “Portal key, perhaps?” Haden asked. “This is the symbol for Baator, the Nine Hells.”
“It would make sense,” Talan said, “what with all those legion devils around.”
Sheen shook her head. “I do not think we can tackle another serious battle today. We need rest.”
“You may rest at village,” Voorix said abruptly, standing up with his son’s body over his shoulder.
“Thank you,” Talan said. The lizardman set off with the adventurers following. They trekked through the brush until they came to a collection of small huts. A few lizardfolk were gathered in the village, and more emerged from the huts as they approached. Sheen folded her arms and waited while Voorix recounted the battle. The lizardfolk made many expressions of grief when they were told how Voorsh fell, but they were glad to hear that the evil druid was no more.
“Strangers are heroes,” Voorix announced. “You welcome. Our home theirs.” A lizardman dressed as a shaman bustled to Voorix’s side, then held out some leather bundles to Talan.
“Gift,” the shaman said.
“Reward,” Voorix corrected. The bundles were three waterskins and small leather pouches containing food. Talan blushed.
“Please, I don’t need a reward. We only wanted to help.”
“We no need,” Voorix insisted. “May help you.”
Talan seemed about to protest again, but Haden shushed him. “Please allow me to accept on behalf of my comrades.” The tribe murmured happily when this was translated.
“I would like to present you with a gift as well, in honor of your son,” Sheen said after a moment. She unbuckled the straps holding her quiver of javelins and handed them to Voorix, along with her heavy longspear. The lizardman’s eyes bulged.
“Gift? For me?”
“It may help you if anything similar happens again,” Sheen explained. Voorix hefted the spear and smiled toothily.
“You honor the Night Thunder. Now rest. I show you.” Voorix led them to a vacant, sparsely appointed hut. While Joris, Sheen, and Haden were inspecting it, Talan pulled Voorix aside.
“I’m not very good at this kind of thing, but as Sheen said, we honor the memory of your son. Please accept this sword and dagger.”
Voorix’s eyes glittered with tears. “Morning, we celebrate.” Talan blushed and ducked quickly into the hut, where Haden had taken advantage of the chief’s brief distraction to cast Prestidigitation and clear out the vermin. The aasling wrapped himself in his cloak and curled up on a pile of reeds. Sheen unbuckled her armor and occupied another corner. Talan joined them in sleep very quickly, despite the loud and sometimes fearsomely unfamiliar noise of the jungle.
In the morning, they watched as the lizards held a funeral for Vorssh. The adventurers hovered on the fringes, which the lizardfolk seemed to appreciate in some unspoken way. They were handed some food, which seemed to signify that the funeral was over, and they settled down for a quick breakfast.
Haden tapped Sheen on the shoulder lightly. “What?” she asked.
“I think I have figured out what you were trying to show me the other day.” He grimaced slightly. “Which is good, because I have another migraine today.”
“You’re not hiding under the bed, though,” Sheen said.
“No. I think those exercises helped. It still hurts, but I’m not incapacitated. Observe,” Haden said. He concentrated, and ectoplasm formed and dripped soundlessly from his fingers for a few moments, then dissipated. “It’s not so hard once you get your mind right,” he said, smiling at Sheen a bit shyly. She gaped at him.
“You . . . you . . . how did you do that?” Sheen sputtered.
Haden blinked. “What do you mean?”
“Do you know how long I had to study before I could do that?!” Sheen demanded.
“I just watched what you do and did those exercises you taught me . . .”
“Is that psionics?” Joris asked, mystified.
“Yes!” Sheen announced. “And you just *watched*?!”
Talan scratched his head, puzzled. “I’m not sure I understand what the big deal is.” Sheen rose to her feet and stormed away, finding a seat near the other side of the camp where she perched with her back towards them.
Haden drummed his fingers on the table for a moment. “All right, explain that to me.” He picked up a beetle out of the bowl on the table and chewed on it absently.
“I think she’s upset because you’ve quickly mastered something that was difficult for her,” Joris said.
“I thought she’d be happy that I’ve learned to do something useful,” Haden said plaintively.
“She’s not always easy to predict,” Joris said.
Haden picked at the table morosely, then abruptly sat straight. “What did I just eat?”
“Don’t think about it,” Talan said, chuckling and scratching Ari behind the ears.
Haden frowned. “You’re right, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see it again. Shall we go check out the portal before we get pranked again by lizard food?”
“You may want to apologize to Sheen first,” Joris said.
“Yeah, you don’t want her upset at you all day,” Talan affirmed.
“Why should I apologize when I didn’t do anything wrong? What am I supposed to say? I’m sorry she’s slower than I am? She’d KILL me.”
“It’s not about right and wrong, it’s about respecting her feelings,” Joris said.
“Come on,” Talan added. “We all know how diplomatic and charming you can be when you try.”
“And believe me, she’ll be even more furious when I go over there to apologize and say that you didn’t want to,” Joris said.
“You’d do that to me?!” Haden demanded. Joris smiled slightly. “You would, wouldn’t you. Ungrateful sod, that’s what ye are,” Haden said, lapsing briefly into cant.
“Oh, you’ll thank me someday,” Joris announced. Haden gave him a sour look and wandered casually in Sheen’s direction, tugging on her sleeve to get her attention.
“Oh, leave me alone,” Sheen said irritably, putting her back to him a second time. Haden grabbed her other arm and turned her around.
“Stop that. You’re being, well, a bit childish here.” Sheen glared.
“Did you have to push him so much?” Talan asked Joris quietly.
“Do you want to go crawling through the jungle with her mad at him all day?”
“I’m serious,” Haden said. “It isn’t my fault that I got lucky. It happens.”
Sheen transferred her glare to the ground. “I know. I know.”
“But you’re still angry, hey?”
“A little. I know it’s not your fault, but it’s not fun to, well . . .”
“Be suddenly shown up by someone you secretly consider to be a bit of a useless sod?” Haden asked disingenuously.
“Well, I wouldn’t use those words, exactly . . .”
“How do you think I feel, trying to contribute to this little group and being sneered at for it?”
“I don’t sneer at you!”
“Oh you don’t?”
“Oy,” Talan said, watching the progress of the discussion. “Maybe you should study up and turn one of them into a dog,” he said, petting Ari. Joris flushed.
“I’d learn arcane magic if I could,” Joris mumbled.
Talan blinked. “Oh, that’s right. Sorry. This all just reminds me of why I left . . .” Talan’s voice trailed off.
Sheen considered Haden for a long moment. “All right, maybe a little,” she admitted. “But not as much as I did. I just . . .”
Haden held his hands up in front of him, “I’m not asking you to like me, all right? Anyway, I’m sorry for hurting your feelings. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
Sheen stared at the ground again. “I’m sorry I got upset for no reason.”
“Right,” Haden said, grinning. “So, let’s go check out the portal before anything else comes through and starts attacking things.” He waved at Joris and Talan, who grabbed their packs and headed for the path out of the village. Voorix waved to them as well.
“If you find gods, send back to us! This their home. If they die, they die here. Home.”
“Don’t worry, we will,” Haden said. He hung back, letting Sheen take the lead, and walked beside Joris. “There, I apologized, are you happy?”
“Yes,” Joris said. “Why, aren’t you?”
Sheen turned around. “Wait, you *made* him apologize?!”
Joris recoiled a little. “I didn’t make him do anything!”
“For gods’ sake, woman!” Haden growled. “I have a headache! Could you just relax for one day!” Sheen sighed, rolled her eyes, and continued walking. Joris sighed in relief and Haden grinned at him slyly. “Just remember, I’ll always get you back in the end.”
“Mmph,” Joris said. “I’m willing to pay that price for a little peace and quiet around here.” Haden chuckled.
They returned to the clearing where they’d battled the evening before, skirting the shore of the lake. A swarm of tiny lizards scattered away from the corpses as they approached. They followed a rough track deeper into the jungle, to another clearing that looked manufactured instead of natural. Something had torn down the trees, leaving only jagged stumps. Only two still stood, growing together to form an arch. Their trunks had been painted with blood and carved with Infernal runes. A rough block of obsidian sat before the arch, covered with a thick layer of dried blood and an elven corpse. Joris took one look at the scene, went white, and turned away to throw up.
“Oh no,” Sheen said, lifting the corpse’s head carefully. “We shouldn’t have let him go ahead.” Talan stood stiffly, clenching and un-clenching his fists. Sheen picked up Pwyll’s body and carried him out of the clearing, where she began methodically hacking at the earth. Joris recovered himself and started to help, sighing.
“I should really start carrying a shovel,” he said grimly.
Haden looked around the clearing at the discarded equipment, evidence of many victims, and surreptitiously cast detect magic. He packed up a few items, knowing this wasn’t the time to offer them to his comrades. It took a long time to get a decent hole dug through the entangling tree roots, but they finally laid Pwyll to rest and Joris said a few words while they filled in the pit. Joris sniffled loudly and wiped his face repeatedly.
“Are you all right, Joris?” Talan asked.
“I’m . . . yes, I’m fine. I had to do that . . . more than once before we left Faerun,” Joris explained, casting a sideways glance at Sheen.
Talan coughed and said gruffly, “Well, I don’t want to pry, but if you need anything . . .”
“Thank you, but I’ll be fine. I think I’m getting better with practice, honestly.” Sheen hugged Joris and he gripped the shoulder plates of her armor and held on tightly for a while. He stood up again, a little red-faced and embarrassed. “Anyway. Portal.”
Haden held up the greensteel pendant he’d taken from Nihmron a bit gingerly. “I hope this works, because if you have to sacrifice someone, I’m not volunteering.”
“We’ll draw straws,” Talan said. The portal flared to life and Haden stepped through, followed by Sheen. Talan waved to Joris. “Please, after you.” Joris shrugged and walked into the portal.
The world they entered was nothing but gray—gray sky, gray rocks, great twisted gray trees. It seemed to suck the color from their skin, hair and clothing, rendering them as gray and dreary as the scene around them. They appeared to be standing in a shallow depression that resembled a dry wash. A gate stood nearby, built of black twisted bones that did not seem to come from anything human.
A great cloud of dust and the roar of a terrible battle rose in the far distance, behind massive corrals built from rough-hewn tree trunks. Exhausted dinosaurs crouched in the corrals, sadly reduced from their former grandeur. A stone building, nearly vanishing into the gray expanse surrounding it, stood nearby.
“Oh, lovely, the Gray Waste,” Haden said.
“Really?” Talan asked sardonically. “How could you tell?”
A small devil flew up to the top of the fence near the triceratops and began taunting it, pulling a sharp spike off its body to throw it at the dinosaur. Sheen began concentrating, manifesting powers as Haden spoke up: “Ahh, my friend, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
The devil whirled in place and squeaked, “Alarm!” The doors of the stone building flew open as the little spiny devil charged at them. Sheen and Talan advanced as a second spinagon and an abishai emerged from the building, the abishai growling angrily and lashing the stinger on the end of its tail. Sheen attacked the second spinagon, rending it down with the claws that grew abruptly from her fingertips.
Talan engaged the abishai as Joris reached over his shoulder and touched the odd wooden sword, which took on a faint pearly luminescence. Talan wounded the devil with surprising ease, then it erupted into a whirl of raking claws, biting jaws, and stinging tail, forcing the ranger to give ground or be torn to shreds. Even scrambling backwards, Talan took several wounds that burned like fire.
Joris ducked behind his shield as the first spinagon tossed a spine at him; it stuck in the wood and smoked sulfurously. He flailed at the flapping creature with his mace, but it dodged him and sneered.
Haden dodged around Talan and the abishai as they went past, then cautiously poked the devil with his rapier. It didn’t appear to cause any harm. Talan struck it again with his sword, and the frustrated abishai pulled a bead from a chain and hurled it to the ground. It exploded in a blast of fire that sent Talan staggering. Even Haden felt the heat, despite his heritage. Sheen grabbed one of the abishai’s flailing wings and tore a gaping hole in it with her enhanced claws, then Talan leapt to his feet and decapitated the monster.
The remaining spinagon had a look at the odds, decided they were not to its liking, and flew away with a panicked squeal.
Sheen flexed her hands and the claws vanished into the ectoplasm from which they’d come. “I don’t understand what the big deal is. These fiends aren’t so tough,” she remarked. Talan just stared at her.
“Tell that to my poor broken body, why don’t you,” he grumbled, hauling himself to his feet. Joris waved and gestured and cast healing over the ranger, who sighed and regarded the corralled dinosaurs. “We have to get them out of here. I’ll handle the tyrannosaur, you three get that trike on its feet.” Talan hauled his way up the wooden fence and whistled down to the massive toothy dinosaur, which snorted and regarded him with wary interest.
Haden regarded the triceratops, which was lying limp on the ground, barely moving. He muttered a few words and sent some healing power into the dinosaur. It stirred slightly, blinking heavy, wrinkled eyelids. Joris crept forward and did the same, and the triceratops began to stir. It rolled its immense head from side to side and huffed, as though trying to decide what to make of them.
“What do we do now?” Sheen asked.
“Hold out your hands,” Haden said.
Sheen hesitated. “What? Why?”
“Just do it,” Haden insisted, pulling out his water flask. Sheen held her hands out dubiously and Haden poured water into her cupped palms. The triceratops sniffed, then lumbered forward and began lapping the water out of her hands with an enormous slimy tongue. Sheen squeaked and tried to keep her fingers out of the way of its beak. As she backed away, it followed her, still lapping at the water determinedly.
“Good,” Talan said, the tyrannosaur following him docilely. “Let’s get out of here.” Haden held the amulet up to the portal once more. It flared, and they stepped through.
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