The two weeks of preparation went by all too quickly. Each and every one of the Adepts had been looking forward to this final test for several years, but many of them would now have given almost anything for just a few more days to ready themselves. There was just so much to do. Gathering supplies, planning potential routes, brushing up on skills that might be needed; the groups worked fervently in an attempt to predict (and be ready for) any contingency.
Each Adept packed and unpacked their gear again and again, seeking that delicate balance between preparedness and less burdensome.
They could pack heavy, ensuring they had every scrap of gear they might need. Ropes, shovels, axes, saws, pitons, tents, tarps, cookware; the list went on and on. Knowing they had a tool for nearly every eventuality would give great piece of mind, but it would also weigh them down and slow their marches.
Packing to a bare minimum was another option. They would be able to travel faster, but may not be prepared for the difficulties that were bound to be in their paths. Without proper gear they could be forced to backtrack around obstacles.
Food was another concern. How much does the group carry? Would they stick to trail rations; or supplement with hunting, fishing, or gathering? And water? What about water? Water would have to be found along the way, but how much should they carry?
Routes were another factor they had to consider. Carrying heavy packs up and over the rocky slopes of the Shalane Peaks would be much more taxing than over less demanding terrain; while equipment like rock hammers, pitons, and rope would become more of a necessity in the mountains as well.
It was a great puzzle that worried at many of their minds. Much was riding on the decisions they would make; and, one way or another, they would soon know which of them would be chosen to make the trip to the mainland.
“These maps are pre-Scourge,” Stigandr warned, rolling out the maps on the table. “Their reliability should be considered suspect, but they are the best we have for anything beyond the Yellow Line.” He studied the map as his companions gathered around. He touched a spot on the map to the north and slightly east of Wayfare, deep in the Shalane Peaks. “Kaer Noldo is supposed to be about here. I see three options for getting there.” He traced an imaginary straight line from Wayfare to Kaer Noldo. “We could go through the mountains. It will likely be some hard climbing, but it is the shortest route. We should not have to get above the tree line much, so there should be plenty of potential for food and water.”
Stigandr moved his finger back to Wayfare and traced another line, this time up through the jungles to the north, then cutting east and into the mountains. “This is another option. The jungles would be more moderate terrain, but could present other problems. There are far more living things in the jungle and we have no idea as to what sort of predators we might encounter once we are beyond the Yellow Line. On top of that, there could be swamps, quicksand, or several other environmental dangers. Still, travel would likely be less strenuous than the mountains and we could make good time and, game and water would be readily available.”
Again, Stigandr’s finger returned to Wayfare. This time it traced a line south, around the southern tip of Natales, then up the shoreline of the island before cutting west into the mountains. “This route would be the easiest, but a bit longer than the others. The terrain would be fairly flat until the last leg when we entered the mountains. We could cover a great deal of extra mileage each day, but we would be out in the open. Water would certainly not be an issue since Corman returned Eckhardt’s Puzzle to us and there should be plenty of game to be had as well.”
Roland studied the possibilities, and then looked to the Scout. “Which would you recommend?”
Stigandr spent a moment calculating possibilities and weighing potential problems. “As speed seems to be a concern, I think we should take the mountain route. It will be hard travel, but I think we are up to the task. If we have the proper gear, any climbing we may need to do can be done with minimal risk, even for those less skilled at it. Lady Grace and I could set the pitons and such, which will make the climb all the easier for those that followed. The down side is that we will need to carry the extra weight of that gear. Ropes, hammers, plenty of pitons,” he scratched his chin in thought, and then continued “maybe even some block and tackle to haul our gear up after us.”
Roland nodded his assent. Looking to the others around the table, he asked, “Does everyone agree or have any other pertinent input?”
“Sounds good to me,” Lady Grace shrugged, “I want us to beat everyone else to the other kaers; and, if this is the way to do it, I say that’s the way we go.”
“I wonder if there are ogres in the mountains,” Jennean said hopefully, “Oooo, or maybe a giant bear! Oh, or some sort of carnivorous mountain goat! This is gonna be awesome!”
“Yeah,” Dumond replied sarcastically, “awesome.”
During the two weeks of preparation, the group also took the time to take a Name for themselves: Wayfarers of Light’s Hope.
At last, the day of departure arrived and, as the sun crested the horizon; six teams took off on the various paths towards the lost kaers.
The Wayfarers pressed hard that day, climbing up the sloping foothills and putting as many miles as they could behind them. Higher and higher they climbed, until their lungs and legs burned from exertion.
As they took a short break for water and a quick bite to eat, “That area there,” Stigandr pointed out a rise that was faded by distance, “There is a river just before those peaks. That marks the beginning of the Red Line.” Excitement danced in his eyes. “I don’t think anyone has passed into the Red Line since the First Team.”
“And look what happened to them,” Dumond muttered.
“Don’t worry, Doomy,” Jennean said cheerfully, “We will prevail! We are ready for whatever is out there. We are well trained and ready for anything.”
Roland smiled slightly at the windling’s confidence and turned to Stigandr, “Any sign of any of the others?”
The Scout shrugged, “Just that glimpse of the team we saw moving into the jungle. I’m pretty sure it was Blue Group. It looked like Aram anyway.” Stigandr poured a bit of water into his palm and splashed it on his face. “There are several different routes they could have taken. Any of them could easily be on a course similar to our own, but on the other side of a ridge or something. None of us are exactly following pre-existing trails. We have an idea of where we are headed,” he shrugged again, “Now, we are just trying to get there.”
Roland nodded. “I’m only really concerned about the Keepers. Ky will push them hard and they have a Scout as well.”
“That would be Naya, and don’t count her out. She’s an elf and takes to the outdoors like a chootan to a tree,” Stigandr replied, “Bronze Group has a Scout as well. Kenesaw. Miranda taught us all well.”
“Don’t forget Red Group and The Green Heart Company,” Grace chimed in, “They both have Beastmasters. I know that they are close to nature, but I don’t know if they have any Talents that will help them find the kaers. They can probably get animals to help them and stuff.”
Roland sighed and shook his head, “Well, that only leaves Blue Group. Who all is in that group?”
Jennean fluttered over to join the conversation. “Aram the Blade, Sedric, Grayson, Lodan, Nalese, and Lurman. So,” her forehead creased in thought, “two Swordmasters, an Archer, a Wizard, an Elementalist, and a Nethermancer. They are certainly strong on the spellcaster side, but not much in the navigating jungles area.”
“Alright,” Roland clapped his hands loudly, “Is everyone ready? We need to put some more miles in before we set up camp for the night.”
The Wayfarers re-donned their gear and fell in behind Stigandr as he resumed his climb up the slope.
Day 2 (night)
Dumond stirred on his bedroll, trying to roll away from whatever was disturbing his sleep.
“Nugh,” Dumond groaned a warning, making a barely conscious swat at whatever was tugging at his belt and meeting nothing. “Go ‘way.”
When no further disturbance came, the Illusionist slipped back into his usual deep sleep.
Annoyance flared in Dumond’s mind and he clawed towards consciousness. “Dammit,” he mumbled, “leave me sleep.” He swatted again and, this time, felt his hand knock something away from him. Something scaly.
His eyes fluttered open and, propping himself up on his elbows; he peered blearily in the direction he had felt the thing go. He saw nothing but some nearby low bushes.
“Did you say something?” Grace asked, moving from the position she had chosen for her watch to crouch next to Dumond.
The Illusionist looked at the khajiit. “Something was at my belt,” he replied sleepily. “It went that way.” Dumond pointed towards the bushes.
Grace looked alarmed for a moment. Had something gotten into camp on her watch? She peered at the bushes suspiciously. “What was it?”
“Dunno,” Dumond replied, checking his belt. “Small. Like a cat or something. With scales.” He settled back down onto his bedroll, too tired to care much.
Grace’s eyes went back to the Illusionist. “A scaly cat tried to steal your belt?” she asked skeptically.
Dumond yawned. “I think it was after my spices.”
Lady Grace rolled her eyes, “Are you sure you were not dreaming, Dumond? This certainly sounds like one of your weird dreams.”
“I dunno, but it’s gone now anyway. Imma back ta sleep.” He closed his eyes and, in an instant, he was once more asleep.
Grace smiled down at her companion, stood, and returned to her watch. Scaly cat, indeed.
Stigandr moved cautiously through the rocky corridor, scanning for potential ambush sites. They had been travelling through the natural maze of stone pathways, under the shadow of thirty foot walls, for nearly two hours and had seen no sign of any creature larger than a rock lizard, but there was a tension in the air. Neither Stigandr, nor any of his companions, enjoyed being in such limiting space, especially when potential hazards of the area were still unknown. The corridors were wide enough that the companions could almost walk three abreast, but that was still not a lot of room if they were forced to fight within these confines.
Just ahead, the path they were currently on forked. Stigandr contemplated the options, wishing the hard rock would give away more information as to what sort of creatures might have passed through the intersection. As it was, he saw nothing that made him like one direction better than the other.
With a sigh, he looked back to the group. “Jennean,” he called softly, “Can you go up and take a look?”
“Sure thing,” she beamed back and buzzed upwards in a tight spiral.
“Show off,” muttered a foot sore Lady Grace.
From time to time, Stigandr had asked Jennean to fly up and take a look at their surroundings. Her ability to get up over the walls quickly had become indispensable to the Scout in navigating the maze. She could quickly learn which paths appeared to end and which turned in the general direction the Wayfarers wanted to be headed in. Left to his own devices, he would have had to scale the walls again and again. The climb would not have bothered him much, but it would have taken longer than it took for the windling to fly up and take a peek. Climbing was exhausting work as well.
A few moments later, the windling was back, her features thoughtful. “The both look OK,” she said, “They kinda curve away from each other and rejoin in a mile or so. At least that’s what it looked like. I could fly ahead a bit and check for sure,” she offered hopefully. She loved her friends, but grounders were so slow.
“No,” Roland said, “We don’t know what is out there. We need to stay together.”
Stigandr studied the paths again, hoping to glean some information as to which would be the better way to go. He looked to Jennean once more, “Did one look shorter than the other?”
Jennean’s face creased in thought, “Um. I think that one,” she pointed to the left.
“Alright,” Stigandr shrugged, “I guess we will go that way.”
The group formed up again and started down the new path.
clickety-click, clickety-click, clickety-click
The barely audible sound seemed to be coming from just behind, and downwind, of them.
“Something is coming,” Anetha called from the rear of the line.
“Form up,” Roland commanded, moving to place himself between the group and whatever was coming.
Anetha took up position next to Roland, just as three creatures rounded the corner. They were a bizarre amalgamation of many creatures. Bodies as broad and muscled as that of a bear, with frog-like hind legs propelled them towards the Wayfarers. The long claws that tipped their powerful forelegs clicked on the stone as they came. Spotting the companions, the lead creature opened its massive beak and let out a challenging cry.
Roland set himself to accept the charge, but was caught off-guard as the creatures made a great leap over him and Anetha. Rather than facing the readied Warrior, they leaped passed and went after the less heavily armored.
One landed next to Lady Grace, slashing into her as it came down. She staggered backwards from the impact, but kept her feet. Her eyes narrowed at the creature, “You ugly, frog-dog-bird-bear thing! You are gonna pay for that!”
Another came down in the furthest ranks and struck Stigandr, driving him backwards a few yards. He grunted in pain, but also managed to stay on his feet.
Dumond received the attention, and claws, of the last one. He reeled from the blow and brought a reddened hand up from his wounded side. He knew right away the wound was bad. If the creature was not distracted soon, the Illusionist would not last much longer.
The companions truly swung into action, moving to cover one another in a practiced ballet of life and death. The creatures proved quicker and harder to hit than the Wayfarers had expected, but they were rewarded with a few hits.
Dumond was hit again and he began to feel lightheaded. A surety that he was about to be eaten passed through his mind.
“Hey, hey you’” Jennean called from above, “Lookie, lookie, lookie. I’m so tasty and bite-sized too.”
Jennean’s magical distraction worked and the creature left Dumond and sprang at the windling above. Gnashing its teeth in the air, it missed Jennean by several feet. Jennean laughed mockingly at the creature, as Dumond sank to his knees and fell over, unconscious.
The Wayfarers fought hard and began to fell their enemies. In short order, they stood panting over the fallen creatures. Anetha quickly rushed to Dumont’s side and worked to staunch his wounds.
“Is he OK?” Roland asked, concerned.
“I think he will be fine,” Anetha responded, “He will need to rest though.”
Roland looked over his companions. Some fared only a little better than Dumond. “Yes. We will stop for the night.” He turned back to Anetha, “Will he be able to travel tomorrow?”
“Perhaps,” she replied with a shrug. “I will do what I can, but my supplies are limited here.”
Roland frowned slightly. “Well, do what you can. Is there anything we can keep our eyes open for to resupply you? Plants or something?”
“There are a number of different plants we could use, but vegetation is a little limited here. Perhaps when we get back into an area that has a little more vegetation.”
Day 3 (night)
Not this again, Dumond complained in his dreams. Is that scaly cat back?
Dumond, notorious for his ability to sleep quite deeply, worked to bring himself to wakefulness, while trying to maintain the charade of sleep. He was pretty sure he wasn’t dreaming this time and was hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the creature.
“Aha!” he said, sitting up quickly and snatching at the “whatever it was” that was pulling on his pouch. “Ow!” he cried out. The quick movement was a mistake. His side protested with a wave of agonizing pain, which almost made him black out.
Stigandr was there in a flash. “Are you alright?” he asked.
Dumond’s eyes were closed tightly against the pain. With one hand he clutched at his wounded side, while the other pointed across his body in the direction he had felt the thing flee. “Scaly cat,” he managed through clenched teeth.
Stigandr followed the finger and spotted a smallish creature scrambling across the ground, looking for a place to hide. About the size of a domesticated housecat (not including its long neck and tail), the winged lizard was desperate for escape. One wing fluttered in vain as the other hung uselessly at its side.
The Scout dove after the creature, but was rewarded with only a handful of gravel, as the creature dodged nimbly away.
Dumond came limping in that direction, doing his best to corral the lizard toward Stigandr. Within moments, and after several near misses, Stigandr and Dumond were laughing at their own antics, the capture of the lizard having turned into a game of sorts. If Stigandr hadn’t known any better, he would almost have believed that the lizard was playing as well. Almost letting itself be caught before slipping away again.
Their laughter and shouts of “Get it. Get it.” woke Lady Grace. She stared for a moment, and then her eyes went wide with delight. “A baby dragon!” she cried clapping her hands and racing to help her companions in the capture of the wily beast.
A single word cut through Roland’s sleep, “Dragon.” Dragon? Roland sat up, suddenly alert and reaching for his sword. Rather than the cries of combat he was expecting, he heard laughter. His confused eyes met Anetha’s. She stood at the watch post throwing an occasional glance at the other Adepts. She looked at Roland, gave him a shrug, and returned to her watch.
Giggling like a child at play, Lady Grace’s fingers almost found purchase on the little dragon. It slipped free and turned on her. With a quick intake of breath, it blew a bluish cloud of gas into the surprised khajiit’s face.
Coughing, Grace staggered backwards a few steps. She maintained her balance on wobbly legs and began to wander around drunkenly, in a dazed trance. She waggled her own fingers in front of her wide eyes and tittered happily.
Roland stood and moved towards the group. His eyes followed the little lizard, attempting to calculate any pattern to its movements. It favors its right, he thought, opposite its injured wing.
Seizing the opportunity when it presented itself, Roland stepped into the path of the lizard just as it changed direction. He thought he saw surprise in its eyes as he scooped it up, ending the chase.
The others gathered around to get a better look at the quarry. It fought in Roland’s arms, but he noticed that it did not use its claws or teeth against him. A curious sort of creature, he thought.
“What is it?” Jennean asked, “Is it a dragon? Where did it come from? Does it have a mama?”
“I think it’s hungry,” Dumont said, pulling a piece of jerky from his pack. He moved cautiously within arm’s reach of the creature, tore the strip in half, and offered it some of the dried meat. The lizard’s tongue flashed out, as if testing the meat. In a blur of movement, its head lashed out and snatched the meat, nipping Dumond’s finger in the process.
“Ow,” he waggled his finger at the lizard in a scolding gesture. “Do that again and you can starve,” he admonished. He carefully held out the other piece.
The lizard opened its mouth to receive the gift, but did not move forward to accept.
Dumond leaned in a little closer; but the lizard, mouth still open, pulled further away.
“What’s it doing?” Jennean asked, perplexed.
Dumond took a step forward. “I don’t know. It was eager enough for the first piece.”
Jennean suddenly laughed aloud. “Dumond, look!” Jennean pointed excitedly at Dumond’s waist.
Startled, Dumond dropped the chuck of meat (which was snatched from the air by the lizard) and looked down at his belt. His eyes widened in astonishment. The step he had taken forward had placed him within reach of the lizard’s tail. The tip of the tail had split open into something that resembled a three-fingered hand, which worked at freeing his spice pouch from his belt.
“It’s a pick pocket,” Anetha said, amazed.
Lady Grace, apparently feeling more like herself again, wandered over. “Oh, wow. That is incredible.”
“What’s in the pouch?” Roland asked Dumond.
“Just some spices. Pepper, a few cloves, a little ginger, a couple of vanilla beans… that sort of stuff.”
“It sure seems to want something in there,” Stigandr commented with a wry grin.
“Hold on,” Dumond said, retrieving another piece of jerky. “I’ll give him some and see if he likes it.”
“Her,” Lady Grace corrected.
“What?” Dumond and Roland said in unison.
“It’s a her. A female.”
“How do you know?”
“Look at those eyelashes,” Grace pointed out, “Those are certainly not boy eyelashes.”
“Lizards have eyelashes?” Jennean asked, trying to get a better look.
Grace shrugged. “Apparently, this one does.”
“Here,” Dumond offered the lizard some jerky with a little coarse pepper on it.
It, with unexpected delicacy, took the meat from Dumond and gnawed on it carefully. It swallowed the piece and returned its gaze to the pouch at Dumont’s side.
“Well, it didn’t want the pepper,” the puzzle was beginning to intrigue Dumond.
With a smirk, Roland replied, “Certainly didn’t stop her from eating it.”
Through trial and error, Dumond eventually discovered the lizard’s favorite. Cloves and Cinnamon ranked among the highest, followed closely by ginger. It was, however, when he pulled a vanilla bean from the pounce that they witnessed the biggest reaction. As soon as the bean was revealed, the lizard, which had calmed in Roland’s arms, struggled to get to it. It writhed in the Warrior’s arms and pushed with its back legs against his belly in an attempt to free itself.
Dumond quickly broke of a small piece of the bean and offered it to the lizard. Its eyes widened at the gift, which it snatched up before the Illusionist could change his mind. The lizard popped the bean into its mouth and seemed to shutter with ecstasy. Rolling onto its back in Roland’s arm, it began to writhe happily.
Like a cat with catnip, Roland thought.
The lizard’s scales seemed to shimmer and began to change color, from reddish-grey to a creamy, off-white.
“Hey,” Jennean cried excitedly, “I can do that too! It takes me longer though.”
“What are we going to do with her?” Grace asked. The hope in her voice hardly veiled.
Roland sighed. “I suppose we will have to discuss it.”