The battle had been short. While the capture of the Desert Wasp had been swift, with little damage to the ship itself, and most of that cosmetic at worst, calamity had befallen the Scorpion. Drifting low in the sky, caustic scars tore across her hull like the rake-marks of some great beast. Huge gashes radiated out and down from ballista bolts buried deep into the magical wood. It had taken every ounce of Krip’s considerable ingenuity to keep her treasured ship in the air. In the end, she herself had needed to draw on the miniscule sorcery that she had learned to cast a meager levitate spell on several of the non-elementium railings. Thank Cerrys that the gnomes who had built her fine ship had thought to attach the railings so firmly! The spells would not last long and the hull was already starting to groan heavily under the strain of having lost so many vital elementium boards.
“We’ve been able to stop the spread of whatever foul enchantment was placed on that acid.” Dargon shuddered visibly at the awesome power of the attack that had so nearly taken him clear out of the sky. As he finished climbing the ladder from amidships he paused to look back over the whole of the vessel. “too damned costly, even for the possible value of what lay beneath these old stones, just too costly.” The loss was felt keenly by each man and woman standing watch on the limping ship.
In silence, Krip guided the Scorpion toward the softest patch of ground that she could see. It pained her to have to set down on dry land, but the gaping holes in the hull left no option for water. She envisioned how her ship was going to look listing and land-bound as though some ancient wreck. The revulsion at such an idea nearly bent her double and she put the thought from her mind. Where was she ever going to find enough elementium to return her ship to the skies? As heart-wrenching peal of splintering wood announced a not too soft contact with the unforgiving ground, Krip clung to the aft railing, deep in worry. This battle had been entirely too costly.
Meanwhile, deep in the ruins….
Ezri paced the impromptu sickroom. The battle to save the Wizard’s expedition had been won, but at great cost. Many of the wizards themselves had taken serious injury, two had paid the greatest price to save their treasures. Forced to haphazardly defend themselves, almost every man and woman of the laboring crew had fallen within moments of the onset of battle. With little time for morning, the entire expedition had taken to caring for those that remained with the fervor of life itself, and possessed of little more than hope and the will to go on, a group of book-loving, history-immersed hermetic wizards put their ink-stained fingers to the tasks of bandage making and wound tending. Despite their complete lack of skill in the area, Ezri was nonetheless amazed at their success thus far. Thinking back, Ezri began to replay the actions of the past several hours…
The dragons and their riders had charged out of the skies to find that the battle around the ruins seemed ended and lost. Only great blasts of magic and the muffled shouts from deep within the ruins themselves gave any hope. Hindered by their size, each dragon had been forced to take humanoid form and move warily into the dark tunnels. Only Efni had had the foresight and ability to shift into a terrestrial form. Recalling some ancient heretical memory, she had taken the form of some great hooked, armored creature thus earning her the point position. Ezri thought that he would have to put more time and effort into learning more practical forms than just his preferred Elven one. As the party moved further in, they began to encounter a maze of rooms and hallways bathed in the blood of heated battle. Following only the shouts of defiance, they quickly came upon room after room packed with Gnomes. Anxiously pressing their advantage, the Gnomes had not expected unfriendly support from their flank. Ezri recalled that the ‘rescue’ had been quite swift. Efni’s chosen form seemed to place the very fear of the hells into the Gnomes. The surprise and fear proved overwhelming and the Gnomes fell away leaving only a single doorway between the Gnomish onslaught and the remnants of the expedition. It was there, barricaded into what must have once been an ancient chapel, that the rescuing party had had its greatest shock; for at the very center of the wizard cohort stood, with only an ounce of life within him, a solitary Battle Cleric of Tiane.
Ezri shook his head as his thoughts returned to the present. He could not puzzle together the presence of a Tianic patrol in such an unlikely place as a Wizard’s camp. Bereft of any healing knowledge, Ezri had been forced to stand aside while ‘Mazu had heroically leaped to the aid of the stricken. Now he could only pace, ponder, and wait for someone to grant him some insight. After all, the whole reason that the Wizard’s council had been so careful about this expedition was that they feared involvement from the nosy Tianic Church.
After what had seemed an eternity, Takeo finally emerged from the inner turmoil of the ’healer’s room’. “There you are Ezri, how fairs the less wounded? Has there been word from the Scorpion?” Takeo’s questions were met with mixed expressions.
“As for the other wounded, how in ‘Tel’ should I know, you know I know nothing of the healing arts.” The frustration on Ezri’s face was plain. It turned to concern as he looked over his shoulder toward the hole in the foundation through which they had first entered the ruins. “As for the Scorpion, there has been no word… Ilix and Nipthit have gone out to try to find them.”
Shimazu nodded, using a cloth to wipe the last bits of dried blood from his arms and face. “I am sure they faired well.” Looking over his shoulder back at the healer’s room, he grimaced, “The Cleric will live, barely. He wasn’t even conscious by the time Sara was able to reach him. It seems that he had given every ounce of his considerable will just to remain standing in defense of the Wizards. An act that I am sure will not soon pass from their memories.”
Ezri could sense his riders deep pleasure at the thought of such a honorable act and what it would do to strengthen the tenuous peace between the Wizard’s Council and the Tianic Church. “What were they doing here anyway?”
“I wasn’t able to gain much, the Cleric certainly had not the stretch to tell me, but it seems that they had appeared only moments before the attack started. When confronted by a rain of Gnomish Schoktroops, the Cleric called out to his patrol in defense of the Wizards.” Takeo smiled. “To their honor, and the utter amazement of the wizards, there wasn’t even a moment of hesitation before the first paladin stepped into battle.” His smile turned sour as he realized the result of such heroic action. “That very paladin now rests beside her commanding Cleric, in worse shape than he. It had been the Cleric’s battle savvy that saved the expedition, of that much I am sure.”
A few silent moments passed before Sara emerged from the healer’s room, followed quickly by an exhausted young paladin. “I have done what I can for those that suffered most, only time and rest will continue their stories this night.” The paladin looked at Sara with a face of great respect as she spoke. “Eston here has provided me with some more insight while helping me admirably.” The paladin seemed to pale at such a heady compliment.
“My skills in healing are only small compared to one so wise in the arts Commander.” The honorific title carried great weight as Eston spoke.
Unaccustomed to Sara’s rank within the Tianic Church, it was a few moments before Takeo responded. “Pardon, how was it that you came to be here at such a fortuitous time?”
The young paladin looked to Sara as if asking her permission to speak. Upon her nod he began to recall the orders that had brought him and his patrol into such a dangerous day. “We had been told only a day ago that we were to be sent to some Wizard’s hole in the ground. Our charge was to enforce the protection of any Tianic artifacts located.”
Sara nodded covertly at Takeo as though there was more to the story that she would impart at a later time. Meanwhile, Eston continued, “We arrived only moments before the Gnomes started floating from the sky. Word of the Gnomish Sultan’s devious ways has become quite well known within the Church.”
Eston had left much unsaid in his closing statement, but Ezri could understand the implications. The Tianic Church was often slow to act in political matters. Enemy nations could not be manipulated, but once a nation was believed to be truly corrupt, the full fury of the Tianic Church was sure to follow. Though their motives were not always clear, their commitment to good was without flaw.
“You are a credit to the honor of your church young Eston.” The statement was meant to bolster the young paladin, but it only seemed to pale him further. Concerned, Takeo pressed further, “Do you not wish honor for your Church?”
Eston stumbled for only a moment, “No sir, it is not that.” He paused as though choosing his words carefully. “It is our place in this world to defend others, it is good that we could be here to do so.” Behind Eston, Sara noticeably rolled her eyes."
Sensing that the young paladin was not likely to volunteer further information to him, Takeo decided that the topic had been exhausted. “Ezri, could you find a bed for this young man?”
Ezri was not comfortable with such a direct request, but he could tell that Takeo was attempting to distract the paladin from Sara’s true loyalties. Eston would never quite understand the truth of their bond, and so it was the pretense that had to be maintained. As Eston looked to approval from Sara to depart, Ezri took on a mock subservient role to his rider, and bowed his way into the hall, Eston in tow.
As the pair left, Sara turned to Takeo. “He will be srue to get you back for that, and you know it.”
Takeo was chuckling softly to himself as he nodded. His eyes were not on Sara but rather looking tiredly down into his still reddened hands. “Oh, he already has, you should see the images he is sending me.”
“I believe it.” Sara moved over to a small pile of discarded crates and up-ended one. “It has been a long day, shall we sit?” Takeo was quick to accept the invitation. “My rank in the Church still affords me some considerable benefits it would seem. I was told considerably more than you.” Sara paused to muse over the implications of her dual loyalty. “The day that others truly understand the bond is the day that they will all fear our true commitment Takeo, will we ever be trusted then?”
Takeo nodded, sensing the deeper worry in his friend. “For that, we have honor. We must show them that no matter how strong our bond to our dragons, we can still keep our promises and the honor that we uphold.”
Takeo took heart in her sarcasm. “So, what was it that you learned that I could not?”
Sara leaned back, attempting for a modicum of comfort. “The Church had an informant within the laborers here at the dig.”
“That doesn’t seem so out of the ordinary does it?”
“No, alone it does not, but its the timing that concerns me. young Eston was able to tell me that a specific item had been found deep within the ruins. One of the two Wizards who has now passed beyond had devined it’s presence deep within the ground. It was the day after that event that both the Church and what I assume was the nearest Gnomish airship, arrived here.” She let the implications sink in a little before continuing. “If the Gnomish attack had been planned, why would the reinforcements have been a full day and a half behind the initial attack?”
Takeo looked as though he was about to speak before Sara held a hand to stay him. “There is more.” Sara sat up again, looking straight into his eyes for emphasis. “It was I who first reached the corpse of the wizard who had devined the object, whatever it was. Takeo, no Gnomish blade or spell took that wizard. As best I can tell, he took his own life.” The puzzle had consumed her for some time and now as she shared her thoughts an idea sparked in her mind. “Is it possible that he feared to allow what he saw to become knowledge for either the Church or the Gnomes?”
“That, sadly, we can never know.” The events of the evening were beginning to overtake the pair as dark circles seemed to deepen in Takeo’s eyes. “Anything so powerful as to induce such an act by so committed a wizard cannot be taken lightly. The Wizard’s Council has granted us access to what they find here, but we may have to walk a fine line between our honor and the saftey of Elaythia. Something powerful enough to inspire the Sultan to divert an airship for an ill-planned assault and draw an immediate patrol from the Church might not belong in anyone’s hands.”
Sara gave her friend one last strong look before audibly standing. “I had wished to see our friends safely return, but I fear that I could not remain awake a moment longer.” Her look to Takeo was firm. “You should find rest as well, healer’s orders.”
Takeo warmly regarded the cleric as she moved to leave. For all her good intentions, they both knew such an order could not hope to stick. Loath to even stand in his exhaustion, Takeo pulled over another crate and reclined both of them against a wall. It was in this semi-awake state of existence that Dargon found him. With only a single nod of victory from Dargon, the heir to the Eastern Empire, and Rider of Ezrinithakiz fell deep into sleep.