Hulbard came awake begrudgingly to the dull grey light of dawn. His sluggish mind slowly roused itself to wakefulness and the warrior forced his eyes open, blinding into the unwelcome sunlight. His bleary vision slowly resolved itself into a view of the stone balcony across the room and the bird perched upon its rail. Quite a large bird, he saw, with a rustic brown plumage and wings streaked with feathers of burnished gold. It was, if he had to guess, a falcon.
He squinted at it, wondering if he was seeing things for a long second as it surveyed the room with jet black, unblinking eyes. It leaned forward and suddenly let loos a shrill, ear piercing screech that plunged the room into a flurry of frenzied motion. His companions bolted upright in various states of bewilderment, startling the bird enough to take flight with a single beat of its wide wings. Knox rolled into a ready crouch, a knife as long as his forearm rasping into view from beneath his pillow, eyes bright and alert despite his rude awakening, while Shankhill swore vehemently as he got tangled in his blankets.
“W-What was that?” Skye yelped, throwing up a hand to shield her eyes from the dim dawn light.
“A falcon,” Hulbard told her with a weary sigh as he became painfully aware of his aching limbs once more, “It was sitting on the railing”.
“Hardly.” Quintus grumbled, rubbing at his eyes, “We haven’t seen a bird since we arrived in these ruins. Just fish”.
“Well, I don’t think it was another whale.” Hulbard told them, sitting up slowly.
“I’d prefer a chicken,” Shankhill hummed, flinging his blanket aside and flopping back down onto the pack he’d been using as a pillow, “Unless falcon tastes better, of course”.
After a meagre breakfast of salted pork, they left the tower behind and continued across the rooftops. Quintus marched ahead of them all, picking their route through the labyrinth of spiralling towers, gleaming domes and sprawling rooftops. He gestured with his staff as he went, directing Skye’s eyes to one particular building or another while muttering over his shoulder to her and, for once, his Apprentice seemed to be paying attention.
Hulbard trudged along at their heels, slowly at first, every muscle in his body aching and protesting further use, but his fatigue dissipated quickly with the bracing sea air filling his lungs. He kept an ear on their conversation out of idle curiosity but most of what the Sorcerer mentioned flew over his head; architectural similarities around them comparable to other cities spread across the known world or mentioned in the books he’d read, for the most part. After a while, it didn’t take much effort to ignore Quintus’ muttered ramblings and his eyes found Skye’s rump seemingly of their own accord despite how shapeless it appeared swaying ahead of him in her tattered robes.
Knox walked by his side, his own eyes turned skywards without ever catching another glimpse of the falcon that had woken them, while the others came behind in varying degrees of exhaustion. Trastgor and Semekt were faring well, though Shankhill looked like he’d just spent the last few days sleeping on a tavern floor.
His attention didn’t stay focused on his companion for long though. They passed plenty of stone furniture arrayed across the rooftops throughout their first morning in Dalághast, all elaborately wrought into shapes strange to his eye. There were also plenty of artfully crafted stone pots overgrown with flowering plants in a wide variety of colours and shapes. They’d grown so unruly that Hulbard found himself stepping over the thick tendrils of trailing creepers on one rooftop and wading knee deep through broad leafed ferns on another. Everywhere, plant life had escaped its confines to run rampant across the multihued stone, effortlessly drawing the eye. Unlike ruins in the past, Dalághast practically demanded his attention.
Bare staircases supported by narrow legs artistically worked into their surroundings spiralled upwards to twine with the towers piercing the city skyline before sweeping back down to the rooftops below, leaping from one to next in a flood of multihued stone or splitting to wind outwards to either side in impossibly graceful curves. They formed a network between the rooftops as fluid as the water flooding the streets far below their glittering arches. In the cold morning light, the stillness of that place didn’t seem as strange and oppressive as it had the day before, not now that Hulbard had a chance to appreciate the sights surrounding them.
Ahead, Quintus’ target became clear with time; he was leading them towards one of the largest buildings in eyesight, a vast square behemoth of a structure dominated by a large dome of dull, lead grey plates of metal. Its broad rooftop was surrounded by a tall, ornate stone railing tipped with tall statues of gleaming marble flecked with emerald spots that shone in the sunlight. The face of the building was likewise decorated with statues flanking broad open windows and weathered scrolling chiselled into the stone beneath their sills. In any other city Hulbard had ever seen, it would have been a castle, a place of worship or a seat of great power. Here though, in fabled Dlághast, it was just another building.
As they drew closer to that domed structure though, it gradually became clear that they would have a problem reaching it. It was separated from its neighbours by a wide avenue of fast flowing water, utterly cut off from them. Bridges must once have arched across to it, judging from the crumbling remnants stabbing out into open air above the avenue, but none now remained intact.
They approached the avenue across a flat, triangular rooftop of sand coloured stone, where Quintus paused at a railing to glare across the empty space towards their destination.
“Guess we won' t be going there” Hulbard said from his shoulder, leaning over the ledge to peer down at the rippling sea water rushing past almost forty feet below.
“Skirting around could take… what an hour?” Knox ventured, “Two?”
“There.” Trastgor pointed a gnarled finger towards one end of the avenue, where a tower had collapsed into the water to create a mound of rubble spanning half the distance to the domed building.
"We could climb across that and grapple through one of the lower windows".
"We would be better off going around" Hulbard said, scouring the nearest rooftops, already searching for a way when Quintus spoke.
"No need." he told them, his eyes already fixed on something and Hulbard followed his gaze to a nearby set of grey stone steps rising almost fifteen feet into the air to a round platform.
It looked like it had once supported a bridge leading across to the domed building from a broad, flat rooftop, but that had since collapsed under its own weight.
“I will get us across,” he continued firmly, “Skye, watch closely.”
He scrambled onto the adjoining rooftop and made his way across to the free standing staircase with the others in tow. The steps were steep and the cool wind plucked at his robes as the old man began his ascent with Skye quick behind, her eyes suddenly sparkling with excitement.
The rough edged platform he led them out onto was wide enough for all of them to gather on, if only just. Despite himself, Hulbard shuffled as far away from its edges as he could manage. Quintus held out his staff and the warrior took it, freeing up the Sorcerer's hands to delve into the satchel at his hip. He withdrew a small vial and a long tipped quill as the others gathered around him in restless anticipation, though all knew better than to ask his intentions.
Dipping the nib of the quil through the narrow neck of the vial, he withdrew it covered in a thick, sapphire blue paint and set to work. A cold wind plucked at Hulbard's clothes as it swept across the platform from the west, prompting Quintus to snap at Trastgor to stand nearby as a makeshift shelter against it as he knelt over one corner of the ledge. Hulbard, meanwhile, idly spun the staff between his fingers as he looked around, drinking in the sights as the Sorcerer began sketching quick symbols and shapes across the stone underfoot.
“Everyone remain just as you are' he muttered absently, 'Whatever happens, do not touch any of these lines. If you disturb the paint in any way, we will be taking a very direct route down.”
“Any plan where that's even a possibility seems best avoided.” Shankhill remarked nervously, to a wry chuckle from Hulbard.
“Nothing's ever without risk when you've a Sorcerer involved.” Trastgor remarked sourly.
“Thanks.” Skye snorted with a playful grin.
“You' re not one yet,” the Kurgal told her in that deep voice of his, “You still have time to change your mind”.
“Speaking of minds,” Quintus said from his knees, hunched over a scrawled circle of blue ink, “Do you mind? I' m trying to do something here and you two chattering isn't helping”.
Hulbard gave the painted lines little more than a cursory glance, though Trastgor regarded them warily as the old man moved onto the next at the opposite corner of the platform. The rasp of scales brought Hulbard's head around and he saw Semekt rear to one side, peering ahead towards the domed building with his split tongue scenting the air hungrily. With no recognisable facial expressions to speak of, it was impossible to guess if the Dramaskian had seen anything or if he was just alert.
"See anything?" Hulbard asked the question habitually.
His question was met with the same kind of silence that would have made him feel concerned coming from anyone else. With Semekt though, it just made him wonder if the snake creature had chosen to ignore him for some strange reason or if he simply hadn’t registered the words as being directed towards him.
“Semekt,” he snapped, louder this time and the jet black, blunt snout of his companion swivelled to regard him, “Do you see anything?”
“No.” the hissed response made Hulbard shrug helplessly towards Knox and he turned back to the others, still idly spinning Quintus’ bladed staff in one hand.
He’d spent enough time with the Dramaskian to know that any further attempt at conversation would be a waste of breath and instead let his gaze naturally return to Skye. She was leaning down over Quintus’ shoulder, golden hair swaying in the breeze and he felt a strange sense of longing well up in his chest. A heavy sigh was enough to help him push the uncomfortable feeling aside, but he didn’t have long to dwell on it anyway. Her Master stood a moment later and quickly packed his implements back into the satchel at his hip.
“Okay,” he took a deep breath and exhaled, shaking out his arms, “There isn’t a lot of room for us to work with but try to brace yourselves. This isn’t a trick I use a lot, but I picked it up in Zukriathra. They used to do this all the time when they were building bridges”.
Hulbard shuffled into position alongside the lanky Sorcerer, creating as much room as he could for the others on the platform. Only once they’d all nodded their readiness to him did he begin his work in earnest. He wove his slender hands through the air, drawing loops and arcs with his fingertips as he began to harness the ethereal forces flowing through his veins. The giant felt a palpable tension quickly beginning to build around them; it hummed into life at the edge of his senses and set the hair along the back of his neck to tingling.
Shuddering, Hulbard focused on a shallow breathing rhythm, an old trick his brother had once shown him to help the warrior cope with the unnatural at work nearby. The others milled about, exchanging nervous or wild glances, a mixture of dread and excitement bleeding from each of them in turn. Trastgor looked ready to bolt for safety while Skye’s eyes were bright with breathless joy, her features radiant in the golden sunlight bathing the platform.
One of Quintus’ hands came to a halt poised over the stone underfoot, fingers splayed wide. The other swept into position pointing across the distance separating them from their destination. His lips didn’t move. He uttered to incantation or sonorous litany. Instead, he simply gulped and the tension pressing in on them from all sides seemed to tighten like a coiled string. Quintus’ head came up as his steel grey eyes fixed on the rooftop across the flooded avenue.
Chains of bright purple fire materialised in the air around him, the colour coalescing from nothingness in heartbeats to form the ghostly shade of thick links intertwined together. They rose from the four symbols he’d painted into the stone and faded into existence, leading up to wrap around his left wrist and forearm. His fingers curled around them, clasped the iridescent metal tight. There was an unmerciful crunch as the platform split from the staircase and lurched out into mid air. Everyone was jolted where they stood, keeping their balance with difficulty as the wind picked up.
Hulbard’s stomach churned as the stone beneath them shuddered, heart thundering in his ears as his adrenaline soared. He felt a heavy hand clap down on his shoulder and half turned his head to see Trastgor at his side, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. The sheer unreality of their situation stole over him as Hulbard looked to Quintus, saw his face set in a determined frown, the muscles across his neck standing rigid. Despite the sweat beading his brow, the Sorcerer’s breathing was slow and steady. Hulbard noticed the trace of purple colouring bleeding into the man’s grey irises, but only because he knew where to look and what to look for.
He became slowly, terribly aware of the weight of stone beneath them, his mind boggled by the idea of one man supporting it on his own, let alone with all of them gathered on it as well. The platform juddered forward, jerky and erratic, and Hulbard heard the water churning loudly far below. He felt the ponderous, numb desire to peer over the edge, stare down into the rushing torrent, to witness the sheer impossibility of the act in motion, but he stood his ground, petrified that any movement would disrupt the symbols painted at their feet. The fact that Quintus’ own life hung in the balance alongside theirs gave him some sense of comfort; the Sorcerer would risk their lives in a heartbeat, but not his own as lightly.
They slid out into empty space, suspended high above the lethal drop, floating slowly and purposefully through thin air with nothing to stop a plummet to certain death except Quintus’ iron will. He stood rigid, too terrified to even imagine all the ways everything could go wrong with the Kurgal gripping his shoulder tight every inch of the way, his own fingers wrapped around the rough hewn wood of Quintus’ staff in a white knuckled grip. He barely noticed the statues slipping past until the platform began its descend and, ever so gently, touched down on the roof in the shadow of the great, steel dome.
The glowing chains fell away into the same nothingness that had birthed them and Quintus opened his left hand with a pained huff. Clenching and unclenching his fingers, the Sorcerer winced as he rose back to his full height, blinking hard. Skye was at his shoulder, teeth gleaming in a bright smile, but he pushed her away and held out a spindly hand. Remembering himself with a start, Hulbard handed over his staff.
“Good job Quintus,” Shankhill broke the subdued atmosphere first, clapping the Sorcerer on his shoulder, “Knew there was a reason I kept you around”.
“Saved us a lot of trouble with that one.” Knox agreed.
“Not so bad, “Hulbard joined in, “Give me a little time and I could probably get used to travelling like that”.
“You won’t get the opportunity,” Quintus told him, “Trust me when I say it’s more dangerous than you’d ever like to know”.
His eyes, already drained of all unnatural colour, fixed on a nearby statue just then and lit up again. Standing almost twelve feet tall with its arms thrown wide, the ruby coloured figure was shrouded in a cloak billowing dramatically in a frozen wind.
“This seems worth the effort though” he told them, moving towards the grand figure for a closer look with Skye in tow.
“Semekt,” Shankhill waved a hand airily towards the dome, “Go take a look up there, would you? Make sure there’s no more dead whales or the like waiting for us”.
The Dramaskian slithered off without a word, easily mounting the curved metal plates and clawing his way up its surface with the help of his four arms. Hulbard wandered to the stone railing and peered over it, down into the water far below. It rushed past in a ceaseless flood and he picked out where it eddied and rippled around doorways in the surface of the building, its walls stripped bare of all plantlife but remarkably intact after so long submerged. Just another testament to the architectural might of the long dead city, the way he saw it. Quintus was gesturing towards the statue, speaking earnestly, while the others had gathered in the shelter of the dome to speak softly among themselves. He was only vaguely aware of Semekt’s return until the Dramaskian slithered up to his side and spoke in a dull, rasping monotone.
“There are humans ahead,” he growled in his guttural tongue.
Silent descended in an instant. Everyone turned towards them with incredulous expressions.
“What?” Hulbard said slowly.
“There are humans ahead,” Semekt repeated blandly, dark eyes expressionless.
“And Semekt has gone crazy,” Shankhill announced dismissively, “Must not be getting enough sun or something. Is anyone here trained in animal care, by any chance?”
“That...” Quintus said with dangerous slowness, eyes narrowing to slits as he ignored the man, “Is highly unlikely”.
The Dramaskian made no reply and instead continued to stare at Hulbard’s face, his unblinking gaze utterly impassive. Hulbard understood enough of the creature’s mind to know that he didn’t care if anyone believed him or not. He had simply reported what he’s seen and likewise didn’t care much for what they did with the information. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he’d somehow mistaken what he’d seen for people, but given what he knew about Semekt’s sight, Hulbard didn’t think it seemed very likely.
“Show me,” he said, dropping his heavy pack with a soft rattle.
Hulbard clambered across the dome of dull metal plates with Semekt leading the way. The going was treacherous over that smooth surface, pock marked with holes where some had fallen away into the darkness below while more looked ready to collapse at any moment. They were set into a broad metal frame, which he used wherever he could to give him a firm handhold. Reaching the towering steel spire at the tip of the dome, he crept up to it slowly, while Semekt sprawled out on the opposite side, pressing himself against the metal.
Below, an arched walkway stretched from the building they were perched atop to an adjacent round tower. It disappeared into the water far below, reminding Hulbard more of a buttress than another significant building leeching from its larger neighbour. A statue of white marble stood at the heart of its flat rooftop, perched atop a thick plinth and surrounded by a carpet of emerald green grass. It had been hewn into the likeness of a man in a loin cloth with its left arm outstretched towards the dome above, though it had been snapped off at the elbow. The other held a brace of rabbits by his hip, legs splayed in a ready stance. It was around this that Hulbard saw several figures gathered and the sight of them sent a thrill of excited surprise through his entire body.
They were clustered together and clad in threadbare robes of brown and yellow that shrouded their forms, making it hard for him to judge just how many there were below. Another stood to one side to the statue with a tall staff in one hand and the other outstretched towards the others, in mild imitation of the marble figure at his shoulder. Each of them, without exception, had hoods drawn up over their features and stood with their heads bowed in a picture of supplication. Except for their clothing flapping in the wind, they stood perfectly still on the rooftop.
“Huh,” Hulbard hummed softly to himself, “That doesn’t look good”.
The soft padding of light feet alerted him to Knox’ presence before the hunter joined him, warily peering around the spire by his side.
“Looks like we found the crowd that shot that whale,” he commented quietly, “Though I don’t see any bows...maybe they used some kind of ballista?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Hulbard told him, “Could you hit them from here?”
“It’s a long shot and the wind wouldn’t be in my favour,” Knox squinted, “It’s possible? What are they even doing down there anyway?”
“Hard to say,” the warrior shrugged, “But it looks like they’re awfully fond of that statue. Let’s go tell everyone Quintus was wrong. I bet he’s going to love that”.
“Well?” the Sorcerer asked quickly as soon as they were within earshot.
“Semekt was right,” Hulbard told him, clambering down off the dome, “There’s a bunch of people in tattered robes standing around a statue over there”.
“How did they get here?” Quintus muttered to himself, frowning as he considered the news, “Could they have found another entrance? Is there another breach we are unaware of? Or could they have beaten us down here on the same platform we used? It might somehow reset itself after each use”.
“They looked like they’ve been here a while,” Knox told him, crouched nearby, “That, or they’ve been wearing rags for the last few years”.
“Were there any emblems on their clothing?” Quintus asked sharply, “Or were they of a distinct fashion or cut?”
“Not unless ‘beggar’ has become a fashion” Knox answered.
“Yeah, they reminded me of one or two cults, but that’s just down to how they’re acting.” Hulbard supplied.
“What colour are their robes?” Quintus asked, stroking his lengthy, braided beard.
“Brown and yellow” Hulbard said, before Shankhill stepped between them, waving the news away.
“It doesn’t matter,” he asserted firmly, “It looks like we weren’t the first adventurers to reach this place but that means nothing so long as we’re the first to leave with this Star in our possession. Everything else is just...incidental”.
“They must have affected another entrance in the shield,” Quintus continued regardless, “They could be from another library”.
“Only one had a staff” Knox said, “And they look like they’re carrying little in the way of trinkets. They just look like travellers to me?”
“Then they may have accidentally wandered in here,” the Sorcerer’s tone was growing more confused by the minute, grasping at straws, “Some sort of backwater cult on a pilgrimage?”
“We had to take a floating platform through the clouds to reach this city,” Hulbard reminded him pointedly, “It’s not exactly the kind of place you just happen to wander into”.
"Who cares?" Shankhill asked, exasperated, 'It doesn' t matter who got here first so long as we get what we came here to get'.
"I care." Quintus snapped.
"Yes but nobody cares what you think," Shankhill continued smoothly, "So you can see the bind I'm in. But all I'm saying is that we should find a way around this group of shady, robed people that shouldn't be here and continue on our merru way".
"You would say that," Hulbard scoffed.
"You mean suggest caution?" Shankhill asked with mock horror, "Yes, because the Gods above forbid that one of us doesn't want to risk death in the name of curiosity".
"Enough," Quintus punctuated the word with a thump from the butt of his staff on the stone underfoot, 'I want to know what they're doing here".
"I' m with you," Hulbard nodded, "Best to know what we're dealing with".
He was already reaching for his pack when Shankhill shook his head in disgust, setting his hands on his hips as though he was faced with a classroom of unruly children. Rummaging through his pack, Hulbard dragged out his armour and quickly began arranging them and on the rooftop nearby.
He squirmed his way into the leather hauberk while the others set about readying themselves in their own ways; Quintus was rifling through his pouches, Knox was checking the fletches of his arrows, Semekt was loosening the scimitars in their sheaths. Trastgor helped Hulbard into his chainmail shirt and then the plate armour that went over it.
The process caused him no discomfort. He'd spent so much time in the armor throughout the years that it felt like donning a favourite coat. The weight settled comfortably about his frame without restricting his movement by so much as an inch.
"There's our friend." Skye commented brightly as they worked.
Hulbard followed her gaze to see a speck of darkness wheeling overhead against the sapphire blue sky.
"The falcon?" he asked, never pausing in his preparations.
"Probably," Shankhill scoffed, "With the way today is going, it wouldn't surprise me if it started shitting on us".
"You complain a lot for a man with nothing to do," Knox told him icily, "You're staying here with the girl".
"And suddenly I find myself with nothing to complain about whatsoever!" Shankhill flashed a wicked smirk towards Skye, who rolled her eyes disdainfully.
"We'll be watching," she told Hulbard, "Give us a wave or something if it's safe and spare me from him".
He nodded before slipping his helmet over his features and clasping it in place to his gorget, pausing briefly to allow the gems embedded into the cold grey steel to work their magic and paint a picture of the outside world for him. Then, with a final glance towards the others to make sure they were all ready, he led the way around the mighty dome, no longer trusting it to support his weight.
He carried his broad shield in his left hand but left his weapons hanging loose by his side as a calculated move; he struck an intimidating figure in the plate armour and would usually be enough to deter any rash actions but drawn weapons sent an altogether more hostile message. He felt the first twinges of excitement starting to race through his bones as they rounded the dome and the round tower of grey stone came into view. A narrow walkway of two dozen short feet, sheathed in more grass, separated them. It led to a doorway in the side of the domed structure, set a few feet below the rooftop.
The figures were still gathered around the statue just as he'd last seen them, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. Hulbard cautiously stepped up to the ledge of the rooftop, where the rail had fallen away, and looked down to the bridge below, scarcely three feet wide. He lowered himself cautiously onto the stone, taking care to remain as quiet as he could even in armour. Landing with a soft rattle, he turned to face the congregation across the bridge.
Hulbard focused on the stone underfoot, half hidden beneath the grass and began to pick his way along it. To either side, empty space yawned and the waves crashed far below in white tipped crests. The wind whistled through the surrounding stone, caught at his shield and threatened to drag him free of his perch.
He was only distantly aware of Knox landing next, with Trastgor and Semekt close behind. The Kurgal turned to catch Quintus and lower him to the bridge. The crossing was a delicate balancing act, especially when he was trying to keep an eye on the figures ahead. They'd only made it a few feet out onto the arch when he saw their leader seemed to rouse himself from some sort of reverie and finally notice their approach.
He must have said something, though it was lost beneath the keening wind and rushing waves, because the rest of the figures turned as one to regard them. Hulbard saw a row of thin, drawn faces made up on hard eyes, gaunt features and scraggly facial hair. They instinctively drew closer together like a herd of sheep, warily watching the newcomers approach.
Hulbard tried his best to ignore them as he navigated the crumbling archway and stepped gratefully onto solid ground a moment later. He took a measured step forward onto the round roof of the tower, just about thirty feet in diameter, to give his companions room to spread out behind him. They moved to flank the warrior, just like they'd done a hundred times in the past.
Hulbard stood tall and proud, trying to appear as intimidating as possible; an easy task considering the thick plate armour he wore. Opposite, the figures shuffled restlessly, all wary eyes and ready stances, but he looked past them and into the grey tinged face of their hooded leader.
"Who are you?" the voice was a wet, sickly croak that reminded the warrior of a toad.
"We were about to ask you the same thing," Hulbard answered, his deep voice metallic within his helm but not muffled by it in the slightest, "We weren't expecting to find anyone roaming around here".
"Where are you from?" the leader's voice was a hiss.
"All over," Hulbard dodged the question, "You?"
"Here." the man opposite snapped, "Why have you come? We have no more room in our congregation for travellers like you".
"We seek an artefact from the keep," Quintus took over smoothly, "One rumoured to have been held by the final king of this place".
A hushed whisper rippled through the group and Hulbard caught the word 'blasphemers' more than once as they shuffled restlessly from foot to foot, many looking towards their staff wielding leader for guidance.
"You would desecrate the King's Keep?" he hissed.
"We seek the Crystal Shard," Quintus explained.
This time, the leader's eyes narrowed to slits. He hammered the butt of his staff on the stone underfoot and spoke two words in a voice of iron.
The other figures surged forward as one without hesitation. Hulbard caught the glint of blades in the sunlight as they slid free of sleeves and he moved to meet them, thoughts already racing. Blades would be useless against his armour but the drop at his back was a real threat if they managed to herd him off it. He needed to put as much distance between himself and it, and knew that the only way to do that was attack instead of defend. The only threat lay behind. He had to move forward.
His hand dropped to his waist, found the moulded grip of his warhammer and slid it free of the hook it swung from next to his flail. Hulbard had scarcely taken three steps before a narrow torrent of unnatural, azure fire roared past to his right. It flooded over three of the figures, bathing them in flames and setting their clothes alight. They buckled under the blast, screaming and writhing, splitting apart just as Trastgor bolted into their midst, his heavy blade scything past them in a vicious arc to catch the next figure in line. Turning towards the cultists on his left, Hulbard barrelled into their midst and sent them scattering before his onslaught.
He swept left and the hammer followed in a murderous arc. Its heavy iron head caught one of the men and smashed him to the ground, his thin bones shattering like twigs underfoot. Hulbard shouldered another aside, the screech of a blade skittering across his shield ringing in his ears, already turning towards their leader, just in time to see him drag back his hood to bare a face of sunken features, grey skin stretched taut over sharp, jagged bone. Thick, slimy tentacles uncoiled across his scalp, sickly green in the daylight. They writhed and lashed at the air in a grotesque mockery or hair blowing in the wind.
He clasped his staff in both hands, lifted it high over his head and brought it slamming down into the stone at his feet. A shimmering bubble of hazy gold light rippled into life around the man a heartbeat before he was lifted into the air. Yellow lightning flickered about his bare feet, flashed and flickered between his snapping robes as he rose alongside the statue.
"Back!" a voice barked in his ear and Hulbard obeyed instantly as Quintus slid into place at his side, the Sorcerer's hands already weaving, his teeth bared in a rictus snarl.
Barbed streaks of lightning coalesced around the cultist, swept down one arm and then lanced towards them in a single bolt of iridescent, blinding light. Hulbard flinched but still caught the bluish tint of a shield igniting around them a second before the lightning struck with a bone jarring hum, crackling and snapping with explosive force. The insubstantial bubble blurred as it absorbed the impact and dispersed it with ease, filling the air between them with the stench of sulphurous smoke.
The lightning fizzled out and faded away, leaving the cultist leader hanging overhead, face a mask of fury. Something suddenly struck him in the side, spun him around and brought him crashing back to the ground with an agonised yelp. Through the coiling smoke, Hulbard saw the brother shaft of one of Knox's arrows in his ribs.
The few remaining figures threw themselves forward and Hulbard poleaxed the first with a wild swing of his hammer, smashed another aside with his shield and leapt for their leader. His head came up at the warriors clattering approach, lips drawn into an agonised scowl across rotting teeth. Turning, he scrambled across the emerald grass, clawing at the dirt with one hand while the other clutched at his side, bleeding crimson in his wake. Reaching the edge of the tower, he flung himself from it and plummeted to the surging waves far below. Hulbard slid to a halt just in time to see him land with a bone breaking splash, his torn yellow robes whisked away by the churning water in an instant.
Movement made him turn and sidestep as a cultist charged towards him, skidding over the edge with a shrill shriek of terror to plunge after his leader. Beyond, he saw Semekt moving in a whirlwind of slaughter, his scimitars reaping a red harvest as he spun through the cultists' ranks. Between the Dramaskian, Trastgor's inexorable brutality and Knox calmly sniping from the archway, the last of their number were cut down before his eyes in a matter of heartbeats. Several made for the edges of the towers and threw themselves from it just like their leader had once they realised they couldn't win. The others were butchered where they stood.
Quintus' shoulders were heaving where he stood, the purple orbs of his eyes dulling slowly like dying embers. Hulbard heaved a breath that half caught in his throat and returned his blood streaked hammer to its place at his hip with a shaking hand. Everything felt surreal, the silence suddenly slow and sonorous after the crash of combat and the warbling wails of the wounded. He felt light as a feather as he walked towards Quintus, his mind curiously blank, still lagging behind the fact of the skirmish.
"You saved my ass that time," he told the Sorcerer, his voice a metallic bark within his helm.
"Another good job," Knox slid smoothly between them, "Two in one day".
"Don't let the worm know," Trastgor smirked wryly, "He will expect it of you every day otherwise".
"Me?" Semekt asked blandly from nearby, blood slathered blades hanging limp.
"Your master," the Kurgal told him, "You are a snake, not a worm".
"Speaking of which…" Knox commented and Hulbard followed his gaze to see Shankhill clambering down onto the walkway behind them, though his eyes floated to Skye first and foremost.
"See!" she yelled as she picked her way over the grass shrouded stone, "That's the kind of stuff I want to learn! Start teaching me how to fly and throw around lightning and I might not feel like throttling you every night with your own beard".
"Something is very wrong here," her Master muttered very softly, ignoring her cheerful comments, "That… Sorcery felt strange. Rustic. Wrong".
Showing not the least fatigue, he walked to the statue and began examining it as the others crowded round. Hulbard gave the sculpture a cursory glance, unimpressed with the noble featured face with its broken right arm extended towards the sky, little more than a forgotten remnant of what it had once been. Statues had always made him feel ill at ease but he had more important matters on his mind just then.
"You saw the tentacles on that man's head, right?" he asked.
"I did," Quintus answered distractedly, "And before you ask, I've never seen anything like that before and I don't know anything about it".
"I don't suppose it matters much now," Knox commented dryly with a glance over the edge of the tower.
"Huh, true" Hulbard allowed with a shrug.
"There's nothing unusual about the statue," Quintus announced dismissively.
"They worshipped not the statue itself…," the sudden voice came from behind, soft a melodious, made them all whirl around as one, "But what they thought it represented".
Hulbard froze. He opened his mouth but no sound emerged. Behind them stood a woman where no one had been a moment before, just in front of the archway leading onto the tower, and the sight of her struck him dumb.
A dress of sapphire blue, accented with crimson thread the colour of fresh spilled blood, clung to a slender body of supple curves. A white cloak fluttered around her shoulders, held in place by an arched broach of elaborately wrought silver encircling her neck. This, alone in that place, would have been enough to silence his words but most striking of all was her face; she was stunning.
Her features were fine boned and noble while yet still soft enough to hint at her youth. Her eyes were a startling shade of green that seemed to make the grass underfoot pale in comparison, while a curtain of raven hair fluttered about her face. Her pink lips curled into a gentle, almost apologetic smile.
"Apologies," her voice was soft and serene, "I merely meant to welcome you all to Dalághast. It was not my intention to startle any of you".
Quintus cleared his throat, licked his lips and spoke warily.
"They were friends of yours?" he asked.
"They were not," she told them, "And their deaths are of no consequence. I simply wanted to meet you and this seemed as good a time as any. I have been watching over you with a great deal of curiosity since your arrival yesterday, though I thought it prudent to bide my time. I wanted to wait until your intentions were clear before approaching you".
"What do you know of our intentions?" Quintus asked.
"Only what I heard just now pass between you and those unfortunate souls," she replied with a languid shrug of her shoulder, "But it is enough. You seek the 'Crystal Star'. I wish to see it taken from this ruined place. That is all that needs to be made clear. I can draw my own conclusions about the other details".
"Such as?" Quintus pressed.
"Such as the fact that the only reason you could possibly be here is because the outer veil is fading" she smiled, "And that alone is enough".
"Who are you?" Hulbard blurted out the words, asking the one question burning in his mind.
"I am a friend," she smiled gently again, "And I have been waiting for someone like you for a very long time. Beyond those facts, nothing else needs discussion. Just know that I will be watching with interest and that others, even now, are watching. I will not say more except to move with caution when you see the falcon overhead".
Then, as suddenly as she had appeared, the woman was gone. She faded away before their eyes like mist before the dawn, there one second and not the next.
"What the…" Hulbard muttered dumbly.
"Anyone else see any of that or just me?" Shankhill asked.
"We all saw it Shankhill," Knox told him with a roll of his eyes, "Though I'll be damned if I know what any of it was about. Quintus?"
"There are any number of explanations," the Sorcerer told them, "The most likely of which is that she was a mere projection, an astral presence sent forth from some other place where she will have set up some kind of fortified chamber for that very purpose. She would have to be a Sorcerer of certain skill to achieve that feat but for now, we seem to have an ally in this place".
"And some enemies," Hulbard noted, looking down at the nearest corpse, sliced open from shoulder to hip. "None of which has a satisfactory explanation".
Another bridge like the first led away from the round tower to a neighbouring building and, with nothing left to do, Quintus led the way across it. While waiting for the others to go ahead, Hulbard glanced back at the tower standing alone behind them and paused with a thoughtful hum. It stood tall and proud, though spotted now with blood from the butchery, with its broken arm outstretched to the empty sky. It's right arm?
I've been writing for as long as I can remember, mostly fantasy though I dabble in science fiction from time to time. I wrote commissioned pieces of work for several years but found that it was taking up so much of my time that I wasn't ever getting a chance to work on my own ideas so, deciding that life is simply too short, I left that chapter of my life behind and began dedicating all my free time to developing my own stories, whether they are short in stature or full scale novels.
At this point in time, I have several projects on the go and I'm mostly just looking for ways to branch out and reach a broader audience.