“Apu! Amu! I am home!” called Ulua. The warrior princess led them to the top of the Ata’uahn peninsula, into the heart of the Ata village. Or what was once a village, for it only took a moment for them to tell that is was deserted. Ulua, who had clearly thought of this moment for some time, couldn’t see what her eyes saw.
Now, barely noticeable through wild and tangled bushes and vines, bits of broken and weathered huts stood shambling to one side or the other. All were in disrepair and being taken over again by the jungle. Probably for many years, Areia guessed.
With a noble gait, leading the others, Lord Haryk strode up the Ata’uhn’s entry path, and into their central gathering area. “I don’t like it,” said Haryk, “I don’t like it at all.” He pushed on one of the hut doors, and it fell over instantly. “Not at all.”
Not seeing he people standing there as she had so often imagined, Ulua slowly grew from elated to distraught with grief. She ran from one hut to the next, peering inside calling out the names of her tribespeople. But none answered nor would they. It was obvious to all that no one had lived here for many years. She stood there then, arms by her side in defeat. She had thought of this moment so many times, in so many ways, in so many of the most terrible moments she had endured. The reality of her fantasy, now unrealized, was crushing.
A sudden blurred form streaked around a hut strewn with overgrown vines near their position. It kept to the shadows, but Areia noticed it out of the corner of her eye. It slunk cautiously, hunting. It burst from around a large tree, making an inhuman screeching sound. The noise it made sent icy tendrils down their spines. The claws stretched out for the princess’ throat. But luckily the claws never never made it, for Haryk’s weapon fired, and Areia struck the creature with a well thrown dagger in the center of it’s chest.
The thing stopped midstep, a great evil sneer spread across it’s monstrous face, bulging eyes fixated on Ulua all the while. Inhuman teeth that seemed to tear through it’s lips, frothing, and blood was oozing from the corners of it’s mouth. It stopped frozen, mere inches from her. It went to make a second lunge, but Thrak’s axe caught it at just the precise moment when it’s momentum brought it forward once more, and the weapon striking home in it’s neck, sent it flying back into a pile of wood that might have once been a hut. “Somebody,” roared Thrak, and the axe recoiled magically and returned to him.
Andril stepped over cautiously to the thing which now lay out of the shadows of the trees above them. The sun shone upon it’s putrid flesh. He watched it burn, smoke rising off the pale and rapidly blackening skin and what little hair was left. “Not somebody, I fear,” said the wizard. “Some thing, Master Thrak.”
“What in the Light isss it?” asked Thrak.
“It is the dead, made undead,” said Frank from behind them. He came to stand next to Andril, and motioned for the others to stand back with his arms, “See how it melts in the light? See how it’s flesh returns to the darkness of the soil? This is the power of the will of one who was once alive, corrupted and twisted to do that which it is enslaved to do.”
“It is the soulless,” said Ulua, now crying, “But it was once my friend. She was once my friend.” She picked up some of the dark soil and spread it atop the body, now nothing more than a smoldering pile of ashes. “My people foresaw this,” she sobbed, “for this is why they chose to align with The Seeker. He is gone now, he found what he wanted and left them here to be corrupted. The land is bringing forth the dead. This is the punishment for the crimes committed against the people of O’lorhan. I am the last of my people. The Ata’ are no more.”
“There is more than the Ata’ gone, noble princess,” said Thrak. “The jungle is dead as well. Lisssten.” He pointed with an outstretched claw all around him. He was right, the jungle was dead, silent. Except for above. In the trees, the birds still cooed and called, but they sat only in the very tops of the canopy.
“Well, this adventuring stuff could be better,” sighed Andril, “Where to now?”
“Now, we consult Fritz’ map, and carry on with our mission,” said Haryk. “And then we get back to the ship. And get the Ketian hell off this peninsula.”
“Works for me,” said Areia. She rolled out the map upon the ground, and they all studied their options. Ulua told them about the dangers of each, navigating into the heart of the island. She worried her information may no longer be as valuable, but the others listened intently anyway. There were many features of the island, swamps, and a plateau of rolling grass. Mountainous craggy trails with precarious trails. Ultimately, they decided to to seek drier ground, traveling through the grassier plains in the middle of the island, rather than to take the exposed areas in the rocky trails that crept along the coast. Ulua pointed out that they would need to cross an area of swamp in order to get there.
“I say we visit Fantasy Land first,” said Frank, giving Areia a nudge.
“Nah Frank,” said the rogue, “I’m going right for the Ketian Kandy Counter, yum!”
Thrak didn’t get the joke, as usual, and muttered something about humansssss…
After a short search that bore no fruit, they walked out of the village, into a darker, deeper part of the jungle. Thrak noticed that the man named Marcus whom they had saved and who had decided to come with them, had remained silent the entire time. Thrak decided to walk along side him. It was customary among his race to challenge a fellow warrior when first meeting them as a sign of respect. He hadn’t done this often, because he realized the Celns didn’t always care for it, but he thought he might with this one. Something about the jungle and being back in it made it seem proper, to him. Coming around a bend and down a small ravine, they unexpectedly ran into a flooded area and waded into murky, muddy water that was knee high. One by one they moved across the area, holding their gear above them to keep it dry. The man slogged through the muck slipping here and there, while Thrak’s clawed feet gripped the muddy rocks below all the grime and pulled him through quickly. Once across, the lizardman turned and saw the human still slogging through, trying to keep the rest of himself above the knee-line free of filth. Marcus stopped with his adventurers bag held above his head, seeking a proper footing for the final few feet.
Thrak held out a claw in assistance. “It’sss a filthy businessss, adventuring isss it not, human?” asked Thrak. But the man did not take it. Typical, he thought.
Marcus shuffled around to the side of the lizardman, and finding a foothold or two, used a vine for balance and stepped out of the murky water. He walked over to the lizardman, adjusted his bags again, and took the lizardman’s still outstretched hand, this time in a handshake. The force of the grip, let the the reptile’s talons dig into his flesh. It was a true Celn handshake in the Cillandrial fashion, the first that Thrak had ever been offered. The man cracked a smile, and looked intently at Thrak. He chortled, “Master Thrak, one man’s filth, is another man’s jungle.”
Marcus then moved on, carefully following the others into the swamp through which Ulua was leading them. Thrak followed too and looked down at his claws, now stained red. The man’s blood was drying upon several of his long nails that had dug inadvertantly into the man’s hand. It felt good to shake a hand like that, even if his wasn’t one. Thrak suspected that there would come a time when he would bleed for this warrior as well. In fact, he looked forward to it.