"They come after us in force!" shouted Deirdre.
"They'll be more careful after this, though," replied Greenleaf. "Thanks, Oscar, for setting up that magical voice to trigger my little berry fire trap!"
Gord filed away another mental note. In the future he would certainly be wary of cooperation between spell-workers of different callings, such as druid and magic-user. Either alone was deadly, but it seemed that in conjunction, their effect was more dangerous still.
If there was further pursuit, it was not immediate. Their followers had been taught a lesson likely to make them slow and cautious hereafter. The party rode in darkness for only a few minutes before daylight began to brush the horizon with milky paleness, the stars faded, and vision slowly improved as shadows gave way before the sun. A few miles ahead was the beginning of the Suss Forest.
Gord hadn't thought it possible, but the forest here was worse than the southern portion they had had to traverse coming from the Drachensgrabs to reach Badwall. Gord had spent a surprising amount of time in such places, considering he was a city-bred thief, and no forest he had ever traveled in – even the great ones of Nutherwood and Adri – had been like this. However, thanks to the woodcraft of Gellor, Curley and his associates, and Blonk as well, they made fair progress and never became lost in the thickets and tangles of the Suss. Deirdre and Oscar had been in this same region, and with Gord available to clamber unerringly up trees to visually scout their way, the group managed to move westward at the rate of almost two leagues each day as the crow flies. They actually traversed nearly twice that distance, considering the twists and turns of their path as they followed trails or watercourses. The journey was further slowed by ravines and marshes that had to be circumvented, predators to be avoided, and the monstrous denizens of the place to constantly guard against.
There was also the backtrail to watch, for they knew full well that the fiery repulse at the copse of trees had not deterred pursuit. Every sort of craft and dweomer possible was used to conceal and make dangerous the path the party followed. Pits with sharpened stakes were prepared by a combination of magic and manual labor; snares, deadfalls, and spring traps were set along their route. The druidical powers of Curley Greenleaf and Gellor were yoked with the magic of the wizard, Oscar, to create novel surprises such as sticks suddenly turning into venomous snakes when someone passed, trees that would become partially sentient and attack with their great limbs, and the like. They hoped thus to throw off or slow any followers so as to make their own mission a success. If they could locate their goal, it should take no more than a day to finish their work and push on westward, out of the Suss and into the clean air of the elven Kingdom of Celene and beyond.
Whatever they were doing, it seemed to be working. Going through the forest on a northwesterly axis, the party managed to reach the banks of the Jewel River eight days after entering the gloom of the Suss. They encountered remarkably few hostile creatures on the trip, and all agreed that this was probably due to their own remarkable state of alertness and preparation. Creatures avoided them, for their group certainly constituted a formidable threat to anything they were likely to come across, dragons and swarms of humanoids notwithstanding. An unwary hunter was soon devoured by other carnivores – and this party was never unwary.
On the east bank of the Jewel, Curley Greenleaf finally broke out his secret information. It was a reproduction of an ancient map that crudely depicted the area they were in at a time long past. This drawing showed that there was a city just a few miles – as far as they could determine, anyway – north of their present position. Two days of trekking up the Jewel discovered nothing. However, there was no thought of turning back, for the map couldn't be that inaccurate, and the force pursuing would be coming from that direction anyway.
They sat down that night for a council once again. Gord had been thrown into Deirdre's proximity many times during the past week, and now he could at least tolerate her without difficulty. She showed no personal antagonism either, brushing aside his proffered apology with a comment about males having to prove their superiority while females always demonstrated the masculine effort to be fruitless. Because she obviously believed this, Gord actually reacted in a manner that tended to reinforce Deirdre's assertion. But when he realized the trap he was in, Gord quickly ceased his efforts to do anything other than excel at his own profession and otherwise keep his own counsel. Thus, they now interrelated well enough to exchange ideas freely and to contribute to the overall aims of the group.
Everyone studied the old map. No doubt crudely drawn originally, it nonetheless had been copied with exacting care. From what they could determine, they had to be within a few miles of their goal, only the ruin of the ancient city did not seem to exist. Many things were possible, but entire cities did not just disappear. Could it have been razed? If torn down stone by stone, a place such as the map depicted could be made to vanish. But there was no legend or tale that even hinted at this happening, and nothing of the sort in history, of course. Perhaps the whole thing was a fable… Perhaps, but with so much evidence at hand, albeit information of cryptic sort, that seemed doubtful.
"In college," Gord said idly, "we spent some time in the study of natural history. Over ages, even the greatest of rivers change their courses, do they not?"
"You've hit on it!" Deirdre shouted, slamming Gord on the back so hard he nearly choked. "Without even knowing it," she announced to the others, "this city-bred commoner has solved a riddle even I couldn't!… Noofiense, Gord – or the rest of you, for that matter. It's just that we of nobler birth are expected to bear a greater burden in such matters. Well, I say now's no time for chit-chat, but for action."
"Just so," Gellor agreed, casting an understanding smile at Gord and then a broad grin at the rest. "Our good cavalier here may not be diplomatic, but she is eager and willing. Let us press on now. From a vantage point on the river bank we can determine what needs to be investigated."
Leaving the clearing, the thirteen adventurers cut through the heavy underbrush, down a steep bluff of some twenty or thirty feet, and were soon on the relatively open bank of the river. The wizard cast one of his spells, levitating upward a hundred yards, then two hundred, surveying the whole of the surrounding territory. Oscar dropped downward like a stone then, evidently wary of possible attack by flying monsters when in such an exposed position. Gord was interested in the technique, for the wizard suddenly slowed his descent, floating much as a leaf in a gentle breeze for the final fifty feet of the descent.
"Ring of feather falling," Deirdre told him before he could ask anyone.
"There is a marshy place across the river to the south," Oscar told the awaiting company. "I could see streams and at least two large ponds there also. My supposition is that the Jewel once flowed through that area and has moved eastward since."
"Was there anything like ruins – buildings, walls, anything?" demanded Greenleaf.
The wizard considered for a moment. "No, there were no visible signs of any construction… but something did seem unusual."
"Out with it, man!" cried Gellor.
"The western side of the river is lower than this side, you know. I saw a few hills and ridges, but that wasn't what interested me. Haifa league downstream, about at the midpoint of the marsh there, is a small peninsula – more a point of land, actually. It is wooded, indicating it is higher than the surrounding, marsh-covered ground, and had several knolls and mounds on it. I fear it isn't much of a hope, but that's all I can give us to go on. The ancient city could, after all, have been washed away or covered by the Jewel when some cataclysm changed its course."
The river where they stood was a long bowshot across, no more. If there were narrower places, they weren't nearby, soil was decided to cross to the west bank immediately and work southward from there. That way no risk of encountering oncoming pursuers was likely, although Oscar pointed out it would mean going through two or three hundred yards of swampy ground. Getting across with the horses was dangerous, for the river was both deep and swift. Furthermore, who knew what creatures lurked below the surface? Anything from giant garfish or pike to monstrous snapping turtles might be lying in wait for a meal!
Although they disliked doing it, Curley Greenleaf and his associates, Ash, Grover, and Lorman, located a small herd of deer and after much effort managed to drive them into the water near where the party planned to cross. These creatures swam across the river, the current carrying them downstream, so that their course toward the opposite shore was a diagonal one.
Just as the deer were past the midpoint of the channel, and as the group was already beginning to swim in the wake of the herd, something struck. There was a great swirl in the water, and one of the deer simply vanished. One second its head was visible, the next only ripples showed where it had been. From their prone positions, none of the adventurers could see what took the animal, but whatever it was had been huge.
Although everyone was very nervous, and Oscar went immediately into the air to provide some protection from that vantage point, nothing further occurred. By using the horses and swimming strongly, they were all soon safely across and concealed in the trees. The wizard ceased his magical flight and joined them, and after a bit of wringing out they began eagerly moving southward toward what they hoped was the goal of their quest.
After somewhat over a mile of forcing their way through the tangled forest, they noticed that the trees were smaller and there were tamaracks and similar water-loving kinds ahead. Then the ground underfoot became spongy and wet, quickly turning into tussocked bits of earth separated by shallow water. Before long, they were fighting against the drag of the mud, dirty and dripping with ooze, carefully choosing their path so as to avoid mires and deep pools.
There were large insects, huge spiders, and great, goggle-eyed frogs here aplenty. The batrachians evidently fed on the insects and arachnids, keeping them in relatively low numbers, and there were monstrous cranes and other gigantic wading birds that must have found the fish and frogs of the marsh most beneficial. Other than sinking forever in the muck, though, there was nothing hazardous here – at least during dieir passage – and the thirteen bedraggled adventurers finally reached the piece of high, firm ground that formed a small peninsula jutting into the Jewel River.
"Gods, you look a filthy mess," Deirdre said to Gord.
The young thief had stumbled and fallen part way into the marsh and then had covered himself with mud in the process of extricating himself. The female knight looked relatively dean and proper despite the trek, although her armor was sullied and her hair somewhat limp with sweat. Gord tried to dean his hands on his leggings, but got them only dirtier still, for the leather garments were caked with smelly, black muck. He looked at his hands and couldn't resist…
"And you look wonderful, lady chevalier!" he exclaimed to Deirdre, and then patted her on both cheeks with his muddy palms and fingers.
Deirdre tried to avoid the touch, but Gord was much too quick. "You nasty little bastard!" she shouted at him, taking a step backward and trying to draw forth her broadsword at the same time. Her foot struck something, though, so Deirdre overbalanced backward and sat down hard.
"Oh, my dear!" Gord said in mock sympathy. "You must be too exhausted to stand… or is it simply that a woman as large and clumsy as you are can't manage a backward step without falling like an ox?"
"Why, you – " Deirdre managed, her face flushed. Then Oscar was beside her, pressing her shoulders down so she couldn't stand and strike the japing thief with her sword in her sudden ire.
"Relax, love," the wizard said soothingly. "We are all tired and in need of a bit of a breather. Don't let something foolish," and here he gazed meaningfully toward Gord, "betray your sworn oath to serve in this endeavor!"
Deirdre made a face at him, but she relaxed.
"You do look rather silly now, dear," he said to the girl. "Almost as sorry as Gord there – and he's a muckworm if I've ever laid eyes on one."
Everyone laughed then, and the tension was dispelled. Deirdre actually grinned at Gord, sharing his discomfort at being tired and dirty, and recognizing him as part of her team, as it were. She tried to get a bit more comfortable on her seat, then she suddenly jumped up and tore at the viny growth that had been under her.
"What's wrong?" Gord exclaimed, rushing over to see if perhaps something had bitten her.
"This is a stone block!" Deirdre shouted. "I've been sitting on our lost ruin for five minutes without knowing it!" Although the shadows were growing long, the whole group was so excited about the find that everyone wanted nothing more than to begin an immediate search for the great ziggurat at the center of the ancient metropolis. The area was so overgrown with ground cover, bushes, shrubs, and all sorts of trees that the party could not actually hope to do more than a cursory search before darkness.
After an hour or so, Blonk came across a collapsed structure that was still accessible. A portion of the lower story made an acceptable shelter, the walls and roof overhead being relatively sound. The place would serve as shelter against the weather and the night prowlers. It was sufficiently large to allow the party to stable their horses as well, so before long all were securely housed, with the entry partially blocked by chunks of masonry, magical guards in place, and a small fire going at the rear of the place.
"This is not Suel workmanship," Gellor remarked as he studied the bas relief carvings on the walls revealed by the ruddy firelight. "Come here, Curley, and take a look… this convoluted script is like none I've ever seen!"
Although time had worn the stone somewhat, the writing and carving were still clearly definable, sheltered as the stone was within the ruin. The druid agreed that it was totally unfamiliar. Gord took a look, as did Blonk, followed by Oscar. None recognized it as anything they had previously seen. No wonder that the Scarlet Brotherhood had no intelligence regarding this ruin. Legend had said a city of the Suloise had been here, but this place was certainly of origination predating the migration of the Invoked Devastation by centuries.