2- The Mouth of Darkness
They followed the waterline, moving swiftly through the tall grass on the bank. The rushing of the river would have masked their advance, but their footfalls made no sound. One moved with feline grace, the other with the deft stride of an experienced hunter.
They signaled to one another each time they approached a clearing, expecting an ambush. Yet each time there was nothing but the sound of the river to meet them.
"This is odd," the ranger finally said. "I have scouted this river many times before. The grinnin infested the entire area."
"It is as they said at the encampment, Baden," the kerra replied. "The goblins have disappeared, except for a few strays. Perhaps capturing one of them would reveal where they have gone."
"Have you ever tried to interrogate a goblin, Murrar?" the human asked. "Even if you understand their language, you're not likely to glean anything of use from their babble."
"True enough," he replied. "Let us move onward."
They followed the river as it turned. After a time they arrived at the base of the steep slope that signaled the ascent to their destination.
At th top of the hill was a small lake, fed from above by Soul Eater Falls. Even in the dark gloom of the forest, this place had a certain tranquility and beauty. The two pased as they surveyed the shoreline.
"Tracks," the ranger said, "leading to the waterfall."
They strode cautiously through the brush, drawing closer to the falls. The kerra stopped and motioned for the ranger to do the same.
"I know that scent," he said, and drew his blade.
"Indeed you should," a cold voice answered.
The ranger spun around, arrow cocked and bow drawn. He pointed it at the dark elf. "Give me a reason to shoot, Tayil."
"Ah yes," she said, her elven eyes glaring at him. "I don't expect you'd want me to leave here now that I have proof of your treachery."
"Treachery?" the kerra growled. "What lies do you speak now, witch?"
"How typical of you," she replied. "You wear a facade of nobility while you do the bidding of your mad queen, poisoning the good people of Freeport with some vile affliction. But now I have found the source of this plague and will find a cure for my people."
"Do you really think you can fool us, Tayil?" the ranger asked. "It's obvious your Overlord has unleashed a foul disease in Nektulos, and now that we've discovered the truth, you're trying to deflect blame onto us. Your machinations are transparent, Teir'Dal."
"Liar!" she hissed, her hands clenching her bladed staff tightly. "It is you who are here plotting the death of countless innocents. Have you not sent agents of Qeynos into our city to wreak havoc on our supplies and ou guards? Do not attempt to plead innocence."
"Your people have done just as much to us, or worse," the kerra growled back. This is just another lie from the Overlord's strumpet!"
"You will burn for that, house pet," she answered as blue fire began to gather at her fingertips. "I'll wipe me feet on the rug I make from your hide."
"Enough of this!" the ranger called out. "We have been sent here by order of Antonia Bayle to find the source of the affliction. We are not the cause of it."
"Why should I believe you?" she asked him. "There's only one human in this world I trust, and it certainly isn't you or your hag of a queen."
"I don't trust you for an instant, Tayil N'Velex. But if this disease has touched Freeport as it has Qeynos, then perhaps we have a common ennemy. And fighting each other won't do anything to help our people."
"What are you proposing?" she asked through narrow eyes.
"I'd like to know that as well," the kerra said. "Because if you think I'm going to help this vile--"
"Calm yourself, Murrar," said the ranger. "I don't like it any more than you do. But we do seem to share the same goal here. Do you agree to a temporary truce, Tayil?"
She eyed them both distrustfully. "Very well I will accept your truce. You have my word, unless I find proof that you are behind this plague."
"I will accept your word for now," the ranger replied. "But tell me, does this oath apply to your friend lurking in the brush behind us?"
The Teir'Dal frowned. "Come out, Korodar," she called. "I have just sworn you to a truce."
A massive armored barbarian came out from behind a tree and walked over to them. "By your command, milady."
Murrar glared at him. "You were going to try sneaking up on us wearing all that plate mail?"
"I wouldn't need to sneak to strike you down, kerra," Korrodar threatened.
"Posturing will accomplish nothing," the ranger chided. "Let's go."
"Go where?" Tayil asked. "That useless twit T'Rath said the answers we sought were up here, but I've found no evidence of what we're looking for."
"That's because you haven't looked in the right spot," the ranger said. "What we seek is behind the waterfall."
The four trudged through the water, moving through the spray of the falls into a cavern behind it.
"There's a door up ahead," Baden noted.
They moved forward and the ranger examined the lock. "This has been opened recently," he said. He reached into his satchel for some picks and soon had the door unsealed.
"Stay behind me," he told them.
"I don't take orders from you!" Tayil hissed.
The ranger sighed. "I'm not trying to... Oh forget it. Just follow me."
They moved carefully through the knee-deep water, following the cave walls. The place smelled of decay, of secrets long buried.
Baden was several paces ahead of the others. He rounded a corner, then began backing up toward them. "Well, I guess that answers that question," he said.
"What question?" the Teir'Dal asked.
"Where the grinnin disappeared to."
From out of the shadows ahead of them advanced a dozen or more goblins, their bulbous eyes glinting in the darkness of the cave.
"This would seem to be the first test of our fledgling alliance," Tayil said. She began to mutter an incantation.
"Indeed," Murrar answered. "I hope your witchcraft is up to the task."
"Bah, enough of your babble!" Korodar boomed, drawing his blades. "Attack!"
As he charged forward, the ranger fired arrows into the goblin hoard and Tayil rained bolts of energy down upon them. The kerra drew his sword and waded into the throng of grinnin.
Deep within the cavern, something sitrred. They come, it whispered. At last they come.