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The giant was half asleep when Locasta and Trax found him. He was leaning against a hillside, a spot that would be comfortable in the midday sun. He was the only guard they could see on the path to the Temple of Kaylus, and though Locasta thought there may be more hidden along the winding path, she doubted it. Giants didn’t need to hide. They backtracked a ways, until they were sure they were out of earshot of the giant, and crouched down in a cluster of boulders and tall grass.
Locasta didn’t speak right away, already formulating a plan of attack. She watched Trax instead, waiting to see if he also noticed the strangeness of the situation. They had not been travelling together for long. It had only been a week since they had chanced upon each other on the road out of Stonehaven, and she wasn’t sure of him or his abilities. He was impressive to look at, being dragonblessed and a full foot taller than her, and she was tall for a woman. Rather than flesh, he was covered in dull golden scales, and swathed in long green robes that bore the talismans of a monk of the Old Ways. She had met few dragonblessed, and fewer monks, and could figure little about him, not even his age. She wondered if he had ever met a giant before, let alone fought one, or if this was his first journey outside of the monastery.
“He’s small for a giant,” Locasta said at last, adjusting her grip on the spear in her hand every few seconds. “And not very vigilant, if he’s supposed to be a guard.”
Trax nodded. “So it may be that he is part of a trap, meant to lure us in unaware, or something very unusual is happening.” His voice carried no inflection when he spoke in the common tongue, and if the expression on his face changed at all Locasta could not tell.
“I don’t like our position. Either we scout forward, and possibly get surrounded by them, or try to fight here and draw them down on us.” Locasta sighed.
“I think he is here alone,” Trax said, after thinking for a few moments. “He would be afraid to be caught dozing if there were others.”
“You’re assuming giants are as disciplined as dragons,” Locasta said, nearly snorting in derision.
“I assume they would be when it pertains to one of their temples.”
Locasta tilted her head side to side, weighing the evidence. “Very well, we try to take this one as quietly as possible, and keep pressing forward.”
Trax made a strange hissing noise, his mouth open and showing his many pointed teeth. Locasta was a bit unnerved, and gripped her spear tighter. She knew he was laughing, but it made her uncomfortable all the same.
“Quietly as possible,” Trax repeated, then stood and started up the hill. Locasta followed quickly, understanding the joke. Though neither of them wore enough armor to clang each time they moved, neither of them were slight or subtle. Trax could be incredibly nimble for one his size, but he reserved that for fighting. And Locasta had never been graceful. The two of them clamoring up the rocky hillside should have alerted the guard to their presence.
But as they crested the hill the giant was still dozing, curled into a nook in the rocks. They paused there, to be certain the giant wasn’t pretending, and readied themselves for the battle. Trax’s breathing slowed, and he closed his eyes, drawing energy into himself he had explained to Locasta before. Locasta purposely quickened her breathing, forcing her adrenaline to rise, and as it did she felt her skin begin to harden as she drew on the power granted to her by the Stone Dragon. Soon her skin was pale and grainy as granite. She glanced over at Trax who was looking back at her with his golden, reptilian eyes, the pupils slit thin and hyper focussed. Together they leapt from the hilltop onto the still form of the giant.
Trax landed gracefully on the giant’s shoulder, helped in his descent by the leathery wings that unfurled from his back once he jumped. In one fluid movement he brought his quarterstaff down hard onto the curve of the giant’s back and swung into a set of kicks. Locasta could hear the bones breaking under his blows.
She landed roughly on the top of the giant’s head, and would have continued toppling down if the point of her spear hadn’t dug into his skull with a dull thud. She steadied herself between the spear and the hillside, blood spreading into the hair beneath her boots, and called up a spell. Sparks of red energy flashed along the spear.
But the giant wasn’t defending himself. He groaned, a low rumble beneath them like an earth tremor, but didn’t move. Locasta half jumped, half climbed her way down the giant’s body, stopping near where his knees were tucked up by his stomach. More dark blood was soaked into the hillside, and the ragged edge of a wound was visible on his side.
“He’s already dead,” Locasta said, kicking a rock down the hill.
“He is not dead, he just moaned in pain,” Trax said, gliding down to land beside Locasta.
“Well he’s mostly dead. We’re just finishing him off.” Locasta looked a bit closer at the wound. “I can’t really tell what it was . . . what do you think?”
“I think we should investigate further. I will put him out of his pain.”
Locasta climbed back up to the giant’s head to retrieve her spear, while Trax began digging through the things in his travel sack.
“What are you doing?” Locasta asked as he also climbed up to the head with a few bottles in his hands.
“Relieving his pain.”
“That’s a waste of potions! Do you have any idea how many of those it will take to actually heal a giant? He’s dead, let him die honorably for having tried to guard his charge.”
“If he were guarding his charge, he would have died at the temple, not this far down the road.”
“Then let him die a miserable coward. Come on, we don’t have very many of those, and it won’t do anything for him.”
Trax thought for a moment, then looked again at the giant, who was still making the ground rumble with his groans.
“I cannot leave him like this,” he said finally, beginning to uncork one of the bottles.
“Fine.” Locasta huffed, slid down the hill a short way, and jammed her spear into the back of the giant’s neck. He made a short choking noise, and fell silent. “There. He’s out of his pain. Let’s keep moving.”
“I think we should discuss your way of solving problems,” Trax said, as he and Locasta followed the winding path through the hills. There was no sign of any other guards, and in fact, no sign of anyone at all in the valley.
“What?” Locasta retorted, pausing her scan of the valley. Trax had a strange habit of starting lectures this way, supposedly a way of putting the person he was lecturing into a thoughtful or quiet mode. Locasta hated it. “I think we should discuss why this temple seems to be abandoned, and only one half dead guard was left behind.”
“It would seem the order that used the temple was forced to leave quickly,” Trax noted.
Locasta grunted. She had been hoping for more insight than that. Trax was glancing sideways at her, his golden eyes narrowed. “What was your friend’s mission here?” he asked.
“He was retrieving an object of value,” Locasta answered. She had learned it was best to answer Trax vaguely. He rarely assumed she was not being truthful, and never sought more information than he needed.
“And if the giants were unwilling to part with that item?”
“He would not have been able to drive away a troop of giants and all their servants.”
“You did say he was more powerful than you? Quite the experienced fighter?”
“Yes, and completely alone for this mission.”
They stopped as they neared the entrance to the temple. The path ahead of them rose up and over a steep ridge, and disappeared. Beyond the ridge, the hills rose to craggy cliffs that formed a natural circle. Using the nearest of the cliffs with few rocks jutting out at the right height, Locasta boosted herself up enough to look over the ridge.
“He couldn’t have done this alone,” she said, her voice hushed. Trax dug into the side of the ridge with his talons and pulled himself up cautiously.
“Oh, no,” he said, quietly agreeing with Locasta’s assessment.
The temple was built far down into the ground, so that the cliffs towered over it. Each cliff had been carved into the image of a giant, each with a different expression on their face and each looking down at the central part of the temple. More than half of the center bowl-like valley was covered with boulders and broken rock, most of which had been torn from the cliffs. The giant statues were missing most of their bodies below the waist. Among the rubble the large arm or leg of a giant was sticking out at strange angles. At the very middle the head and shoulders of a brass statue, the image of the giant’s god Kaylus, stuck out from the landslide.
While Trax stared down at the destruction, Locasta hopped down and moved back to the path. She cupped her hands into shovels, and began making motions at the ridge. Each swooop of her hand caused a person sized pile of dirt to pull itself away from the ridge and dump to the side as though she controlled a massive invisible shovel. After a few moments she had cleared a path through the ridge, and began heading into the valley.
“Are you certain we should go down there?”
“There are probably a lot more bodies under the stones. I need to see if he’s one of them.” She also needed to see if the place had been robbed, or if the item he had been sent for was still there. Trax launched himself off the ridge and glided in slow circles down over the rocks, while Locasta picked her way down the path, sliding in spots where the packed dirt gave way to bare rock.
“No one alive,” he said, landing beside her once she reached the bottom. “It does not appear that it was a natural collapse.” Trax waved an arm at one of the statues. Rather than seeming incomplete, the stone looked like it had been torn apart. There were several sets of three parallel scratch marks within the holes. “They must have all died in the landslide.”
“Not all,” Locasta said, gesturing to another opening in the walls, this one a natural cave that had been finished over with cut stones. “These were slaughtered.” There were several people there, piled together, their throats cut, their gray robes splattered with blood and dust. “In case you needed further proof that this was a Roc attack. If those bird brained fools have taken the sword-”
Before she could finish, a loud crack sounded behind them, and a massive stone rolled towards them. They dove further into the cave, Trax hopping lightly over the bodies, and Locasta nearly tripping over them and crashing into a side wall. She caught herself against the smooth stones, and gasped as she realized what a tactical mistake they had made. The boulder landed snugly in the cave mouth, sealing them inside.
Trax sighed. “It seems that the bird brained fools have trapped us.”
Locasta waved her hand dismissively. “Stand back.” The cave did not extend back very far into the earth, about five feet or so. It had just been a space for the humans to do whatever work they did for the temple.
“Do you think that is wise?” Trax said, backing up as far as he could against the wall.
“Are you going to move it?” Locasta asked, pointing at the boulder.
“It is not likely.”
“Than stay back.” She made a wide sweeping motion with her left hand, then made a fist and punched forward at the boulder. A thunderous boom blasted through the boulder, shattering it and sending shards of stone exploding in all directions. Trax’s ears were ringing. Locasta stood dazed a moment, bleeding from several cracks the flying debris had opened on her face and arms.
The wizard outside who had dropped the rock into place looked much worse. She had been knocked backwards, and was cradling her arm as she tried to pick herself up from the pile of stones she had landed on. There was another woman, wearing similar robes to the bodies behind Locasta, also crumpled on the ground.
The blur of black leather and flash of sharp silver that jumped at Locasta from beside the cave mouth didn’t seem hurt at all. His sword sparked against her stony arm, and he kept swinging, pressing her against the mouth of the cave. The swordsman had been quick and silent, surprising Locasta before she could react. But Trax moved with the speed and grace of a flame. He surged forward and pelted the swordsman with a series of kicks and punches that flowed like the steps of a dance.
The swordsman tried to weave out of the way, but each dodge was anticipated and countered. Trax drove the swordsman back so quickly that he tripped over the fallen rocks and lost his balance. It was not enough to knock him down, but enough to keep his sword from coming near the scales of his attacker.
By that time, the priestess of Kaylus had gotten back to her feet and started twirling something that she had been carrying on her belt, ending with a sling like motion, aimed at Locasta. A beam of light flew from the reliquary and knocked into her, searing her skin and leaving a strange glow all around her. The wizard made a motion from her spot on the ground, sending several arrows made of pure flame streaking for Locasta.
She was prepared this time. She shot her arm up in defense, and a round shield of stone appeared over it. The arrows dissipated into smoke as soon as they hit it. Locasta ran the head of her spear along the edge of her shield, sending sparks flying, and then pointed it at her attackers. Two bolts of blueish lightning shot out from the spear tip and lanced out at them. The wizard screamed in pain, and the priestess grimaced, but she still started to prepare another spell.
“You should surrender while you are able,” Trax said, not even panting, though the swordsman was working hard to keep up with his blows. “She will not pause long enough for you to relent at the last moment.”
Locasta laughed, loudly, and started moving slowly towards the women, watching in amusement as the wizard tried to get the components of a spell together with one hand. She kept trying to gather things in her broken arm, and each time she added something, something else would fall to the ground.
“Sounds fair to me,” the swordsman said, gulping for air as Trax finally began to slow his attacks. They warily backed away from each other a few steps. “If we get to leave with our lives.”
“Your lives? I suppose,” Locasta said, still maintaining the lightning. “But I will need to search you.”
“No deal,” the priestess cried, slinging another stream of light at Locasta. This time when it hit it made her mind fuzzy and her vision went blank a moment. The lightning wavered, but continued.
“You can keep your precious relics,” Locasta said, still smiling. “I only want back what is rightfully ours.”
“Come on, give it up! They only want the sword, and it’s not here anyway.”
The priestess glowered at the swordsman a moment, but finally raised her hands in surrender. Her face darkened as the lightning continued pouring into her.
“Locasta, if you please,” Trax said, but there was an edge to his voice, one of the few of his inflections Locasta had learned to recognize. She stopped the stream of lightning.
“Well, that was an interesting turn. A rogue like that telling the truth.”
“He wanted to get away with his life. I do not imagine the price was worth what few scraps they found still intact in this place.”
Locasta was pacing circles around a small pile of rubble. It was mostly in the shade, and though her skin took on some of the properties of stone, she was still sticking uncomfortably to her shirt.
Trax, who managed to enjoy the heat no matter how sticky the air, was doing something in the mouth of the cave they had been trapped in. Locasta couldn’t see what.
“Rocs are going to be a pain to track,” Locasta whined, moving further into the shade of the remains of the Kaylus statue. She walked out again almost immediately. From that angle she couldn’t see Trax at all. “I mean, it can’t have been too long since they attacked. Hardly any carrion here yet. And the giant guard wasn’t quite dead. But if they were travelling with no ground troops, they could have flown anywhere by now.”
“Judging from the deaths of these they had ground troops.”
Locasta was torn between staying where she was, to avoid them getting caught unaware again, and moving closer to Trax. He seemed to be setting something up in the cave. She couldn’t imagine he would be taking the time to bury so many bodies. And they had already searched all the corpses. Unfortunately, the rogue had been telling the truth, and Craven, the sword that the Iron Champion had been sent out to reclaim, was already gone.
“We should be getting after them then,” Locasta said, deciding to move a little closer and to the right, to try and see around Trax’s large, scaly body. “We have a good chance of catching them.”
“In a moment.”
Locasta managed a glimpse of what he was doing. He had set up a few small metal bowls in front of him, with incense burning in each one.
“We’re wasting daylight.”
“You may go on ahead of me if you wish. I will catch up.”
“And to think I considered you a good omen.” She kicked away a small rock and went back to her pacing. She could have gone off on her own, but this had become much larger than she had thought it would be. She had been sent to find a missing comrade. Gerard, the Iron Champion, had not reported home for far too long. So they had named her the new champion, and sent her to find out what had happened. What she had thought would be a good first quest had turned into a war between the Gargants.
Trax began a low hum. It was rhythmic, almost sing-songy, and was punctuated now and then with a growl. Then he launched into what she could only call a prayer. In the common language Trax’s voice was monotone, without inflection or expression. In the dragon’s language he was a poet.
Locasta said her ritual prayers to the Great Stone Dragon every night as any loyal citizen would. But her simple repetitions of “today in your strength Great One I . . .” followed by her deeds for the day were nothing like the eloquent verses Trax said for the dead in that cave. When he was finished she almost wished she had died there that day as well.
He took a moment to collect the bowls again, but left the incense burning there.
“Now we may go.”
Locasta nodded slowly, and followed him out of the valley on the trail of the Rocs and their soldiers.