The Craterian gunship detonated with skull-rattling whump.
As the fireball’s light warmed the adventurers, they felt on top of the world—exhilarated by the thrill of victory…
…but then Titus spoke up. “That was quite a debacle, wasn’t it?”
“Hey, it could have gone worse,” remarked Fae. “At least we didn’t lose anybody.”
“But that’s just it. During the three weeks that we’ve spent in this awful city, our every action has made us more enemies than we can kill!”
“Well, when you put it that way…”
Elka smirked. “We just blew up a Craterian airship full of what were likely to be their best-trained men and women. That’s a victory in my book.”
“We’ve been too quick to forget why we had those airships on our tail in the first place!” Drawing a sharp breath, Titus ran his gloved hand over his shaven head. “That blasted tiefling told us we’d need equipment to sneak into the warforged concentration camp at the quarry, and—” Titus held up his pointed fingers above his ears in a crude caricature of their contact— “What better a place to find it than in the Craterian armory. Did I mention I’m their boss, only I don’t care much for this job and I don’t trust my money-hungry comrades at all, so you should release those warforged and kill my boss, so I’ll be out of a job and my subordinates will hate me? What an incredible load of bull this man served us, and we ate it right up!”
High Minister Forzant glared at the mercenary leader from behind the expansive desk. “I don’t know where you’ve been, but it wasn’t where I needed you.”
“Forgive me for my tardiness, Master Forzant, but my lieutenants had verified that major resistance leaders were—“
“Shut it. Your man Kigo has informed me that the evacuation of the central districts is complete, so you need to ready troops for deployment immediately.”
At this, Radek Quartermass was silent for a long while. He turned to gaze out Forzant’s generous bay window, toward the lower city in the south.
This man is stealing my dreams for himself, Quatermass thought, and still I am his slave.
The tiefling turned to face the High Minister once more. “What about the ritual? Shall I give the order?”
“It has been given,” said Forzant. “The mages expect the crypt to reach full capacity within the hour, and Kigo already has a cohort prepared for launch.”
“If we’ve been led on and we’re surrounded by enemies as you suggest…we should just keep flying and leave this horrible place behind us. I doubt that the Craterians are in any position to pursue.” Elka brought the hijacked gunship to hover above the Silk Silhouette’s darkened garden looked intently to her companions.
Fae turned to Titus. “Maybe Elka’s right. I came to this peninsula to escape my past, but our brush with that Mendicia woman brought back too many bad memories. I know that I don’t want to stick around any place where my people are a significant presence.”
“What’s your position on this, Sophia?” Titus asked. “You’ve been awfully quiet since we escaped.”
The towering warrior gripped the hilt of her immense blade tightly, a far-off look in her eyes. “I will slay until each village runs with an apple’s depth of blood,” Sophia intoned.
“What?” sputtered Ilyich.
“What? I said, too many of my kinsmen remain here toiling in the fields under the yoke of oppression,” the warrior said, a stern look across her face. “We know that even more people remain enslaved in Elogotha’s quarry. I won’t leave until I’ve done my best to free them.”
Ilyich looked relieved. “Oh, well, then. I’m with her—I wouldn’t have others dictating the path of my life, and I won’t have it happen to anyone else. I don’t feel comfortable just quitting before the city is free.”
“You may all put on airs about freedom and suffering and kinsmen, but those are not the concepts with which I concern myself,” said Elka. “I’m more interested in what I can learn here, and the dragon below makes me curious. I am going to stay in Elogotha, if only for a chance to learn the secrets that such a powerful creature must know.”
As Titus opened his mouth to chip in, he noticed a peculiarity in the landscape off the bow that he found frankly unnerving. “Do any of you remember the city being so… wiggly before?”
The six adventurers followed Titus’ gaze down to the districts below, just off the side of the Emerald Promenade’s sheer face. In the glass windows of storefronts, banks, cottages and halls, they saw the icy moonlight reflected back at them, but the tiny points of light had a sort of flutter to them—an odd oscillation, like unto water in a rocking bowl.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” said Ardan.
What began as a barely perceptible hum grew into a tremendous rumbling in a matter of moments, and the moonlight panes of the city below began to wink out, one by one, as they were shattered into millions of pieces by a tremor from beneath the earth.
“It’s coming from the very center of the city!” shouted Ilyich, barely audible over the overpowering din. He gesticulated wildly at the heart of Elogotha’s formerly middle-class districts, now largely devoid of human life. “Maybe this is why the High Minister sent out those evacuation orders, because he knew disaster was coming!”
At that second, the ground beneath Elogotha’s city center buckled with a sharp crack, showering the surrounding boroughs with rampart-sized hulls of stone and detritus. A great plume of earth climbed high into the sky…
…And with the force of a primordial’s footfall, the four central Elogothan districts collapsed away into the inky blackness of the earth.
“I hear you’ve let your impatience get the better of you, High Minister,” sported Radek Quartermass. “Surely, the fall of Aer Avan could wait another…”
“No. My old foe Folamin has taunted me from afar for far too long.”
“You’ve driven out half your population, and knocked down half your city. Is this really about economics anymore, High Minister?”
The ruler of Elogotha wheeled from the window to glance sidelong at his servant. “I’m not sure it ever was.”
The six travelers gazed down upon the ruins of Elogotha’s city center, dumbstruck.
Where once thousands of people lived, now only a yawning expanse remained, a near-perfect circle over half a mile wide.
All of a sudden, Sophia snapped out of her reverie. “Wait. Why is it so regular?”
“Look—down in the chasm!” exclaimed Fae, gazing deep into the darkness. From within the city’s sinkhole, a vast, gleaming shape began to rise at a steady pace.
Titus’ eyes widened in recognition. “This is what they were hiding beyond the veil of mist!”
It was a magnificent colossus, upright and slender like an obelisk, and as tall as the White Wall to which Elogotha was adjacent. Its flanks shone with a tarnished plating that could have been silver if not for the improbable quantity.
“How does it fly?” wondered Ardan out loud. “What power could let such a thing defy gravity?”
A shadow fell over the adventurers’ vantage point above the Emerald Promenade. There, silhouetted against the moon, was the sinuous form of the deep dragon.
In an instant, the creature descended to hover nearly on top of the hijacked airship. The gusts from its powerful wings whipped the adventurers’ cloaks about, but the dragon’s words were clear.
“I’ve got an answer for you, archer Ardan, but you will not like it.”