The evidence of the supposed 'giant elemental creature' was easy to see long before the town itself. Enormous spires of gleaming ice were clustered at one end of the village, and towered over the modest buildings of the settlement. There was no noticeable damage to the town, just those ice spikes protruding from the ground like some sort of frozen monolith.
Araner couldn't help but gaze in awe as he added 'ice elemental' to their summoner's tally. The man was surely gifted, if indeed all the events were the work of the same person. Araner had to say he was starting to have doubts about that. Sure, he didn't know a lot about summoning or the False Eternal, but he knew magic. He knew that all magic had it's limits. How many and how large of creatures could one mere man conjure up?
"Woah!" Keris was standing on tiptoe and shading her eyes to see better. "We have to go check that out!"
No one met the young water mage's declaration with the quite the same enthusiasm. Undeterred, Keris just began trotting off towards it on her own. Having by now gotten used to her spontaneous side trips, the group was relatively unfazed by this. Sylvaen simply shared a long suffering look with the rest of them and set off at a lope after her.
It wasn't that any of them thought there would be much danger to the girl in this town, but they did fear she might get too distracted and forget to come back. It had happened several times along the road. Keeping a close eye on her was easier than trying to track her down when she wandered off picking wildflowers or rearranging dewdrops.
Araner himself rather wanted to go have a closer look at the ice pillars. It wasn't every day that you got to see a huge ice monolith in the middle of summer. Besides, he really wanted to know if there was any magic left in it.
"Go on." Eirsa said with less tease than usual in her voice. "We'll find an inn and see what anyone there might know. I imagine we'll be staying the night. We aren't going to pry Keris away from that much water for a good while, I think."
Araner smiled his thanks and set out to follow Keris and Sylvaen. He didn't miss seeing Mori with his hand on Eirsa's hip as they wandered off to find an inn. Araner smirked to himself and resisted commenting. He supposed he'd want some time away from an audience too if he were them.
He quickly forgot all about the couple. He realized, quite sharply, that he had never in his life seen anything so tall, or so shiny. The afternoon sun was hitting the ice fully and lighting up every inch. The whole section of town glittered with the reflection of the sun. The thing was melting too. Fat drops fell all around like rain. Townsfolk had set up troughs and washbasins all about to try and catch the falling liquid. Unlike the rest of the town, the ground around the ice was muddy instead of dusty. Clearly, they thought the summoner's coming a blessing in such a time of drought. All around the base of the spires large chunks of the ice had been carved away. Araner wondered at that for a moment, then noticed a scrawny kid hawking iced tea and lemonade from a nearby stand. Ice too was an important commodity in the plains, drought or no.
He finally pulled himself out of his gaping long enough to locate Sylvaen and Keris. She had her face pressed against the ice, and was near completely drenched from the runoff. He was standing a bit further back, but still not completely out of the meltwater rain. Every so often a fat drop would hit his head or shoulders and startle him into brushing at it. Araner couldn't help but chuckle at the usually so dignified old warrior starting at raindrops.
"So what do you think?" Araner slid up beside the former Swallow.
"It's impressive," His gravelly voice rumbled thoughtfully, "but it's unusually harmless. This summoner has never been so benign in his other feats."
"I don't know about that." Araner was starting to get a crick in his neck, but he couldn't keep from staring upwards. "The zombies didn't really harm anybody, they were just annoying. At least until we went in after them. Then they got a bit scary."
Sylvaen just gave him a look that called into question the curse chanter's memory of those events.
Araner almost, but not quite, got defensive about that. He had been an idiot, but he was still a lucid idiot. "It just seems to me like this summoner is playing around. Testing what he can do, or what he can get away with."
"Astute of you."
The smooth voice slid into the space after Araner's speculation and startled him into looking around. The words sounded as much complimentary as condescending and Araner wasn't sure if he was supposed to take offense or not.
The man who had spoken was actually standing quite near. He hadn't needed to raise his voice to be heard over the falling drops. Araner took definite note that he had not heard this stranger approach. The man wasn't tall, but neither was he short. He stood maybe an inch taller than Araner. This guy was skinnier though. He didn't look frail, just angular. Even his face was all angles. High cheekbones pushed up the corners of his eyes and gave him a sort of diabolical look. His amused smirk wasn't helping that. His hair fell in waves to his shoulders, and it was hard to tell if it was truly greying or just pale blonde. Araner supposed it might well be silver. The guy looked younger than Sylvaen who was pushing the upper end of fifty, but Araner would bet money that he wasn't younger than thirty-five.
"I said," The silky-smooth voice rolled over the words once Araner had finished his apraisal; "That it was an astute observation, for that was my own conclusion as well." This time the words were complimentary only. A syrupy complimentary, but complimentary nonetheless.
Araner still didn't know if he ought to be feeling offended. He settled for just staring at the man with a decidedly neutral expression. He couldn't help but be jealous of the man's well-fitted leather jacket, and that wasn't helping his evaluation at all. His boots even matched the jacket, in both the leather and the level of polish. Araner was glad he had just recently shined his own custom footwear. He was not about to be outdone by some uppity stranger.
At that moment Keris, becoming aware of the quiet exchange, apparently felt the need to bounce into the middle of the conversation. "Do you know what made this thing? It's really amazing!"
Araner quickly put a hand on Keris's exuberant shoulder and gently pulled her back even with him. He noticed Sylvaen shifting slightly to the fore beside him. Was the old warrior getting the same sort of suspicious feeling about this stranger? There was something just not right about him. Then again, maybe it was just the smug look on his face that was pissing Araner off.
"Yes." The man's smirk didn't so much as flicker. He ignored whatever misgivings the three might have. "It was likely an ice elemental known as a Bathell. They are worm like and leave such formations in their path."
"Bathell." Araner deadpanned. It sounded like something the guy just made up.
"Yes. Shortened from Al-bathoell, the northern Drisit word for 'great worm.' I assume that is where one was first sighted, however long ago." His delivery was straight. Either the guy was very good at improvisation, or he knew was he was talking about.
Keris at least was taking in his words eagerly. She had taken the suggestion, and was staying behind or beside Araner for the moment. He realized he still had a hand on her shoulder, and let it fall a trifle awkwardly back to his side.
"An interesting group." The stranger commented, almost without sounding smug.
"Almost as interesting as a summoner admiring another's handiwork." Sylvaen rumbled amiably. Araner quirked an eyebrow at that. So he wasn't the only one thinking it. He doubted this stranger was the one they were after, but in truth there was no way to say for sure.
"Indeed." The man was still smiling. "It's becoming dangerous to admit to being a summoner. Though, in this town it gets me a warm welcome. If I am right, and you are chasing this summoner as I am, then we may meet again. Until then." The man dipped his head in mild mockery and left without another word.
Araner couldn't believe the summoner they were constantly one step behind would be quite that brazen. Still, that guy was irritating enough on his own. He counted it good riddance that he was gone without further smug condescension.
"Who was that?" Keris didn't sound any less bubbly, but she was no longer bouncing. Even she had to have picked up on the weird undertones in that conversation.
"I don't know." Sylvaen shrugged and stared after the stranger's retreating back. "Maybe just another one chasing our summoner. There was certainly something unsettling about him, but that might just be my own bias."
"That smug mug of his would be unsettling to anybody." Araner grumped. "And just how does he expect to chase after anybody if he spends that much time polishing his boots and jacket?"
Keris laughed outright at that.
Araner grinned and continued mock seriously; "Everyone knows I have the corner on the 'fashionable penniless drifter' market!"
"Maybe he's going for the 'fashionable wealthy drifter' market!" She barely got the words out around her chortling.
"Please, with those splattered pants? Clearly he only had enough budget for the jacket and boots."
"And you only had enough for the boots, is that it?"
"Ahem." Sylvaen pointedly cleared his throat before Araner could leap to the defense of his custom made Zorag skin boots. "Should we perhaps return to the task at hand? I believe we were here to gather information on our quarry."
"Yeah, yeah...let's see what we can find then." Araner still gave Keris a mock dirty look for dragging his boots into it. She just giggled again.
Nothing, it turns out, was what they were able to find. Even with Keris's innocent bubbling, his suave charm, and Sylvaen's understated intimidation they weren't able to get anything remotely useful out of the townsfolk.
It wasn't that they were holding out based on some misguided sense of gratitude for the ice fountain, they just didn't know anything. They never saw the summoner. Dozens of townsfolk swore on their ancestors that a giant ice worm had risen from the ground and descended back into it, leaving behind only the spires of ice. But no one, not a single person, saw the summoner responsible. That it was a summoner was not in question. Giant ice worms were not native to this plane of existence, and certainly not on the edge of a drought-riddled prairie. One old scholar was able to confirm the etymology of 'Bethell' but could offer nothing else useful. The summoner hadn't been in town, or if he had, no one had seen him casting the spell to call the worm.
Even questions about suspicious strangers came back null. The only people to visit the town from further away than a few miles were Their group and the stranger they had met by the ice. That raised a red flag for Araner, but then several people confirmed the man had only arrived that morning. The worm had appeared over a week before.
"It just doesn't make any sense." It was not the first time Eirsa had said that that evening, nor was it likely to be the last. "Nobody saw him? A huge-ass worm appeared out of nowhere and nobody saw the guy responsible?"
"My thoughts exactly." Sylvaen rumbled with a sigh. "Though that has been the trend with this summoner. Nobody saw him call the hell beasts either."
"Wait." Araner leaned onto the table and put his chin onto his hands thoughtfully. There was a mug of tea at his elbow, slowly going cold. "Nobody has seen him ever? Now, I'm no summoner, but aren't the rituals for calling creatures from the False Eternal sort of hard to miss? And aren't they more involved the larger the creature is? They aren't the kind of thing you could do from a distance, nor quietly on the edge of a populated town without being noticed."
"The townsfolk aren't lying." Keris had shown little interest in the discussion since dinner had ended, but put in a quiet comment as soon as Araner had finished.
"I didn't think so either." Sylvaen's gravelly voice said gently.
Araner wasn't quite ready to get defensive about that. "I wasn't trying to say they were, but clearly something is not right with our scenario. Either I'm wrong about how summoning magic works, or the people here are wrong and they did see it without recognizing it, or-"
"Or there is no summoner." Mori's quiet interruption caught them all off guard. The big guy just stared at them like this was an answer that had been there all along. Finally, after a long pause in which none of them even attempted to guess at what Mori meant, he explained. "What if the creatures are just breaking through on their own?"
Araner blinked a few times. It did sort of fit into the puzzle. Except for one thing; "If these are random breakouts, then why the steady, if meandering, trend to the south?"
Mori shrugged as eloquently as only he could. "Maybe it isn't random. Maybe they're aiming for something larger."
Again stunned silence met Mori's soft assertion.
Sylvaen finally broke it with a gravelly whisper; "Gods forbid."
"You mean larger like, aiming for the capital, or making a permanent gate." Eirsa looked just as disturbed as the former Swallow. "Gods forbid indeed."
Even Keris looked kind of alarmed, and it took a lot to puncture her happy bubble. Araner was just pissed.
"Why does everything have to escalate so ridiculously?" He finally remembered his tea and took a long swallow. It wasn't quite cold yet. "Order a bone knife, wait three months and have to rescue it from murkles. Try to just wipe out some zombies, get caught up in a manhunt for a renegade summoner. Try to find said renegade summoner and get dragged into keeping the curtain between this world and the next from being torn open! Where does it end?"
His outburst was met with mildly indulgent looks across the board. Araner sighed in defeat, he knew better than to expect commiseration from this crowd. At least they weren't looking so terrified.
"Are you done?" Eirsa gave him her signature Look. She was getting as bad about that as Mori.
"Yeah, yeah...let's go save the world or whatever. Not like I have anything better to do." Araner took another sip of his tea. It wasn't too bad cold. "Ten linarre says we're wrong and it's still just some disgruntled apprentice with a stolen spellbook."
That served even better to break the somber mood. Even dignified old Sylvaen cracked a grin at that. Araner, though it was his own joke, did not. It didn't hit until after he'd said it. He had once been that disgruntled apprentice with the stolen spellbook, and it hadn't ended well.