"What do you mean, we wouldn't be alone?" Faux looked to the speaker, a small knot tightening in his stomach at the sight of her sad eyes.
"When the seekers of the stone have been gifted their prize, the sanctity of the island will be forfeit." Sahheeda plucked the stone from its resting place on the altar. One hand caressed the glowing gem with gentle loving strokes as she strode towards Aboleth. "Kymdos not only foresaw your coming but knew you would not be the only ones in pursuit of its powers."
She held the stone forward in steady hands, her long fingers still cradling the precious object. Aboleth stared up into her eyes, eyes that had lost their edge but were still firm and resolute. She nodded. He lifted his thick, meaty hands towards her and she lowered the elemental stone into his grasp.
"You are the keeper of the stone now. You must live up to your calling and protect it."
The dwarf peered at the stone, turning it over in his hands. It was identical to the stone of fire they'd once possessed except for its colour and the absence of the 'cat-eye' streak.
"We must take it to the Isle of the Magi." Jinx stepped forward and laid a hand on the former cleric's forearm. "The Arch Lector will know best how to protect it."
Aboleth pulled back from the sorceress's touch, his hands protectively cupping the stone.
Jinx's eyebrows darted to the top of her forehead at the dwarf's reaction even as his face coloured. His features were firm though as he met her eyes without blinking.
"We'll figure out what's best when we get back to the ship lass. We've a lot to think on and much to discuss."
"Very well." The sorceress's lips pressed together in a firm line.
"Is the island in danger?" Aseel stepped forward, his eyes boring into the smaller Seer. "Why have you said nothing before this? We could have taken precautions, been more prepared."
"More prepared for what my king? The purpose of the islanders has always been to guard the stone until the foreseen of Kymdos arrived. In that, we have been successful and fulfilled our purpose."
"But our families, the rest of our people. There is more to their lives than to just sit on these rocks to satisfy an ancient prophecy. We should have been warned of the danger these people were bringing." King Aseel waved his hand at the group standing silent to one side, watching the exchange.
Sahheeda took a step forward and reached up, lightly tracing a finger along the outline of the seething king's jaw.
"That is why you are their king, my love. Our mission, the purpose of our entire existence, is fulfilled. It is up to you to guide them into what comes next." The volcano rumbled. A deep bass, unlike anything Faux had experienced before. The solid rock underfoot shook and trembled, as if the very earth itself was shrugging its shoulders.
"And this is your time." She leaned forward and kissed him. Her lips brushing his as soft as a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. "If you wish to save our people, you must leave, now." As if to punctuate her words the volcano rumbled again. A fiery bubble of lava swelled and burst below them, releasing a thick, heavy cloud of black ash and noxious gas. A spray of molten rock leapt high into the air, falling back to the firey pool like a searing rain.
"Come then!" He signalled his bodyguards and pointedly ignored the rest of the group. It wasn't until he'd taken a half dozen steps before he realized Sahheeda wasn't following. "If time is short, then we need to be away Seer."
She smiled at him, a gentle, sad smile. Her lips showed no merriment, but contentment. Finality. Faux had seen such a smile before. Lydia had given him the exact same smile as the last breath of air had left her body.
"This is your moment, a time of Kings." She clasped her hands in front of her. "The time of Seer's has ended.
"Do not be foolish. It is the time of our people; all of them."
Sahheeda reached behind her neck and unclasped the sapphire amulet. She pressed it into the king's hand and smiled again.
"Please pass this on to Melati. She is ready for the responsibility and will need its aid to face the challenges ahead." She lifted a finger and placed it against his lips as he began to speak again. "No more my king. You must go. What is, is. But what will be, well, that is left in your hands. Do not clutch stubbornly to the past. Reach for the future, grasp it, and make it hear you, and our people, roar."
She turned from him then, abruptly, and walked back to the now empty altar. She removed her clothes and climbed on top of the solid black slab and sat the same way they'd seen her when first entering the temple, her back to them.
After one last, longing, look the king turned away. Without looking back he led the way to the stairs.
The darkness startled Faux when they bust from the bowels of the churning mountain. Although the sun had been dropping, setting the sky ablaze when they'd entered, it'd somehow felt as if time had stood still while they were inside. The riot of reds and oranges had been replaced now by an indigo veil of blinking stars. At least where they weren't being blotted out by a deeper blackness.
A glowing ring circled the cratered vent at the top of the mountain, illuminating a billowing smog of smoke and ash. Unlike the earlier wisps that had caught and dissipated in the breeze, the boiling cloud pouring from the mountain now defied the elements. It smothered the crest of the mountain and drowned the stars. The snow-covered mantle was a dusty grey where ash had settled. Cooling cinders floated past them like smoking snowflakes. They flitted and fluttered as they drifted through the sky. Falling hesitantly, yet heralding a blizzard to come.
"I fear our time in the Islands is done," Aseel claimed to no one in particular, staring at the seething mountain top. A solitary pyroclastic ejection sailed from the mountain's burning vent, soaring away into the night sky with a high pitch wail. "The Klahq does not have long to live."
The party stumbled and fell as they raced down the mountain. The craggy sides bruised bodies and gashed hands and arms as they slipped and fumbled for handholds to prevent themselves from falling down the narrow path. Faux clung to Ahanna, helping her with the rapid descent. She was still inexplicably nimble, and despite her lack of vision, she stumbled less than he did.
By the time they finally made it back to their waiting kayaks, ash was falling at a slow but steady pace. Already it was beginning to accumulate and cover the once pristine beach. The ground rumbled, sending ripples racing across the still lagoon. The tremors were gaining strength from the earlier vibrations they'd experienced inside the mountain.
Aseel glared at the party. He'd been silent since beginning the descent. The few times he'd bothered to acknowledge their presence it was through stares that could have cut the stone they stumbled over. Anger and resentment radiated from him the same as the choking heat had poured from the boiling magma.
Without a word, he and his four bodyguards piled into one of the canoes. The men who took up the paddles pounded the water, driving the light craft across the water.
"I guess our welcome here is over," Faux muttered, grabbing a paddle as the rest of them crammed into the other small boat.
"It is hard to find fault with him." Ahanna's soft voice was almost drowned by the splashing of Thom's feet crashing through the surf. The stolid dwarf heaved the canoe into the water and clambered aboard, cursing and dripping with water. It sank low with all of their weight but its edges hovered a couple of inches above the placid water.
"Still, it's not like it's our fault. Their Seer even knew someone would be here someday."
"Someday is a vague term lad." Aboleth lifted his head so his eyes could meet the half-elf's. "As long as somethin' is 'someday', ye can always ignore it or pretend it'll never happen. But when 'someday' becomes today...everythin' changes."
The volcano shook again as more pyroclasts arced from the smoking vent, punctuating the dwarf's words.
"It doesn't matter." Jinx's practicality cut the wistful conversation short. "We have what we came for and that's all that matters. If there is somebody else coming to this God's forsaken group of islands we have to think they are coming for the stone as well. I feel bad for the islanders, but our priority has to be getting away from here, with the stone, before this mountain erupts."
Faux doubted the sorceress's sincerity about the island's inhabitants but knew she had a point. It was up to the people of the islands to figure out what came next for them. They had their own priorities.
The front end of the canoe bit into the sand on the far side and the party clamoured from the craft onto the beach. The shoreline was deserted except for Aseel's canoe which lay tipped to one side, a stream of haphazard footprints forming a trail through the ash and sand heading into the neat rows of crops facing the group.
As they backtracked through the towering stalks of vegetables, ash fell from the leaves like snow being shaken from midwinter trees. Instead of the cold, wet sensation, of melting snow sliding down their backs though, the ash itched and irritated, mixing with their sweat to make a slippery mud that caked all of them.
Mouths dropped when they reached the other side of the densely packed field. Two galleons flanked one massive war frigate. Rowboats, filled to bursting and hanging low in the water, were ferrying armoured soldiers from the ships to the now crowded floating city. Screams and cries could be heard from the city as the soldiers who had already landed herded the inhabitants towards the water's edge. People who moved too slow, or couldn't keep up, were clubbed or beaten and dragged along by the armed me.
Faux winced as he watched one man fight back. Lurching to one side, he grabbed a thick wooden dowel. He swung hard, using it as a club, smashing the wood into the head of one of the startled guards. The soldier's head snapped back and his suddenly limp body dropped to the wooden planking. The man spun to face another soldier, his arm already raised for another blow. A third guard, however, had stepped behind him and slammed his sword into the man's body so hard the point burst through the islander's chest in a gout of blood.
The guard kicked the body off his blade into a gap between the planks. The body bobbed in the water, face down. He reached down amongst the group of cowering islanders and grabbed a sobbing woman by the hair, yanking her to her feet. He shouted something at the group that didn't cross the distance for the group to hear. With a jerk of his arm, he pulled the blade along the woman's throat, spraying the entire group with her blood. He shook the body of the gurgling woman once towards the group before tossing her into the water on top of the man who'd tried to fight for freedom. Her weakening arms thrashed at the water for a moment before she too lid still, face down.
"Jahlenea's arse," Thom swore, unhooking the chain from his belt.
"It's Estermont all over again." Aboleth stared at the scene, his eyes moistening, lips pulled into a firm line. He took a step towards the group of cowed islanders before Jinx reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back.
"There's nothing we can do, Aboleth."
He whirled on the sorceress. "Nothin' we can do?" His voice was taut, strained with a wave of simmering anger. "This needs to be stopped. We brought this here, we are responsible."
"And what do you think we're going to accomplish?" She thrust her hands onto her hips her green eyes flaring as she stared at the dwarf. "There are what, a couple of hundred soldiers down there, and who knows how many still on the ships. Sahheeda said it herself, this was always how it was going to be. Throwing our lives away and giving up the stone in a suicidal attempt to save a few people who were destined for this anyway isn't what we came here for."
"They are innocent. They do not deserve this. I'm a Protector, it is my callin' to help them."
"No. It isn't."
Everyone turned to stare at Ahanna, shocked to hear her soft voice cut through the tension.
"That isn't your calling. It is as the Arch Lector said. The Protectors aren't here to save people from people, but prevent the misuse of magic." She turned towards the cries of anguish and pain that reached them from the floating city. Her head dropped, sightless eyes staring at her feet. "We have to protect the stone and get it away from here before it can fall into the hands of whoever has come to steal it from us."
"She's right, they both are." Faux grimaced at a sudden flash of light from the city at the same time another tremor, this one causing them all to stumble, rippled through the ground. "We need to get back to the Moondancer and get away from here."
"Yer goin' to need a better plan than that lad." Thom's voice was dark.
"What do you mean," the half-elf replied. "What else is there to do?"
Thom pointed to the docks. Everyone's head turned, following the dwarf's sausage-like finger. Eyes bulged as they registered what they were seeing.
Sticking from the water like a couple of drowning trees were a pair of schooner masts. The sails and rigging were torn and shredded, the sailcloth still smouldering in places.
"I'm not sure what else there is to do, but doin' things yer way just got bloody complicated." The dwarf's voice echoed in the sudden, deafening silence.