At dawn the following morning, Kaus and Ho’gheysh stood on the beach with a half-dozen crewmembers of the Titan’s Blight, hand-picked by Kaus due to their experience with overland exploration. Ho’gheysh leaned on his stout walking stick and watched the Charnai members of the expedition adjust their packs and prepare to move out.
Ayodeji was giving instructions to the lead elements of the expedition, those who would hack their way along the remnants of the trail that led deep into the interior of the island where the temple was said to rest. Everyone carried weapons, for further attacks by the degenerate toad-men were expected once they were away from the village.
If the travelers made good time, they might reach the temple by dusk, but this was deemed unlikely due to the dense jungle they would need to cross. The thought of spending multiple nights deep in that dark vegetation was not a comforting one, though, and it would lend them some urgency as they pushed onward.
Ayodeji approached Kaus and Ho’gheysh, no longer smiling. His demeanor was all business, and his seriousness was a stark contrast to their experience of him so far. It highlighted the danger they would all face on this quest.
“I would ask that your crew travel in the center of the line,” he said to Kaus. “My people have trained to fight side-by-side with each other. I’m sure your crew are valiant warriors, but I believe it is best if they provide support where needed rather than be at the forefront.”
Kaus nodded. He understood that combat alongside unfamiliar fighting styles would lessen the effectiveness of their response to any attack. His crew would feel the sting of injured pride at the order, but it was for the best. He was sure they would get their chance to slay more than enough of the creatures before this expedition was complete.
“I will travel near the front, just behind our first line of trailbreakers,” Ayodeji continued. “I would welcome you to walk with me.”
“Thank you, Ayodeji,” Kaus replied, and Ho’gheysh merely gave a short nod. He was still sore about losing to the Charnai magician, though there was no way he could have turned down the offer to join the expedition to the temple. Kaus knew Ayodeji would soon draw the alchemist out of his silence during the long walk ahead of them.
Kaus gave his instructions to his crew—they were, of course, annoyed at having to travel in the center of the line—and made sure they understood their role. Then he and Ho’gheysh joined Ayodeji and the entire group, some twenty-five in all, proceeded up the beach and through the town toward the line of jungle on the other side.
Ukalu stood off to one side and bowed deeply as they passed him. The other villagers watched with sullen eyes before turning back to their duties.
The early going was easier than expected, as the trail closer to the village did see occasional use by the villagers and thus was not yet completely overgrown. But within the first hour, the trailbreakers were forced to hack their way through the thick vegetation and progress slowed to a crawl. The sounds of the jungle—bird calls, the rustling of small animals fleeing from the path of the trailbreakers, the sharp bark of small monkeys in the higher branches—combined into a particular symphony unique to jungle environments the world over.
Kaus saw that the Charnai warriors remained fully alert during the march, their eyes constantly scanning the jungle to each side, searching for any sign of the batrach that had attacked the ships two nights previously. Ayodeji was engaged with Ho’gheysh in a discussion of some ancient text, and they seemed to be in disagreement about the meaning of some passage that was beyond Kaus’ understanding. He left them to their debate and focused on his surroundings.
The next few hours were long and slow, and though they made progress along the remnants of the path that had once led to the temple, it was impossible to judge just how far they had come. More than once, Kaus found his mind drifting before he realized it and tried to maintain focus. An attack, if one came during the daylight hours, would be sudden. If the batrach took them unawares, it would be a slaughter.
Ayodeji called frequent breaks to let the trailbreakers rest. Only two of them could work at the front of the trail at a time, and the two pairs rotated out as they needed, but it was exhausting work nonetheless. The dark clouds continued to hang low in the sky, and it seemed to Kaus their presence only added to the oppressive heat. He found himself wishing they would finally break and let loose the rain they carried, and noted that the anticipation of the storm only added to the tension of the situation.
By mid-afternoon, Ho’gheysh had fallen silent again. Kaus could see the older man was tired and was conserving his strength. Though the pace of the march was slow, the jungle pressed in on all sides and prevented any breezes from reaching them, and they continued to bake in the heat and humidity. Kaus made sure that Ho’gheysh took water regularly, as the alchemist was unfamiliar with such overland treks.
Kaus stepped past Ho’gheysh to where Ayodeji watched the trailbreakers ahead.
“Do we have any idea how far we’ve come?”
The Charnai magician looked at the sky and back down the trail before answering.
“I do not believe we will reach the temple today, though I think we’ve made good progress.”
“So we’ll need to camp out here. This isn’t a very defensible position.”
“I agree, my friend. But Ukalu told me of a small inland lake not far from the trail we follow. There is a narrow strip of open beach along the edge of the water. That is where we will camp. If the creatures attack us in the night, we will have room to form a circle and our shields and spears can be used to full effect.”
Kaus nodded. “But since they came at us from the water last time, we might be making things easier for them.”
“From the water or through the jungle, it makes no difference. If they choose to attack, we must be in a spot where we can best defend ourselves,” Ayodeji replied. “However, I have other tricks I can employ out here that I could not use when we were on my ship. And tomorrow morning—by mid-day at the latest—we will reach the temple. I am sure of it.”
“How far is this lake from here?”
“Another hour, two at most, and we will turn off the trail. We will be camped well before dusk, my friend.”
Kaus nodded to the magician and stepped back into his place in line.
True to his word, in the late afternoon Ayodeji instructed his trailbreakers to turn off the trail and hack a path eastward. It wasn’t long before the jungle thinned out, and the expedition emerged onto a narrow beach at the shore of a small lake. The jungle growth ringed the lake on all sides, in some places coming right up to the edge of the water.
One of the trailbreakers moved down and scooped a handful of water into his mouth. He held it in his mouth for a moment, and then swallowed, nodding to Ayodeji.
“The water is drinkable,” Ayodeji announced to the others. “Prepare to make camp.”
The Charnai quickly hacked some branches from the nearest trees and soon had a large bonfire going. Ho’gheysh lowered himself to the sand and sat there, head bowed, and Kaus saw that he was exhausted from the day’s march. He wondered if the alchemist now regretted his eagerness to see the temple for himself.
As late afternoon turned into dusk, half of the Charnai stretched out on the sand with weapons close to hand while the rest took up positions around the perimeter of the camp. Ayodeji sat by himself near the fire, reading from a small, leather-bound book. Kaus saw that Ho’gheysh had eaten and was looking out at the water of the lake from where he sat.
“How are you holding up?” Kaus asked him quietly as he seated himself beside the alchemist.
“I’m fine,” snapped the older man, scowling at Kaus.
“You’re exhausted, and we both know it. There’s no shame in that—it’s been a very long day. I will tell you I’m hoping for some rest in case those creatures come at us tonight.”
Kaus saw Ho’gheysh glance sideways at him before the alchemist let out a long sigh.
“I’m going to try to sleep now,” he said, and Kaus nodded and rose, leaving him to his peace. He checked on his own crew, who were tired but in good spirits. They knew they would likely have to fight before the sun rose once more, and were prepared. Three of them slept while the other three sat watch.
Kaus was just about to stretch out on the sand himself when he happened to glance over at Ayodeji. He saw the magician’s head snap up, his eyes going wide. The man shouted out a sharp command in the Charnai language and in an instant his warriors surrounding the camp leaped over to form up facing the water. The others who had appeared to be sleeping were on their feet only a few seconds later, grabbing shields and spears and covering the camp facing the jungle.
Ayodeji rose to his feet and faced the lake as Kaus drew his own sword.
Here they come, Kaus thought to himself.
They burst from the water in a spray of mist and charged into the line of Charnai, a dozen of the batrach throwing themselves forward onto the spears of the warriors, dragging down the weapons as they died. A second group rose from the waters of the lake, and the Charnai let go of their spears and took a single step back as they drew long knives.
A shout from the other side brought Kaus’ head around to see a second group of batrach emerge from the jungle and throw themselves at the Charnai on that side. Ayodeji stepped forward as his warriors engaged the creatures in close combat, and held up a small leather pouch in his left hand. The magician shouted a phrase in a strange language and Kaus’ vision went blurry for a second before clearing again.
Ayodeji flung the pouch over the heads of the combatants to land in the water as another group of toad-men began to crawl up onto the beach. Kaus felt a rumble through the ground, and the waters of the lake began to boil. The batrach still in the water screamed and thrashed about as they were cooked alive.
Kaus ran to the aid of the Charnai facing the creatures emerging from the jungle. He saw his own crewmembers follow his lead. In the flickering light of the bonfire, the misshapen heads of the batrach were even more grotesque, their claws and teeth flashing white as they tried to eviscerate the humans facing them.
It quickly became obvious the main force of the creatures had been in the lake, and this group had been expecting to rush upon the backs of the defenders and tear them down from behind. The Charnai were skilled warriors, and though a couple fell to the vicious claws of the creatures, the batrach on this side were soon dispatched.
Kaus turned to see that the remaining batrach that had managed to make it out of the boiling water were soon cut down and suddenly the fight was over.
Ayodeji stepped to the edge of the lake and waved his arms. The roiling waters subsided, leaving steam to rise into the night air. A moment later, the bodies of at least fifty of the batrach rose to the surface, along with untold number of dead fish. The stench of cooked flesh floated across the water and Kaus turned to the Charnai magician.
“That pouch of yours saved us all. If all of those creatures were coming to the attack, we would have soon been overwhelmed.”
Ayojdeji looked out over the water, a look of deep sadness on his face.
“Such death,” he whispered. “My skills…that is not what should be wrought by my hand.”
Kaus placed his hand on Ayodeji’s shoulder and looked out at the lake as the countless bodies drifted in the water.