Nature unleashed its fury with a relentless downpour as Danuvius led his guards and personal servants through the Tall Forest into uncharted territory. The twelve men who accompanied him were as tired of his rants as they were the slippery mud, and a dark ambiance of misery gripped them all like sticky tree sap. The men flinched when Danuvius barked out his orders, screaming to be heard over the pounding rain as they tried to make camp.
"Ya weather-bitten mongrels!” cried Danuvius. “Get me tent reset.” He brandished his sword to emphasize his haranguing. “I’ll skewer the next good-fer-nothing, boil-brained lout who whines about gusty winds!” He refused to stay out in the hammering rainfall any longer.
“Getta move on!”
Mud sucked at the hard soles of their boots as they tried to carry out Danuvius’ orders as quickly as possible. He poked the nearest man in the back with the tip of his sword. The man arched his back, lost his footing, and fell flat on his face in the mud.
"Get up!” Danuvius ordered as he gave the downed man a kick to the ribs. “I will nay tolerate anyone lying down on the job!” He continued his seething rage and prodding until the camp was made ready to his exact specifications.
After supper, everyone tried to steer clear of Danuvius, doing their very best to look occupied and unapproachable whenever he entered into their midst. As a result, there was no casual banter amongst the men. There were only ghostly echoes of bitter agreement drifting through the encampment in careful whispers that the steward of Terra Leone was going mad—or already had.
Danuvius cared nothing for these men who had risked their lives and the king’s wrath by helping him escape the mutinous trap and resultant battle at Terra Leone. Like weighty, cumbersome armor, he used them as protection from the king’s guardsmen, the bandits, and the thieves. Unbeknownst to them, their presence was tolerated for a much greater purpose that would reveal itself upon journey’s end.
As a new day dawned, the sky grew lighter and the rain began to let up. This brought the two men guarding Danuvius’ tent together in a small huddle. Their long-hooded mantles were soaked through and were heavy burdens that no longer offered protection from the damp morning air.
“Why are we out here?” One man dared to wonder aloud, pulling his mantle tighter about himself, failing miserably to stave off the chill and damp. “We are near five leagues outside the Tall Forest.”
The second man looked around nervously and spoke in low tones through chattering teeth. “Where do you think Lord Danuvius went when he left the camp last eve?” He exhaled moist, warm breath on his freezing hands and rubbed them together vigorously. “As far as I know, there is nothing in these parts! What could . . .
The two guards straightened suddenly and stood at attention, spying Danuvius emerging from his tent. He was shrouded in a warm, woolen cloak. He raised his voice to carry across the site, but he offered no explanation. “Strike camp an’ make ready. We be moving out on foot!”
As his entourage hustled about gathering their gear, Danuvius then pointed to the two guards he had heard conversing when he emerged from his tent.
“Night guards!” snapped Danuvius.
The two guards stood at attention, nervously awaiting their fate. “Remain here an’ watch over the horses an' supplies 'til our return. Make ready the evening meal, for these men shall be hungry from carrying back the treasures that await us.” Danuvius fabricated this story because he wanted them to have a reason to stay put and do as he bid.
It was noontide before the remaining ten men began their trek behind Danuvius’ steady gait wending through uncharted territory. A chill wind blew from behind, pushing them forward through a meadow of tall, wet grass. They came upon an unkempt, overgrown path, and Danuvius took it without hesitation, as if he had traveled there before.
The forest around them was stone silent. Neither songbird nor any other living forest creature was in evidence. Danuvius kept his pace, not missing a step, while the men trailing him stumbled and struggled just to keep up. Instinctively, they knew this was not a place they would wish to be left behind.
The path wound down a steep incline, and the men traced their leader’s steps in a ragged line, clutching at rocks and roots—anything that presented itself as a handhold. Danuvius slid the last few feet to level ground and waited for each man to follow suit. He then led them to an overhang of jagged rock that offered shelter from the wind. Out of breath and exhausted from Danuvius’ relentless pace, the men were glad for a place to rest.
“Wait here,” he commanded, the first words they had heard him utter since they had left that morning.
The men watched as Danuvius approached three waist-high standing stones located before a dark cavern. The smooth stones stood approximately five feet apart to form a triangle. It was within the triangle’s center that Danuvius positioned himself. Swirls of wind and curling mist drifted around Danuvius, and he shivered. He was consciously aware of the men behind him shifting uncomfortably, glancing at the stillness of the foreboding cave’s mouth.
Danuvius’ lips curled into a feral grin as he pulled a dark, swathed bundle from his cloak. He removed its contents and let the black silk wrapping drop to the damp ground.
Foreign words grated from his throat: “Laqueus statim, laqueus statim, laqueus statim!”
The large crystal in Danuvius’ hand pulsed once with a blinding crimson light before it shattered into ten pieces, equal to the number of men who accompanied him. The shards of crystal melted to form a puddle of red liquid in his palm. It then flowed off the sides of his hand and burrowed into the ground.
Sounds of shock and terror rose from those behind him, but Danuvius did not bother looking back. He knew the result of his incantation. The men who had followed him here found their feet were effectively stuck to the ground, as if rooted in place. After all, it would not do to have them fleeing.
“Silence!” snapped Danuvius, never turning to look upon the faces of those who served him, “lest ya favor the alternative o’ becoming the main course of an elaborate feast.”
The ground quaked and a few of the men tried to escape by tugging at their thighs, but their legs refused to budge. A thunderous roar shook the trees and startled large, black carrion off their branches and into flight. Fire blasted from the murky entrance of the fissure and from the billowing smoke, a large, horned reptilian head emerged. Huge claws, each roughly the length of a forearm, gouged the earth, and the green eyes of a mighty Ruby narrowed at the sight of Danuvius.
Four armored servants followed in the red beast’s wake. Dressed in intricate, immaculate armor, each carried a wicked spear. They remained at the cave’s mouth, heads bowed submissively, awaiting their orders. One looked to be in better favor of the monster, for he held his head proudly and wore a large stone pendant around his neck. Danuvius recognized him instantly, for he was his chief rival for the dragon’s amity.
Danuvius immediately dropped to his knees. He tilted his head up to the creature, the black hood falling back from his features. His eyes were obediently set upon the red behemoth as he said, “Master Flayre.”