“The Last Straw…”

Explosion, sizzling noises and ringing bronze echoed through the House of Ira’s Halls.

Thunder cracked. The southwest corner of the art gallery exploded inwards, knocking fine vases and statues off their pedestals.

Uuco the Witness strolled through the hole in the wall, scribbling on his clay tablet.

“First…thoughts on Lady Ira’s…house,” he muttered. “Excellent yogurt…poor hospitality…”

“Clear the way!” Corax Sickleblade roared, barreling through the hole with the slumbering Lady Ira slung over his back.

“Jeepers-!” Uuco blurted, hopping aside and juggling his tablet.

The Saurian warrior and renegade Hidden God glanced from door to window to exit, eyes settling on a narrow staircase. “Up!” He hissed, his tail twitching. “We need the high ground!”

Spare the sleeping. That’s what the red-robed Priest told his Zealots,” V’vendy the Deathweaver said. “Wouldn’t that mean they’re after the Roarer?”

She stepped through the hole and nocked an arrow to her bow. “Spin, spin, spin!” She urged, drawing and releasing. The arrow twirled through the air, generating a vortex of air in its wake that blasted Zealots, Thugs and chimeras off their feet.

Rintha dove through the hole, rolling and rising to his feet. “Then we’ve got to get to that Roarer first,” he said, flinging a sling stone at the ground outside. The sling stone shattered, scattering tiny, pointed bronze pyramids across the ground. “Quickly!” He urged, leaping up the stairs two at a time.

“Love…the artwork, though, “ Uuco noted, scribbling more sigils on his tablet while squinting at an overturned moon totem.

Corax seized Uuco by the mustache and dragged him up the stairs.

“OwOwOw!” Uuco wailed, yanking himself free, and holstering his clay tablet. “Hold your horses, I’m coming!”

The second floor’s halls were lined with murals of nobles on thrones, standing in stiff profiles. The walls were broken up here and there with rounded balconies that looked out into the courtyard; a small nook in one corner was covered with paint handprints the size of a Nobbles, or a child’s.

Corax led the Pilgrim’s race down the halls, one claw reaching behind to secure Ira. As they passed by a balcony, three slavering creatures leapt onto it and skittered forwards. They resembled giant hounds, but with spider limbs for legs and venom-dewed canines that snapped at Corax’s heels.

“Blight and Harvest!” Corax spat, decapitating one of the hound-spiders with a sweep of his Sickle sword.

The other hound twitched as lightning seared through its nerves and reduced them to char. Uuco lowered his smoking hand and smoothed his mustache. “Ayup,” he muttered, “these Zealot folks are way too obsessed with mutating things!”

More Hound-spiders climbed into the balcony, letting out hissing barks. V’vendy drew, aimed carefully, and sent a burrowing arrow through two of their skulls. Those Hound-spiders fell. More Hound-spiders climbed over their twitching corpses.

“Hold your breath!” Rintha shouted, whipping a sling stone into the midst of the abominations. The stone shattered, this time spreading a cloud of red, spicy dust.

“Move!” Corax grunted, shrugging Ira back onto her shoulder and galloping around the corner of the hallway. He nearly tripped over a household servant cowering behind a large vase. “Whoah!” Corax hissed, rearing back. He lowered his narrow raptor head. “You there!” He said to the servant. “Where did you put the sleeper with bandaged feet?”

“Don’t eat me!” The servant wailed.

Rintha caught up to Corax and scowled. “Which chamber did you put the Roarer in?” He shouted in frustration, brandishing a sling stone. “Talk, or I’ll let this Saurian eat you!”

“The study!” The servant blubbered, curling into a tighter ball. “We put him there! It’s down the hall and through the third arch–!”

Rintha the Hunter grunted and took off down the hall. Corax Sickleblade galloped after him. V’vendy Deathweaver followed, bow at the ready, barely sparing the frightened servant a single glance.

Uuco the Witness started to walk past the servant then stopped. He patted the servant’s knee, slowly and gently.

“Find a better hiding place, “ Uuco said softly. “Wait for those Zealots and their beasts to pass, then get out of this house, okay?” He smiled sadly. “We’ll give you one heck of a distraction!”

%%%

The Pilgrims sprinted down the hall and towards the third archway, veiled by gauzy drapes.

“Quickly!” Rintha urged, dashing ahead of Corax. “Before they seize the Roarer–!”

He burst through the drapes, sliding to a halt in a skylight-studded room. Shelves and lapis lazuli chests of clay tablets lined the walls. Squat little desks and sitting mats filled the floor. In one corner, harps leaned against their standing, pegs half-strung.

Rintha spotted a pair of bandaged feet vanish through a door on the far side of the room, feet born by a group of leather-armored Thugs. Three shield-bearing Zealots stood between him and the captured Roarer, along with the red-robed Priest who’d led the charge into the courtyard.

“Before we seize the Roarer?” The Red Priest echoed. “You’re a little late for that.” He tossed a clay tablet up and down in one hand and then dashed it to shards against the ground. “Smash everything here!” He declared to his followers. “Stamp them to dust beneath you feat, along with these Pilgrims! Ancient tomes like these are nothing but obsolete–!”

The study hall shook, every loose object trembling.

The Red Priest’s voice stuttered to a halt. His eyes slid down. Uuco the Witness stood in the doorway, starring unblinking at the shattered tablet. Floor tiles crackled at his feet, an effect that spread out like ripples from a stirred pond.

“Who goes there?” The Red Priest snarled, stepping back. “Who are you?’

“I,” Uuco proclaimed in a gravel, “am your worst nightmare.” He jabbed a thumb at the clay wedge strapped to his back. “I am the candle lit at night! I am the scratched word! I am Tablet Man!”

The Red Priest stared at Uuco blankly. The Red Priest coughed and smirked. “Oh?” He said, picking another tablet from the shelf nearby. “Does the cracking of useless clay upset you, little Nobble?”

Uuco’s head snapped up. “Put that down, boy,” he rasped, voice deathly chilled. “And I mean put it down gentle. Don’t get coy and drop–“

The Red Priest dropped the tablet, which broke into three parts.

“Dammit!” Uuco ran at the red priest, eyes blazing, lightning crackling in each hand. A Zealot leapt in him path and drove a spear towards the elderly Nobble. Uuco brought his hands together in a clap. A peal of thunder blasted the Zealot up into the ceiling, where his head cracked through the roof and got stuck.

Chaos erupted. One Zealot opened his mouth and spat acid at the other Pilgrims. Corax skipped the side, opening his maw and replying with a beam of searing light. Rintha and V’vendy drew and fired projectiles at the spitting Zealot. The third Zealot leapt over the sizzling pool of acid, his robe fluttering up to reveal goat hooves for feet. The Zealot’s axes flashed, cutting the projectiles from the air.

The Red Priest produced a spell tablet from his robes and cracked it between two claw-tipped fingers. “Blind Rage,” he sneered at the charging Uuco, “is an obsolete evolutionary trait!”

He jabbed a finger at Uuco. Purple, gaseous mana flowed from the crushed tablet that formed into a cloud of ghostly floating swords. The cloud of blades shot forward like a hail of arrows.

Corax dipped his head as a blade flashed past his feather crest. Ira slid off his back and fell limp beside a harp strung with two strings. V’vendy and Rintha sprang out of the way, limber as cats.

Uuco took a ghostly blade right through the gut. The spectral sword pierced out of his back and through the clay tablet he carried. Uuco choked and fell to one knee. A crack spread through his tablet, marring a few of the lovingly carved sigils.

“Alas,” The Red Priest said, brandishing one of his claw-tipped fingers and stepping towards the kneeling Uuco. “It’s always the oldest that are brought down by predators…”

“Gnmmmgh…!” Uuco hissed. Droplets of purple mana spluttering from his mouth like spittle. The air shimmered around him like mirages from a bonfire. He fixed his eyes on the Red Priest…

…and Roared.

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