Smoke and Embers rose from the House of Ira, tongues of flame reaching up to lick the sky. Beastly shrieks and howls echoed from its courtyard, along with crashes and cracks as timber and stone crumbled piece by piece.
The household’s servants huddled together a distance from the house, clothes and hair stained with soot. They stared at the burning house with hollow eyes reddened by smoke and tears.
“Lady Ira…” one of them whispered hoarsely.
A plucked melody echoed through the air. A section of the courtyard’s second story wall exploded outward, brick shards flying everywhere.
A knotted rope made from torn tapestry flew out of the hole, dangling against the building’s side. Lady Ira emerged from the hole in the wall, drawing cries of joy from her servants. She inched her way down the rope, harp slung over her shoulder, a potted plant tucked under her shoulder.
“Move! Move!” Corax called out, hopping through the hole and falling past Ira. The Saurian warrior dug his hooked claws into the brickwork and slid down the burning mansion’s side like a cat.
A swarm of flying beasts burst from the hole in the wall, abnormally large stork with mantis claws for feet and smoldering eyes. They flocked around Ira and Corax, pecking with their pointy beaks, breathing scorching steam on them.
Ira’s free hand blistered. The potted plant fell from her grasps and vanished with a ‘plop’ in the marshland moat below.
“Damn!” Gritting her teeth, Ira drew her short sword, swinging back and forth on the rope as she desperately slashed at the steaming mantis-storks.
With a twang, three arrows flew out of the hole in the wall, curving downward and spitting through three of the mantis-storks.
V’vendy the Deathweaver stepped to the edge of the hole and peered down. “Lady Ira?” She called out. “Could you hurry up…if it’s not too much trouble?”
One of the mantis-storks squawked in rage at the sight of his fallen flock-mates. It spread its wings and flew towards V’vendy with a maw full of steam.
A clay sling stone flew past V’vendy’s ear and into the Mantis-Stork’s gullet. The mutant beast choked and exploded into a cloud of mist and feathers.
Rinta the Roar Hunter walked up next to V’vendy, twirling his sling at his side. “The fire’s spreading,” he remarked. “Could you call on the wind to carry us down?”
V’vendy sniffed loudly, the white hair feathers on her heads standing on end. “Well,” she said, “Duh.”
Together, V’vendy and Rinta leapt off the edge, plummeting past Ira and Corax and spitting the last two mantis-storks on their daggers. Inches from the ground, a vortex of wind and dust formed, slowing their fall to a gentle descent.
Rinta and V’vendy landed knee-deep in the boggy, reed-infested moat surrounding Ira’s estate. Shortly after, Ira and Corax slid down and joined them.
“Did you see where Uuco fell–that is, where that potted plant fell?” Ira asked, dipping her hands into the muddy water.
Rinta scowled and opened his mouth to say something caustic. V’vendy nudged him with her elbow, and the hunter fell silent.
A section of the marshland waters bubbled ferociously, each bubble popping with a faint purple spark. Everyone watched with astonishment as a sapling shot up from the water, trunk thickening, bark darkening and developing wrinkled creases. A single branch grew from its side, sprouting a carpet of green leaves and a single flower petal.
As soon as the petal bloomed, it withered, a thick-shelled acorn growing in its place. The acorn grew and grew to the size of a person’s head, making the branch sag under its weight. The nut shattered, and Uuco the Witness came tumbling out. Landing face first in the marsh water, the diminutive Nobble surfaced, spluttering and rubbing at his thick mustache.
“Well I’ll be dunked!” Uuco blurted out. “That there was strange!” He grinned sheepishly. “Does this mean I can speak for the trees now?”
All the other Pilgrims stared at him, blank-faced.
“Well, come on, now,” Uuco said, putting hands on his hips. “There’s no reason to be so cold!” He blinked. “Unless,” he guess, “this is about me being one of the Roarers?”
“Don’t make light of this,” Rinta growled, loading a stone in his sling. “Only Ira’s wishes keep you alive, monster!”
“Now, now-!” Uuco stammered, backing away with his hands up. “Why can’t we just dry off somewhere and talk things through–?“
He suddenly raised a finger. “Behind you!” He shouted. “A huge dog-spider!”
“We’re not falling for that!” Rinta hissed between clenched teeth.
He swung his sling behind his back. Before he could fling a stone at Uuco, a gigantic, half-burned dog-spider tackled him off his feet…