AWFULLY beautiful art thou, O sea!
Viewed from the vantage of these giant rocks
That vast in air lift their primeval blocks,
Screening the sandy cove of lone Kilkee.
Cautious, with outstretched arm and bended knee,
I scan the dread abyss, till the depth mocks
My straining eyeballs, and the eternal shocks
Of billows rolling from infinity
Disturb my brain. Hark! the shrill sea-bird’s scream!
Cloud-like they sweep the long wave’s sapphire gleam,
Ere the poised osprey stoop in wrath from high.
Here man, alone, is naught; Nature supreme,
Where all is simply great that meets the eye,—
The precipice, the ocean, and the sky.

Sir Aubrey de Vere

At the top of the steep, rocky slope is a relatively wide level area. The palanquins are set down and tents and sleeping rolls laid out. Theresa came up to them, “The bearers will need to rest. It will take about a week to traverse the cliffs to the temple. The journey to the temple takes about six days by palanquin.”

Guoliang-feature.jpgIn the dim light of evening, they could see a winding path, heading to the south and west, snaking its way along the sides of the rocky cliffs, nearly a thousand feet above sea level, and facing a precipitous hundred-foot drop to the mountainside below. The path was relatively smooth and level, chiseled out of the rocky cliff-face by unknown hands hundreds of years earlier, in some places actually cutting through the side of the mountain. Time and erosion had taken their toll on the once-majestic byway, in places eroding it to less than ten feet in width.

Not wanting to wait for the palanquins, Caddis, Rummy, and Thaduk told the Doña that they would go on ahead on foot. She told them to just follow the road for 24 leagues, and they would come to a cleft in the mountains, leading down to the other side, where they would find the temple, in a forest by the side of a lake.

They struck out into the night, following the path. After about four miles, they came to an area with traces of recent settlement. A washed out section of the walkway had been repaired and reinforced with wooden supports. Uphill from the road the ground sloped gently upwards, to a trio of beehive-shaped huts of stacked, tucked into the grassy slope. To their left, the road ended with a precipitous drop of about eighty-feet, down to a steep rock-strewn mountainside.

Beehive_Stone_Hut.jpgCurious about the huts, Thaduk and Rummy scrambled up the slope to investigate. All three had empty doors facing down-slope. Rummy poked inside the first, looking around with the aid of his darkvision, but it was empty. A single hole was left in the top, for smoke judging from the smudges on the ceiling, and the floor was bare stone. The only indication that it had ever been inhabited was the faint smells of urine and creosote.

After a few minutes, Caddis made it up the slope and joined them in poking around the huts. He shifted his form to that of a bugbear in order to better trace the smells Rummy had detected. Under the other scents, he detected something different, a faint musty odor, like wet sandstone, though the rocks of the slope were nothing of the sort and it had not rained in days. Pondering, he remembered a tale from his study of the arcane, about wild gargoyles that enjoyed bathing in the sea. Scanning the surrounding rocks carefully he spotted them, a trio of gargoyles each lying flat against the roofs of their huts, almost invisible. He quietly pointed out their locations to Thaduk and Rummy, then, laying a hand on his friend’s shoulders, rendered the three of them invisible.

The sudden disappearance of the pirates brought the gargoyles to alert. One raised its head to look around, bringing it directly into line with Rummy’s dagger, which bit deep into its stony-skull, killing it instantly. Caddis clambered up the second hut and drained another gargoyle with his vampiric touch. Thaduk raged and reared up behind Caddis, pounding the gargoyle to dust with his hooves.

Of course, the weight of the demonic horse destroyed more than just the gargoyle. The entire hut collapsed under the pounding hooves. Caddis dove to one side, but Thaduk found himself being carried down the slope in an ever growing landslide of rubble from the crushed hut and gargoyle. He scrambled for purchase, but his hooves would not catch on the loose stone, and the rolling tumble of unicorn and rocks went cascading over cliff-side of the road, falling the full eighty feet and rolling and sliding another hundred before coming to a stop on the lower slope.

Rummy jumped after Thaduk, surfing a wave of gravel and scree and just barely stopping himself at the edge of the precipice. He looked down, pulling out a healing potion to throw to Thaduk, but realized he could not possibly throw far enough and started free-climbing down the cliff. Thaduk, for his part, stood shakily, resumed his orcish form, and stared climbing up to meet him.

The remaining gargoyle, seeing his friends destroyed so readily, sprang from the roof of the third hut and flew away at top speed, but was drawn back by Caddis’ fey allure. The gargoyle pulled a u-turn and flew back to Caddis, stopping to hover placidly right in front of him. It continued to hang there in the air, unresponsive while Caddis blasted away at with shatter spells until it exploded in to a pile of rubble.

Climbing down to meet Thaduk, Rummy slipped, plummeting fourty feet to catch himself, jarringly on a small ledge only ten feet above the bottom of the cliff. Thaduk, by this time had made it up the slope and managed to reach-climb up to take the potion from Rummy. Then the two of them climbed up to the top together, where Thaduk calmed down and promptly passed out.

Caddis worked a little psychosomatic healing to get Thaduk back on his feet, and the three of them limped back to where the sheeple were camped. They kicked Leo awake and made him heal Thaduk, then commandeered a tent and curled up to sleep out the rest of the night.

In the morning they convinced Theresa that it would be best to leave the palanquins behind. The sheeple shoved them up against the uphill side of the landing where they had come up the mountain and unloaded the trunks of provisions and camping supplies, forming a long baggage train. Caddis, Rummy, and the Doña took point, leading the long winding train of sheeple, while Thaduk brought up the rear.

Even with fifty-five people in tow, the road was easily navigable by daylight, with no further signs of gargoyles. In fact, the only wildlife they saw along the route were birds — terns, and pettrels, and shearwaters flying overhead or nesting on the cliffs below them. Several times throughout the morning, those in the back heard sounds of tumbling and clattering rocks, causing more than a little anxiety in Thaduk after his tumble of the night before, and causing him to trot up to the front with the others.

By midday Rummy and Caddis, unused to walking after so many months at sea, started to flag. Caddis shrank the two of them down so they would fit between Thaduk’s spines and they rode him for the remainder of the afternoon.

Late the afternoon, and roughly twenty-four miles from where they’d begun that morning, they entered a narrow, and winding section of the road. The path had sloped downward for many miles, and here the cliffs abutted the sea, the twisting and turning along the rock-face, facing a two-hundred foot drop strait into the water in many places.

It was in this narrow and treacherous place that they were next attacked. A quartet of gargoyles swooped down from above, pulling away from the upper cliffs among which they hid and dropping like the stones they were. They fell on the back of the line, shoving five of the sheeple off the cliff to die on the rocks below.

Thaduk shouted for the sheeple to get away from the edge. They readily complied, plastering themselves against the cliff-wall, while Theresa drew her sword and stepped up in line with Thaduk and Caddis. Rummy leaped at the nearest gargoyle, slashing it with his dagger. Then Caddis fixed his gaze on them, drawing them all to him with his faerie charms.

Once again the gargoyles crowded around Caddis, hovering impassively, and once again, Thaduk reared up over Caddis, silvery-hooves flashing. Caddis hit the deck as the big horse plowed into all, four gargoyles battering them and taking them all, demonic horse included, over the edge of the cliff to smash onto a narrow outcropping a hundred and fifty feet below. Groaning, Thaduk stood up, severely injured, but less so than his last nose-dive off the cliff and much less so than the large pile of rubble that had only recently been four gargoyles. The sheeple tossed ropes down to him and he was soon back at the top of the cliff being tended by Leo.

The path from there wound back upwards and away from the coast. Then, as dusk neared, the path ahead came to an abrupt end, long crumbled away into oblivion. Just beyond the end of the path, waist high and at arms-reach, a large log thrust out of the cliff-face, perpendicular to the wall of the mountain and cut-round with strange grooves. Far below them, they could see a small village of perhaps a dozen of the beehive-like stone huts.

Caddis, seeing the huts, looked up, scanning the sky for more gargoyles that might attack them. While he saw no gargoyles, he did see what looked like another road, roughly sixty feet above their heads and continuing on to the south. A second large log protruded from the cliff by this ledge, and from it dangled a wooden platform or pallet, suspended by vines. Smaller, rotting boards protruding from the mountainside between them indicated that the logs might long ago have supported some sort of stairs. Rummy suggested that, with all the rope the sheeple had brought, they might be able to use the logs to construct a rudimentary pulley system and lift using the pallet. If, of course, someone could get to the upper path to do so.

Thaduk volunteered, and, shifting back to his orcish form, carefully climbed the sheer cliff to the upper path. Of course, strong as he was, even simple mechanics were beyond his limited intellect, and he soon had the ropes hopelessly tangled. He managed to work a strand free and tossed it down and hauled up Caddis, who through his sailing experience managed to get them sorted out.

Rather than bothering with anything complicated, Caddis simply tied off the corners of the pallet and lowered over the upper log, handing the end of the rope to Thaduk. The big orc hauled the sheeple and their luggage up three or four at a time, with only a few harrowing instances of the platform tipping and threatening to pitch someone off into the abyss.

An hour later everyone was safely on the upper path and night had fallen. They marched a few hundred yards from the makeshift lift to where the path widened again and pitched camp. Fearing the possibility of gargoyles living in the village below, the pirates took turn keeping watch through the night, rather than trusting such duties to the sheeple.

During the first watch, things suddenly went dark, completely black, even to Rummy’s darkvision. Suspecting magic, Rummy quickly woke Caddis, who shifted to bugbear form and nosed about in the dark, sniffing for signs of intrusion. Blinded as he was, Caddis only narrowly avoided stepping off the cliff, his nose warning him at the last minute thanks to a warm updraft from below.

Only a few minutes after it started, the darkness faded and there, at the edge of the camp along the path in either direction were a dozen dead and rotting bird carcasses, staked upside down and wings outstretched to X-shaped frames — as if crucified. Although the birds appeared to have been dead for days, they were certainly not there before. Sufficiently spooked by this, Caddis sent Rummy off to sleep, vowing to remain up the rest of the night.

Sure enough, later that night it happened again, with the entire camp becoming shrouded in magical darkness. This time, Caddis detected a strange odor, like a pungent blending of wet fur and sulfur. Around the same time, Rummy and Thaduk were awakened by a chill and a sudden draft on their nethers. Just as Caddis was creeping around to investigate, the darkness abated, the strange scent disappearing with it, along with all of their tents. The latter having simply vanished into thin air right over the heads of the sleeping sheeple, nowhere to be seen.

Rummy and Thaduk returned to sleep and Caddis sat up, watching, until the break of day. In the early morning light, Caddis spotted a man, brown of skin and covered with intricate facial tattoos like the natives of these islands, standing on the edge of the cliff a hundred yards south of their camp. Without waking anyone, Caddis approached, walking slowly and waving to show his peacable intent. On seeing Caddis approaching, the man raised a knife, then quickly plunged it into his own chest, before pitching forward off the cliff to end as a bloody smear three hundred feet below.

To be continued…