Crane's stomach grumbled as he made poor time through the jungle, the archaeologist struggling now that he'd lost his machete dealing with the river dragon. He'd been trying to put some distance between him and the carcass before the scavengers showed up - though he hadn't found anything that looked edible on the dragon, he doubted the wildlife would be as picky, or have any qualms about adding him to the menu.
Shoving his way past some of the undergrowth, Crane unshouldered his pack, taking out the scroll case within and popping it open with a flick of his thumb. Unfurling the delicate map, Crane oriented himself quickly. He was at least another hour's hike away, maybe two. If he was lucky, he could make it to the temple marked on the map before nightfall, and thus garner some shelter from the inevitable torrential downpour that would come once it got dark. Crane took a deep breath, carefully returning the map to its case and getting moving again. This trip was hard before - if Crane was lucky he could reach his destination before it turned impossible.
The section of the Southeastern jungles known as the Bhalaamshir was rarely much of an issue to the civilized world. The legions of House Ledaal and House Mnemon had swept through the area twice in previous decades and found little more than a healthy population of jaguars. A few small cults had been rooted out by the Immaculate Order, but even that was rather routine. Crane had garnered his map half-price from a cartographer he knew in Nexus, the old swindler not having a clue why the would-be scavenger lord would want the information. Crane didn't need extra reasons, though. He'd been dreaming of the destroyed old Dragon King temple in Bhalaamshir for weeks, and one more expedition meant one less chance for him to be found while in Nexus.
You still haven't arrived yet, I see.
The voice in his head was ancient yet arrogant, a cool, logical tone with a clipped and civil Old Realm accent.
"Byblos." Crane acknowledged. He'd been wondering when the book-spirit would renew its mental contact with him. As his "guide" and often-times mentor since his brush with the Unconquered Sun, Byblos called himself the "God of All Recorded Knowledge," though Crane seriously doubted his claims.
I understood you were a finer trailblazer than this, Slashing Crane.
"I'm working on it, aren't I?" Crane groused, looking in no particular direction as the book-god scolded him. "Besides, I'm short my machete now, it's a ltitle difficult to make headway."
Your map implied you would have little trouble.
"Yeah, well, you of all...things, ought to understand the concept of 'reading between the lines.'"
Profiting from falsified information? The nerve.
"I don't see you preaching honesty too often, old book."
I state the truths one is prepared to look for. Knowledge should always be sought out, not piled on a platter to be ignored at leisure.
"Once I'm far enough along, there's not going to be a soul in Creation who won't want to learn, I can promise you that."
Yet another reason why I choose to assist you, Slashing Crane.
"At least we've always been on the same page." Crane smirked, ducking underneath a vine as he continued his hike.
Cresting the top of a ridge, Crane smiled and winced as the sunlight at last shone through the break in the canopy. The temple was visible in the distance - the rectangular stone structure looking like a half-sunken ship in an ocean of green. Something was waiting for him there, good or ill, and Crane knew it. The only question left was what it was - and no matter what the answer to that, Crane knew it would be something he could use.
Arathea stepped across the jungle floor with the utmost poise, her awkward and ostentatious outfit still seeming perfectly natural as she and the two fangs of legionnaires made their way through the thick jungle. He wouldn't get away this time. She had to make sure he didn't.
"The trail picks up here, milady." The dusky-skinned scalelord at the forefront had come reccomended by the outpost's winglord as an expert tracker when Arathea had requisitioned escort - thus far, Khalif had been living up to the Winglord's praise.
"Thank you, Scalelord. By all means lead on." Arathea smiled, the winglike extensions off the back of her robes giving the demure girl some measure of a presence among the burly legion troops. "Any idea how long until we have our chance to apprehend him?"
"He's alone and unencumbered. He won't have to worry about clearing his path as much as we do. I doubt we'll be able to catch up to him before he reaches wherever it is he's headed. The good news is that from what you tell me of this thief, I doubt we'll need to search long once we track him there." The scalelord looked warily ahead as the column continued advancing through the undergrowth. "Milady, forgive my lack of faith, but I must ask you something."
"Which is?" Arathea's expression soured.
"I fail to see how a simple thief in the middle of this savage terrain is worth investigating and indeed pursuing at all, much less by two full fangs and yourself."
Arathea couldn't help bristling slightly. This was her fault, yes, didn't mean she liked being reminded of it. "Are you questioning your orders, scalelord?"
"No, of course not magistrate. I only wish to know our quarry, what I should be expecting from this thief of yours. One does not hunt tigers with rat traps."
"Nor rats with pit traps." Arathea relented, seeing his logic. "You are right to ask, scalelord, this is a most dangerous man. He looted and set fire to the library House Ledaal had opened to the people in Arjuf, and has since then been operating as a scavenger lord, searching for ancient and forbidden knowledge, along with tools of the Anethema themselves. He calls himself an 'archaeologist,' what that's supposed to mean is beyond me. The Order and the Magistracy alike fear he wishes to turn these demonic devices against the Realm. Thus I wished to be appropriately prepared." And barely managed to get this much, the magistrate thought to herself.
Khalif only nodded with a grunt of understanding. "It is good you turned to us then. We will find him out once we find his destination. After that, he'll have nowhere left to run."
"I should hope so, scalelord." Arathea warned. "This man has evaded capture before, and is known for his trickery. We can ill afford his escape this time, for both the Realm's sake, and our own."