The party had been walking without meeting anyone for the better part of three weeks now. The positive side of this was there had been no one to whom they had to explain their reasons for being here. The downside was there had been no one to trade with and with food and water heading to the low end of acceptable, tempers had started to fray and certain words had been exchanged.
According to the map, which was more often wrong than right this far out of the preservations, there should be a town somewhere over the next ridge where they would be able to rest and restock their supplies, and even better, it should be far enough away from the preservations that anyone who lived there wouldn't know about them or what they were doing.
By the time they had reached the top of the ridge, it was obvious there was no town ahead of them. The final night before they headed down into the valley, they camped out on a large outcropping of black volcanic rock. The stars twinkled in a moonless sky and they all sat around a small fire, cooking a little of what food they had left.
“There's nothing down there,” the magician said matter-of-factly between bites of the hard bread he preferred.
“How do you know?” the thief asked, while chewing. “We can’t see through the trees yet.”
“This road is not well maintained, plus the lack of people going either way and a lot of animals in and around the trees which scatter at our approach.”
“Well, look at Mr Booky-books,” the thief scoffed. “There could still be someone down there.”
“Probably bones,” the knight said.
“Are you ever not morbid?” the thief asked and received a dull glare back.
The sun crept up over the dense forest the party assumed covered the entirety of the valley below them. As the birdsong woke them from their slumber, the smell of something else rose up from underneath the trees.
“What died?” the thief sniffed emerging from somewhere just inside the treeline.
“Probably a village,” the knight mumbled, sitting where he had been when everyone else had turned in the night before.
“Did you sleep?” the magician asked him, tying a silk bandanna around his mouth and nose. The knight didn't respond, instead choosing to stand on the beginning of the path down into the valley, more alert than any of them had seen him before. The others exchanged a look and started down the road.
Somewhere behind them, climbing up the same hill the party had camped out on the night before, a young girl swung through the low hanging branches of the forest, listening to the animals, and the wind through the trees. They all spoke of something else in the forest, something that wasn't supposed to be there.
The girl swung to the ground, a place she never liked to spend a lot of time, and took off running in her bare feet behind the party, already some distance ahead of her.
It took the better part of the day for the party to climb down the, at times, steep roadway. The tangle of roots and creeping bushes keeping them from making good time.
As they got closer, the strange smell got worse and worse. The thief mentioned a few times that whatever it was that they were looking for wasn't worth this hassle, yet still persevered with them to the bottom.
When they arrived at the bottom, the floor of the valley, they found several large holes dug into the ground, that disappeared into the darkness. The smell was very clearly coming from deep down inside them.
“Can’t you do something,” the thief asked the magician, making mocking hand gestures, “about the smell?”
“Probably,” the magician replied. “But that would take power, and we might need that later,” he looked around into the trees.
The young girl watched the men talk amongst themselves. They were as offended by the smell as she was, it seemed. She was wondering if they were trustworthy enough when a loud explosion ripped through the sky and the three men scattered in different directions.
Somewhere not too far away, something large impacted the ground and sent vibrations through the valley, causing every bird for a few miles to take off into the sky.
She caught up with the tall man in fancy clothes as he was yelling in his strange quick language. He didn't see her, and she dived up into the trees and waited for everything to calm down.
The man in the fancy clothes called up a storm of red and blue gu which lifted him off the ground and carried him back to the edge of the valley. She followed him through the trees; she had never seen anyone with the sort of control he had over the gu.
By the time she caught up with him, the other two had also arrived. They were all talking quickly and over each other. As she dropped to the ground between them, they all shut up.
“Ah,” the magician said. “I was wondering when she would show herself to us.”
“You knew she was there?”
“For quite some time now. Shes a native to this area, a gu worker.”
“Did she cause that before?”
The magician considered the young girl for a minute. “No, I don't think so. I think she’s here for the same reason we are.”
“Great. Now we split the treasure four ways,” the thief rolled his eyes and walked off.
Less than two miles away from the party, a large black column stuck out from the ground and throbbed with some unknown power. Thick black root like tendrils flowed out of the column and down into the holes that dotted the landscape.
As the party argued, the sky ripped open in another explosion and a second black stone column fell down and embedded itself in the floor of the valley.