The Wrathbreakers have killed a huge swamp beast in the swamps north of Kei, and during the battle discovered the beast had been corrupted by the same dark magic that was embedded in the scrolls they stole from a deep cult leader in the Valley of Gon. They decide to track the beast back along its path, until they can find where it originated and see if there is any information there about the nature of the magic.

They tracked the beast easily, following the mixed signs of destruction, corrupted land, and slaughter. The beast had killed indiscriminately as it traveled south, and had also stopped to rest at certain points in its journey, spending perhaps days at a time submerged in the mud in places that soon became corrupted and noticeably foul in its presence. They soon realized that the beast had followed a straight line directly away from the source of its corruption, and tracking it became even easier and faster as they no longer needed to search frequently for traces of it. Although tracking the beast was easy, the journey itself was tough. They had only three days’ supply of food, so had to gather food as they traveled, although they had some dwarven way biscuits that they could rely on if they were desperate. They also had to avoid mud-traps, wild animals and the seeping cold and damp of the swamp. After five days of walking through swamp the land began to dry a little and rise, with the mangroves and thick, lush foliage of creepers and moss changing slowly to rainforest and then to more sparsely scattered trees as they slowly ascended away from the fens.

On the 8th day they heard a strange sound ahead of them, like a distant storm making trees rustle, or the sound of many sticks being rubbed together. Then suddenly a horde of animals large and small fled past them, suddenly rushing to avoid some threat in the forest. Rabbits, rats, flightless birds, lizards, snakes and antelope all clattered, slithered, hopped and ran past them, and then the forest was still of all bird calls and animal sounds. The rustling sound grew to a clattering and then a roar, and then they saw the source ahead of them: a wave of ants, each the size of their fist, moving through the forest tearing up everything in their path. Small saplings were torn down and shredded, undergrowth cut down and mashed, and any animal that had not been fast enough to escape was torn apart or dragged along by the huge insects. They saw a rabbit being dragged along, struggling and screaming, as the ants tore it apart without breaking their march. They saw dismembered pieces of a goat being held aloft by a swarm of giant worker ants – and they realized they were next. They broke and ran. Itzel levitated into the air, Bao Tap made a magical shelter for himself, Ella climbed a tree, and Xu dived into a nearby stream. They waited as the swarm of ants passed them, Ella hoping they would not climb the tree after her and Xu watching in horror as the ants formed a bridge over the river by piecing together animal bones and pieces of harvested wood, glued together with some mixture of blood and fat and ant-spit. As Itzel hung in the air watching the swarm beneath her she heard screams and hoots in the distance. A troop of monkeys had been surprised by the ants, fighting back at first and then running, then being caught and dying, and their calls and screams of fear and pain echoed through the forest as their circumstances shifted from surprise to angry conflict to fear and then to horrible death.

Finally the ants passed and the Wrathbreakers could emerge from their hiding places into a new landscape, stripped and denuded by the army of ants, suddenly easier to walk in and transformed from light jungle to open savannah. They gathered themselves and continued their journey.

The Deepfolk ambush

The following day they reached a waypoint on their destination. The forest thinned and they emerged from the scattered trees onto a saddle of land, from which they could get a wider view of the landscape around them. The crest of this hill looked over another stretch of forest that swept downward to a huge lake, so large that they could not see the far side. This must be the inland sea north of Kei, and they guessed the swamp beast must have come from the shore of that sea. From where they stood on the hilltop the sea was perhaps an hour or two walk down the gentle slope, and they would likely be able to reach it by nightfall. They could see a small camp at the shore of the sea, and near the camp a worksite of some kind.

They discussed the best way to approach the camp. They were hungry, tired and dirty, and knew nothing about the area, and they really wanted to get down to the camp. They considered waiting until late night and walking through the forest at night, to emerge at the camp at dawn, but this seemed reckless and dangerous, so they decided to set off immediately with the goal of arriving by nightfall.

They had walked perhaps halfway to the camp, and were deep in the light scrub and forest leading down to the water, when they were ambushed. A flight of arrows emerged from the forest, hitting several of them, and they scattered to take cover where they could. More arrows emerged from the forest, finding their targets again, but they could not easily identify where the arrows came from. Then several squads of goblins rushed from the trees, grenades flying out of the forest ahead of them, and the Wrathbreakers realized that they had walked into a large and very well organized ambush.

The goblins were followed by an enormous ogre, and some heavily armoured goblin warriors with huge two-handed axes. The numbers were overwhelming but they put in a big fight, wiping out the archers and the fusiliers throwing hand grenades, and killing several of the goblin champions. Then, however, two spell users – a goblin witch doctor and a grigg shaman – arrived at the scene, and although they killed one the other one took control of Ella’s mind, forcing her to fire her crossbow at her own party. She was not completely dominated, but any time the witch doctor chose to it could make her fire on her friends. At the same time the goblin champions knocked Bao Tap and Itzel unconscious, and Xu and Ella realized that if they stayed in the battle they would be dead or captured too. They both fled, Ella running as fast as she could to clear the area before the witch doctor could command her again, and Xu casting a final look over his shoulder to see the goblin champion and some goblin raiders dragging Itzel, Bao Tap and Calim off into the woods, down towards the camp.

What they had thought was a human worksite must be some kind of deepfolk outpost. They had believed the western isles free of deepfolk but they were wrong, and they had paid for their lack of caution with a hard-fought defeat. Now Xu and Ella needed to regroup, and find a way to save their friends’ lives … or die trying …