Our return to Stone Down Gorge was uneventful, particularly after a few hours’ good rest inside the Spire. All of us felt more refreshed, more alert, when we were able to spend our down hours inside the tall structures. Meeting with Hundred-Blood, who first sent us on the mission to see what peace could be made between the Earthshakers and Red-Fang’s group, she admitted she would have preferred that we kill the Disfavored mages, but was nevertheless impressed that we survived the joining rites, and greeted us with honor. She pointed the way southeast and suggested what I sought could be found at Howling Rock. Fellow Stonestalkers would make sure we didn’t stray too far from the correct trail.
“The Voices of Nerat wish to speak with you,” I revealed, fulfilling part of my mission here. “He wishes to look upon the strength of the Stonestalkers for himself.”
With our bargain with the tribe met, and having cleared out the pillaging Earthshakers who were defiling their ancestral shrines, we grimly set out to the East, where Cairn hid near the oldwalls which formed the edge of the Stone Sea. The Spire there called to me, as if it knew I had activated all of its brethren in the Tiers, but I had to stay resolute – unless there was good reason to deviate, my primary goal was to put an end to the Edict of Stone and bring the traitor to justice.
Howling Rock was two days’ hard travel from Stone Down Gorge, though in truth no travel through the Stone Sea is easy. I wondered what the land would look like after the Edict of Stone was completed, whether it would revert to its previous verdant state or if the jagged peaks would begin to erode slowly. These lands were beautiful once, full of farms and peace. It sounded like the idyllic place I could spend my twilight years in, if Kyros be willing.
A bassy thrumming filled the air as we approached Howling Rock, and the air had an almost purple tint to it. As we sneaked over craggy cliff and protruding stone, we caught our first look at the juggernaut that was Cairn. Unbelievably massive, easily ten times the height of a man, he seemed to be sleeping, surrounded by supplicants and twisting channels of crackling, violet energy which whipped from mystical emitters, through the air, and directly into his forehead. He was made of stone, likely the first effect of the Edict which tried to kill him, but there was no question he survived, bending the whole of his will to resisting Kyros’ magic.
Keeping low against rocks which seemed to quiver as if breathing, we met up with the Scarlet Chorus lieutenant who was assigned to help us assault the monstrosity. His band was caked in thick dust, rivulets of sweat leaving muddy trails in their wake, and I assumed I looked no better. “The bridges are all out,” he reported, gesturing with a jerk of his head toward the slumbering former Archon. “I think the Earthshakers isolated the big guy on that plateau some time ago. Nobody’s come in or out of this canyon since we arrived yesterday.”
Barik, while officially a member of the Disfavored, had no love for the mages who had defied Kyros’ order and sided with the Archon of Stone when he turned traitor. “When we came over that ridge I saw them pitching large staves. It could be that they’re gearing up for a big ritual,” he offered. Insights like that are why I keep Barik around – he may be a stuffy soldier, like most in his unit, but he holds to the mission and puts in his all, even if striking against former allies.
“Whatever it is, I can tell you it won’t be to revitalize this place. The Edict of Stone is hurting the Chorus far worse than the DIsfavored,” the lieutenant suggested, spitting into the dirt at his feet. “Maybe they’ve found a way to heal Cairn and ensure the magic never ends. Or maybe they’ve found some other way to hurt us.”
I cautioned the man against assuming that whatever was good for the Disfavored would automatically be bad for the Scarlet Chorus. Undoubtedly their plans would be self-beneficial, but maybe Voices of Nerat’s agents were merely an afterthought. I admitted I had little insight into how mages thought. Eb merely shrugged her ignorance as well – Earthshakers applied magic very differently than her clan.
“There’s no way they’ve completely cut themselves off,” I mused. “They’re Earth mages – surely they could reform the stone bridges, or dig tunnels, as necessary to get supplies in and out.” I set the Chorus to scouting the area further, to see if there were signs of recent changes in the rocks. If we could discover their main path of travel, it may give us an opportunity to use it for our own purposes.