It was breathtaking, the mountain rising high above us and trailing off into a lush forest full of wildlife and a pretty lake. Organized dangers were few and we dealt with them as they came. Life beneath the shadow of Iruuqu was pleasant.
A large city was never our goal, we wanted a place that was more a refuge than anything else. Self sufficient, a close knit community, a peaceful place to live out our lives without worrying about the politics and raiding that often plagues the larger populace. This was achieved for many years and we had our fair share of visitors.
I would know as captain of the guards. There weren’t many of us, but the few we had followed my orders most of the time. It seemed that now was not one of those times.
“Roderic. What are you doing? You are supposed to be watching the eastern road.” I bowed my head slightly to the young woman accompanying him, “Merideth, a pleasure to see you again.”
Roderic cringed before rolling his eyes, something I would have to discipline him for later. “Ma’am. I was just heading over there now.”
Meredith giggled as he reluctantly headed out towards his post. “Lissa, you shouldn’t be so hard on him. It’s not that busy.”
I leveled her with a look that should have been stern but by her smile I assume it came off as more exasperated. “Just because it isn’t busy with people doesn’t mean there is no danger. Watch isn’t always fun but it needs to be done to keep us safe.”
“Yes, yes. I know. But I worry about you. Always so serious and worried. You’ll wrinkle you know.” She laughed teasingly and reached out to pat my arm. “All that armor must be horrid to wear this time of year. It’s so humid and hot. Come on, let’s go have a sweet biscuit. You were just relieved weren’t you?”
“I was but there are some things that require my attention.” I made a move to pass her and continue on my way, but she grabbed my arm and settled me with a stern look.
“You aren’t still worried about the smoke are you? I know it was alarming at first, but it has been doing some good, hasn’t it? The number of animal attacks has gone down. You said it yourself, it’s like they’re leaving the area.”
“Yes, and so are the rest of the animals. Our food source is leaving as well. Something is not right here. The tremors are increasing too. You couldn’t have missed that.” I resisted the urge to smack her as she rolled her eyes and waved a hand as if to dismiss it all.
“Lissa, they are barely noticeable.”
“Your lack of concern is frightening.” I removed her hold on my arm and took a step back. “I really do not have time to eat right now. I need to put together a scouting party.”
Meredith stuck out her lower lip in a pout and I shook my head as I headed off to the barracks. “And do not bother the guards on duty.” It was satisfying to hear the huff and stamping of her feet as she flounced off.
“Toran, Isik follow me.” I barked before retreating into my office. The two entered shortly, waiting patiently as I laid out the map of the region on my desk. “We are going to be doing some scouting up the mountain to see what is causing all this smoke.”
“Couldn’t it just be a small forest fire, Captain?” Toran asked.
Isik shook his head, “A forest fire that hasn’t moved anywhere in a week? No, I would think it may be a large bonfire but to keep it up for that long is a bit ridiculous. Nor do I suspect anyone in their right mind would try to invade from over Iruuqu.”
I nodded in agreement, “That does not mean there isn’t some foul play afoot. There could be a small group of those queer folk who practice magic up there. If there are, we will come back and gather enough men to remove them. We don’t need violent madmen in these parts.”
They both nodded when I glanced up. “Good. Go gather what you will need. We leave in an hour.”
The two men exited and I started packing my own satchel of goods. I was on my way out the door to inform our Lord of our departure when a flash caught my eye. Looking towards it, I recognized my lucky charm sitting upon the shelf.
It was a silver nugget with an odd symbol etched into it. I had never found anyone who could identify what it meant but it had always brought me good fortune. Picking it up, I rubbed my thumb over it three times before stashing it away in my little safebox. I smiled in satisfaction and headed on my way again.
The trek up the mountain would take two days. Isik led the way most of the time, being more familiar with the paths than either Toran or myself. It was an eerie first day of travel. We saw no animals that were usually lurking about and heard no birds. It almost seemed as if the jungle were holding its breath.
It seemed to be getting to Isik, the man was stiff and edgy as we set up our small camp. “Are you alright, Isik?”
Toran looked up from building of the campfire. “You have been quieter than usual.”
“So has everything else in this blasted place, not just me. Something is very wrong here and the constant shifting of the ground is unnatural.”
I couldn’t argue with that and it seemed Toran could not either. Our camp fell under a tense silence as we cooked our meal and ate it. Isik agreed to take first watch and wake me for second. After my food settled I laid down and got some sleep.
I was awoken suddenly as the ground beneath me shook violently. As it did, a deafening series of cracks were heard followed by a thundering roar that I did not recognize. Toran looked as startled as I did, and when I looked to Isik, he was white as a sheet and staring up at what we could see of Mount Iruuqu.
My eyes followed his and saw the great plume of smoke had grown and was rushing toward us, bringing with it a sweltering heat. I opened my mouth to scre—