Skydagger Mountains northeast of Seagate. Second week of the month of Redheart (early summer)
The rocky area of the skydaggers was near the box canyon where the rest of their group had been hiding for the last few weeks. Dion and a few others had been hunting to stretch out their food while Ibram healed. His head was badly bashed in a fight a few weeks ago and he was only now completely coherent. They were going to be leaving soon and would need more meat for the journey.
He’s been sitting in his hide site for a while and a couple of glide terrapins were slowly floating by. They were long and slim unlike landbound turtles with big paddle feet and a leathery balloon at the top of their shell. One of them shot their long sticky tongue out and snapped up a small bird. It peeped once and the pair continued to drift out of sight guided by the winds and their oarlike feet. His mother made a great soup from them. It fizzed as you boiled it and would be served to people with upset stomachs. He smiled briefly at the happy memory then his eyes went blank, staring into the past.
Another set of hands grasped the upper edge of the farm’s wall, and Eirene lunged forward to stab at them with one of the few darts she had remaining. The creature lost a finger and dropped, never having come completely into sight. She smiled and turned towards her son. “Don’t be afraid!” she yelled to him. Behind her another of the great brown hands grabbed onto the pointed stakes at the top of the wall and a long gorilla arm shot over the edge to grasp her around the waist. Without a sound she was pulled over the edge and out of sight.
“Mama!” Dion rushed to the edge of the wall. At its base, almost half a dozen of the stringy furred creatures hooted while hopping and dancing. Two of them worried at the broken red remnant of his mother, pulling gobbets of flesh free and stuffing it into their mouths. Tears filled his brilliant emerald eyes as he fumbled for another rock to load into his sling. He dropped it and fell to his knees. She had always seemed to fill any room; how could her remains have been so small?
The boy closed his eyes tightly against the memory. “Don’t think about it. It is over.” Was whispered to himself over and over. When he opened his eyes they were red and watery. Blinking frequently and looking around he saw furtive movement in the brush down the slope from where he had been hiding. He already had a rock in the pocket of his sling and let it hang from his hands were he grasped the leather straps. One of the fat cottontails of spring hopped out into the clover that was quickly turning brown under the summer sun. The sling began to spin and he stood up. Stepping forward into the cast he released the stone and it flew true. His lead foot kept going as a hole collapsed under it. Several rocks rolled down the hill towards the rabbit and his leg was sunk past the knee.
The boy froze for a second as the pain of his stretched out legs hit. He felt like the wishbone on feast day. Pushing up with his hands he tried to pull his leg out of the hole and earth around it began to fall in. He tried crawling backwards but the opening yawned large and he was suddenly falling.
Sometime later he came woozily to consciousness. Everything hurt and he was laying on his side. Groaning quietly he shifted a bit and rocks rolled under him. Roots hung down from the hole in the ceiling nearly two heights of a man above him. Light speared in illuminating where he lay but casting the rest of the area into shadow. He seemed to be in a large cavern as water could be heard dripping in the distance.
He picked himself up moving gingerly. Everything hurt and he moaned softly as he stood. Feeling along his left side there was a bit of blood where a small rock had cut into his side after tearing through his shirt. There was more on the side of his head clumping his hair together.
Once he was out of the main thrust of the light the area around him became clearer. It wasn’t a cave at all. The floor was tiled marble and he had broken through the top of a buried chamber. Collapsed benches showed this had been a sitting room of some sort. Faded, moth eaten tapestries moved in the feeble breeze and long empty torch sconces dotted the walls. The air felt close and thick as if nothing had moved in here for a very long time. Two doors, one narrow and one wide, stood on the left wall.
After looking around for a few moments he tried piling up some of the broken down furniture to climb out of the hole he fell into. Everything crumbled into dust as he stacked it. The benches had dry rotted to nothing and as soon as they were disturbed came apart. Sighing he looked around the room and kicked the pile of trash that had been ancient benches.
The boy slowly stepped into the gloom. Through the rigor of the last few weeks he had lost a lot of the puppy fat on his face and he looked almost like a fox. His hair fell into his eyes and was irritatedly brushed away. Approaching the narrow door he opened it and saw a tumble down shelf area like a pantry or closet. Shuffling around in the debris he found something that had probably been an old cloak and a metal rod. The ancient cloth wrapped around the poker could make a passable torch or the poker could be something like a weapon.
He crept up to the larger door holding the poker as if it were a rapier. Pulling the handle it opened it just a bit with a long creak and he put his eye to the crack. Blackness. With a deep sigh he wrapped the old cloth around the poker and used his flint and steel to strike some sparks. After a few moments one caught and the torch was lit.
The flickering light revealed a long hallway. Thick dust coated the ground and obscured much of the detail of the murals on each wall. Brushing some of it away created a cloud that made the boy cough, which boomed in the silence. The band of cleared space revealed a knight with a glowing spear held high.
The hallway stretched into the darkness to the left and right. Dion looked each way for a moment and shrugged, then started to creep left. He kept against the wall, left hand making a trail through the dust.
After a few yards of slow and careful travel, along with a couple of sneezes, he came to a big set of double doors blocking the hallway. They gleamed in the dim light with scenes of warriors fighting what must be demons. The two doors had the image of a spear covered in flames across them. Dion recognized the image. It was the holy symbol of Raugoshe, god of good warriors and the one worshipped by his father.
“Come, Anuri. Dion. There are eggs to find and goats to graze.” The huge man stood and walked towards the door after kissing his wife, Eirene, on the head with a smile. As he did each time he went through the passage, he brushed his hands on the gleaming axe above the doorway. Wolfing down the last of his food, the young boy Dion followed his sister and tried, as he always did, to jump up and touch the axe, but he wasn’t quite tall enough. Instead he darted over to the corner to the lovingly maintained suit of armor, shield and spear and played his hands across them before darting outside.
Dion bowed his head in front of the door. “Raugoshe, I’m not sure if you can hear me.” He snuffled loudly in the gloom, “But I think my father is there with you. All of you are training for the end times to protect the world when that comes and I understand how important it is.” He stopped talking for a long moment and swallowed thickly before continuing.
“It’s just that I really miss him and wish he was here. He died with his axe I his hand. You should know that. He always taught me how important that was to you and your followers. He was a good man and I hope you will tell him how much we all loved him. Please watch out for him. Take care of him the way he took care of us, until right there at the end.” He dissolved into tears. He was only a little boy and was trying so hard to be strong for the others in his group. He leaned forward against the door with his arms across his face to sob. When he put his weight against them they opened soundlessly pitched the lad forward onto a gleamingly clean tile floor.
He picked himself up and stood starting forward with wide eyes. He rubbed a dirty fist across his face and a remaining tear made a trail towards his chin. A burning white glow illuminated this room. The boy gasped when he saw what it was.
The eastern forest to the north of Seagate. Third week of Redheart (early summer)
The fire burned high beneath the cauldron as it had for several days. The two sweating teenage girls and one young man panted as they ran wood from the much-diminished pile to the flames where they would be devoured. One ancient crone chanted over the boiling liquid, her rotting teeth making her spray the words as much as she spoke them. Another woman in late middle age with what looked to be some type of rotting affliction, or even mange, sprinkled powder into the mix and stirred it with a great wooden paddle. A small hand briefly floated to the top of the bilious green concoction and quickly sank back down.
The clearing where the ceremony was taking place had the awakened dead shuffling around it as if on guard. One skeleton wore the armor of a warrior and seemed to direct the others with waves of his curved sword or an occasional hissed word. A tree with torn bark, that leaked a red sap, covered the entire western side of the glade and as the sun set, the beams of light through its branches created a mobile shadow play on the liquid as it boiled. The crone’s chanting increased in pitch and volume and her assistant cried out in a discordant counterpoint to her side. The three younger helpers all stepped away from the nearly consumed wood pile and danced in time with the words of their elders, leaping jerkily and shouting as if in pain.
As the last ray of sol’s light speared the cauldron it began to quake and shake. The liquid within it suddenly shot upward into the sky to flash into a poisonous green mist that floated above the trees. The cloud moved with an almost intelligent purpose towards a distant village. Birds that flew through it fell to earth dead and plants that it touched withered. The five witches grinned in triumph and panted with exhaustion.
Once the malignant cloud had gone, a large vulture that had been circling above for some time winged its way down to the ancient woman who seemed to lead the group. It croaked once and a scroll case could be seen around its bare neck. The great witch of the eastern forest raised a single wispy eyebrow and looked at her followers before reaching for the tube. The bird waited patiently for her to grab it and flew away once she had. Unreth the Dreaded tore open the seals and unrolled the scroll. She read aloud to the group in her breathy, dry voice:
Unreth the Dreaded
Great Witch of the Eastern Forest
I send greetings. Your coven would be welcome in our fastness
As well as in our councils. We are rebuilding the old empire and seek
The ancient allies of the Atef to regain our former glory.
You may find us in the Skydaggers where ancient Ptoledrad fell.
Yours in service to Dread,
Kher Heb of the renewed Empire
“Well, isn’t that interesting. There hasn’t been anyone to wear the title of Kher Heb in this part of the world in over a century.” The crone’s twisted finger tapped the single brown tooth remaining in the front of her mouth as she thought. The skeleton, in worn but well maintained armor of an ancient style--complete with rills around the shoulders and neck--walked over to her. She cocked her head to the side and watched him approach.
“Atef returns?” It asked in a sepulcheral voice.
“Someone claiming to be the Atef has sent us a message. That is all we know so far.” Unreth narrowed her eyes and watched her long time servant who stood for several moments as if pondering this news. It was hard to tell what he was thinking since any skin on his face had long since rotted away leaving nothing more than bone.
“If Atef returns, I go to them.” He finally said in his slow careful manner. “Many of the old ones will gather.”
Both of her eyebrows shot up to her wrinkled forehead. “Are there many of you left?”
“Yes.” The skeletal warrior nodded. “Several have hidden away waiting for the return.”
“Well, this I have to see.” She turned to her gathered followers and proclaimed in a loud voice, “We go to the mountains!” The three younger witches clapped and everyone scurried to their tasks. The older of her subordinate witches was washing out the cauldron that should have been burning hot to the touch but seemed quite cool.
It took nearly a day for the coven to assemble their equipment and prepare to move. The cauldron was tied to two long poles as a travois and pulled a horde of lesser undead. The trunks of ingredients were loaded into the cauldron. Each of the witches had their own pack with personal equipment but the dark book was carried by the skeletal warrior Asimon who stayed right beside Great Unreth.
Unreth was just about to give the order to move when arrows began to rain into the clearing. Some made the butcher cleaving sound of striking flesh, a few rang off the iron walls of the huge cauldron and some chipped off section of bone from the skeletons. A deep voice boomed from the woods, “At them men! We’ve finally caught the witches!”
Six human men in heavy armor moved together through the brush. One was waving his hammer for others to follow. Several humans and one cobra-like midniss, all wearing light armor with bows, were spread about the forest loosing arrow after arrow into the crowd. The young warlock shouted and threw some thorns into the air as two clothyard shafts pierced him. The thorns fell to the ground and grew into twisting vines that sought out the intruders.
One of the skirmishers with an axe went to work on the thorned vines growing from the ground. They writhed like living things and when one wrapped around his leg he started screaming like a damned soul. As blood was sucked through the hollow thorns, buds on the vine burst into life as head-sized crimson roses. They gave the scene a macabre beauty, coming to life as the man was drained of his. The axe dropped to the ground.
The men at arms on either side of their lord knew their business. The skeletal warrior directed the lesser undead against them and shield bashes kept the horde away while hammers swept down to crush skulls or cave in ribs. The skirmishers continued to circle around and loose arrows into the melee as they had a target. The crone began to chant and the earth rumbled. Her middle-aged assistant drank a potion and fell to the ground in convulsions. Two more of the skirmishers had become entangled in the blood vines.
The witch on the ground still convulsed but had begun to grow. Muscles appeared on her withered limbs and blue twisted horns came from her head. She opened her mouth to scream and fangs were revealed where rotten teeth had been. Her wide open eyes had become yellow and slitted like a cat’s. Dirty fingernails were transforming into claws. Her screams became deep and throaty.
The ancient skeletal warrior hooked one of the men at arms out of the formation with his curved sword and the lesser undead fell upon him. Now there were four surrounding their lord. Many zombies and skeletons were down, some crawling back into the fight but often they were completely destroyed. One of the young witches grasped a femur from one of the crushed skeletons and chanted over it. The bone seemed to grow into the shape of a hammer that radiated an aura of gloom. She shouted and charged.
The hangman tree at the edge of the clearing had tiny white rootlets growing up through the ground. They looked almost like pale grubs. When several of the skirmishers stepped into that area to loose their arrows they began to scream like lost souls. The rootlets were growing into their bodies. One managed to pull away and retreat, long white threads trailing from his knee where he had knelt down to shoot. His three friends continued to scream for help. The midniss shot one of them out of mercy when he saw rootlets growing out of his mouth. Several of the lightly armored humans had begun to retreat from the clearing with fear in their eyes.
Unreth’s chanting came to a conclusion and her taloned hands thrust up into the air. Two great hands of earth and stone came up from the ground mimicking her gestures. They slapped aside several of the lesser dead and Asimon skipped to the side showing surprising agility for a skeleton. One of the men at arms was crushed by a great stony hand and the other was set upon by the heavily armored men.
The hag that had been a witch rose from the ground. Her skin had become the red of blood and mighty muscles played as she moved. Her clothes were ripped and torn as she had grown to nearly ten feet in height with her horns extending another foot. She screamed something incoherent and tackled the lord that was leading the attack. His hammer met her in the air and one leg was crushed but he went down beneath her great weight.
Most of the skirmishers were retreating now, the humans were a beaten force. The lone midniss stayed at the edge of the clearing--avoiding the blood vines which had drained another of his compatriots and the hangman tree which had three caught in its roots. He fired arrow after arrow at Unreth but they shattered against her ironlike skin.
Two of the men at arms remained back to back against the few undead and the gathered witches. The lord and the hag rolled around on the ground each striking the other and taking terrible wounds themselves. Unreth’s two earthen hands closed on the heavily armored warriors' and left them both twisted ruins.
The hag was holding down the local lord now. His hammer had finally fallen from his grasp and the visor of his helm was torn away. He looked to be afflicted with a rotting illness. Sores had broken open across his face and were running. Where the reddish pus touched skin more of the blisters rose.
Unreth stalked over to the man and looked down on him with contempt. “What made you so foolish as to venture into my forest?” She demanded in her whispery voice.
“Everyone is dying.” The man gasped, “We thought if we could slay you the others might heal.” He lay down in defeat, finally ending his struggles.
“Fool. My spells are not so easily defeated! Your family will join you in death.” She cackled a phlegmy laugh and raked her filthy nails across his throat. He choked and bled for just a few moments before going still.
She chanted over the lord and her hands glowed black for just a moment. He began to twitch and rise. The hag quickly got off him as he stood, eyes vacant staring off into the beyond. Unreth smiled, “Now you’ll serve me in undeath as you defied me in life!”
Two arrows came from over her shoulder and sank into the zombie lord’s face. He fell to the ground unmoving. “My lord serves no one, Witch!” the midniss hissed, spitting in fury. He turned and quickly ran through the clearing, back into the trees, quickly vanishing from sight.
Unreth glared hatred in his direction and chanted again. Bones from slain warriors and the blood vines gathered together into a misshaped creature shaped much like a man but with an extra arm. Thorns covered its flesh as it rose. “Kill it! Kill the lizard!” she pointed and the shambling thing lumbered off into the wood.
“Gather up everything. We move now. Raise the slain. They will serve us in the place of those they destroyed.” She stalked around the clearing fulfilling her own commands.
In an hour nothing remained except for a huge tree looming over a clearing. The reddish sap oozing between its bark layers looked like blood. The midniss warrior stepped silently out of the trees his armor shredded across his back and torn scales visible. A long purple tongue tasted the air. He set off silently to hunt those who had slain the only human who had ever shown him kindness.
Eastern Forest to the north of Seagate. First week of the month of Redheart (early summer).
A small human in metal banded leather armor slipped through the forest like a fish moving through the water. His black hair was covered in a high helmet that left his entire face uncovered except for the nasal bar and only extended a third of the way down the man’s somewhat oversized ears. The recurved bow in his hands was strung with an arrow but not drawn. His dark, dark eyes took in every detail. A scar turned one edge of his mouth up into a grin, but otherwise he looked deadly serious.
The hanging strips of bark on the thick tree he was circumnavigating looked like leather. The trunk was smooth without branches until high above his head where they spread into a canopy that plunged about a third of a bowshot into twilight despite it being high noon. It was sauna hot and the shade only provided a little relief.
The sun raged down in strips of sizzling light across a clearing to his left. There hadn’t been any big clearings in a while and being the suspicious sort he gave it a wide berth and stuck to the shadows of the trees; he had been feeling a strange knot in his stomach and a peculiar rising of the hairs of his arms while moving through this part of the wood. The waving fern fronds seemed too heavy and stiff. He pulled a forearm length of blue-leafed vine from the tree and waved its trailing edge through the ferns. It was cut like the ferns were razors. Grunting slightly to himself, he looked backwards, and clicked his tongue twice.
The tall woman nearly ten paces behind him who was missing part of her nose stopped studying the bug battle on a nearby tree and looked up when she heard the clicks. Finger length sized ants were fighting a beetle with mandibles that looked like barbed scimitars and whose body would have filled an open palm. Mikkel the Silent waved the section of vine in the noseless woman’s direction to make sure she was looking at it and pulled it through the ferns again. He dropped the cleanly severed vine and pointed out to the field, shaking his head. Alora nodded, and Mikkel resumed his cautious trek through the hostile wood. She crushed a couple of the ants with the butt of her crossbow before following. Both the beetle and the surviving ants descended on the dead like a starving man would charge a feast.
A broad-framed dwarf with wild golden hair followed the woman. Instead of flowing through the woods like the short human man, he used his shield to batter aside the vegetation. The shield was the worse for it with many green splatters on its iron and bronze surface, a couple of which seemed to be left by acid that had scarred the metal. His hook hand looped through the bracket on the back of that shield. When Durag who had been called The Bold was branded as a thief, it cost him a hand and saw him kicked out of the mines and his homeland. It could be worse since a hook had many uses, but he did miss the snail shell soup his wife had made him before his exile. Damn her for annulling their marriage and taking another husband instead of coming with him. As the noseless woman reached the clearing of ferns, she pointed to it and shook her head while pointing at the razor-edged plants. The clear eyed dwarf nodded and muttered quietly to himself, “Damn her. Damn those plants. And damn this creepy woodland. Take a solid cavern of rock over these acid-spitting flowers and sword bushes any day.” The woman leading the dwarf raised one eyebrow as she eyed him over her shoulder, and he grumbled, but returned to silence.
Durag passed the warning on to his taller, emerald-eyed brother Carnag whose braided beard swung against his chest as he tromped behind him; had had remained loyal to his brother and followed him into exile. The gesture had to be repeated twice as the beetle with the mandibles had flown at his brother’s face before the warning could be given. The dwarf in question wasn’t known for his dexterity or flexibility, but had dodged in a way that would have made a circus contortionist proud despite his heavy plate armor. Carnag in turn scowled at the guffawing gigantic human bringing up the rear, and for a moment, seemed to be tempted to pursue the combative beetle for its slight against his honor. The bladed plants were enough of a deterrent.
The “avoid the sword ferns” gesture was passed on for the last time from the scowling dwarf to the huge man. When the man finally reached the clearing, he paused for a moment to watch the ferns as they waved in the faint breeze. He had a very large sword in both hands and let go with his right, resting the blade on the pauldron of his shoulder armor. Despite the warning, he reached out to touch the fern and was cut deep. With an oath, he pulled away and popped the sliced finger into his mouth to suck on the wound. A musical laugh sounded from up ahead. The woman had kept an eye out knowing Agnar would never be able to resist his childish impulses to do just that. His reckless courage was part of why she loved him, but she had a mean sense of humor that found injuries to others funny.
A grin opened Agnar’s blonde beard, and he waved his injured hand like you would if it had been burned. He stuck out his tongue at the woman and muttered, “I hate this place.”
“As do we all,” Durag said, “But you just keep acting like a troll without a head, letting the damn plants sting and poke and spit on you. If you’d just stick to the path, you’d only just hate it as much as the rest of us.”
The forest had been getting stranger for the last few days as they descended deeper into the wild part of the wood. Animals and plants were twisted, warmongering creatures. All of them, except Mikkel the Silent, had taken various injuries from things that should be harmless, like ferns that turned out to be made of sword blades, and one never to be sufficiently damned mushroom that had sprayed out spores which exploded when they made contact with flesh. That had cost Carnag almost all of his healing, and he prayed for more of the blessings of Renayl, God of Mercenaries and Warriors, as they marched.
“You complain like a child. Injuries are part of the warrior’s lot.” Agnar stated.
“A child?” the dwarf’s voice raised, but at a look from Alora, his rage turned into a harsh whisper. “You’re the one who stirred the damn thing up. Wouldn’t ‘ave happened if you hadn’t played, “kick the fungus.” Carnag almost bit the dust cause of you, and I’ll be damned if I see my brother become fertilizer for these devil plants.”
Agnar winked at the angry dwarf, “Makes you angry don’t it? Makes you want to do something about it other than drip useless words through your lips. When you decide to be as bold as your name let me know and we can get to settling any score you imagine you have.” Durag’s teeth ground loudly enough to make the barbarian smile.
When they camped that night, it was a tense affair. It seemed everything in this part of the forest was aggressive. Even the plants had gaping mouths that would shut like a trap door or pits of acid that splashed out if their leaves were brushed. Once their campsite was set Agnar again announced, “I hate this place. There is no glory in slaying plants. There is no gold in slaying plants. There is even less glory in being slain by plants. And, I’m a might bit tired of listing to Durag’s whining.” He ducked as an expertly thrown cooking pot whizzed overhead. Without a pause, he continued, “Why are we doing this again?”
“Because our, most likely insane, employer wants yon priest to read a scroll inside a summoning circle and see what pops up.” Alora pointed to Carnag and then lolled back on her bedroll. “The same priest whose gravestone almost read, ‘Death by Mushroom,’ I might add.”
“More like ‘Death by Idiot.’” Durag said as he leaned back against a nearby tree. His nonchalance followed his innocent shrugging of his shoulders when the flying cooking pot had suddenly appeared.
With a wintry smile, Carnag’s voice rumbled like shifting rocks. “You can bring spirits into the world through the summoning circles. If we can bind one to service, then our lady of endless gold gains that much more power. If we can’t, then we aren’t worth what she is paying us and we’ll be dead.”
“Why not just read the blasted scroll in the mountains where we were?” Agnar poked a vine with his sword. The vine had been slowly creeping into their clearing like a stalking serpent. When jabbed, it curled up like it was feeling pain.
“Okay, even though this is the third time I have explained it since breakfast, I’ll tell you again.” Carnag sighed theatrically and took a pose with one hand over his heart and the other outstretched like an orator. “In the days after the raising of the young gods to divinity, those who we now call the Diabolic Pantheon began twisting the souls of their followers into demons. These evil spirits were set loose to wreak havoc on the world. The other groups of gods began changing the souls of their followers into shapes that better served their needs, and the spirits of the dead made war with each other. There was great destruction, and in the midst of rebuilding from the horror of The Night War, all the world was fragile then.”
Mikkel the Silent scowled and curled up into his cloak. He had the next watch and needed the sleep.
“After many years of this, the gods agreed to keep their spiritual followers away from the world into their own realms. They all banded together to create The Cage, which is made of the raw power of the gods. It enwraps the world and keeps the dead on their own side of the veil and the living on ours. Each bar of the cage was maintained by a separate pantheon and reflected their power. Power that would keep out the spirits of other pantheons. Over time, both priests and wizards figured out that at the junctions of the bars, the magic sometimes cancelled each other out; therefore, at these intersections where the magic is negated, you could summon spirits there with greater ease. We call these summoning circles,” Carnag said this like the name of the circles was a huge revelation even though he had been over this at least a half dozen times more since they had left the mountain fastness of the Atef.
“We go to a summoning circle where war intersects with some other pantheon’s line to try and bring forth one of the Spirits of the Fallen, which most people call war spirits. Since I am a priest of one of the war gods, I can potentially call such a spirit. This area is infected by the power of war which is why everything seems more aggressive and dangerous,” the dwarf smiled as he said this and held out the black helm symbol of his god Renayl who was known as the Patron of Mercenaries.
“If this place is infected by the power of war, and you are a conduit of said power, how were you hurt by that little spore-spitter?” Agnar ducked his head, expecting another flying object, but Durag remained leisurely leaned against the tree. Little did Agnar know, Durag’s cogs were turning. There was still quite a bit of forest to cover, and plenty of opportunities to get back at the cocky warrior. Agnar’s wry smile peeked through his beard, and then he directed his attention back to the younger brother. “So why can’t our employer go herself?” Agnar asked as he vigorously scratched every inch of his scarred, muscle rippling torso. He always did this just after taking off his armor.
“Only priests of that pantheon can summon particular types of spirits. So I couldn’t summon a nature spirit, nor could a priest of the life powers bring forth an oracle of knowledge.” Carnag was wiping down his holy symbol with blessed oils as he answered this. Durag had not moved from his position against the tree. As first watch, he had kept his armor on and assumed a more guarded stance once the others gradually settled down to sleep.
In the morning, they broke camp. Mikkel found some onion shoots and eggs they made into passable omelets, and then they were on their way. Just after the group got moving, the light-footed scout saw the first of the metallic doglike creatures. Their scales were metal and glinted like the edge of a blade, and their tails were long. It was hard to tell how many there were because they darted in and out of the brush, but their eyes glowed a deep red that was often visible when they were hiding and watching. Their six legs made them skitter like a swarm of ants when they walked, and each one was the size of a mastiff.
The creatures never attacked but closely followed the group for hours. After being tracked and hunted, everyone was on edge, waiting at any moment to feel the surge of adrenaline of a surprise attack, and clutched their weapons tightly. The weird cackles and fluting howls of the doglike beasts followed them though the wood.
On the second day of being tracked and hounded by the beasts, Mikkel while sliding through the underbrush, came upon a clearing. More of the sword ferns waved in the breeze. A big rabbit, almost waist height to a man not counting the ears, was on the near edge of the clearing, casually nibbling on the razor sharp fronds. Mikkel froze, not trusting this image. Everything about this part of the wood had been so bizarre for the last few days he was, appropriately, very suspicious of the image created by a rabbit chewing on a home grown razor.
One of the six legged, knife-scaled dogs came stalking into view. It had also spotted the rabbit and was crouched low and slinking forward more like a cat than a dog. Its long tail swished behind it and glittered dully in the light of both suns. Without moving its head, the bunny’s pink eye, closest to the clearing, swiveled to look at the approaching predator. Mikkel’s muscles tightened, expecting for the rabbit to bolt. It reached up with one paw to scratch its ear. That was it. No frantic escape or anything else. It just watched as the thing creeped up towards it.
Once the war-enhanced canine realized it was spotted, it let out a harsh metallic bark and charged. Bounding over rocks and through brush, all of its six legs pounded forward at an incredible speed. The rabbit, as if frozen, just stood there. When the predator was within arm’s length of engulfing the helpless rabbit, the bunny leaned forward. Its mouth opened to an impossible degree, like a snake dislocating its jaws to swallow its prey; its lower jaw lay flat on the ground and its upper jaw extended alien-like above its head. The dogish creature yipped before vanishing into the cavernous gullet. The bunny’s belly bulged out, and one could see a futile, feeble paw pressing out against its side, as if it were about to give birth, and it slowly hopped away. Mikkel could do nothing but blink his widened eyes, shake his head, and continue moving carefully through the wood. Agnar was right behind him, and again could be heard muttering, “I hate this place…”
Eventually, the group found the burned out remnant of a small tower. This was the marker they had been told to seek. The tower had been built by the clergy of the god of guardians to protect the circle and destroyed by those wanting to make use of it. Behind was a twisted wall of mushrooms and thorns, all with a glittering sense of danger radiating from them.
Carnag stepped forward with an ancient scroll in his hands. He stepped up to the wall, leaving a comfortable distance between himself and the possibly antagonistic fungi, and after searching with his eyes, found something like a gate made of spears grown together. He stepped within after motioning for the group to wait and looked through the hole for a moment. Low chanting could soon be heard coming from the circle.
The air charged with a prickling that felt like electricity. Images of cavalry charges and screaming swordsmen flooded everyone’s minds. Agnar drew his great sword and began to pace around muttering, his eyes growing wilder and wilder as the images assaulted their consciousness.
One of the six legged canines stalked out into the clearing. It was soon followed by several of its pack mates. Their hackles were up and all were growling, sometimes letting out yips or howls in time with the chanting. They barked and then attacked.
One of Alora’s crossbow bolts transfixed the first one, and Mikkel’s first arrow went wide . Agnar sliced one in half with his mighty sword, but another chomped down on his armored thigh. Durag knocked one aside with his shield and smashed its head with his spiked hammer. Cries of battle filled the air as the chanting continued.
Agnar’s voice rose up from among the shouting and the dog’s metallic barking, “I. . . “
More and more of the war enhanced beasts arrived and attacked. The chanting seemed to drive them mad with fury. Even the nearby trees looked like they were shivering as potential continued to build in the air. The four adventurers had gone back to back with each guarding their own front. Agnar controlled a large area because of the sweep of his sword while Alora had a smaller frontage due to her daggers being so much shorter. Durag smashed one and then another, but he was bleeding from many wounds when one of the creatures bit through his shield and tore part of it away.
“Hate. . .” Agnar shouted, scraping one of the dogs off his leg with his sword like butter off a knife.
A bolt of lightning exploded from the circle illuminating everything brilliantly for a split second, and Agnar went mad. He howled in fury and chopped at the foe. The other three closed in to guard each other and picked off those attacking the big warrior’s back. Almost a dozen of the creatures were chopped, smashed or stabbed when the dog who had first arrived yipped and fled into the wood. Soon only the dying were there, some still growling and trying to bite. The whole group sagged while Agnar fell to a knee.
“This place,” he panted, finishing his battle-long sentence.
Carnag stepped carefully out of the gate. “Did I miss anything?” he asked with eyebrows raised at the piles of dead magical beasts and his comrade’s many wounds. A blue skinned humanoid of roughly dwarven height stepped out after him. It had no mouth but did possess piercing sapphire eyes, almost comically short legs and massively overmuscled arms that nearly hung to the ground. The thing’s great hands clutched air as it grasped at the nothingness in front of it over and over.
“Nay, fair priest, we were just taking the air. Enjoying the scene. Touring the lovely countryside,” Agnar gasped out between breaths. He hobbled over to join the group, using his sword as a crutch. Blood streamed down his side, and he would soon have even more scars.
Carnag grunted then bowed with a theatrical flourish, indicating his blue friend. “We have verified the summoning circle is active. I suggest we go and get the rest of our gold.” The newly summoned spirit looked about with dead eyes and continued to flex its hands open and shut convulsively.
Skydaggers north east of Seagate. First week of the month Grimshield (Late Spring)
Ibram looked at his little group of refugees. He and the peddler Peleus had managed to rescue two families and a couple of stragglers since they had found Dion in the ruins of his farm. There were only four other adults, two from the same family, one a much older farmer with his two early teen daughters and one a hunter who had wandered in on his own. The rest of the thirteen people were fourteen years or younger. There was a different story of loss written in each face. All were seated in the soft grasses with heads bowed as if praying or asleep. But after witnessing the horrors they had all survived, prayer and sleep seemed distant dreams.
They had left Peleus’ cart in the same place where Dion’s goats had been freed to graze. He knew of a nice sized box canyon that was hard to find. It had a stream and grass aplenty along with a cave where a lot of their gear had been hidden. There was even a pond where the stream tried to flow through a solid wall of stone. It was a defensible paradise, if they had enough people to hold it, and some old ruins at the open end told the tale of someone long ago thinking the same thing.
It was dawn in the mountains. A beautiful sunrise was framed by the rugged peaks. None of them really had eyes for that though. The leisure of watching sunrises and admiring the beauty of nature was lost to them, replaced by fear of shadows and creatures lurking in the receding darkness. Everyone was on the watch for more of the roaming packs of trolls that had plagued them. In the last few days, a few skeletons and zombies had even attacked. Their group had once been seventeen, but a ghoul had cost them four of their number almost two weeks ago, and they had been forced to flee. Everyone now carried lamp oil salvaged from another ruined farmhouse in case they saw him again. Flames were a decent defense against undead with flesh still on their bones, if there was any defense trapped in the great open of the wild.
As if beckoned by a silent call, everyone struggled to their feet, and the old plow horse one of the families had saved was loaded down with gear and two very small children. A llama wasn’t carrying nearly as much, and its sour expression at even that modest load made Ibram laugh just a bit every time he looked at it. Their bearing beasts were few, and with the exception of the smallest children who were carried either by beast or traded between the remaining adults, everybody walked. . Even Ibram walked beside his charger to save its strength in case they were attacked. Their progress through the wilderness was painfully slow.
Trenton the hunter had been off at first light to scout the way. He returned and waved over to the adults. Dion tagged along behind Ibram as he almost always did. His sling had been useful both in battle and hunting, and he didn’t scream as much in his sleep these days.
“Thar’s nuttin up ahead to the next holler. Smoke up past the ridge tho.” Trenton’s accent was thick enough to cut with a knife. Ibram’s city-bred ears took a second to catch up, but all the locals seemed to have no problem with it. He was slowly becoming attuned, but for the times he could not translate, Dion proudly would repeat the hunter’s words.
The group gathered themselves and finally were on the move again, heading back towards Omnire Township and imagined safety. Every farm in the area any of them knew about had been scouted in the hopes they would find survivors. They were what was left. Trenton went out ahead of the rest with an arrow knocked on his bow. His own bow, given to him by his grandfather and his grandfather before him had been snapped like a twig by the same troll who had, in that same movement, snapped his wife in half with just as much ease. He had found his current replacement among the ruins of his neighbor’s farm, knowing that no one in that family had need for weapons or things from this world again.
Ibram was next in the lead of the main body directly followed by the two dray animals with their loads and all the children. The rest of the adults brought up the rear to be guards and make sure none of the youngsters fell behind or drifted off. Dion was right by Ibram’s side with a stone in his sling.
They moved through a broad valley and mostly avoided looking at the burned out farmstead in the midst of carefully tended fields. A young family had just built it and died defending it and been buried by one of the their members several weeks ago. “Oi!” rang out from the hunter leading the group. He shouted again and took a few long steps towards the farm.
They all looked to see two men coming out of the ruin with their hands filled. Bags of grain and some tools were all hurriedly gathered together in their arms. They were both dressed in what could charitably be called uniforms with deep red, loose-fitting pantaloons and sandals; pointed iron helms covered their heads and the curious loose woven studded leather common to desert people covered their torsos. Their complexions were the olive tan of the alliard ethnicity and not the deep brown of either the salt flat’s nomads or the mar’ud of the far river’s cities. Upon seeing the group, they both dropped their loads and clawed for the crossbows on their backs.
Ibram stepped forward with his arms empty. “We mean you no harm! We are survivors of the attacks on this area and are moving to shelter!” He boomed in the battlefield voice of experienced warriors. One of the men at the farm loosed a crossbow bolt that dug deep into the ground at the feet of one of the children. The adults in the group were rapidly shooing them away from potential danger.
“Please do not loose on us again. We have no reason to fight you!” Ibram shouted.
“The Lady will feed your bones to her brother!” yelled one of the two men as both spanned their crossbows for a second shot. Trenton loosed an arrow that struck the farmhouse wall between the two and spat as he reached for another one. The bow still rested heavily in his unfamiliar hand. Little Dion ran forward alone among the children. He had taken to wearing his father’s shield as a backpack and he got in front of Ibram and turned so the shield was to danger.
“Brave lad,” the warrior whispered and rubbed the boy’s hair with a rough hand. He whistled a three tone blast and his warhorse ran up to his side. With a single step, he was up and saddled. The rumble surged under his warhorse’s hooves as they charged down the hill. Dion turned and loaded his sling, hurling first one stone and then another. Trenton was loosing arrows as quickly as he could, one biting into the leg of the leftmost enemy whose blood blended into the color of his pants.
A crossbow bolt deflected from the warhorse’s barding caused it to scream in rage. Ibram held his sword straight up at almost full extension. There are generally two ways to use a sword as part of a mounted charge. Either point and hold it much like you would a spear or the long looping cut. The pointed attack hits harder but the looping cut has a greater area of edge employed and is more useful against foes that may be able to dodge. Seeing the upraised sword, both men turned to run with the wounded one limping badly.
The limping man tried to roll away from the charge at the last moment, but Ibram’s blade caught him in the side. His friend was running as fast as he could, which was nothing compared to the speed of a horse – especially an enraged warhorse. The charger shouldered into him from behind and stepped on the man as it ran by. The horse and rider pulled up after several yards and turned back towards their two downed foes.
The first man had been crushed by the horse and was hacking out his last breaths in a spray of pink foam. Ibram rode by him without a second look. The second man was on the ground curled around the sword cut in his side just below the ribs. “Why did you attack us?” Ibram demanded.
“The Lady has set us free! We have become an army that will return the empire to glory!” the grievously injured man replied. The effort of talking made him wince and learn back towards his wound. The other warrior who had been stepped on by the horse began to convulse. No one paid him any attention.
“Who is this Lady, and what quarrel has she with us?” the mustachioed warrior asked mid- dismount to stand near the man he had so terribly sliced. Under his crested helmet you could just see his brows drawn together in confusion. A death rattle, the excruciatingly long exhalation at the moment of a soul’s passing into the hereafter, sounded from the other warrior. The death rattle was not met with sympathy or acknowledgement.
“She is the mistress of the Atef, and she has been sent by the old ones to set things aright! She has freed the slaves and made us into her army!” The terribly hurt man kept trying to jab a finger at the man who had probably killed him to make his point, and each time he did, fresh blood pumped out from his wounds. As he gesticulated, his sleeves fell back, and scars left by shackles could be clearly seen on his wrist. As he writhed on the ground, a leprous rune became visible on his forehead. It pulsed brightly as his life’s blood soaked into the earth. A drawn out hiss came from the trampled fighter laying among the shoots of crops that would never be reaped.
“My lord!” A boy’s voice barely carried from up the hill where the rest of Ibram’s party had waited. He looked up to see Dion pointing down at him.
“What?” he shouted while pulling off his helm to better hear the message.
“Behind you!” the boy shouted at the top of his lungs. Just then the warhorse screamed, and something slammed into the warrior knocking him to the ground. Helmet and blade were both knocked out of his hands as a slavering thing tried to bite through the vambrace over his arms.
It was something like a man but with elongated fangs, skin the pallor of death, and its body seemed contorted somehow. It chilled Ibram’s spirit where it grappled him as though his soul were under attack. They rolled around for a few moments, one trying to bite while the other punched and tried to fend off his foe.
Ibram finally got his hands on his dagger and thrust it up into the thing’s ribs probing for its heart. Normally a killing blow, it didn’t seem to register except to make the crazed creature angrier. It began to scratch and claw in addition to biting. Few of the attacks made it through the warrior’s defenses, but those that did felt inflamed and sick right away. A crushing strike hit him in the side of the head, setting his ears to ringing, but luckily it was flat handed instead of a tearing hit by its hooked finger nails.
He finally twisted it off him and locked its arms with his legs. Once the thing was pinned, he methodically set to battering it with steel shod gloves. Again and again he hit it with all his might. Eventually, its face began to deform into deep concaves, and its vicious fangs were broken. It scrabbled and fought until he completely crushed its skull. Once it stopped moving, he tried to get up off it, but fell to the ground with chest heaving. He couldn’t take in enough air and felt like his lungs were filled with water while cramps stabbed into his side.
After a moment of trying to breathe, Ibram noticed a curious thumping sound nearby. Staring at a low cloud as it scudded along, he tried to figure out what the noise was through his pounding head and blurred vision. Something blocked his view of the cloud that he had almost decided was shaped like a barge. The thing looked almost like a man but was hunched over with gray skin and wild eyes over a fang-filled mouth. Interestingly, it was wearing the same pants as the fellow that died nearby just a moment before, even down to the arrow sticking out of one leg. That was really unusual. It almost seemed to be in some distress. Every few moments a rock would bounce off it.
Ibram felt like there were some critical points he was missing. This all seemed terribly important, but he couldn’t figure out why. What he knew were that there was a thing standing right there with the same pallor skin as the creature he’d just killed. It was also wearing the pants of the rogue who had recently died nearby. Rocks were also bouncing off of it. Ah, he smiled for a moment. The rocks were making the thumping sound as they struck the ghoul standing over him. Another rock hit it as he processed that most recent thought.
Standing over him.
He shook his head quickly as reality crashed back in. The second warrior had come into undeath as a ghoul and was right there staring deeply into his eyes like a lover filled with passion. But this was a love he wanted no part of. It snarled again and leaned forward against the barrage of stones and arrows coming from up the hill. Everything still seemed to be foggy and unclear, but he had to protect his group. The warrior surged up with his dagger in one fist while whistling to his horse. One punch with his blade pierced the creature to no effect. It had already taken several blows from Dion’s sling and a couple of arrows had pierced its flesh, but it still wasn’t down. The rear legs of a two thousand pound warhorse kicking together nearly broke it in half though. It was thrown backwards several feet by the impact. Both Ibram and his horse ran over to it, one stomping and one stabbing, to make sure this time it stayed dead.
The horse seemed unharmed, but Ibram had to grab onto its saddle as his legs gave way under him. The whole world seemed to be dancing around him, and the light was intolerably bright. It sounded like there was a high pitched whistling surging like a typhoon around his ears.
The boy with the shield on his back ran down the hill and the hunter with the bow followed more slowly. It seemed like they were moving in slow motion. The child arrived breathlessly and seemed to be shouting some gibberish really, really loudly. Ibram motioned for him to hush, but he seemed to keep screaming. The warrior collapsed suddenly, and his horse snorted and moved to the side.
The man with the bow arrived and got really close to Ibram’s face. His garlic-scented breath seemed to fog up the whole world. Dion squeaked, “Is he poisoned? Is he dying?” Ibram winced at the noise.
“Nah, just got knocked in the head. He’ll be aright fore long.” Trenton the hunter snapped his fingers in front of the warrior’s face trying to get him to focus. Both eyes were dilated wide.
After a few minutes, the rest of the group gathered around. Two of the older boys started gathering up the belongings the two dead, undead, then dead again warriors were taking from the wreckage of the farmhouse. One of the adults started dragging the bodies together for burning. The two dray animals weren’t war trained and wouldn’t come close to the foul corpses.
Ibram had to be moved when the burning started. The smell of vile, burning flesh coated his damaged senses in a putrid haze, and for the first time in many years, the seasoned warrior wretched.
The calendar of the world of Durinnar has a 404 day year. There are sixteen 25 day months and the four solstice days that are outside of any month or season. Each season is devoted to a specific pantheon and each month to a specific God within it. Each of the solstice are is a holy day that is to be spent in devotion to the gods of the season that has passed and the one that comes.
The world spins on a 25 hour day with the moon circling the world once every 25.25 days. The ember, which is the body of Semandin the Devourer, rotates the world every 404 days. Sol’s burning body rotates Semandin once every 101 days and since he is the greatest source of heat around twenty days out of each season is colder than the others and twenty days are warmer. Each solstice is a solar eclipse where the light of Sol is hidden by the body of the ember Semandin. Ten days on either side of the solstice are notably colder than the rest of that season. The last ten days of the second month of each season and the first ten days of the third are notably warmer than the rest of that season. The winter solstice is always the coldest day of the year and the first day of Sunhammer is the hottest. On both days it is dangerous to be outside or touch metal.
Spring – The Season of Anthelion (The life powers)
Misting – The first month of spring devoted to Lynashra. This is the recovery from winter and the beginning of planting.
Cloudstears – The second month of spring devoted to Ilyrene. When travelers first set out and agriculture gets truly underway.
Natal– The third month of spring devoted to Nohelan. The time of children and birth.
Grimshield – The fourth month of spring devoted to Dessar. A time of preparation for summer.
Summer – The Season of War
Redheart – The first month of summer devoted to Fyurnail.
Flametime – The second month of summer devoted to Raugoshe.
Sunhammer – The third month of summer, devoted to Hallyath.
Howling – The fourth month of summer devoted to Lorfall.
Autumn – The season of Demons
Sunhammer – The first month of Autumn devoted to Buleyn.
Firekiss – The second month of autumn devoted to Astakhan.
Windwreak – Third month of autumn devoted to Shraska
Reaping – The fourth month of autumn devoted to Vidan
Winter – The season of Dread
Stormhold – First month of winter devoted to Thadarra
Contagist – Second month of winter devoted to Disease
Iceheart – Third month of winter devoted to Hynick
Frostdream – Fourth month of winter devoted to Anayail
Maresium – Third and fourth months of winter, first and second months of spring. The blue stars become visible in the north during this season.
Tyrranis – Third and fourth months of spring, first and second months of summer. The brown stars become visible in the east.
Ethne – Third and fourth months of summer, first and second month of autumn. The red stars become visible in the south.
Astolere – Third and second months of autumn, first and second months of winter. The white stars become visible in the west.
The Cycle of Years – The wheel of constellations reveals the name of the years in the cycle. Each of the below gods has a constellation and that one sits on the equator during their year. These go in a loop so one follows the other. Cycles are named according to their elemental tie in, so in a cycle of earth each year would be signified by some earth related and along with a name indicating the god. As an example if it were Hynick’s year in the cycle of earth it could be The Year of the Rusty Knife. Sets of cycles are dedicated to an elder god and are called a divine course. So you would have Yurick’s Course followed by Semandin, then Arbiner, then Maasara and back around the course. Each course is 60 years and a full elemental cycle of Air, Earth, Fire and Water with each having their own 15 year cycle. The elder God of the course determines the direction of the name. In Yurick’s Course the names tend to be positive, so in the cycle of fire and the year of Lyrsatar it could be named The Year of the Blazing Helm where in Semandin’s Course things tend to be named for deterioration so it would be Ashen Helm or something like that. Arbiner’s Course tends to have stark names and Maasaras are dark and fearsome.
New Year’s Day is the holiest day of the year in all calendars. It is the first day of Natal, the beginning of Earth’s season and of the month of births. This is the anniversary of the day the New Gods were uplifted to divinity and is celebrated by all religions. It is traditional to gather with family and friends and have a feast after fasting the last day of Cloudstears and only drinking the water Maresium provides. The day of fasting signifies the New God’s last day of mortality and their journey across the salt flats.
Years in the Cycle
Lyraina – This year is named for a time keeping device such as an hourglass, sundial or clock.
Lyrsatar – This year is named for pieces of armor.
Makathra – This year is named for things signifying winning, such as laurels, medals or trophies.
Dwinior – This year is named for pieces taken from creatures as trophies such as antlers, hide, fangs, etc.
Diurness – This year is named for glorious animals such as stag, bear or wolf.
Khamali – This year is named for monsters such as hydra, linnorm or drake.
Marylyr – This year is named for a crop such as wheat, potato or apple.
Renayl – This year is named for cruel acts of war such as siege, slaughter, or sellsword.
Haylea – This year is named for things dealing with archery such as bow, arrow, dart or javelin.
Shamathyr – This year is named for things used to record knowledge such as a quill, tablet, scroll or book.
Hynick – This year is named for things used in murder such as a dagger, garrotte or poison.
Jelinari – This year is named for wealth such as coin, gem or specific type of jewelry (broach, ring, etc).
Yethyn – This year is named after a type of craftsman such as weaponsmith, cooper or cobbler.
Nickelie – This year is named after types of deception such as ruse, trick or fraud.
Laurahka – This year is named for things used in music or for types of music such as harps or an aria.
Seagate. Second week in the month of Natal (Mid-spring).
Her hands were no longer the soft, supple hands of a new acolyte. There were fresh callouses, and rubbing her thumb against the inside of her palm, she was starting to feel the small, tough hills of skin forming at the base of her fingers. Since beginning her training a few weeks ago, she didn’t remember a day going by where some part of her body, if not her whole body, was sore and stiff. But she knew she was stronger. She could feel how much tighter her muscles felt under the layers of her yellow acolyte robes she donned in the morning for prayer. And after prayer, when she had given herself over spiritually to the god, she would change into her loose-fitting cotton pants and prepare to give herself to the god as a warrior. She slipped a flowing, long-sleeved shirt with a standing collar over her head, and looking at herself in the full-length mirror, she admired the way the shirt laid softly against her body and cinched at the waist. She shook out her acolyte robes and hung them on the corner of her mirror. She still thought yellow was an awful color on her.
Chrysanthe combed out her long, flaming red hair which always seemed to be in a mess of tangles and curls. She looked at herself in the mirror, and in her reflection she glanced at where she had tossed her pale yellow acolyte robes into a pile on the floor. She scowled, pulling the brush harder through her uncooperative hair. Yellow was a terrible color for her. One would think the god of the sun and fire would plan robe colors which complimented those acolytes whose flaming hair reflected his blessings instead of choosing what had to be the worst color. It wasn’t even a brilliant gold to mark the brightness of the sun – just a big pile of pale bananas.
She already liked the loose-fitting pants and shirt required for her new training more than her robes, though she wouldn’t dare admit that to any of the other acolytes, especially Mistress Agatha (who still acted as though she had an axe to grind). The High Priest had sent one of the younger supplicants to her room with her new training clothes earlier in the week with the simple note, “May Sol’s light guide you. Good luck, and watch out for Master Lwazi.” She wasn’t sure who, or what, Master Lwazi was, but she didn’t intend let anyone get in her way. Not after she had come so far. Even though she could feel her hands shaking.
She tied up her hair in a bun, though sprigs of rebellious hair had already started poking out of her smoothing efforts, and huffed, her final “I give up” gesture. Before shutting the door behind her, she collected her robes in her arms and, without looking to see where they landed, she threw them in the general direction of her bed.
Leaving the Spartan cell of her room, she walked quickly down the wide hallways of the temple. The hallways echoed her footfalls. Although the temple seemed to almost always be in some flurry of activity, there were these rare, quieter moments between scheduled prayers or in the deep darkness of the evening where the entire temple seemed to be at rest. They had all just finished the high sun prayers, and now that she was an acolyte, she had recently joined the chanters. It was quite an honor for the temple’s newest priestess in training, but the practices really cut into her terribly limited free time.
At the main entrance of the building, the great double doors stood open, letting in a blinding ocean of light. The bronze mirrors scattered all about the room reflected it like the whole main area was on fire, and though she had seen it too many times to be impressed, she still felt the god’s warming energy filling her chest, like taking a deep breath of fresh air, and tingling at her fingertips.
Sol was a god of fire, revelation and battlefield magic. As such, his priests were expected to be able to handle themselves in a conflict. Some of the church’s sects were even considered excellent warriors in their own right. Chrysanthe was interested in following in her father’s footsteps: when he had been in the temple many suns ago, he had taken the route of an investigator. Regardless of where she planned to specialize, on or off the battlefield, at her stage of training, she didn’t get a vote and would learn the basics of combat before making a final decision. Some combat practice was done at the temple, but the temple worked with a respected warrior academy to handle most of the weapon instruction. When she had asked some of the older acolytes about training with Master Lwazi, most had hurried off without answering her questions with a mixed look of pain and fear. Despite putting on a brave face, the coltish young girl who had just started growing enough to become awkward was terrified.
Chrysanthe joined her brothers and sisters in training in the great hall as she had done every morning after prayers for almost a month. Several of the other young priests and priestesses were already gathered around stretching. Each priest or priestess had their thick metal training pole laid on the floor beside them as they stretched, and from the first day of training until the acolyte’s last day with Master Lwazi, their pole became a natural extension of their bodies and never left their sides. Even though each pole looked the exact same, it was rumored that, if all poles were taken from the students and thrown into a pile, every student training under Master Lwazi would be able to find his or her own pole with ease. As a student advanced under Master Lwazi, he or she would be given heavier poles with which to train, though all were cut to the student’s own height.
Students weren’t required to stretch in a certain way or for a defined time, so each student stretched as much as they deemed necessary and then they would gather their metal pole and run off into the crowded market square. After the first week, Chrysanthe had noticed that the older students always seemed to take longer in their stretches. She originally had thought it was because they were dreading returning to Master Lwazi’s arena as much as she was, but she started to realize that they weren’t taking longer to bide time. Their stretches were deliberate, powerful movements that seemed to engage each muscle individually. Even if the older students took longer with stretches, they always somehow were standing waiting with Master Lwazi at the warrior academy before the younger students, who had left many minutes before them, had breathlessly arrived. Some of the students would run together, but most went as individuals at the best pace they could maintain. Now, Chrysanthe could appreciate the physical exertion and almost ceremony involved in the stretch and the run before arriving at the academy, but she remembered that it seemed like a daunting, insurmountable task the first week.
Newcomers to the academy were not expected to participate in the run from the temple to the academy. On her first day, one of the lay followers of the temple, religious devotees who were not part of the clergy, had waited for her with a cart and horse. He was an older man as many of them were, and the way that he waited on her to arrive with a big grin dividing his fleshy tan face, she could tell he had waited to take many new trainees to the warrior academy in his rickety cart. Since spending time at the academy, Chrysanthe had learned that the man, Jorah, was specifically employed by the temple and the weapons academy to bring over newcomers and, along the way, to scare them the best he could. When Jorah had greeted her on the first day of her training, he’d said, “Come along little priestess. The weapons masters don’t like waiting!” and had helped her up into the cart even though he didn’t need to. He’d been hard and muscular in youth but had gone to flab while still being a big man. His once dark hair, common to the alliard people that dominated this area, had gone almost completely white.
In her naivety, Chrysanthe had asked, “So, do you know of the weapons master?” She had been so proud of not sounding nervous.
If she had known what she knew now, she would have caught his sly smile and chuckle before he had responded, “I do indeed. I’ve been taking young acolytes on this journey for a few years now. He’s a foreigner from way across the Salt Flats. His people are burned dark by the sun and are native to the great forests on the other side of the Marudar River. He’s tall, really tall, like an ogre or one of the gorellen, and slim. An older fella if not quite my age, but he doesn’t seek battle anymore as far as I know. He’s only spoken to me rarely, but has always been polite. I don’t think he’s as nice to the students.” She remembered shuddering then as the cart clopped along the cobblestoned path through Gelderland and into the Temple Reach, drawing closer to what she knew would be the site of her doom. Since her first conversation with Jorah, she had learned that his statement “he’s only spoken to me rarely” had been a boldfaced lie. The two of them swapped ales and stories of piss-pants new acolytes pretty regularly, and Master Lwazi was always coming up with new, terrifying descriptors of himself for the driver to embellish his stories with.
Each time Chrysanthe took up the run from the temple to the warrior academy, it became a little easier. She still was very much a rookie, and she wanted to be further along in her training at this point than she was, but Master was also trying to teach her patience along with her battle movements. He had told her that her strong will would benefit her weapons training greatly, but if her will turned into frustration, her training would become stagnated. Suring out of the temple in a sprint, her pole at her side, she tried to clear her mind for the long, physically and mentally exhausting day to come.
She kept her head lifted and her eyes on her distant goal. At the line of the horizon, the warrior academy could be seen from the temple, though it looked more like an out of focus mirage. There was another fuzzy shape on the horizon, and as she drew closer, she realized it was a cart in the road headed towards the warrior academy. She sprinted by the cart, nodding with a smile to Jorah who, by the look on the young boy’s face sitting in the cart, was already weaving stories of the monstrous, ogre-like weapon’s master.
She arrived many minutes later, somewhat breathless, but thoroughly stretched and warmed up at the reach’s main gate. The academy was located just inside the reach’s boundary. Unlike the sandstone and tile architecture in Gelderland, the temple reach was mainly gray basalt with marbled accents. There were wide sidewalks everywhere, and the crowds were heavy, though even with the crowds, the reach’s throng still seemed quieter and less rowdy than in her home reach. Here, the very wealthy strode along with frowning guards all around them. It was like watching brilliantly scaled fish surrounded by sharks.
She stretched her arms as she jogged through the street, though she made sure to keep her pole at a safe distance from the crowd of people mulling about the reach’s main thoroughfare. She turned to the left, and the familiar sight of the academy entered her gaze: built like a small fortress, it had thick granite walls three times the height of a man with horizontal slit windows across the top like dashes. The whole thing squatted out of place among the spires and shops of the district like an eagle sitting in a group of swans. Unlike the first day when she had approached the big double doors as if heading to meet her executioner, Chrysanthe greeted the academy with confidence and a healthy respect for the principles for which it stood.
She felt a familiar metal tap on her shoulder from one of their metal poles, and she turned to see her new friend, Olbere. They clasped their hands and tapped their poles together in greeting, a soft, muted metallic sound echoing in the hollowed pipes.
“It seems you bested me in the run today,” Olbere said, leaning a little heavily on his pole as he walked.
“Well, there is a first time for everything,” Chrysanthe said with a modest smile, though on the inside, she was thrilled. Olbere had started at the academy before she had, and though he often beat her soundly at the weapons’ drills, she had been working hard to improve her endurance for the run. He had been the first familiar face to greet her when she had arrived those many weeks ago.
The two huge iron banded wooden doors pushed open without a sound on well-oiled hinges. A flagstoned entryway had pegs to hang coats on either side. Forward it led to a sand covered courtyard. A metal on metal din rang from it. A couple of dozen people, mostly human but one of the snaky lizardmen called midniss and two gnomes, were wearing various types of beaten up armor and were either running or pounding on each other with dulled training weapons. A few were running around the oval of the training floor at a good speed. A vast ogre walked among the dueling warriors offering comments in a booming voice and once smacked a helmeted boy on the back of his head so hard it belled like a gong. A shorter man with the deep tan and brown hair of a human alliard carried a bamboo swagger stick and stopped a fight to instruct the fighters in the series of battle flourishes, brandishing the stick as though it was a rapier.
Standing as tall as the ogre in the arena, the tallest human Chrysanthe had ever seen stalked about the warriors. Most of the trainees were boys with a couple of girls scattered among them, but there were a few trainees of full growth. These students were much more adept at their movements and were conducting more complicated routines. Chrysanthe assumed these students must have chosen the warrior field as their specialization. Even standing among the older students, the lanky human looked like a heron fishing in tall grass as none of the trainees came up to his shoulder. Only the ogre was of his height, but he was blade slim where the huge ogre was broad like most of his people. The tall man’s skin was the black of midnight. She had never seen anyone with that coloration. The three she assumed were the instructors, the ogre, the alliard, and the towering human, all wore matching togas of white cotton, though the tall black man had a golden stripe on his toga’s hem.
Someone came in the doors behind her. She looked back, and it was one of the older acolytes. Like the others, he had run into the academy with his metal pole. He streamed sweat and was breathing heavily. Seeing her, he smiled, “Hey, Chrysanthe. Are you here to start training?” He was a few years older and easily a head taller than the girl.
“Hello, Olbere. I am beginning today,” her greeting came across as too stiff, and she realized her nervousness was showing. Clearing her throat, she added, “Why are you so out of breath?” She looked around at the swarming activity around the academy and played with the edge of her hair.
“Nobody has told you? We all have to run here. The Master thinks the most important thing is having good wind, so we are always doing endurance stuff.” He nodded towards the tall black instructor. “Also, don’t hesitate. He hates that. Go on up and introduce yourself.” Leaving her alone at the academy’s entrance, he clapped her on the back and turned to the left to do some more stretches.
Chrysanthe stopped twirling the end of her hair with a shake of her head. It was a nervous habit she was trying to break. “I am a child of the god. I have nothing to fear here,” she whispered to herself and boldly walked across the training yard. As she approached the instructor, he seemed to keep getting taller. He either had no head hair and beard, or he kept them trimmed with a razor because none was visible. She assumed the latter since bushy eyebrows framed his dark eyes.
He looked down at the girl striding across his training floor up to him. She held out her hand to shake his. “Hello. My name is Chrysanthe. I was told you are the master instructor here.” For a moment, he stared with those dark eyes deep into her own. He had to lean over, almost cutting his height in half, to get close to her face. His lips were pursed in a tight line, and she watched a drop of sweat sprout from his forehead and slide off his cheek; it formed a small, dark hole in the sand where it landed after its long descent from his face to the ground. All she wanted was to be miles and miles away from this strange place and this terrifying man.
His serious face erupted into a smile. He took her hand and did the warrior’s grip of grasping forearms. His hand was thick with callouses, and his hand enveloped her entire elbow since his forearm was significantly longer than hers. She wasn’t sure that her own grip even extended past the end of his wrist.
“Well, hello there, little string bean. You must be the new priestess I am training. I was told to expect you. Welcome to The Shimmering Crescent Salle de’ Arms. I am Master Lwazi. You may call me Master.” His voice rolled out the consonants and the vowels were often clipped. The accent told of far shores and distant lands. He squeezed where he held her arm in the warrior’s grip and said, “Don’t you worry. You’ll build muscles like mine in no time.” His laugh seemed genuine, but after just meeting this towering man, whose monstrous reputation preceded him, she wasn’t sure if he was making fun of her or if she should be worried about the process to building “Master-like” muscles. He wasn’t hugely thewed like some she had met but instead looked like a swimmer with long smooth muscle and very, very little body fat.
After they released the handshake, he gave some quick instruction to the nearby warriors and they continued moving through what looked like different fighting forms and styles. “Follow me acolyte. We must begin soon.” His long legs ate up the ground towards open doors on the northern side of the training area. She had to jog to keep up. “If you would be a warrior, you must gain strength of body and strength of heart. To master the arts of war requires strength of mind.
“I do not want to be a warrior. This is just part of my training as a priestess,” she said a little out of breath.
Master Lwazi spun to face her so suddenly that she almost ran into him. “Then leave my academy this moment!” His eyes were wide with ferocity and the girl shrank back. The students in the arena paused only momentarily at their Master’s raised voice, but they quickly resumed work when, seeing the cessation of movement in his peripheral, Master Lwazi jabbed a finger at them and shouted, ““You!” He pointed to them. “Why have you stopped working? Must we determine if you are willing?” They went back at each other with a flurry of blows clacking on their weapons or their armor. He turned back to Chrysanthe who, at this point, was almost cowering under his piercing gaze. “Many people desire to learn here and must be rejected,” he said, “If you leave a more willing student will be admitted.”
His voice grew softer, but it lost none of the seriousness in its tone. “Girl, you understand that only through the agreement I have with your temple were you admitted. I will train you, and you will excel. This is the arrangement. For that to work, you must be willing to go through what will come. We are born into this world in pain and blood. To become a warrior you must be born again, and it will be both painful and bloody as are all births. Choose now.” He folded his arms and loomed above her, eyebrows almost touching together as he scowled.
It took Chrysanthe a moment to find her voice. “I need to be trained here to become a priestess, so I need to stay,” she said quietly.
“That is not what I asked you!” His voice boomed in the arena again, but the warriors training did not make the mistake of halting their movements this time. “Will you suffer to be reborn as a warrior? Warriors are all I teach here. I care not for your reasons but only for your level of dedication. That is what determines if you can be successful.” He leaned forward a little and unfolded his arms to gesture widely, taking in the whole place with his hands as if indicating that, by her decision, she was choosing to embrace the academy as a whole.
“I will,” she said in a quavering voice.
The tall master warrior seemed to flow into his turn away from her with the smoothness of all his motions. “Excellent. You will certainly regret this for some time, but you will learn more than you ever have before. . . so long as your spirit does not break.” He began his ground eating stride towards the doors again with the girl jogging along to keep up.
The two entered a long gallery room that was certainly the length of the building. The sunlight coming into the slit windows at the top of the wall shone onto wide bronze mirrors that illuminated the room. The floor was a dark wood of some sort polished to gloss. The walls were lined with weapons of various types. Past the weapons, rows of metal stands were covered in armor. The whole place smelled like linseed oil. Master Lwazi walked quickly to a circular stand that held several dozen of the metal poles the other acolytes had in circular racks. They were many different heights and thicknesses. He turned suddenly and studied the girl. “Hold out your hands to me,” he said again in that curious accent of long consonants and sharp vowel sounds.
Chrysanthe held out both hands palms up. Master Lwazi placed his much larger hands over them. “Push my hands upward as hard as you can.” The acolyte pushed upward. “As hard as you can, child! Lift me!” he barked suddenly.
She flinched and then bore into it. Pushing upward as hard as she could against the hornlike callouses of the much larger warrior’s palms. After a moment of seeming to try to lift up a wall, she spread out her feet to shoulder width and leaned forward towards their joined palms. Master Lwazi saw her subtle shift in stance, and a slight smile tugged at his lips. Chrysanthe surged upward with everything she had. Still, their hands barely moved.
“Very good, child. You are stronger than I expected.” He turned smoothly back towards the rack of dull gray metal poles. Everything he did looked like a dance, and the image of a heron striding through grass about to strike stayed with her.
Lwazi began to pull many of the smaller poles out and lay them on the ground in size order. He took one of the larger poles in his hands and held it parallel to the ground. With it, he pointed to the smallest of the poles. “Take it in your hands like so.” and then he held it out horizontally between both of his hands at arms’ length. She moved over to the pole he had indicated and grabbed it. It was heavier than she expected, and her arms shook a bit holding it out.
“Very good. Now place it back in the rack and take up the next one. You must remember to respect your weapons and always place them back into their proper homes at the end of training.” She did so. The next pole was about the same thickness but was longer and was heavier than the last.
“Again.” he uttered in a single sharp sound. She put the pole back onto its rack and went to the next. Her arms visibly trembled as he held it out straight ahead of her.
“Again.” Once more pole was placed into its home, and she took the next one. Her arms wouldn’t straighten. The weight was too great. She tried once and couldn’t get her arms to straighten. The right one would, but the left could not.
“Straighten your arms.” Master Lwazi didn’t yell but his voice filled the room. In a surge of effort Chrysanthe straightened her arms for just a second before dropping the pole.
“Very good. That pole is now your guidon. You will have it with you at all times and will ensure it is clean and rust free. We will now fit you for your training armor.” He motioned to the racks of armor to their right.
Holding her pole in both hands, Chrysanthe walked over to the racks of armor. Most were of stiffened leather but many had bulky portions in them.
“These are primitive brigandine armor. Really the simplest and cheapest kind, but perfect for training. There are sections of them we use here at the academy. Each is composed of a jacket, vambrace over your forearms, a leather skirt, and greaves over your shins. In battle-ready armor, the plates would be good steel. Here at the academy for our training armor, the plates are made of lead. There are dozens of them in the jacket and a handful sewn in to the other pieces. Lead has the advantage of being soft, so it is easily repairable, relatively inexpensive and it is very, very heavy. This will aid you to gain strength as you proceed in training.” He took the smallest of the jackets and placed it on her. Chrysanthe bowed over from the weight. Lwazi measured the armor against her and cut a new notch in the belt to fit her narrow waist. He taught her how to stand with armor, rigidly erect, so the weight would be shared across the length of the spine instead of all of the weight pushing against one’s lower back as it would if you had bad posture. Over the next several minutes they found and attached vambraces and greaves, all of which were far too big for her slim limbs. The skirt of lead-weighted leather strips was supposed to go over the knees. On her, they went to mid shin. Lwazi fought a smile as they did the fitting. Once complete, she looked like a child in her father’s clothes.
“Now, young priestess, you will join the class. You have taken your last walking step here at the academy. If I see you walking, I will assume you have forgotten how to run, and I will ensure through repetition that you remember running. A strong wind is the greatest asset for a warrior. Now child. Run to the ogre. His name is Sir Udril.” He turned her towards the door and pushed her forward. Stumbling more than running, she headed towards the training area.
“Are you forgetting something?” Master Lwazi’s mild voice asked.
Chrysanthe squeaked and lugubriously turned back towards her guidon that lay on the floor. She almost fell when she bent to pick it up, and the weight of the armor shifted. Lwazi caught her shoulder before she could fall and straightened her. “You will get stronger.” He smiled and strode back to the training area, his footfalls eating the ground beneath him.
Without needing direction, Chrysanthe found her natural place in the arena after donning her armor. Perhaps it was her imagination, but she thought the leather strips on her skirt seemed shorter than they were on her first day. Their training worked in cycles, and so, after the first week, one was expected to know at which station in the arena he or she was to begin for the day. Although the training cycle had not yet officially begun, students were working through different choreographed fighting movements or trying to remember the battle movements they had learned the previous morning. Since the students at each station moved to different areas each day, Chrysanthe very rarely trained with the same group of students two days in a row.
A familiar booming voice surged from the armory room, and the students standing at attention all pounded their metal poles into the ground three times in quick succession. Master Lwazi, closely attended by Sir Udril and Artenes, the shorter alliard, emerged into the arena with his arms stretched up towards the sky.
“My warriors, let us be reborn into the blood and sweat and sand. Begin training!”
He passed from group to group, watching the students’ movements, and when he came upon Chrysanthe’s group, he paused their training. Borrowing one of the student’s poles, he tapped the pole against Chrysanthe’s own and entered a defensive stance.
“Okay, string bean. Let’s see how far you’ve come.”
Knightsbridge. Second week of the month of Cloudstears (mid-spring)
The crowd roared, and the huge human screamed back. His mouth was bloody after a hard punch from his opponent, one of the leather scaled crocodilian Meilosh. Two of his yellowed teeth glistened red in his smile as he wiped his face with the back of one hand. His knuckles were bruised and cut like tenderized meat. Layers of scar tissue built up over the years created mountains and valleys on the backs of his rough hands.
The sand in the pit where they fought had been freshly turned before their bout. Now it was stained with drops of blood and had grooves kicked in it from the short bouts of wrestling. Each of the fighters had sand caked on their legs and arms. The sauroid was thick with muscle but nearly two feet shorter than his opponent; though the human was massive for his race, he was unbelievably fast, and would dart in and punch with long arms and jump back before snapping jaws could bite down or claws could tear. Both breathed hard from the arduous battle while shouts and jeers came down from the crowd surrounding the fifteen foot circle of the arena. Bets were made and barmaids scurried to fill drink orders while the two combatants swore and grunted with pain and effort. The crowd’s bloodlust would not stand for the fighters to catch their breath for too long.
The tattooed man got an arm the size of most people’s leg around the neck of the meilosh and used his legs to pin its arms to its side. Both of them fell backwards to the sand. The sauroid snapped and tried to bite but couldn’t get to the human on its back. Both human arms were around its throat now, locked into a choke hold. The crowd reached a crescendo. Finally, the crocodilian’s struggles ceased, and he went limp. The man stood, covered in blood from numerous scratches and raised both arms in victory. Roaring, he looked up at the crowd, at his newest fans. Those who had bet on him cheered while the others took solace in beer. He brushed at the sand covering his sweaty body and kicked at the unconscious lizardman.
A small human with quick eyes and dark hair met him at the gate of the pit. A scar turned one side of his mouth up into a grin but otherwise he looked serious. “Messenger,” the scarred man grunted at the fighter and turned back up the stairs. The blonde man, still wild eyed with combat frenzy, took a deep drink from the flagon offered to him by an unusually tall barmaid. He grinned, with red teeth from his bleeding mouth, and winked at her before giving back the empty wooden vessel and followed the smaller man. The ogre with the shaved head and a top knot behind the bar was the only one bigger than the warrior, and even he smiled through his two chipped tusks and nodded respectfully at the man while filling another tankard.
As the fighter walked through the crowd at the edge of the fighting pit, several onlookers slapped his back and cheered. One gave the man a drink he accepted with a nod. The smaller scarred man eeled through the crowd without touching anyone in an exceptional display of dexterity. They arrived at a table with two gold-bearded dwarves in heavy armor and a human in travel stained leathers. The taller of the two dwarves with green gemstone eyes nodded to the giant fighter and pushed a chair out for him. The other with clear eyes that resembled diamonds laughed and said, “I knew ye’d beat that lizard. They are all ferocity and no skill!” He balanced a flagon on the hook replacing his left hand and smiled as he took a quaff.
The huge blonde and smaller dark haired man both sat. The olive complected human dressed for the road leaned forward. “Are you Agnar Raevilsen?” he asked in an educated, clipped accent.
“I am, and who is asking?” The big man drained half his mug in a single draft; the foam left bubbling on his moustache was wiped away with his left forearm. On hearing the name, an elven man in studded leather armor shot a long look at the man who had named himself Agnar. The elf got up slowly and left the tavern.
“I am a bonded courier from The Messenger’s Guild in Seagate,” the olive-skinned messenger started to say something else but was cut off by a vast, meaty hand slamming into the table.
“I asked not what you are. I asked who you are. I care naught for titles as I am of the Gorellen. You people’s clubs or associations mean nothing. Tell me your name or your deeds or begone from my table.” He never raised his voice, but everyone sitting nearby got quiet as if bracing for an explosion.
“Yes. Well… I am Teodorus Eleni that many call “The Sure.” I have a record for finding those I’m paid to track down, and I have never failed to deliver a message. I have two questions as surety, and then I can give you the package.” The messenger leaned back from the warrior and put one hand on his satchel.
“You doubt my word?” It was said quietly but you could hear a pin drop in what had been a rowdy bar.
Near the fighting pit, a man waved two gold at one of the bet takers. “Two gold the skinny human lives to make it to the door.” It was said in a whisper but it carried over the entire room. A soft, “I’ll take that,” answered it.
“Of course not, I was just given specific instructions by the sender. Can you tell me the name of your warrior lodge and the name of the cousin who last defeated you in wrestling?” Teodorus said this quickly and shifted his legs under his chair as if he was about to run.
Agnar threw back his head and laughed. “That must be that skinny pup, Eyolf. He bested me when we were boys and has never let me forget it.” A wide smile opened his beard and you could almost hear the tension leave the room. The normal clatter of service and conversation started back. “I am also of The Red Hand Lodge. THE GREATEST WARRIORS IN THE WORLD!” he said the last in a voice that echoed off the walls. “If you’ve a message from my cousin, I would see it now.”
Teodorus the Sure sighed very slightly and pulled his brown leather satchel up on the table. Opening two clasps, he pulled out a wax paper wrapped scroll and handed it to Agnar.
A young human woman, tall for an olive-skinned Alliard but nothing like on Agnar’s scale, wove her way through the crowd. She was slim and well-muscled with long dark hair hanging down her back. Her face had probably been beautiful once, but it looked like someone had tried to carve their initials in her left cheek and had taken off part of her nose. A hand reached out to slap her leather wrapped backside and hit the blade of a dagger she had drawn in the blink of an eye. The man howled in pain but she never broke stride. Reaching the table, she trailed a finger across Agnar’s back and sat down in a chair that had been left for her.
The big man broke the seals on the scroll and opened it. Two fat gold coins of an ancient design fell out. He stared at the markings on the scroll for a moment before handing it to the woman. She cleared her throat and read in a clear soprano voice, “Hail to my Cousin Agnar Demonbane. It has been too long since we’ve raised cups. It is my hope this letter finds you cleaning the blood of your foes from your axe and with a beautiful woman by your side.” Agnar put a great arm around the woman at this comment and smiled. “I am writing to tell you of an employment opportunity. There is a power rising in the Skydaggers who has need of strong arms with no questions asked. They have good gold and are willing to use it. A map is included. I am a sworn man to Cleon Auridan. Make that name known to them as he is their agent. Ask for the Kher Heb Serifla of the Atef. May your foes fail before the ale does. Eyolf Krakenbane.” She ended the reading by folding up the scroll and looked up at the others seated at the table.
The green eyed dwarf rubbed his hand down his braided beard thoughtfully. “Kher Heb means a priest or priestess that can channel the power of a god, and no one has been of the Atef for several lifetimes of men. I don’t know what a Serifla might be,” he rumbled in a deep gravelly voice.
“Atef?” The small, dark-haired man grunted with raised eyebrows.
“It was an empire that ruled much of this area a hundred or hundred and fifty years gone. They were dread worshippers from across the Salt Flats,” the woman said quietly.
“Maybe a good chance to earn more of this ancient gold.” Agnar nodded to himself as he spoke.
Teodorus cleared his throat, “If you have a response, I can deliver it. Your cousin has already paid for the message.”
“Aye. Tell him we’re in. We’ll meet his rising power of the Skydaggers, and if they can agree to our price, we’ll do their work,” Agnar answered for the group. The small man with the scarred face nodded. The woman smiled and twirled one of the gold coins between her fingers. The dwarves looked at each other grimly and shrugged their massive shoulders. The one with the hooked hand had a wry smile.
“Then I’ll take that to him. Best of fortune to you.” Teodorus got up and quickly made his way out of the tavern, shaking his head.
A couple of rounds later the crew was celebrating their coming journey and telling tales of old adventures. A fae elf wearing a suit of chain with a buckler on one arm and a scimitar in hand strode into the tavern. The elf in studded leather who had run out earlier was with him, also carrying a curve bladed scimitar. “Agnar the Red! I have come for you!” the armored elf shouted. The rest of the tavern went quiet.
The big human turned and looked at the elves armored for war. “Very good, but I don’t like boys that way. Go fetch your sister, and it will be a party.” He grinned. Everyone at his table and several others throughout the room laughed at the jest.
The fae elf had the light tan of most of his people, so it was easy to see his face go red in fury and his knuckles whiten on his sword hilt. “You slew my brother, and I have come for revenge! Do you deny it?” he roared.
“It is likely. I kill a lot of people. Why would I remember this one in particular?” The gorellen still hadn’t raised his voice.
The ogre behind the bar spoke up, “There’ll be no bloodshed in here except in the pit.” People in the room began chanting, “The Pit! The Pit! The Pit!” The elf looked around in confusion, and Agnar beamed.
“To the Pit!” The big human stood, still shirtless, raised both arms to the roof timbers, and roared. The crowd went wild. People began waving coins at the oddsmakers, and the confused elf was pushed towards the small arena.
Agnar drew a blade longer than his two dwarf friends were tall. He rolled back his shoulders and stretched his massive arms across his chest as he strode forward, still grinning and still shirtless. The scars of dozens of battles wrote their stories on his muscled torso.
The elf went through sword forms of the Bleeding Wind School. Storm Rushes from the Mountains flowed smoothly into Dust Devil into Strike of Thunder. When the man entered the arena, the elf spat at him, the spittle barely missing his right boot. Elves are tall, most of them well over six feet in height and a few several inches taller than that. They seldom looked up to a human, but Agnar was a few fingers shy of seven feet. He seemed to fill the pit. He just stood there, sword across his shoulders with that huge grin still dividing his beard. The crowd had stopped their chanting, and many gathered around the rails to watch.
The elf took the high guard position, which was a common starting form for The Bleeding Wind warriors. Agnar finally took his sword off his shoulders and stretched his neck first to the left then to the right. Placing both hands firmly around the leather wrapped hilt, he nodded as if giving the elf permission to begin.
The elf was quick. He darted forward and got through Agnar’s sweeping block. The big human’s smile did not break, even as a wound opened up across his left ribs. A right to left slash at the elf’s waist by the greatsword was narrowly dodged, and two quick strikes from the scimitar rang off metal instead of sinking into flesh. Both warriors circled one another in the sand. Agnar’s side was covered in a sheet of blood.
Another lightning strike and the big man was bleeding from his right bicep. His smile turned into a grunt and snarl. Two quick swings from his huge sword, one coming up and the other crossways, were both avoided neatly by the slimmer warrior who was gaining confidence.
The next of the whistling strikes by the greatsword met the elf’s buckler and nearly knocked him to the ground. Agnar roared and pressed, taking two more minor wounds. The man’s eyes had gone bloodshot and were wide open with gorellen ferocity. Each time he was struck, he snarled, and a bit of spittle was coming from the corner of his mouth.
With an inarticulate cry, the huge human began swinging wildly. The elf ran him through, but the savage human fighter was unfazed; the elf’s arm was swallowed by Agnar’s great paw. Pulled forward off balance the elf was smashed down by the enraged man’s forehead, leaving both of them bleeding and the elf dazed.
The gorellen warrior hurled the elf to the side against the railing almost four feet up the wall. His next strike with the huge sword was true and went half through the elf’s torso, armor and all. The thick, almost sap-like elven blood splattered onto several onlookers, inspiring gasps of disgust.
Agnar kept swinging and kept chopping at the elf, screaming in rage. Long after his challenger was a red ruin in the sand and the crowd had gone quiet, he continued roaring and swinging like a man trying to cut down a tree. After too long, he stopped, and the madness faded. His great chest expanded like a bellows and bled from several hurts. He slowly pulled the scimitar from his side and dropped it into the sand. He raised his sword to the crowd. They roared again, but perhaps not with quite the enthusiasm as before. The elf in studded leather slipped out the door without saying a word. His face was scrunched like he was fighting tears.
The blood-drenched human staggered over to his friends’ table. The backslaps were conspicuously absent, and everyone cleared him a path. His scarred, female companion poked a finger into the deep cut in his stomach and drew a hiss from the man. She popped the bloody finger into her mouth like a child with a sweet. Her smile was innocence and light, but her lips were red with blood. He blew out a long sigh as he sat, moving much more slowly now.
“We’ll take this job, but first a healer. Before that, MORE ALE!” Agnar roared, and the crowd went wild again.
Skydagger Mountains. Third week of the month of Misting (Early Spring).
The two travelers felt themselves sinking into mud more often than they felt solid ground beneath them. The spring rains had only recently ended, and when the floods started to recede, the world turned to quicksand. To their right was the vast brackish lake that was usually the desert of the Salt Flats. To the left was the high hills leading to the Skydagger Mountains. There were several scattered farmsteads out this way, and Ibram Gelder, always on the lookout for trouble, had taken it upon himself to patrol them and see that everyone was safe. The rickety cart rattled beside him and looked as though it would tip over at any moment. The two surly mules pulling it through the muck were even angrier at the ground condition than the travelers. Peleus the Tinker trailed behind Ibram on what was left of the road; he had tagged along on the journey to take advantage of the free security offered by going with the knight. He would sell small items to the farmsteads and repair some of their metal implements, and although the road was normally safe, the rains sometimes brought out nefarious characters looking for an easy target. Having the company made the journey more pleasant for the knight as well as Peleus had a quick tongue with jests. Ibram towered over the peddler on his great charger which trotted quicker than it should have been able to in such thick mud. When the charger pulled ahead of the mules and the cart, it glanced back at the mules, snorted proudly, and then continued prancing forward through the muck; clumps of mud fell from its hooves with each step and splattered back onto the road. The mules shook their short, bristly manes and brayed, objecting to their new view being the charger’s backside.
The day had begun foggy as was common this time of year. The world was just waking up to the spring, and the first handfuls of flowers were scenting the air. Last night, Peleus had caught one of the great armored fish that spawned on the salt flats during the flood, so they had eaten well. He’d cut up and salted the remnants and buried it in the coals of the fire to make something like a jerky for the rest of the trip. He was gnawing on a strip of it as they moved down the way from farmstead to farmstead.
It was nearly lunch, and the next grouping of farmsteads lay just beyond the next hill. Most farmers were happy to host a knight, and tinkers were always welcome for the goods they bore. After several minutes of travel, the first farm came into sight. It was the typical triangle design common to the area with the outer wall of the house, barn and outbuildings built up into a rough palisade.
As soon as the farm came more clearly into view, the two stopped their procession. Dread hung heavy like the fog around them. The gate hung open, not altogether unusual, but it was partially torn off its hinges. Several shapes of what looked like goats were scattered around the damaged gate. It was hard to tell because their bodies were all missing pieces.
Ibram removed the cover of his war lance and put on his helm. Peleus, not a warrior but used to defending himself, drew a great crossbow from the wagon’s seat, spanned it, and securely seated an arrow. Both looked around to see if anything immediately threatened. “You stay here and watch my mule,” the warrior said and then clicked his tongue, slowly ushering his charger forward.
“You betcha. I’ll be right here until it is time to be somewhere else, then I’ll head that way in a hurry.” The merchant licked his lips and continue to scan the area. The jerky had fallen onto the seat of the wagon, forgotten. The crossbow was held ready but not to his shoulder.
The charger trotted slowly ahead, snorting at the smell of blood. The older knight on its back held his lance loosely in one hand and his big kite-style shield on the other. As they approached the scattered goat carcasses, a cloud of flies flew up from them. The iron and sewer smell of recent death was strong.
He studied the first of the goats for a long time as the charger nervously shuffled its hooves in something like a dance. The horse was young, and this was the first time it had encounter something like a slaughter house, and it didn’t know what to do. It took great solace from the steadiness of its master, but still wanted to either fight or run away from the sickening odor.
The pair approached the torn gate and saw that several of the door’s thick timbers had been broken in before whoever, or whatever, had finally smashed the bar holding it shut. There was blood and some dark brown fur on the door. Passing through the gate, bodies of the family that had lived here were scattered about the yard among the chickens and dogs. It was difficult to tell much about what they had been as they had been largely consumed, and many of their bones were scattered about and almost picked clean. Ibram slowly dismounted, difficult to do with lance in one hand and shield in the other. He poked at some of the bodies with the two foot long blade. When they did not respond he moved to the door of the main house.
The front entrance to the house gaped wide absent its leather-bound wooden door which lay, broken almost in twain, in the yard. Spear blade leading the way, he stopped at the doorway and looked inside. He shook his head, swallowed heavily, and spat on the ground. The inside was a shambles, like animals had rooted through it. With a quick inspection, he determined it was clear of danger; he went back to the gateway and waved for Peleus to join him. He began to gather all the bones he could find, not being able to determine if all of them were animal or human.
Peleus arrived after a moment and instantly became violently ill. His sickness added to the pungent aroma of the yard. The mules flatly refused to enter and were tied with the cart outside the walls. After several minutes, they gathered together any parts which might be the remains of the family and burned it in a pile outside the gates. Sober faced, they continued their journey.
Almost four hours and three more ruined farmsteads later, the two were despairing. What had been a convivial trip through farm country had become a nightmare trek. They were on alert and expecting attack from any angle. Each time the path went through a copse of trees, they moved like soldiers assaulting a fortress. Peleus had talked several times about turning back but agreed to accompany Ibram to help where he could for at least the rest of the day.
A column of smoke came from up ahead. It wasn’t the first they had seen, but it was a possible sign of another steading in trouble. Maybe this time they wouldn’t be too late. Warrior on his horse in the lead with the merchant on his cart trailing behind, they made an unlikely pairing and a strange picture, but the clenched jaws and hard eyes told of their determination.
Coming to the top of a hill, another of the triangular steadings was burning. The heavy wooden door was beaten down much like with the other farms they had seen. A few very large hairy creatures were laying in the yard unmoving, looking like great apes. Another of the big simians worried at something on the ground near one of the walls. This was the first time any creature like this had been seen on the trip. Looking back to Peleus, Ibram said, “Trolls” in a flat voice. He seated his lance firmly under his right arm, rolled his helmeted head around once to stretch his neck, and charged forward.
It was fifty meters or so to the one living troll in sight, and the great horse ate up that distance in the blink of an eye. Just a moment before the two foot long head of the lance made contact, the troll looked up, its eyes bulging from its head cartoonishly at the unexpected attack. The lance took the beast in the chest with a savage butchering sound and a loud crack when the pole snapped. The big simian was torn across its middle and thrown against the palisade wall. All was silent for just a split second before it began to mewl like a wounded kitten.
Two more of the beasts knuckle walked out the gateway from inside to see what had happened. One with midnight black hair and armor created from bones tied all over its body roared and charged. The other with almost strawberry blond hair and wearing a poorly fitted, human-sized breastplate over his broad, hairy chest banged his iron-banded club against the palisade wall twice before he ran at Ibram, almost like it was ringing a bell before a fight.
Ibram pulled frantically at his sword to take a guard position before the dark haired troll reached him. As it closed, his charger leaned over and bit it, drawing blood and getting punched to the ground for its trouble. The warrior rolled free of the saddle and finally had his sword up and ready. He took a strike from a fist on his shield; his knees flexed to absorb the blow, and the mirror edge of his broadsword struck like a snake and cut deep on his foe’s forearm. The troll roared again and swung with both hands together. The blow hit his shield but was powerful enough to drive the man backwards. The blond troll approached more carefully, watching the exchanging of blows, when a crossbow bolt sunk into its shoulder. A loud, “Ha ha!” floated over the field from where Peleus was leaning against his cart, frantically winding the windlass to seat another bolt.
Ibram’s charger struggled to its feet behind its human. The horse didn’t like being hit. Chargers are chosen for their aggression and trained to become more so. The horse wondered how the troll would like being hit back. It took the troll’s strike as a challenge, and as big as the trolls are, a three-year-old stallion is still bigger. Ibram and the first troll circled each other, both striking ineffectually. The human was really surprised when, suddenly, the troll flew out of his vision to lie crumpled against its pack mate who had been brought down by the lance earlier. Both rear hooves of a war trained horse in the bottom of the ribs will damage nearly anything, and the troll hacked out its life, spewing a pink froth from its lips.
“Somebody is getting an apple when this is over.” Ibram stalked forward, shaking his head to get some of the salty sweat out of his eyes. It wasn’t a hot day, but combat in armor made even the fittest of people breath like asthmatics and sweat like pigs. He met the blond troll that was bleeding heavily from its shoulder. It only had one arm working, but that arm still had more strength in it than in any man.
Its club thundered against his shield; the heavy wood construction began to crack from the strain, and his bones felt like they were also fracturing. Ibram shook his arm, trying to relieve the numbness in his arm, and ducked under another heavy blow. He stepped inside the troll’s long reach and slashed it under the arm, across the back to the chest. Its other arm fell, useless. The troll made a weird high-pitched growling scream and leaned forward, mouth gaping in an attempted bite. The man stepped aside and took it through the throat with one more thrust. He stood for a moment breathing like a bellows before he noticed more sounds from inside the palisade. Taking one more deep breath and dropping his broken shield, he stepped cautiously towards the gate.
The gate had been strong and well made. There were carvings in it asking the blessings of many gods upon the family’s steading. Even in this situation, the carvings made the warrior pause for a moment at their obvious skill. They were much finer than one would expect for a farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere. A human man in a chain hauberk lay just inside the gate. He had died fighting; four trolls lying slain around him. His armor was cracked and battered by many blows, and a large dog with blood on his jowls lay beside its master.
An orange tree perfumed the charnel house and a couple of chickens squawked and hid from this new intruder. A huge, light brown-furred troll covered in more of the tied bone armor, much larger than the others, emerged from the house, ducking his head under the doorway, and roared at the human. He had what had probably been a child in one hand, but it was hard to tell with so many bites taken out of its body. In its other great paw it grabbed a carved chair and hurled it at the warrior who stepped out of the way. It threw another of the wooden chairs and stepped back into the gloom of the house.
“Okay, so we’re going to have to come in there and get you. I can do that,” Ibram mumbled to himself. He was already exhausted, but an enemy wanting to fight from the shadows like a coward always renewed his strength. The slain man in the yard had a large axe still clutched in one hand that was black from dried blood. A brazier had been set on the walkway of the palisade wall near the undisturbed barn and was still burning and smoking. Someone had set it there to summon help.
A bucket of darts was overturned in the yard. Ibram reached down and took two of them, one into his belt and one in his off hand. He held his sword in a fore guard position, almost like a spear. Its needle point led the way. Coming to the side of the door, he peeked in and jerked back to the side with weapons ready. No huge piles of fur and rage reached out for him, so he stepped forward again. It had been a well-appointed small farmhouse, but now it was a ruin. Smashed furniture, an overturned stove, and blood covered the central floor. A table with six chairs remaining were to the side of the door. They had been overturned, and it looked like two little girls had hidden under it before being smashed to ruin. He could only tell from the dresses pinned under the table splinters, soaked through in dark blood, and what remained of long strings of hair. Bile rose in the warrior’s throat, but he swallowed quickly and forgot about it. The troll hulked in the back of the room like he was in a cave. A boy lay in a tumble of arms and legs to its side; blood crusted the youth’s head and matted the floor beneath him.
Ibram quickly threw the first dart with an underhand motion. It stuck in the wall several feet away from the troll, and the beast chuffed at him in what might have been amusement. It charged just as he threw the other dart, which also missed and landed in the floor near where the troll had been standing. The man let out an exasperated sigh and took his sword into a two-handed grip in a high guard so the blade almost touched the ceiling.
The troll was carrying a club it used in two hands and swept it towards its foe. Ibram tried to block and interposed his sword but was thrown to the wall by the force of the blow. Shaking his head in a daze, the troll stalked towards him. He clenched his hands against air. His sword was gone, and he was unarmed against a wall. The man tried to get up and dodge to the side, but ended up stumbling towards the back of the room. Another of the huge smashing strikes from the club rang against the floorboards right behind him.
Ibram spotted his sword and dove for it, but the troll’s club rang against his armor like a bell and put him on the ground again. His breath had been crushed out of his lungs, but he tried to keep crawling forward. “Just have to reach the sword. If I have the sword, there is a chance,” he thought to himself. The troll roared triumphantly and stood over the prostrate human.
Suddenly it roared again, this time higher pitched, and it jumped over the man. The boy who Ibram had been certain was dead had grabbed the errant dart that had landed near him and used it to stab the troll in its ankle. The boy stood shakily, blood covering the right half of his face, with one eye swollen shut and several claw cuts across his chest. He held the dart out like it was a dagger before him. The room seemed to freeze for a moment.
The troll roared again and charged. The sound seemed to shake Ibram from his daze, and he jumped forward to grasp the hilt of his sword. The boy stood his ground and thrust forward with his dart as the great creature grabbed him around the shoulders and lifted him to the ceiling. The man’s sword cut deeply into the monster’s belly, and it dropped the wounded child, screaming again. It backhanded Ibram to the ground and knuckle-walked quickly out of the door, yelping almost like a bass-voiced dog.
The room was quiet, save for the two rhythmic sets of labored breathing.
Ibram stood, looking more like an old man than a warrior in his prime. One hand went to his lower back and the other grasped the table edge for support. “Boy, are you still living,” he called into the room’s gloom. After a pause, a long groan answered him.
The man hurried over to the crumpled child. His blood covered face had crusts of scab across it, and you could see several shallow gashes in his chest through his torn clothes. His eyes danced crazily in the irregular light. ”Is… is it gone?” the boy said, struggling with each word. The dart was still clutched in his hand with a death grip.
“Yes, child. It has fled.” Ibram wet a rag from his bota of water and used it to clean some of the farm boy’s injuries. After a few moments, the tanned skin became visible again under the dirt and injuries.
Suddenly the child’s eyes shot open, and he gasped. “My sisters! My sisters are here! Are they okay?” He quickly sat up but grabbed his head when he did as if suddenly in pain. The weary warrior looked over at the ruin of red near the table that had probably been those sisters. The boy followed Ibram’s eyeline and began to scream.Ibram grabbed him and held him to his chest. Standing and holding one hand over the child’s eyes, he rushed to the door and through the yard. “No, child. Do not remember them like this. Think of the sunny days,” he said in a strident voice as he ran to the farm’s gateway. He began to sing in a rough, low voice as they ran towards the cart, “Sunshine and clover, with bees flying over….” It was a nonsense rhyme that his own children had loved when they were young. The boy’s screams were muffled against the thick armor but still echoed off the nearby hills.
Omnire Township at the edge of the Salt Flats. Second week of the month of Cloudstears (mid-spring)
A human and cazadore trudged up the causeway from where normally lay the desert. This time of year, as the spring flood dried away, the smell of rotting fish was thick and cloying in the humid air. Predators of all types, at least one bear, a few wolves, several foxes and a very large eagle, all lay on the shores of what had been one of the last ponds. They had eaten themselves nearly insensible on the huge armored fish that spawned in the salt flats during the time of high water. Even vultures and crows were too full to fly. The smell made Breeze, the young cazadore male, want to claw his nose off. The human, Miltiades, ignored it like he did most other things. For almost two months the desert would bloom in the aftermath of the flood. Tall grasses were springing from the earth and flowers exploded to take advantage of the short time of water.
A walled city squatted on a ridgeline that marked the edge of the salt flats. To the north, the land grew hillier and rougher until it turned into the Skydagger Mountains. To the east and south was the bleakness of the desert. West was a long lake with heavy forests on the far shore. Herdsmen had sheep, cattle and horses munching on the desert grasses while they lasted. Row after row of tilled land surrounded the walled town, and bright green sprouts were just beginning to peep out of the ground as the first crops rose.
The walls of the city, like most of its buildings, were made of a pale gray limestone common to these parts. The defenses were high and well maintained. Armored guards could be seen pacing the battlements. Some were militia in mismatched plate or leather, but most were in the distinctive armor of the Golden Shields Crusader Order that had liberated the city from the old Atef Empire and held it ever since. A group of heavily laden camels were coming from the gate as Breeze and Miltiades approached. Caravan guards with their hands on still sheathed swords stood between the two travelers and the merchants who paid them. Miltiades walked through and past the caravan without paying it any attention. Breeze was fascinated by the long-legged, lumpy creatures, but was bitten when he tried to touch one. Sucking on his injured finger, the cazadore followed the human as he had for the last few weeks through the desert.
Two mail armored guards, hoisting their order’s trademark gold painted shields, stopped the two travelers. Several randomly armed and armored militiamen stood around the great gate, some alert and some not so much. Miltiades sighed and ran one gloved hand through his hair. “What is your business in Omnire Township?” the first of the two asked in a business-like way that suggested he’d asked this question a thousand times and would ask it a thousand times more.
“Just travelers passing through. I’m hoping for a room and a hot bath, maybe make a friend while I’m here. I also need a lot of supplies.” The human rattled off his to do list while keeping his hands spread and away from his weapons. He paid the one silver toll to come through the gates armed and stepped into the town.
“Um, Miltiades? I don’t have any money.” Breeze said sheepishly. You could only tell a Cazadore was blushing when their lips went red because of the fur. At the moment it looked like the boy was wearing brilliant lipstick.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. No problem. I think some of the bandit money should be yours anyway.” Miltiades flipped a silver coin through the air to the other guard who caught it with both hands.
“Bandit money? What do you mean traveler?” the guard who had asked about their intentions inquired with actual interest in his voice.
“The boy and I dispatched a small group of bandits that were operating out on The Salt Road. No one of note.” Miltiades turned back toward the town and started walking.
“No one of note? You killed Hakim the Dreaded and wiped out his whole band by yourself!” Breeze’s voice hadn’t come into the full rumble of a grown male cazadore and was a somewhat high pitched tenor that carried incredibly well. People all over the market square stopped and turned towards them. You could hear the crowd begin to buzz and several people pointed.
“That’s a tall-tale stranger. Hakim the Dreaded and his band have menaced the trade way for several years.” The guard who caught the coin spoke for the first time in a voice that was deeper than you would have expected.
“I wasn’t telling any tales and hadn’t mentioned it. If you don’t believe it, I’m not prepared to prove it to you unless you feel like venturing out into the flats and finding where we burned the bodies. Call the boy a liar if you wish. I’ll just agree and try to go get that hot bath.” Miltiades fingers twitched as if he wanted to be holding something, maybe a sword.
“Why would he call me a liar? Everything I said is true!” Breeze scowled. Being called a liar was a deadly insult to a cazadore.
“It doesn’t matter if they believe the tale or not. We’re holding up traffic. Let’s move on. Good day to you, guardians.” He took the felinoid’s arm and pulled him away from the gate. Stares from the scattered merchants and the handful of customers followed them. The buzz of conversation fell silent as they walked by and resumed once they had passed.
Breeze was pulled through the crowd. He staggered in awe; the city was swarming with humans – the most humans he had ever seen in one place. He allowed himself to be pulled along, but his awe faded with one glance at Miltiades’ face. He yanked his arm free. “You seem upset. What did I mess up?” His lion ears were down and his brow crinkled in the look that passed for sadness and confusion.
“Nothing kid. You didn’t do anything wrong. It is just that we don’t always want to be the center of attention. We aren’t in a good spot right now. We’re carrying everything we got from the bandits as well as all the scent glands my team pulled from the hivar. I only have one of my weapons, and you’re barely armed or trained in how to use them.” Miltiades’ pursed lips showed his irritation.
“But we’re out of the desert. This is the tribal area, right? As long as we don’t challenge the chieftain, there shouldn’t be any problems.” The young leonine was gesturing enough that he almost hit a wagon. He mumbled a quick apology and hung his head.
Miltiades just stared at him for a moment. Perhaps he was dumbfounded. Or, he might have been kicking himself for joining with, what was quickly becoming apparent, an innocent, vulnerable pup. Or kitten. Whatever. He turned and walked from the marketplace into one of the major streets where there were few people jumbled together. Shaking his head he kept turning to look back at his follower.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” Breeze asked.
“Nothing. We’re just got some work to do. Follow me to the inn, and we’ll get started. But as we go, imagine that if you were wounded when on the hunt, you wouldn’t let the other predators know about it. That’s kind of like our situation. And this isn’t the tribal area. Think of it as when many tribes come together. There are a lot of different customs and ways to do things here, but there are always people who make their living taking from others.” Miltiades eyes never stopped scanning the sparse crowd even as he talked with his young follower. They were moving quickly through the narrow cobbled streets and finally stopped at a half-timbered building. Above the doorway, gently swinging in the breeze, was a sign which was painted with a splotch of blue in a field of brown with a few of what looked like green squiggles, or trees, drawn around the blue. “This is an inn: Mikkel’s Oasis. It is a good place to stay, but isn’t cheap.” They opened the heavy wooden door and stepped inside.
The interior was all dark, well-polished wood. The center of the room had a stag antler chandelier with a number of alchemist’s lanterns on it which cast a cool blue glow over everything. Two and four-seat tables were scattered around the middle of the floor, and alcoves with small porthole windows containing private booths covered the outer edges of the space. Gardenias and lavender grew in pots just outside each window to sweeten the air coming through with the breeze. A beautiful young man in tailored clothes wearing a spotless white apron met them at the door with a bow. “Good day, masters. Welcome to Mikkel’s Oasis. Perhaps I can get you a drink and meal.” He paused and looked over the pair, the right side of his lip pursing along with his flaring nostrils, “or a bath?”
They both got a quick bite: good crusty bread with honey for Miltiades, and a baked duck for Breeze, with some of the excellent house ale to cut the dust in their throats. Then they sauntered on to the baths that had been drawn for them by the inn’s servants. A few hours later, both felt and smelled a great deal better.
Miltiades took his big oozing backpack full of scent glands towards the local temple of Jelinari. Breeze didn’t really know what to do with himself, so he followed along. Jelinari was the god of wealth, trade and merchants. He was also the special patron of the huge trade city of Seagate. His temple in Omnire was relatively small, but still looked like a fortress squatting near the caravansary. Heavily armored guards sworn to the service of the temple patrolled it or stood near the door watching the entrants carefully. Though it was a fortress of sorts, instead of traditional iron bars framing the windows, they used decorative, though still impenetrable, ironwood. Stained glass made to look like piles of gold or merchants receiving benediction let colored light into the temple.
Stepping inside, the powerful incense made Breeze sneeze. Just as he thought his nose had stopped tickling, he would sneeze again, and his olfactory plight echoed in the grand hall. He tried to control it but it took several minutes to adjust to the powerful scent. Where the outside had been hard stone with a decorative façade, the inside was all white marble. The floor felt soothingly cool against Breeze’s footpads, and where the light shone through the stain glass windows, creating patches of colored sun spots on the floor, he had the sudden urge to curl up and take a nap. In the center of the room was a huge gold coin that spun slowly suspended from cords to the ceiling. It was somehow illuminated and cast a soft yellow light all across the area. Directly below it were circular rows of kneeling stands and a rack of benediction candles which were illuminated to bless particular enterprises. Around the edges of the vast hall, the priests of various specialties stood in their stalls, some talking with those using the services of the temple to guarantee contracts or change money. Guards were in subtle alcoves all around the building, many hidden behind decorative, flowering plants.
The two went to one of the stalls under the symbol of a golden key. The priest, a sea elf male, all of four feet tall with a sharp fox face and flowing bluish hair, bowed to them as they approached. “Greetings worshippers. What can The Golden God do for you this fine day? I am Brother Selvirish, and it is my pleasure to serve you.” A couple of guards edged closer. Breeze looked around and realized they were nearly the only visitors to the temple that were armed.
Miltiades took off his bulging, damp pack and dropped it on the desk of the stall with a squelching noise. The scent of rotten vanilla wafted strongly from it. The sea elf stepped back with a disgusted look on his face. “I need a lock box for this,” the human said quietly.
“You need a lockbox for a wet pack?” Selvirish said with one slim eyebrow arching upward. He reached out with a dainty pointer finger and his thumb, pinched the very edge of one of the pack’s straps, lifted it slightly (as if grabbing the tail of a dead rodent to toss it in the garbage), and then let the strap drop. His face still twisted in disgust, he pulled out a handkerchief with his other hand from his breast pocket and wiped off the goo coating the tips of his finger and thumb.
“Yes.” Miltiades said without elaboration.
“Very well then. For one this size it will be two gold per day. If you do not have it with you, I look forward to your return when you do.” The elf smiled faintly.
Miltiades pulled his coin purse up towards the desk and rifled through it. Dropping two fat silvery coins on the desk he said, “That should get us for ten days. If you need more, send a messenger to me at Mikkel’s Oasis.”
The elf’s eyes widened in surprise, and he picked up the platinum coins to hold them up to the light. The image on them was faint, but a skull with its mouth open could clearly be seen on one side. “Empire coin? That is rare, but certainly acceptable. If you and your companion will follow me, we can go the boxes.” Selvirish motioned to nearby guards and four of them clanked over to accompany the group.
The elf stepped down from his podium and walked back to a passageway guarded by two more of the halberd-bearing, full plated humans. Passing through, the walls were lined with small steel boxes secured under an iron cage. Large key holes gaped towards the passage. Moving further down the passage, the boxes became larger, until at last some were roughly the size of the pack. The priest took a large key from a necklace he wore as the guards situated themselves in a square around him. He put the key into the floor and turned it. A round marble sheet cracked open on small hinges, and Selvirish pulled it out of the way. Below were dozens of keys, some in pairs, but most were hung in singles with an open spot right beside them. The elf took two from one of the lower pairs, stood up, and closed the floor hatch.
He handed one of the keys to Miltiades and walked up the hallway a short distance. “Each box requires two keys to open and another key to get into the cage. One of the guards approached and put a ring he was wearing on his left hand into the circular slot on the cage, turned it, and the cage opened soundlessly. Selvirish nodded to him and the guard stepped back. “Please come here, and we’ll both insert our keys at the same time and turn them together.” Both inserted their keys, the elf counted to three, and then both keys turned with a resounding click. The thick metal door opened, and Miltiades put his pack into it. The whole process was repeated to lock the pack away. After a few minutes, they headed for the door.
“What was all of that?” Breeze asked when they were alone.
“It was a temple to money.” The human told him as they stepped back into the crowded city streets.
“No, I mean the business with the locks and guards.” The young cazadore mimed turning a key as he asked the question.
“It is a secure place to keep valuables so you don’t have to carry them around with you.” He told his curious friend.
“Why? Why not just leave them in the room?” Breeze started licking at something on the back of one of his hands, his eyes still trained on the older human.
“So it won’t get stolen. If you leave something in the room, you have no idea who will go through it.” The swordsman wove through the crowd with the grace of a dancer while people just avoided the almost six foot lion in armor.
“Thieves? There are thieves here? Then we should leave right away!” His exclamation was probably a little louder than the leonine intended, and a lot of people in the crowd turned to look at them.
“What? I mean, I don’t know there will be thieves. It is just a precaution. You have to be careful in the cities and towns.” Miltiades had finally stopped and looked back at the cazadore with his eyebrows together and forehead wrinkled. A hugely muscled man in a leather apron, spotted black with scorch marks, almost ran into him and stepped around, cursing.
“If there are thieves here, we should go right now. You can’t trust them!” Breeze was gesticulating madly and almost clawed a lady in his excitement. At her squawk, he turned and nodded his head in apology.
“There are thieves everywhere, kid. It is just something you expect.” The human turned back into the crowd and started walking.
“Not where I’m from…” The young lion mumbled.
From up ahead, the beating of a drum could be heard. The market square was much more crowded than normal for mid-afternoon. Several large wagons were set up in the center, and the commotion appeared to be coming from there.
“Come one, come all, to the grandest demonstration of skill and daring you’ll see in your lives!” an older human man spoke in a stentorian voice from a pedestal attached to one of the wagons. Large green signs proclaimed, “Ardneh’s Grand Company” in huge letters in four languages.
A very young woman, possibly still just a girl, with brilliant red hair launched into the air from behind one of the wagons like she was shot from a catapult. Those standing to the side could see that is exactly what happened. There were long trails of multicolored ribbon flowing from her metallic looking hair and show wore an outfit seemingly made of many rainbow shaded scarves tied all over her in various layers. The announcer boomed over the Oooohs and Aaaaahs of the crowd, “Meet the great acrobat Rhoda Firehaired!” and everyone applauded as the girl hit the ground and rolled before coming up into a stance with arms held up as if in victory. Breeze looked unsure of what was happening, but clapped along with everyone else while Miltiades ventured a rare smile.
Rhoda spoke loudly but in a clear voice that carried surprisingly well given how small she was, “Thank you, thank you all! Now, what I normally do at this point in the show is some flips and cartwheels, but I’ve thought of a new version that will get my dear brother,” she points to the announcer with both hands and pauses, ”more involved in the act.”
“I don’t know what you are planning, darling sister, but the normal act is a fan favorite, and you’ve wowed crowds with it from Thunder Falls to SeaGate and even in far Misthaven!” the good looking young man with carefully combed black hair and a tight-fitting robe smiled hugely but looked a bit unsure.
“Nonsense, brother. Let’s show them how good of an acrobat YOU are!” She took a running start to the left of the stage made from three wagons and at its far edge bounced into a back flip. While she was in the air, she pulled one of the long ribbons from her hair and threw it at the announcer who barely dodged before the knife blade at its base stuck into a pole. The crowd roared as the man looked terrified.
Each time the girl flipped in the air, she hurled a knife with a long ribbon at her brother. He dodged the first two and then began to run right to left across the stage with beribboned knives sinking into posts just behind him the whole way. The people in the market square were crowding close now, crushing Breeze into Miltiades who apparently smelled of smoke, a slight hint of vanilla, and the linseed oil used to clean his armor. When each of the two actors had reach the far and opposite ends of the stage, Rhoda hurled two more blades with their orange and blue ribbons trailing out behind. Her brother seemed to panic and froze as they came straight for his chest. At the last moment he caught them both, and his fear vanished into a great smile. He and his sister simultaneously bowed to the crowd and flourished their ribbons before stepping behind the curtain. Coins rained onto the stage as applause and cheers followed them.
A much older human with mahogany brown skin and long, perfectly white hair stepped out. “Hello good men and women of Omnire Township!” He bowed to the crowd, and they continued to applaud. “My name is Ardneh, and I have the honor of leading this company of actors and entertainers.” His voice was a smooth baritone that filled the market without need for shouting.
“Today we bring you a tale of daring from the north! A lone warrior rescues a fair maiden from the foul clutches of a blood maddened beast!” at the word beast he stepped to the side, and the curtains were pulled out of the way. A tower made of wood but cleverly disguised as stone rose up from behind the wagons, and the previous announcer stood in brilliantly silvered armor and held two swords apparently made of mirrors.
The old man again boomed, “Shiningblades versus the Dragon of Draedon!” and a creature made of thick gray scales the length of two horses pranced out onto the stage from behind the tower. Its long head fanged head looked up and a gout of flame shot towards the sky. Several people in the crowd screamed in terror. A woman rose at the top of the tower begging to be rescued.
Miltiades had a look on his face like a pole-axed steer in the slaughtering yard. “You’re blasted kidding me,” he mumbled.
Breeze tore his eyes away from the spectacle. He’d never seen the man act surprised by anything. “What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing. It isn’t important.” Miltiades said with something of a glazed look about him. Breeze kept staring at his friend until another blast of flame from the dragon brought his attention back to the stage.
For the next ten minutes the warrior battled the dragon. Both took great wounds that spurted blood, which smelled suspiciously like tomato juice, and the man stopped a few times to declaim to the crowd on how to triumph over terror, and how any amount of suffering was worth it to save one’s beloved: the beloved woman who shrieked at the top of the tower, played with her hair between fits of terror, and made googly eyes at her valiant hero every now and again. Eventually one of the mirror bright swords found its way into the heart of the beast, and it collapsed. Shiningblades threw open the tower door to release the woman, and they embraced passionately. He leaned her backwards in a powerful kiss, and the curtains closed. By now, the crowd had grown to several times its original size, and a few gold joined the rain of copper and some silver that fell onto the stage. Cheers, applause, hoots of joy and the snapping that mar’ud did instead of clapping filled everyone’s ears.
The older man with the grand voice stepped back out and announced the company would be giving one play each evening at the north field just outside of town. The two actors stepped out, revealed as the brother and sister from the knife throwing exhibition, and bowed deeply to the roars of the people. The dragon stepped out again, bloody tomato juice still sputtering out of its wound, and two people threw off the costume; a heavily muscled meilosh sauroid had been its front half, and a tall, slim man of middle years the back half. Both bowed, and the sauroid poured a liquid in his mouth then spat it onto a burning brand which caused a gout of flame like the dragon had created. The people were deafening now, and the rain of coins was constant.
Miltiades looked back to Breeze and nodded towards the stage. It took several minutes to cut through the crowd, and Breeze was getting a little frantic at being so closed in. Dozens of admirers surrounded the actors. Waiting for what seemed like a lifetime for the crowd to mostly disperse, Miltiades finally reached the older human with the golden speaking voice. Breeze was near but had been pushed over towards the other group of players.
“A fine performance. Very impressive.” Miltiades said as he pressed a fat golden coin into the play master’s hand. “The special effects were a nice touch.”
“Thank you, sir! It is always nice to have your work appreciated.” The older man’s smile split his beard in half, and he nodded to the warrior.
“There are a few factual problems with the last piece, though.” the dark haired warrior said calmly.
The actor’s brows slammed together so suddenly onlookers were surprised you couldn’t hear them. “I assure you sir, we were told the details of the event from direct witnesses! It was true in each detail!” He drew himself perfectly erect and gave an offended sniff.
“Well, I was there too. My name is Miltiades Shiningblades, and that isn’t quite the way it happened.“ He said without batting an eye. ”Let me tell you about my friend, Gnarl of the Broken Club Tribe. That’s a real hero and the one that actually killed the drake.”
In the background, uttered almost too softly to hear, Breeze said, “So you kissed your sister?”
Chapter 2.4: Spring Patrol
Seagate. Third week of the month of Misting (early spring).
The flood was still in full effect, but at least the endless rain had finally stopped. Low clouds scudded over the trees, and mist covered the broad river. This area was known as Swamp Bottom. Here the Auridan House had been forced to settle after the treacherous Delrast Company Mercenaries had tricked them out of their historical home on the northern side of the ridge that made up Seagate; the buzzing insects were already out in force and frogs or some other critters howled in the swamps and rice paddies outside the dikewall. The dikes surrounded Swamp Bottom and the windmills turned and clanked day and night keeping the water out of the settlement. The main city was across the river from the swamps just a walk across the bridge but seemingly on the other side of the world.
Cleon Auridan slapped at a mosquito on his neck with a pudgy hand. “Gods, I hate these infernal things,” he muttered. He had missed the bug and made a red mark on his neck. “Anyway,” he continued, ignoring the self-inflicted welt, “how do we maximize profit on this order?” He had a scroll unrolled on the table with two of the tiny marble erotic statues he loved so much as paperweights on either end. These were like most he purchased, having a man and woman intertwined in the act in anatomically improbably ways. It was obvious the sculpture paid more attention to rendering the explicit details rather than facial features. One hand ran through Cleon’s medium length hair distractedly.
“The priestess paid us plenty to acquire what she needs. Let’s just go and buy the slaves she wants,” the hard-faced armored man standing over the table said in a surprising tenor roughed by the harsh accent of the gorellen humans. The big blond warrior’s blue eyes looked down on his employer. As a mercenary, he had worked for some tough people in the past, but Cleon simply wasn’t that type. Instead, Cleon just wanted a bodyguard to intimidate the easily frightened and handle some occasional dirty work. As merc jobs go, that wasn’t bad, so Eyolf Wulfsen was happy to oblige.
“See, that’s why you aren’t a merchant. Yes, the priestess paid well, but she’s clearly insane. Some crusading group of adventurers will put her out of business in short order, so we need to maximize our profit on the orders we do get. They’ll steal everything that isn’t bolted down, murder everyone in the camp, and be spending what should be our gold no time.” Cleon frowned, rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and added, “Besides, she’s just killing most of the slaves we bring her and turning them into those horrors.” He shuddered for a moment, and his bodyguard stifled a smile behind his long beard.
“Hey!” The merchant snapped his fingers in revelation. “What if we just captured people and sold them! That would be free.” His devious smile peeled back his lips and showed his glistening, pink gums..
“Um, that’s really illegal in town. And, illegal in most other places. The trade wardens would shut us down, and the fines would eat up any profit,” Eyolf said quickly.
“No, not this time of year. During the spring flood every poverty stricken drudge crams into the city like pickled herrings in a jar. The temples and charities feed them, and it is a huge pain, and expense, for everyone. We could also just accuse them of a crime if we get caught. Just don’t run of them through town, and it shouldn’t be a problem.” Cleon nodded sagely to himself with an expression intended to convey wisdom and command of the situation. He had practiced this same expression in front of a mirror and was really proud of it.
Eyolf had seen the journeyman merchant practicing the expression; he had not been impressed with it then and wasn’t impressed by it now. “I can’t use any of the house guards for something like this. We’ll need to hire some bully boys that we can deny ties to or cut loose if caught.”
“Fine, fine. You are in charge of all that. Just don’t pay too much for them.” Waving a pudgy hand in dismissal, the merchant rewarded himself with a candied orange.
A few days later three rough looking humans and one of the crocodilian meilosh stalked through the alleys in the southern most sections of the city. Each section was known as a “Reach” and was generally controlled by one of the six factions in the city. This one was controlled by the Gelder family and was known for farming and produced most of the city’s food. Most Reaches were ruled by wealthy trade families, like the Gelder family. However, the second Reach was controlled by the temple of Jelinari, and the third by a mercenary group. The sea elf confederation called the Seaworthies controlled a forth Reach; the elves had parked one of their living ships here centuries ago, and it had sprouted into something like a mangrove forest where they lived and grew their ships. The Silvershields were members of the Bronze Dwarven trading alliance and controlled a fifth Reach. Finally, the sixth Reach, the river Reach, was ruled by the squid-like tritons.
Now under the rule of the Delrast Company Mercenaries, the Foulberg Reach had been a prosperous area controlled by the Auridan family a century past until it was taken from them to pay a debt; rule over the area had then been given to the gnomish mercenary band. In a fit of rage, one of the Auridan mages had shattered the region with something called The Spellquake soon after, resulting in the current broken and devastated region that has once been prosperous.
Due to the Gelder’s practical monopoly on food production, Gelderland was also one of the wealthiest factions, and certainly no one would miss some of the flood refugees that packed its Reach each spring. Being food rich, there were a lot of refugees who sought shelter here until the waters receded. As outsiders, these refugees became easy targets.
The brutish thugs had already beaten and tied up three such unlucky refugees and were looking for another “volunteer” to be sold as a slave. The warrior who’d hired them, a great big gorellen man called Eyolf had told them the hours right around dawn would be their best hunting times, and it seemed to be true. Most of the transient drunks were passed out and easy prey, while the Reach’s citizens weren’t really up and around yet. The Scar was up this night, the evil looking tear in the sky which led to one of the hells beyond, and its bilious green light provided little illumination. The reptilian meilosh hissed, “Heressss one.” He grabbed a passed out human who, upon being jostled, woke up in the arms of a monster.
The waking man’s scream was partially blocked by a scaly hand shoved in his mouth, but that only muffled it and didn’t stop the man from yelling and squirming to get away. “Itssss an ugly one too,” the sauroid said, looking at the burns which covered most of the human’s head.
Something smaller than a man and quick as a lizard sprang up from where it had been laying curled up against the captured human for heat. “Hey! You puts down my friend!” the much smaller halnaak sauroid shouted up at the meilosh. The two creatures were a study in contrast. Meilosh were nearly five and a half feet tall and thick with muscle and iron-hard scales. Halnaak were barely four feet in height and proportionately slim. The crocodilian meilosh had impressive but snaggled teeth all down his muzzle, and the halnaak didn’t seem to have any teeth at all in his almost birdlike snout. That didn’t deter the little reptilian though. “You puts him down now!”
The meilosh kicked at his birdlike cousin, “Sssstand away, little lizard. You’re lucky we don’t want you, too.” The three humans gathered around the struggling man in the crocodilian’s arms. The captured man moaned and tried to yell for help. His shouts were still muffled by the meilosh’s invasive hand, and he seemed to have some type of speech impediment. The slurring was probably due to one side of his face being irreparably burned. It was bad enough to where movement was limited only to the other, unscarred side of his face. With the crocodilian holding him, the three humans tied their victim up in short order. The smaller halnaak yelled and bounced around them but was mostly ignored.
The little halnaak finally pursed his leathery lips and snuck up behind one of the men carrying his struggling friend. He jumped into the air and raked down the back of the bully boy’s leg with both clawed feet. The man screamed and dropped his load, the burned man, who hit the ground with a moan. The oldest of the three humans got a hard look in his eyes. “Hold him and use some of the burn juice.” He pointed to the twisting and writhing captive, indicating one of his guys should stay with their prize. The man nodded to the meilosh and knocked the struggling man out with a blow from his club. The other man and the sauroid drew their clubs and advanced on the halnaak who was hopping around, fluttering his short arms, not really knowing what to do. The one unclawed member of the gang of thugs who wasn’t chasing the annoying little reptile put away his club and took out a steel vial, dripping some of the liquid carefully onto the humans in the cart. They moaned, and little puffs of foul-smelling smoke vanished quickly in the morning breeze.
“Philodendron the magnificent should not run from alley thugs…” the halnaak whispered to himself, “But clubs would hurt a lot, and it is hard to be magnificent when bruised and broken!” He turned and fled, waving his arms wildly. After sprinting down the alley, he came to a pile of garbage around a corner. Diving into it, he opened up his scales, and took on a look almost like a pinecone – nothing like the smooth skinned reptile of a moment before. He quickly covered himself in trash and rotting food and left only his face exposed. Quickly licking his eye with a long blue tongue, he covered most of his face with the foul stuff of the alley as his scales slowly darkened to a leprous green color, much like the garbage that covered him. The one eye that wasn’t covered up narrowed to let him see what was happening without being too obvious.
Just a moment later, the big human and hard-scaled meilosh stalked down the alley. They peered left and right into the gloom and kicked at piles of trash. “I don’t sssssssssee the little cretin bosssssss,” the meilosh hissed in the early morning light.
“Keep looking. He couldn’t have gone far.” The man unknowingly kicked at the halnaak’s pile of trash. The kick shoved splinters from a broken board into the halnaak’s ribs, but he didn’t dare make a sound. Over the next several minutes, the two faded into the distance.
A little scaly birdlike head emerged from the pile of trash. Checking that he was alone, the halnaak climbed out of the pile. Two of his three clawed fingers on his right hand grabbed the sharp piece of wood in his side and pulled it out. He hopped soundlessly, squeezed his eyes shut, and danced about for a moment in pain. Twisting his whole body like a dog shaking off water, Philodendron the Magnificent froze with his two short arms akimbo, almost like an attack position. “Mmmm, if will become a great warrior, must be indifferent to pain. The stupid stick,” he kicked the broken board against the wall with a clatter and froze, eyes wide at the noise. When nothing happened, he resumed his diatribe, “Did not hurt Philodendron the Magnificent,” he said like he was trying to convince himself, “No, the only pain is losing friend. So now, go get friend.” Philodendron trotted back down the alley towards the cart, brushing trash off himself. “How to get friend? Must be clever and brave!” When he licked his right eye, some trash stuck to his tongue. Without pulling it back into the confines of his mouth, he made cat gagging sounds and scraped off the detritus dangling from the tip of his pointed tongue. Soon, bad-tasting crisis averted, he continued on his way.
The healthy thug at the cart had bandaged his fellow who was leaning on the cart’s mule. The mule didn’t look very interested in the proceedings and flicked his ear at the injured bully’s grumbling. To express his overall interest in the conversation, the beast dropped a steaming load onto the road that spattered the injured human. With an oath of disgust the injured tough hopped away. The healthy bully boy rang a small bell and began shouting, “Bring out your dead. Bring out your dead.” The dawning light turning to morning, merchants filled in the trade square with their carts or opened up their stalls.
A couple of trade wardens, the splint-armored police force of SeaGate, shouldered through the crowd. Leading them was a thin, dusky-skinned human in a once rich but now a bit tattered merchant’s robes. “Here, wardens. These men are in the spot I lawfully rented for my wares! Move them right away.”
The oldest of the two wardens, a white headed human still beefy but with a sagging gut instead of the trim appearance you would expect of a warrior, grumbled, “Right, move the wagon along now.”. He spoke like he was exhausted, but his eyes never stopped moving and scanning over the crowd. The younger man to his side wasn’t as tall but seemed much more energetic.
The tough wasn’t acting so brave in the face of armed and armored men. “With respect master warden, we’ve a plague cart here. I was told my two comrades would work through this alleyway and pull out any man, woman, or child showing signs; then we was to take them to a temple for examination.” The big blond thug with old scars from poorly healed acne bared his yellow teeth in what was supposed to be a winning grin.
The two wardens and offended merchant stepped back at the mention of plague. “Plague you say? Good gods, man, I’ve heard nothing of that.” The older warden took his hand off the handle of the club in his belt to rub his beard. “When did it break out?”
“I don’t know. We only found out last night. We’ve been working all night to get the victims out of town.” He dramatically pulled back the sheet from the four humans he and his friend had captured. They had all been knocked unconscious, and the drops of fireberry juice had blistered and burst into what looked the tell-tale signs of melt fever. Plague was always a fear during the spring floods when the city filled with refugees. Merchants started whispering of the rumored outbreak to each other around the market as soon as it was said out loud by the rough men.
“Get that cart out of here! Right now!” the older warden roared. “Clear a path; this wagon is moving.” He pointed to the two thugs with the cart. “You’ll let one of the wardens know anytime you come to do work like this. Now, get moving.” Merchants and the handful of housewives or servants in the market cleared a wide path from what they thought was a plague cart.
The two toughs, one limping and grimacing, got their cart moving slowly through the market. Every once in a while, the one without the bleeding leg would ring his bell and chuckle at the cleverness of his employer. Nobody would have thought a big, tough gorellen would have thought of a well-orchestrated plan like this. Most of those gorellen meat-heads use their muscles instead of their brains. He’d have to watch that Eyolf character as an up-and-comer in Seagate’s underworld.
Just a few moments after the “plague” cart had gone out of sight a little, the trash-covered halnaak darted out of the alley. Where his friend had been lying on a cart, he saw a human in sumptuous red robes trying to move a mule pile without actually touching it. “Hello,” the lizard chirped, tilted his head to the side, and watched the merchant’s fruitless attempts at wishing away the mule’s fresh gift. “Was there recently a cart with people laying in it right here?” Like most of its kind, when talking, the reptile bobbed its head left and right to see with each eye. It was a disconcerting motion to those not used to it.
“Shoo, shoo. You disgusting little thing.” The human waved its hands at Philodendron the agnificent in a vague “go away” gesture. “You probably have the plague, too.”
“Plague? What means plague?” Philodendron cocked his head to the side like a puppy trying to understand something and licked his right eye.
“You know, plague. A disease that poor people get for living in the streets. Be off with you. Go infect somebody else.” The merchant grabbed a broom from his cart of wares and waved it with some menace.
“Friend did not have a disease! Which way did cart go?” Phil hopped up and down in anger.
“That way.” The merchant waved in the direction of the central road into town. “But go see a priest first. Filthy thing.” He pulled his cart into place and began to set up for the day’s business.
“Hmmmmm. What to do? Must rescue friend, but how?” Phil scratched under his chin with one of his clawed forefingers as he thought. “Hey, I should go see a priest! Little human priestess gave us a present of the sun! She will surely help.” He squared his little scaly shoulders and marched towards the temple of Sol where they had followed the little girl several weeks before. His friend, Blinden, had told him it was a place of powerful magics and for the worship of knowledge.