The Silver Wolf: For Crown or Country
Jared “CruelSummerLord” Milne
Company of the Silver Wolf Book Three
Heavy Is The Head That Seeks The Crown
Airk Venbelwar took a long drink of water as he looked at the wooden engraving in his hand. It showed several scenes that told an unusual story. A single wolf wandered alone, wounded after losing most of his pack. He seemed doomed to always be on his own until he found six other wolves who formed a new pack with him. The seven wolves were of different heights, colors and builds, but they had a sense of unity among them that belied their differences.
Airk smiled before he put the engraving back in his pocket. He glanced over towards the heavy plate armor, the shield decorated with the insignia of the twin moons and the stars, and the military pick and spiked morning star, which all lay in a pile on his bed in his room at the Wizard’s Hat Inn.
Airk wore the equipment well. The firmness of his stride, the alert look on his face and the vigilance of his manner were those of an experienced soldier. His well-muscled frame, immaculately trimmed blonde hair, beard and handlebar moustache only reinforced that image. He had the light brown skin and long pointy nose of a gnome, but unlike most of his kin Airk had little use for humor or joy. His hands were never far from his weapons, and everyone who met him knew how ready he was to use them.
As part of the Company of the Silver Wolf, Airk used his soldier’s training to fight alongside his human and halfling adventuring companions. In the roughly four months since they’d come together, the companions had begun to form a tight bond of friendship, one that helped Airk cope with his inner turmoil.
That turmoil had been festering for a long time. During the bloody Hateful Wars over seven and a half decades ago, Airk’s military unit was betrayed by one of its own, a cunning warrior named Kalrek Burunne. Kalrek’s betrayal left the gnomes’ kingdom of Flinthold weakened when it was attacked by the Steelheart dwarven clan Kalrek betrayed Flinthold to. Airk fought in Flinthold’s defense, but he’d left once the Steelhearts were defeated and he’d seen to the needs of his family. His guilt and shame over his failing to anticipate Kalrek’s treason made him unable to face any of his kin.
In the following decades, Airk wandered the Flanaess as an adventurer. He’d mostly kept his guilt and despair under control, but they exploded again once he learned about Kalrek’s plan to seize the Crown of Arumdina. The Crown was a sacred artifact said to be blessed by no less than Garl Glittergold, the supreme god of the gnomes. It earned its name from its monde, a piece of mithril shaped like a battleaxe. The monde was said to be a piece of Arumdina, the divine mithril axe wielded by Garl himself. As a symbol of Garl’s favor, the Crown made Flinthold prosper so long as its monarchs wore it.
When the Crown was stolen, Flinthold’s fortunes declined. Its old monarchy faded into history, replaced by regents who lacked the same confidence or power as the old kings. Kalrek sought the Crown so that he could claim the throne of Flinthold for himself. To finance his search, he employed a small army of bandits and soldiers who raided for treasure in the lands around the Nyr Dyv, laundering his blood money through agents he forced to help him. One of those agents was the gem merchant Laessar Bradon, the only other gnome in Airk’s unit who’d survived Kalrek’s treason during the Wars.
Airk and his friends learned about Kalrek’s schemes and Laessar’s involvement when they fought one of Kalrek’s bandit gangs. The companions traveled to the gnome city of Copper Crossing where Airk confronted Laessar to make him reveal Kalrek’s whereabouts. Airk succeeded at that, but his decades-old rage and grief led him to unintentionally kill Laessar. He and his companions rescued Laessar’s family, who Kalrek kidnapped to force Laessar’s cooperation, but their efforts to raise Laessar from the dead ended in failure.
With Laessar permanently dead, his son Trendin inherited his gem-dealing business. Despite his anger at Laessar’s death, Trendin chose not to take vengeance on Airk. Instead, he demanded that Airk find the Crown and restore Flinthold’s long-lost glory, wanting to honor his family’s roots. Airk initially wanted to go alone, not knowing how long the quest would take and thinking that his friends had already done enough for him. His companions all insisted on accompanying him, regardless of how long the search took.
Now, nearly a month after Laessar’s death, the Company of the Silver Wolf returned to the Free City of Greyhawk to begin the search for the Crown. Seline Roas Del Cranden, one of Airk’s companions, arranged a meeting with a sage who specialized in gnomish history and culture who might be able to tell them where the Crown was.
A thin smile crossed Airk’s face as he considered what his friends had done for him. Another one of his human companions, Revafour Greystar, carved and painted the wooden engraving to try and help Airk cope with his guilt and shame.
The smile vanished from Airk’s face as he suddenly remembered the rivers of blood on the stone when the Steelhearts ambushed his unit, and the blood on his hands when he’d killed Laessar.
He began to shudder involuntarily as the memories came flooding back, breathing heavily as he put his face in his hands.
You don’t deserve their help, Airk heard an inner voice tell him. You’re going to get them all killed. They’ll never realize their own dreams, because they’ll die trying to save your wretched hide.
Airk tried to ignore the voice, but it came back to him again and again.
Day after day after day.
Castles And Dreams
Zelradton was the capital of the Great Kingdom of Aerdy’s South Province. It was a military fortress of a city, a behemoth of stone and steel that stood out all the more from the beautiful, lightly forested grasslands around it and the majestic Iron Hills some miles to the south. It was home to several of Aerdy’s great Celestial Houses, those noble families that formed the country’s aristocracy. The city had representatives from the militaristic House Naelax, the compassionate House Cranden, and the wealthy House Darmen, among others. Most of the members of the Celestial Houses gathered in Zelradton itself to meet on affairs of state and resolve disputes between them, but they preferred to live on their own estates outside the city.
These estates were often ostentatiously and grandly decorated, a testament to the Celestial Houses’ wealth and influence. The estates were also smaller fortresses unto themselves, places where the nobles could defend themselves against external threats…and from each other, as they often had good reason to.
Xavener Norreck Del Darmen stood in the main parkland of his family’s estate, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine and the faint sound of singing birds as he worked on his latest painting. He was a fresh-faced youth of sixteen, with the tanned skin and brown hair that so personified the Oeridian race. His kindly expression and lean, athletic build spoke of a young man who was perfectly at ease with the world around him. He was dressed in the blue and gold clothes of a young man of fashion. His jewelry reflected his stature as a prince of one of the Great Kingdom’s richest noble families, from the ruby pendant around his neck to the rings of coral and hematite and gold and sapphire on his hands to the belt of diamonds around his waist.
Xavener applied a few more brushstrokes before he stood back to admire his work so far. He took a sip of the Celenese claret he’d poured, smiling at his success. The painting was of the beautiful landscape around the Cranden estate. Everything from the clouds of the sky above him to the woodlands surrounding the estate to the stark beauty of the Iron Hills in the distance was perfectly captured, almost seeming to come to life under Xavener’s brush. The only thing that stood out was the large, majestic castle that occupied the centre of the painting. Unlike the ugly brutish appearance of Zelradton, the castle in Xavener’s painting was breathtakingly beautiful, a palace fit for Overking Ivid V himself.
Xavener was distracted from his admiration by the angry footsteps he heard coming up from behind him. Turning around, he greeted his father Norreck Locan Del Darmen, master of the estate. Norreck shared his son’s tanned skin and brown hair, but his flashing eyes and narrow profile made him look like a fierce old bird of prey. His hair was silver and brown and his face heavily lined, reflecting his years navigating the intrigues of Aerdy high society. He was dressed similarly to his son, only less flamboyantly. While his son wore several pieces of glittering jewelry, he only wore an emerald and platinum ring on his right hand.
Norreck scowled at Xavener, who merely smiled and bowed in greeting.
“How nice to see you, Father,” Xavener said, a polite, welcoming smile crossing his face. “Would you care for some claret?”
“What I’d care for is to know why you went into my wine cellar without permission,” Norreck said with a scowl, looking at the bottle and glass on the table next to Xavener’s easel. “That Celenese claret doesn’t come cheap, you know.”
“I’m your heir, Father,” Xavener said, the smile never leaving his face. “As such, I should be learning to use our house’s facilities as a proper head of household ought to, so that I will be ready to fulfill my duties when the time comes. After all, wouldn’t you expect me to live up to the fine example you set for me?”
Norreck didn’t reply, instead puffing out his chest a bit. He looked past Xavener to see his son’s painting, and raised an eyebrow.
“What a grand castle,” he said. “Pity it’s little more than a dream.”
“What do you mean?” Xavener asked.
“Herzog Chelor would never allow such a castle to be built in South Province,” he said, referring to the overall ruler of South Province, second only in power to Overking Ivid V himself. “Neither would Ivid, for that matter. It outshines even their palaces.”
Xavener laughed at that.
“Even the Herzog and the Overking, for all their tyranny, have made no laws against dreaming,” he said with a smile.
Norreck smiled back at Xavener despite himself.
“Besides, you never know what the future might hold,” Xavener said, still smiling.
Norreck stopped smiling as he looked curiously at his son.
“Do you remember our last chess game, father?” Xavener said, his smile widening.
Norreck nodded as Xavener laughed again.
Seline Roas Del Cranden tapped her foot impatiently as she waited at one of the tables in the dining hall of Greyhawk Sages’ Guildhall, home of the Free City’s Union of Sages and Academics. She was aware of how much she stood out from everyone else in the room, many of whom were giving her annoyed looks for intruding on their sanctum. Everyone else in the room was either a graying older man with an intellectual air, or an impeccably mannered waiter or porter who served the older men’s needs.
The older men were all professors and sages at Greyhawk’s famed universities, but Seline looked as if she would have been one of their students. She was a stunningly beautiful young woman in her early twenties, with long strawberry-blonde hair, fair skin and bright green eyes that reflected her largely Sueloise heritage. She had the same keen, intellectual air as the sages around her, which was reflected in the indigo and night-blue robes she wore. Her robes were decorated with silver-colored symbols of stars, moons and planets, clearly identifying her as a wizard. She usually radiated a warm, youthful energy that seemed to brighten the air, making her stand out all the more from the querulous old sages surrounding her.
That energy was somewhat subdued today, as Seline looked at the clock on the wall above the bar and wondered when Matthias would arrive. He was the sage she’d hired to try and discover the whereabouts of the Crown of Arumdina, and he’d sent her word to meet him at the Guildhall. Normally, the Guildhall was off limits to everyone who was not both human and male, as was the Union itself, but exceptions were sometimes made for when sages needed to present their findings to patrons. Even so, many of the sages were irritated at having a woman in the Guildhall, and their disapproving expressions made sure Seline knew how upset they were.
Normally, Seline wouldn’t have been caught dead in such a dreary place, but she knew it was necessary to find the Crown. Looking up at the clock above the bar again, she sighed in frustration.
Seline’s patience was rewarded several minutes later. Her eyes lit up as she saw a man with thinning salt-and-pepper hair, a matching goatee and a surprisingly broad chest, dressed in austere but neatly tailored red and white clothes, walk into the dining hall. Going up to the bar, the man ordered a fine wine before coming to join Seline at her table. He was clearly in a foul mood, constantly muttering under his breath and adjusting the thick spectacles on his beaky nose.
“Greetings, Matthias,” Seline said, putting on a cheerful smile as she stood up and reached out to shake the sage’s hand.
“Greetings indeed,” Matthias said, not bothering to shake Seline’s hand before they sat down again. “A fine thing to say after the night I had!”
“What night did you have?” Seline asked, repressing her own irritation at Matthias’s brusque manner.
“I lost a good fifty gold pieces at the monthly backgammon games we play at the Savant Tavern,” Matthias said as he reached into a pocket of his voluminous coat and pulled out a series of parchments. “I’d have done better if I had more time to prepare, but I had to spend it working on your commission.”
Seline again had to keep the annoyed scowl off her face, since Matthias was going to make his money back a good twenty times over for the work he was doing for her. She knew how to make the whole conversation less painful, given his passion for backgammon.
“Did you play with the automatic double rule?” Seline said as she made sure to put on an interested expression.
“Why yes, I…how did you know about that?” Matthias asked in surprise.
“I heard about it in the dwarven legend of the Ivory and Silver Dice,” Seline said, offering a broad white smile.
Matthias beamed at that, pleased by Seline’s interest in the game.
“I was the one who made it popular at the Savant Tavern,” he said, warming to his subject. “None of the narrow-minded coots there ever heard of it before that-don’t pay enough attention to what our non-human kin can teach us. So you’re a fellow student of folklore?”
“Of legends from several different cultures,” Seline said, “but I’m just a student, of course.”
“Of course,” Matthias said, “and that’s why you hired me to look into where the Crown of Arumdina might be. It’s certainly an engaging story, but I had a devil of a time putting everything together. I had to cross-reference several of the sources at the Great Library with some of the sources at the library here,” he said, gesturing around at the Guildhall. “And it would have been easier if our library wasn’t such a disgraceful mess. I’ve told the senile old codgers who run this place a dozen times that they need to reorganize the library, but do they listen? No, of course not!”
Seline did her best to restrain a chuckle, amused by the older man’s rambling. Matthias took a hefty swig of wine and he suddenly calmed down, his expression becoming businesslike.
“I have all the information in these parchments,” he said as he passed them to Seline, who briefly glanced over them, “but I’ll give you a summary. As you originally said, the Crown was originally a treasure of the gnomish kingdom of Flinthold. The Crown was stolen by thieves in the employ of the King of Loamhedge, another gnomish kingdom bordering where the Principality of Ulek stands today. The King of Loamhedge hated Flinthold for defeating his ancestors’ attempts to invade it in previous centuries, so he had the Crown stolen. The King of Loamhedge planned to use the Crown himself, but he was killed when Loamhedge was defeated in one of the few wars Keoland actually won.”
Now Seline couldn’t stop from chuckling. She’d heard stories of Keoland’s legendary military ineptitude from her adventuring companion Weimar Glendowyr. Weimar had served in Keoland’s forces, and he confirmed that the old saying that going to war without Keoland was like going to war without a pipe organ was completely true.
“Keoland claimed the Crown as a war prize, but they likely didn’t realize what they had. They gave it as a diplomatic gift to some visiting Aerdy diplomats who took it back with them. The trail gets a little confused here, but the older sources and the more recent travelogues I consulted all agree that the Crown is still somewhere in the Great Kingdom. It’s not a complete trail, but it should give you enough to start on,” Matthias said.
Matthias was so preoccupied by what he was saying that he didn’t notice Seline visibly flinch when he mentioned Aerdy. She regained her composure before Matthias was finished speaking, and when he looked at her she was perfectly calm.
“Thank you, Matthias,” she said with a smile. “Excellent work. I believe we owe you a thousand gold pieces for your work?”
“That’s right,” Matthias said with a nod. “How are-“
“See for yourself,” Seline said as she reached into one of her robe’s pockets. Pulling out a small pouch, she tossed it to Matthias. Catching it in midair, Matthias opened the pouch and poured its contents into his hand. A small pile of amethysts sparkled in the light of the dining hall’s chandeliers, and Matthias smiled widely.
“Each worth a hundred gold orbs, as my gnomish friend confirmed,” Seline said, referring to Greyhawk’s gold piece currency. “I trust everything’s in order, then?” she continued as she and Matthias both stood up to leave.
“Amply so,” Matthias said with a smile as he escorted Seline out of the dining hall and then out of the Guildhall. “And I appreciate your patronage-things can get so boring in the summer when there aren’t many classes going on,” he continued, shaking Seline’s hand before they parted ways.
As Seline returned to the Wizard’s Hat Inn where the Company of the Silver Wolf was staying, she mulled over what Matthias had told her.
She thought of the poems she read as part her education as a young noblewoman in the Great Kingdom of Aerdy, stories of fallen heroes and broken glories.
Like Father, Like Daughters
Over supper that evening, Seline told Airk and the rest of the Company of the Silver Wolf what Matthias had learned about the Crown of Arumdina.
“At least now we have an idea where to go,” Airk said, rubbing his chin. “We’ll probably have to sail to-what’s wrong?” he asked in alarm as he saw Seline’s shoulders slump.
Seline looked away and didn’t say anything. Instead, she took a bite of the sweetmeats and fruits she enjoyed so much, trying to calm her nerves.
“What’s wrong?” Airk repeated himself.
“We grew up in the Great Kingdom, remember?” Seline’s older sister Luna Roas Del Cranden said.
Luna was no less lovely than Seline. Her long chestnut-brown hair, fair skin, crystal-blue eyes and soft voice, a mark of the Sueloise heritage she shared with Seline, only added to her allure. In contrast to the outgoing Seline, Luna was more reserved, and even her gold and blue clothes were more muted than her sister’s robes. Her smile spoke of quiet joy, compassion and a desire to help those in need, reflecting her allegiance to the sun god Pelor. Her expression, normally calm and thoughtful, was one of pain as she recalled the events that drove her and Seline from their home.
“Seline and I were nobles of House Cranden,” Luna said, “and it became embroiled in a bitter feud with House Garasteth. The Garasteths demanded that our father, Lord Roas Gawain Del Cranden, had to hand Seline and I over to them as ‘compensation’ for the wrongs they claimed House Cranden committed to them.”
Seline wiped her eyes at that, but she said nothing.
The Garasteths murdered Lord Roas for that, Ma’non’go of the Silver Winds signed with his hands. Ma’non’go’s dark skin and hair marked him as an Olman, the people who inhabited the southern jungles of Hepmonaland. Nearly seven feet tall and immensely strong with iron-hard muscles, Ma’non’go carried himself with the speed and grace of a warrior. His expression was typically cold and neutral, making him seem cold and emotionless to most people who didn’t know them. His friends saw the hidden light in his eyes, the light of a man who cherished both his honor and his friends. In contrast to his stoic demeanor, Ma’non’go’s clothing was both colorful to reflect his Olman heritage and stylishly cut, making him an impressive fashion plate.
Lord Roas’s wife Krystlin only barely managed to save Luna and Seline from the fates the Garasteths had planned for them by sending them to Sunndi with me as their protector, Ma’non’go continued. The large man was mute and could only communicate in the sign language Luna and Seline taught the rest of the companions. He was always evasive when people asked why he couldn’t speak, alluding to past traumas and false friends. Found and rescued by Lord Roas when he was nearly dead in the jungle, Ma’non’go returned to Aerdy to act as a protector to Roas’s daughters. He accompanied them when they fled Aerdy, until they formed the Company with their new friends.
“Our connections in House Cranden might help us find the Crown when we return to Aerdy,” Luna said after she’d taken a long drink of wine. “It’s just that…” she trailed off.
“You’re afraid of the Garasteths trying to claim the debts they claim you owe, aren’t you?” Weimar Glendowyr said, as the rest of the group turned to look at him. Weimar’s unkempt Sueloise blonde hair, reddened green eyes and nose, unshaven tanned Oeridian face and trailworn clothes showed him as a man who was equally at home in the wilderness or in a tavern. His rakish smile and assured self-confidence kept him from looking slovenly, and the way he regarded his friends reminded them that he was always ready to raise a flagon or a battle axe to support them.
“Yes, we are,” Luna said, shaking her head. “It’s why I’d rather we didn’t sail for Prymp,” she continued, referring to one of the largest ports in the Great Kingdom’s South Province. “House Garasteth has a lot more influence there than House Cranden. We’d likely be attacked within an hour of getting off the ship. We’d be better off sailing to Irongate and then going overland through the Headlands and the Iron Hills to Zelradton.”
“And the Crandens have more influence in Zelradton that can shield you better, I take it?” Amyalla Reorsa said. Along with Airk, Amyalla was the only one of the companions who was not human. She was a halfling, and was the envy of many halfling and human women alike with her beautiful face and figure, bright green eyes and long fire-red hair. Amyalla frequently bore a knowing smile and coquettish manner, fitting for someone equally skilled at stealing hearts and valuables alike. She wore a plain but comfortable traveling gown and a set of daggers at her belt, which contrasted oddly with the stylish doeskin boots on her feet and the blue hat on her head, which was decorate with lilacs and orchids.
“Yes,” Luna said. “I know it’ll take longer, but-“
“But it doesn’t matter,” Revafour Greystar finished for her. Revafour’s copper-bronze skin, flowing wavy black hair and dark eyes marked him as one of the Flan, the original human inhabitants of the Flanaess, as did his beaded cloak and the moccasins on his feet. As skilled in swordsmanship as he was in art, Revafour seemed quiet and withdrawn to those who didn’t know him. His fellow adventurers knew better, though. They saw the fire within him, a fire that made him both a terrible opponent in battle and a compassionate and loyal friend outside it.
“Remember, you have Ma’non’go to protect you,” Revafour said as he nodded towards the latter, “and you also have the rest of us as well. We’ll defend you to the death…”
Revafour paused, letting his words hang in the air for a moment.
“…to the death of anyone who would dare threaten you,” he finished with a smile.
Luna and Seline brightened at that, smiling first at each other and then at the rest of their companions.
Chelor Loren Del Naelax, the Herzog of South Province, had been given his title and position by his cousin Overking Ivid Naelax V. His noble title stated that he was the proper ruler of the territories of Onnwal, Idee, Sunndi, but that declaration was more of an embarrassment than an honor these days. All three of those territories, along with the Free City of Irongate and the Lordship of the Isles, had broken away from South Province nearly a hundred and thirty years ago and were now independent countries. They’d formed the alliance of the Iron League to defend themselves against Aerdy aggression. The Great Kingdom had good reason to want to rule the Iron League states again, since their lands were very rich. Aerdy was also eager to avenge the humiliation of their loss.
South Province’s previous ruling lines were never able to break the Iron League, and so they had all been purged by the Ivid Overkings. Ivid V was the latest one to do this, having Chelor’s predecessor disgraced and executed before appointing Chelor as his replacement. Over the next four years, Chelor pursued his task with vigor, if not with much success. The current gathering in his court spoke to the failure of the latest scheme to undermine the Iron League.
“You’re scarcely better than a traitor, Norreck,” Caradoc Golias Del Naelax said with a sneer at Norreck, who only glared back at him. “I’d never have thought you’d bring this much disgrace on House Darmen or Herzog Chelor with your failure!” Caradoc was a fine figure of an Aerdi soldier, broad-shouldered and well-muscled, with the manner of someone who not only knew his skills at fighting and tactics but was proud of them both. His golden hair and bright brown eyes, to say nothing of the broadsword strapped to his back, made him stand out all the more compared to the restrained, withdrawn Norreck.
Norreck did well to keep up a brave face, but he was trembling inside. His plan to subvert the County of Idee seemed like a good one, using a double agent to arrange the murders of many Ideean aristocrats and replace them with agents of House Darmen. Unfortunately, a band of Ideean adventurers had unmasked his agent and ruined his plot.
“I salvaged many of the resources put into the plan once it was exposed,” Norreck said, swallowing hard once before he spoke again. “I also caused enough disruption in the Ideean court that they’ll be vulnerable to anyone else who wants to strike.”
“That’s all you can offer as a defense?” Caradoc said, his sneer turning into a wide, mocking smile. “That things aren’t as bad as they otherwise could have been?”
Standing several feet back and to the side of his father, Xavener glanced over at Herzog Chelor, who was watching the proceedings. At first glance, Chelor seemed like a greasy, overweight, pompous slob, his oily black hair never seeming to be properly washed and several days of beard stubble on his chin. Xavener noticed several faint stains on his clothes as well, stains that not even the most vigorous washing could remove, from previous debaucheries. His general behavior confirmed most peoples’ initial impressions of him, but the seething look in his eyes reminded Xavener of his infamously short temper.
Xavener suddenly realized he’d best intervene, particularly as he watched his father stammer to reply to Caradoc’s accusations, before he found himself without father or fortune.
“You’re one to talk, Caradoc,” he suddenly spoke up, coming to stand at Norreck’s side. “Whatever the results of my father’s schemes, at least he’s tried to act against the enemies of our country and our Overking! What have you striven for lately? You brag about being a great leader of men, but all you’ve done is live off your noble father’s reputation and join in your older brother’s campaigns! You’re not a leader, you’re just a sergeant!”
Caradoc’s triumphant grin was replaced with a look of shock and embarrassment, which was in its turn replaced with a glare of rage. A murderous light flared up in his eyes as his glance focused on the impudent young Xavener.
“You dare to insult me, you little whelp?” Caradoc said, his hand going to the large sword strapped to his back. “Let’s see if you can speak so grandly after I cut your tongue out!”
“You want satisfaction?” Xavener said, raising an eyebrow. “A strange thing for a brave, strong knight to demand from a boy who’s only seen sixteen of Ivid’s glorious years on the throne, and who only carries a dagger to court!” he continued, reminding everyone present of the Aerdi tradition that prevented younger men from carrying larger weapons in the Herzog’s presence.
Glancing around once he’d finished speaking, Xavener smiled inwardly at the reactions his words had on the other courtiers and nobles. Herzog Chelor appeared indifferent, still scowling angrily, but most of the court now glared or frowned disapprovingly at Caradoc. There was little glory for an Aerdi knight in threatening a defenseless youth half his age.
Caradoc suddenly felt humiliation as he too glanced around and noted the disgust on the other nobles’ faces. He flushed as he realized what he was doing, and realized what he’d have to do.
“…Perhaps I don’t need to seek satisfaction,” he said, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath as he realized his embarrassment. The rest of the nobles continued to glare disapprovingly at him, and he realized that he’d lost face with them.
Then, for a brief moment, he locked eyes with Xavener.
For a moment, Caradoc swore he could see a nearly invisible smile on the younger man’s face.
Jaws Of Death
Luna played a few tentative bars on her flute before she shook her head. Playing them again, she smiled in satisfaction and wrote several notes on the page of sheet music in front of her. When she was done, she looked back at the ceiling of her cabin, wondering where to take the music next. Although Luna was not a bard, she enjoyed composing and playing her own music on the pan flute she always carried. For almost a month, it was one of the main ways she’d coped with the boredom of being stuck on a sailing ship.
Luna and her friends had bought passage on the Sea Unicorn, a merchant ship headed for Irongate. The ship left Greyhawk sailing south on the Selintan River where it emptied into Woolly Bay, before continuing southeast into the Sea of Gearnat. The Sea Unicorn stopped in Scant, the capital of the Free State of Onnwal, for several days to resupply and give its crew some shore leave. Finally, the ship sailed to the south of Onnwal and the Headlands. In a couple of days, the companions would put in at Irongate before continuing to South Province overland.
The companions all had their own ways to keep busy during such a long sea voyage. One of Luna’s favorites was to work with her music. When Amyalla walked into the cabin she shared with Luna she picked up the knitting that was one of her own favored activities. Amyalla worked her needles faster than usual, a signal that she’d just finished one of the other things she did to keep busy on a ship.
“Who was it this time?” Luna asked, hiding the wry grin on her face behind her cup of the tea she raised to her lips.
“The first mate,” Amyalla said without looking up, intent on the kerchief she was working on. “You saw the rest of the crew-did you think I’d settle for anything less?”
“No, I suppose not,” Luna said, pouring a second cup of tea and walking it over to Amyalla before she returned to her seat. “I hope you had fun, at least?”
“Not as much as Weimar did with that magic flagon of his,” Luna said, reminding Amyalla of how they’d celebrated Weimar’s twenty-fourth birthday when the Sea Unicorn was in Scant. The companions were fortunate that Revafour didn’t drink. Out of the entire group, he was the only one capable hauling the still-unconscious Weimar back aboard the Sea Unicorn the next morning.
“Yondalla’s grace, I don’t think I ever heard so much complaining,” Amyalla said, recalling how sick and hungover Weimar was when he finally woke up. “Serves him right, I think.”
“Serves all of us except Revafour right,” Luna said, shaking her head. “That’s why I usually stick to tea.”
“I can see why-ack!” Amyalla said as she choked on the tea she sipped. “How spicy did you make this?” she demanded, smacking her lips several times to try and rid her tongue of the aftertaste.
“It’s a peppermint mix,” Luna said. “I thought I’d try a new recipe.”
“And that’s another one I bet Seline’s delicate palate could never stand,” Amyalla said, before she burst into a chuckle.
Luna joined in Amyalla’s laughter, but only for a second. She quickly glanced back into her own cup and took a drink-too quickly, Amyalla realized.
“You’ve spent a lot of time working on your music,” Amyalla noted, glancing at the pile of sheet music on the table in front of Luna. “How many of those songs have you written, anyway?”
“Enough of them,” Luna said, sipping her tea again.
“You enjoy playing the flute that much?” Amyalla said as she resumed her knitting. “Did you ever think of becoming a bard?”
“Not really, no,” Luna said, shaking her head. “I never considered music a calling. It was more a way to relax from all the social functions I had to attend as a maiden of House Cranden. They were so exhausting-Seline always dealt better with them than I did.”
“Did you ever perform in front of anyone?” Amyalla asked.
“That was the other benefit,” Luna said. “Performing at the parties and balls was a good excuse not to have to spend so much time speaking to everyone.”
“So music helps you cope with stress,” Amyalla observed. “Like it’s doing now?”
Luna visibly flinched as Amyalla said that. She didn’t answer, instead raising her flute to her lips.
“I’ve seen it on both your and your sister’s faces for weeks now,” Amyalla persisted. “You’re really that afraid of the Garasteths?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Luna said, looking away from Amyalla.
“So that’s not it,” Amyalla realized. “You’re thinking about something else, aren’t you?”
Luna didn’t answer, continuing to stare at the far wall.
“Are you still grieving for Lord Roas?” Amyalla said. “Still worried about your mother? Was she alright after…”
“My mother had her own protections,” Luna said, “and I don’t think I’ll ever fully get over my father’s loss. I was thinking more about what happened after Seline and I escaped with Ma’non’go to Sunndi. My parents never saw me take my vows to Pelor-I had to do it in Pitchfield,” she continued, referring to the County of Sunndi’s capital.
“I can see why-“ Amyalla started to say, before Luna resumed speaking.
“I initially tried ministering to some of the locals in Sunndi, but they didn’t take kindly to having Aerdi like me or Seline in their midst. You might not have heard about how suspicious Sunndians can be towards outsiders.”
“Were you-“ Amyalla started to say.
“Not with violence,” Luna said, “but just with the way they looked at us, that made us realize we weren’t exactly welcome, or that they were glad to see us leaving. It was strange, how often we’d be charged higher prices than other patrons, told there was no room at inns we tried to stay at, or how often people would insult the Aerdi when we were in earshot.”
“And that’s why you turned to adventuring?” Amyalla said.
“Yes, but even that was eventually too much for anyone in Sunndi or Idee,” Luna said. “That’s why we sailed for the Principality of Ulek. Then we met Weimar, traveled to Greyhawk, met the Listells when we were looking for shelter, and…well, you know the rest of the story from there.”
“Ah yes, the supposed lands of good and freedom, living up to their principles as usual by harassing people just for the so-called crime of being Aerdi,” Amyalla said with a disapproving scowl. “The Duchy of Urnst could learn a thing or two from them!”
“…I don’t really blame them,” Luna said after a moment, “not with the way the Great Kingdom oppressed them and still attacks them. It wasn’t all bad, either. The independent Flan showed us kindness few others did. They taught us the Flan language and we traded various stories with them. Shawnakark Little Moon and I spent endless hours discussing how our different peoples revered Pelor. She planned to become a great matriarch among her people-I’ve no doubt she’ll succeed.”
“I never realized,” Amyalla said, patting Luna’s arm sympathetically. “I had almost the opposite problem. My husband-“
Amyalla never finished her sentence, as both women started at the shouts they suddenly heard from the ship’s hallway. Looking at one another in alarm, they quickly left the cabin and ran out on deck to see what was happening, pausing only to take their weapons with them.
Amyalla and Luna saw the rest of their companions standing among the crowd of sailors staring off the starboard side of the ship. The sailors were pointing at another ship that was swiftly approaching, murmuring to one another nervously.
“What’s going on?” Luna asked one of the sailors standing next to Weimar, who was looking through his spyglass at the oncoming ship. Luna noticed that Weimar’s battle axe and his bronzewood shield, decorated with a boar’s head in profile, were at his feet. His longbow and arrows were already on his back, strung and ready to be fired.
“Pirates, most likely,” the sailor said, before muttering a prayer to Osprem. “Do you recognize them, lad?”
“No, I don’t,” Weimar said, shaking his head.
“Can I see?” Luna asked, before Weimar handed her his spyglass. Setting down her mace and her shield, decorated with the emblem of a sunburst in honor of Pelor, Luna took a look at the approaching ship’s colors.
The first flag Luna saw was of a large dragon-like fish on a dark blue field. The fish was swimming to the left, gazing malevolently at the viewer. The second flag, flying above the first, was of a large pitch-black shark on an entirely white field, charging head-on at the viewer with blood dripping from its fangs.
“One of them’s the flag of the Sea Barons,” Luna said, referring to the island nation of pirates that dwelled off the eastern coast of the Great Kingdom and often fought for the Aerdi overkings. “I don’t recognize the other one, though. It’s some kind of blood-drenched shark-“
“A blood-drenched shark?” the sailor standing next to Weimar and Luna said, his face suddenly turning ashen pale. “Could-“
“Bloody Roger, captain, and no one else!” the sailor manning the crow’s nest suddenly shouted down to Captain Gregor, master of the Sea Unicorn. Turning to look at Captain Gregor, Luna was surprised to see him issuing orders to his lieutenants, a grim expression on his face. The lieutenants dispersed and began giving commands to the sailors, many of whom took up battle positions.
“We’re going to fight them?” Luna asked the sailor standing next to her before he could run off. “Who’s this Bloody Roger?”
“You’ve not been on these seas long, have you miss?” the sailor said, his face still pale. “Captain Roger Thimhal is skipper of the Tiger Shark, and he more than lives up to his ship’s namesake. He leads one of the nastier pirate gangs out of the Sea Barons, and trust me when I say he’s earned his nickname of Bloody Roger. There’s a reason Captain Gregor agreed to take you and your friends on, you know!”
“Why don’t we just outrun him?” Weimar asked as he came up to join them, his axe and shield now in hand. “That pirate’s got far more men than-“
“Landlubbers,” the sailor said, shaking his head in frustration. “The Sea Unicorn’s a good, solid vessel, but the Tiger Shark’s something else altogether. The Sea Barons are some of the finest shipbuilders in the whole Flanaess, and they’ve got nigh on the best-quality timber for their vessels too. We can’t hope to escape-our only chance is to fight. Now let me go before-“
Luna and Weimar nearly stumbled as the Sea Unicorn suddenly cut a tight turn to port to evade the mass of flaming pitch the Tiger Shark fired at it. The pitch hissed and boiled as it struck the water. Luna and Weimar both tried to put the image of what the pitch would have done to the Sea Unicorn out of their minds.
“Landlubbers,” the sailor repeated himself as he looked at both of them. “They won’t try to sink us that way-the shots are just to force us into the position best suited for their archers. The Sea Unicorn has a trick or two for-“
“Captain!” the helmsman shouted from the quarter deck above them, interrupting the sailor before he could finish. “The wheel’s not movin’!”
“The devils do you mean, it’s not movin’?” Captain Gregor said with an ugly scowl as he ran up to the helm. Setting down his cutlass, he jerked the wheel several times, but had no more luck than his crewman.
“Why would the wheel be stuck?” Luna asked the sailor, who looked from the Sea Unicorn’s quarter deck to the rapidly approaching Tiger Shark.
The sailor was about to answer, but he was interrupted again, this time by the cries of dying men coming from belowdecks.
Skull And Crossbones
Airk and Seline hurried down the Sea Unicorn’s hallway towards where they’d heard the screams. They’d been closest to the staircases leading below deck when the cries began, and it was easy for them to run back downstairs. The Sea Unicorn’s armory was located at the rear of the ship near the rudder, and the companions realized that the sailors must have been attacked when they went to get their weapons.
“We ought to make a colorful entrance,” Seline said as Airk hurried ahead of her. He wasn’t wearing his heavy plate armor, knowing the dangers of doing so at sea, but he carried his shield and his morning star. He glanced back and nodded, understanding what she meant by that.
Airk and Seline weren’t sure what to expect as they approached the armory, and they were shocked at the two gruesome creatures they saw in the hallway outside.
One looked like a hideous cross between a hobgoblin and a fish. It had the build and face of a hobgoblin, but its body was covered in slimy green scales, and it had webbed feet and hands. The other looked like nothing so much as a demonic-looking fish that somehow grew arms and legs and learned to walk upright. It too was covered in scales, but they were a deep greenish black on its back, leading to a lighter green on its belly. The creature’s fins were pure black, which contrasted all the more with its gleaming white, razor-sharp teeth. Both creatures carried short stabbing spears which were already splattered with the blood of the two dead sailors at their feet.
Bloody Roger was known for his sadism towards his victims, but what many people didn’t know about was his skill at inducing murderous undersea races like koalinth and sahuagin to help him. In exchange for helping Bloody Roger plunder ships, they often received a share of gold and gems, as well as all the victim corpses they could carry for food.
The koalinth lunged at Airk, who easily deflected the monster’s spear thrust and slammed his morning star into its ribs. The creature cried out in pain, falling to its knees before Airk crushed its skull. The sahuagin made it past him, hissing as it thrust its own spear at Seline, but she quickly cast a spell before it could reach her. Four silvery-blue magical bolts flew from her fingers at the creature, and two of them struck it head on, killing it instantly. The other two flew past it to hit another sahuagin emerging from the armory, dropping it to its knees before Airk finished it off.
The companions heard a flurry of footsteps coming from behind them. They found several sailors coming to join them, accompanied by Ma’non’go, who carried a large trident in his hands. The sailors cried out in dismay at seeing their dead comrades on the hallway floor, and cursed at the sight of the bodies of the sahuagin and koalinth. Their curses turned to cheers as Ma’non’go and Airk charged into the armory, followed quickly by Seline.
The armory contained a gruesome sight. Two more sailors lay dead, while four were fighting for their lives against another group of sahuagin and koalinth. Worse, there was a large hole torn in the back of the ship, through which several more sahuagin and koalinth were entering.
Ma’non’go and Airk each moved to one side as Seline chanted quickly. She held a pinch of multicolored grains of sand in her hand, which were quickly consumed by the magic and replaced with a wave of rainbow-hued light. Seline cast the wave of light at the koalinth and sahuagin coming into the armory through the hole in the ship. The creatures howled as the light struck them head on, knocking most of them senseless. One of the koalinth avoided the blast, but Ma’non’go quickly skewered it on his trident before joining Airk in killing the other monsters stunned by Seline’s spell.
The sailors who’d accompanied the companions into the armory ran to grab weapons off the racks on the walls. They turned to help their fellows fight the remaining monsters, and the creatures were quickly slain. The mate who’d accompanied the sailors sent some of them to take weapons back to the crew on deck, while he and the rest of the men turned to help the companions against the next group of koalinth and sahuagin coming in through the hole in the ship.
Ma’non’go ripped one sahuagin’s chest open with his trident, and slashed the arm of the next one behind it. Airk slammed a third sahuagin in the leg with his morning star, leaving the creature hobbled, before he struck a fourth one in the face. From behind them, Seline cast another flurry of magical bolts, finishing off the sahuagin her friends had already injured.
Emboldened by the companions’ skill, the remaining sailors charged in to join them. One of the sailors fell to a koalinth’s spear, but his fellows avenged him by slaying four of the monsters themselves.
Revafour smiled as he considered which of the arrows to use. His new longbow and arrows were of traditional Flan make, purchased in Greyhawk from the independent Flan who sometimes visited the Free City to trade. To his mind, no other humans could match the Flan at bowmaking or fletching, and the elves were the only nonhuman race who could match them. He hadn’t used a bow in years, not since his early training as a Tenha warrior, but it all came back to him the moment he grasped it. To Revafour, the bow wasn’t just a weapon. It represented his Flan heritage, a heritage disparaged by too many Oeridians and Suel and sadly forgotten even by many of the Flan themselves.
Revafour couldn’t restore that knowledge to his fellow Flan, but he could show everyone around him just how deadly a Tenha archer could be. Some of the Tiger Shark’s crew were readying a deadly pair of ballistae, and others were preparing crossbows. Revafour knew that gave him and Weimar a range advantage with their bows as the Tiger Shark closed in, and they didn’t plan to waste the opportunity.
Revafour and Weimar let fly as the Tiger Shark’s crew were aiming their ballistae. Two of the pirates on one of the ballistae fell as Revafour’s arrows tore into them, and Weimar repeated the feat on the other. The pirates manning the ballistae fell back as Revafour and Weimar continued to shoot at them, and they couldn’t get back to their positions before the Sea Unicorn fired its own ballistae. The Sea Unicorn’s oversized arrows flew true, tearing through the bowstrings of the Tiger Shark’s weapons and rendering them useless.
The Tiger Shark was close enough now that its crew could fire their crossbows, but their shots were swiftly answered by the Sea Unicorn’s own archers as several of its crew came on deck with crossbows. Revafour and Weimar fired more quickly and accurately than any of the sailors, dropping several more pirates as the Sea Unicorn’s ballistae fired again into their ranks. The ranks of the Tiger Shark’s crew were thinned as they came up alongside the Sea Unicorn, but they were not deterred. Shouting angrily, the Tiger Shark’s pirates slammed nailed planks down between their ship and the Sea Unicorn, binding the two vessels together before they swarmed across to attack.
Revafour replaced his bow in its sheath on his back, and drew the huge two-handed broadsword he wielded in melee combat. He wasn’t wearing the heavy plate armor he typically wore, since it wasn’t safe aboard a ship. He did wear his cherished cloak, decorated in an Oeridian-style red and brown plaid but beaded in the traditional Flan fashion. Raising his sword, he smiled eagerly as the first few pirates approached.
One foolish pirate ran ahead of his friends, swinging a rusty cutlass as he screamed obscenities at Revafour. The Flan warrior easily dodged the pirate’s clumsy strike and retaliated with a titanic swing that nearly cut the pirate in two, causing him to fall in a torrent of blood. Two more came at Revafour, brothers by the looks of them, swinging matching battle axes. Revafour easily parried one brother’s attack before striking back, severing the other brother’s weapon arm before he could strike. As the man fell to his knees, screaming in agony, Revafour swung his sword the other way, decapitating the first brother as he stood there in shock.
Revafour turned to confront another pirate coming at him from behind, but the man suddenly stopped in place, screaming in pain. He fell face down, dead on the spot, and Revafour saw Amyalla behind him, a bloody dagger in her hand. The halfling grinned and winked at him, and Revafour returned her smile.
Finishing off the man whose arm he’d severed, Revafour turned to attack another group of pirates.
Weimar grunted as the large, tattooed pirate in front of him slammed his spiked club into Weimar’s shield. Fortunately, Weimar’s shield was made of bronzewood, a wood nearly as strong as steel itself. Weimar pretended to stagger from the blow, leading the pirate to raise his club for a second strike.
The pirate suddenly cried out as Weimar chopped deep into his abdomen, and he dropped his club. He fell to his knees, and was defenseless as Weimar took his head off with the next blow. Three more pirates attacked Weimar, one after the other, and they all met similar fates. Glancing around him, Weimar looked to see if any of his friends needed his help.
He saw a large melee near the centre of the Sea Unicorn’s deck. A large group of pirates had the upper hand over several desperate members of the Sea Unicorn’s crew, taunting the honest seamen as they cut them down. The pirates might have won the battle, except that several of them suddenly collapsed one after another. Weimar smiled as he saw Amyalla expertly weaving through the melee, her daggers dripping with blood as she cut down the pirates one by one.
A few of the pirates realized what Amyalla was doing, and they immediately turned to attack her. Weimar took a step towards them, but then he paused as he heard the sound of Luna chanting a spell. Three of the pirates advancing on Amyalla were suddenly frozen in place, unable to move a muscle. The fourth pirate charged at the halfling, but Luna stepped between them. She easily blocked the pirate’s spear thrust with her shield before she retaliated, killing him instantly with a blow from her mace.
Weimar nodded in satisfaction as he looked for Revafour. He realized he needn’t have bothered, since he saw the Flan warrior had waded into another melee between the pirates and the Sea Unicorn’s sailors. Revafour wore a determined smile as he cut down one pirate after another, seeming not to notice the sailors’ cheers.
Weimar grinned at the sight, but his smile vanished at the cry of pain he heard behind him. Whirling around, he ran towards where he’d heard the cry, tightening his grip on his axe. Up on the poop deck, he saw Captain Gregor struggling against a broadly built man with a shock of brilliant red hair and a moustache to match. The man was dressed all in crimson, from the lacquer on his chain mail to the buckles on his boots. A manic light gleamed in his eye as he repeatedly slammed his cutlass against Captain Gregor’s, savoring the other captain’s plight. His cutlass was scarlet up to its hilt, and Weimar realized it had probably tasted the blood of several of the Sea Unicorn’s crew already.
“Brave man, are you?” Weimar shouted the red-haired man as he ran up one of the staircases to the poop deck. “Let’s see if your cutlass is as big as your ego!”
“Aren’t you one to talk?” the pirate said with a leer as he disarmed Captain Gregor and kicked him down the poop deck’s other staircase. “Or do you just have a death wish?”
“I suppose you’re Bloody Roger,” Weimar said as he swung his axe at the man’s arm.
“That I am, boy,” Bloody Roger replied with a smirk as he dodged Weimar’s blow and slashed Weimar’s weapon arm. “And you’re soon to be shark bait!” he continued, following up with a series of strikes that forced Weimar back on his heels.
“And how many of your crew have we killed?” Weimar shot back, gritting his teeth at the pain in his arm as he blocked Bloody Roger’s strikes. He finally caught Bloody Roger’s cutlass with his shield, and pushed the pirate’s arm up high. Before Bloody Roger could free his blade, Weimar quickly lashed out, cleaving deep into his hip and down to his thigh. “Have enough left to sail your stinking tub back where it came from?”
“Crew members come and go,” Bloody Roger said with an evil smile as he slashed at Weimar’s head, “but some of the lovelies you’ve got on this ship are only found once in a lifetime. They’ll sell for a fine price…once they’re broken in, of course.”
Weimar’s eyes flashed at that, as he easily blocked Bloody Roger’s cutlass.
“Wrong answer, you son of a bitch,” Weimar said as he cleaved into Bloody Roger’s temple. The pirate didn’t have time to even scream before his head split nearly in two under Weimar’s axe. Tearing his axe free of Bloody Roger’s suddenly dead body, Weimar kicked the corpse down the poop deck’s staircase. Several of the remaining pirates screamed in horror as they saw their captain’s dead body. Losing all heart for the fight, they threw their weapons to their opponents’ feet, pleading for mercy.
The wounded Captain Gregor, now leaning on his first mate, and the surviving crew of the Sea Unicorn, who’d seen so many of their friends die that day, were not in a merciful mood.
A Portrait Is Worth A Thousand Words
“I do hope I do you justice,” Xavener said to his subject as he worked on his latest painting. “I’m rarely honored with such a wonderful opportunity.”
His subject just laughed as she adjusted her position to make herself more comfortable. Her name of Sylphianna fit her well, as her beauty was comparable to the radiantly lovely fairy-folk. Her bright golden hair, fair skin and gleaming brown eyes contrasted well with the bright green sheet she had half-draped over herself, and the sparkling blue fountain behind her. To Xavener’s delight, the sun was shining at just the right angle, giving him the exact amount of light he needed.
“It’s the least I can do after how you helped me,” Sylphianna said. Her family was part of House Haxx, one of the weaker Celestial Houses. By itself, House Haxx couldn’t have afforded a large enough dowry to impress Sylphianna’s new husband, Count Ewain Avack Del Naelax. Fortunately, Sylphianna had a friend in Xavener, who financed her dowry out of his own personal fortune.
Xavener only returned her smile. He’d accompanied his father Norreck on a visit to Count Ewain for one of the social engagements so important in Aerdy high society. Norreck and Ewain were out hunting, Xavener having begged off with the excuse that he was ‘too young’ to accompany them. Instead, he stayed behind to paint Sylphianna, with the intent of making a fine gift for Count Ewain when he returned.
“And how has married life been treating you?” Xavener asked, pausing a moment to decide on his next brushstroke. “I hadn’t thought Count Ewain to be quite your type. I’d have thought he’d be too…”
“Too what?” Sylphianna said. “Too old for me?”
“He’s a good twenty-three years older,” Xavener said as he resumed painting. “And you’re what, twenty-one?”
“Twenty-four,” Sylphianna said, glowing with pleasure at Xavener’s mistaking her age. “And what does it matter? You’ve seen us at the balls you host-how many other women could boast being on the arm of someone so high in House Naelax?”
The Overking’s Celestial House, Xavener thought to himself, but did not say.
“So it’s not simply about the money, then?” Xavener said.
“If it were, I might have wedded you,” Sylphianna said, a thin smile crossing her face. “Not your father, though-being a stepmother wouldn’t suit me. No, House Naelax is where the potential is at-more than you can imagine!”
“Do tell,” Xavener said, glad that his easel and canvas hid his eager expression from Sylphianna.
“You’ve perhaps heard about how Herzog Chelor has been chastised by Ivid V for his failure to regain the lost lands of the Iron League,” Sylphianna said.
“Of course I have,” Xavener said. “Ivid finished his berating of Chelor by mentioning how hungry Hextor could get, and how much he enjoyed it when his victims screamed.”
“It was all the incentive Chelor needed,” Sylphianna said, her smile growing wider. “He’s hatched a new plot to engineer a rift between Idee and Sunndi. Idee’s Count Fedorik will be assassinated in what will seem like a failed attempt by Sunndi to strike at Aerdi agents trying to infiltrate the Count’s court.”
“And what would that lead to?” Xavener asked, although he already had a good idea of what Sylphianna would say next.
“Idee and Sunndi’s relations will deteriorate in the accusations between them,” Sylphianna said, warming to her subject. “When South Province attacks Idee, Sunndi will be much slower to answer Idee’s calls for help than they normally would. Chelor will have a beachhead in Idee, and Sunndi will be easy prey once it’s cut off from the rest of the Iron League. Chelor can consolidate his forces before he strikes west into the Headlands. Onnwal will collapse even with Irongate’s help, and Irongate itself will starve under siege.”
“And I suppose we’ll then have enough power to take the Lordship of the Isles?” Xavener said, again thankful that his easel and canvas hid his expression from Sylphianna.
“Completing the circle,” Sylphianna said. “Quite a few of the Herzog’s courtiers are part of the plot-the spoils will make them wealthier than House Darmen!”
“So it’s all for money, then,” Xavener observed.
“Partly,” Sylphianna said. “For others-like my own dear Ewain, of course-it’s about the glory and honor. Then there’s that knight Caradoc-and what a man he is!”
“What about him?” Xavener asked, managing to repress his smile.
“He’s perhaps driven more than any other man for this to succeed,” Sylphianna said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he wanted to avenge his honor.”
“…Is that right,” Xavener said, as he suddenly switched his focus to painting the chessboard that Ewain and Norreck had left on the table next to the divan Sylphianna was lying on.
Many Paths Become One
The crew of the Sea Unicorn learned that the sahuagin and koalinth helping the pirates had fouled their ship’s rudder with a net. The net held the Sea Unicorn in place, allowing the sea creatures to cut a hole in the hull to enter the armory while the Tiger Shark attacked. The Sea Unicorn’s crew had no trouble freeing their ship’s rudder or repairing its hull. They tossed the corpses of the pirates and sea monsters to the sharks, and chained the surviving pirates up to be handed over to the Irongate authorities when they arrived. The Sea Unicorn’s crew also sank the Tiger Shark, but not before plundering it of a fair haul of treasure. The companions received half the plunder in thanks for their efforts at defending the Sea Unicorn, without which it would have become yet another of Bloody Roger’s victims.
Six days later, the Sea Unicorn put in at Irongate. The companions left the next day, riding east through the County of Idee to South Province. They’d originally planned to go straight through the Iron Hills, but rumors of a bloody conflict there made them change their minds. Three days after the companions left Irongate, they reached the city of Ekehold in Idee, and took rooms at the Red Lion Inn. In another three days, they would finally arrive in Zelradton.
Listening to the chill winds blowing outside, Revafour was glad that the companions reached Ekehold before nightfall. The mid-autumn weather was steadily growing colder as the month of Ready’reat approached. Fortunately, Revafour didn’t have to worry about that tonight. He and the other patrons who were still awake enjoyed the large fire that filled the common room with comforting warmth. His friends had all gone to bed, but Revafour decided to stay up for a while. As much as he enjoyed his friends’ company, he also enjoyed solitude when he could get it.
Sitting down once he’d refilled his mug with some more water, Revafour lost himself in old memories of his family and his one-time love Kathleena Nightoak. The Greystar family lodge had fires like the Red Lion’s. The lodge’s fires were warmer, but the nights were colder in the Duchy of Tenh. Revafour felt a pain in his chest as he contemplated how he’d been banished from his home, and how he wished he could return.
It was one of the reasons why he stayed with his adventuring friends, even though none of them were themselves Flan. Revafour knew most of them had pains similar to his, feeling that they couldn’t-
The sounds of giggling laughter and feet pounding down the stairs near the bar jolted Revafour from his reverie. Looking up, he wasn’t surprised to see Weimar half-stumbling down the steps with a fetching young blonde woman in tow. Revafour recognized the woman as one of the barmaids who’d been working earlier tonight. Given how disheveled both she and Weimar looked it was easy for him to tell what they’d been doing. The woman stumbled as she reached the bottom of the stairs, but before she fell Weimar easily caught her with a remarkable grace. As she landed in Weimar’s arms, she laughed again and kissed him on the lips.
Weimar led the woman over towards the bar where the innkeeper was waiting. He nodded to the innkeeper, who gestured for one of his bouncers to take the woman into the kitchen behind the bar. The innkeeper then turned back to Weimar, who accepted a mug of stout and tossed several copper coins onto the bar in exchange. Weimar took a brief drink to test the stout, and smiled in satisfaction before he walked over and sat down at Revafour’s table.
“I thought you’d be asleep by now,” Revafour said with a wry smile as he glanced up and down at Weimar’s mussed-up clothes.
“I said I was going to bed,” Weimar said, before taking a hefty swig of his drink. “I never said I was going to sleep.”
“I suppose not,” Revafour said. “I wasn’t expecting you to come down for another drink, though.”
“We shouldn’t be setting out too early in the morning, not at this time of year,” Weimar pointed out.
“Are you sure you should be drinking that much, though? It was bad enough in Scant-I’m not dragging you anywhere this time!”
“I never asked you to,” Weimar said, as Revafour chuckled in amusement. “I wasn’t satisfied with any of the wines they offer here, so I thought I could enjoy some of their stout. Nothing better than a good Big Cedar Log to quench a traveler’s thirst.”
“And thank Pelor you haven’t gotten into any tavern brawls since Dyvers. Sometimes I don’t know how Luna, Seline and Ma’non’go ever put up with you.”
“How do you think? It was my rakish charm…and everything I helped them with in Ulek.”
“…Ulek?” Revafour said, an intrigued look on his face. “That’s where you met them?”
“Indeed it was. My propensity for gallantry set us off on a new road altogether.”
“A new road?”
“What, you’re interested in hearing my story?” Weimar said, blinking in surprise. “It might take some time to tell.”
“Time is what we have plenty of,” Revafour reminded him, chuckling again in amusement. “What I’d be interested in is knowledge, unless Ma’non’go and the sisters asked you not to speak of it…”
“Perish the thought,” Weimar said, waving the thought away. “I’d never betray their confidences-it’s just that we’ve never spoken of it…”
The Principality of Ulek’s port of Gryrax was one of the busiest in the whole Sheldomar Valley. Ships came from the four corners of the Flanaess, bringing travelers and trade with them. Luna, Seline and Ma’non’go were some of the newest arrivals, looking around at the sights as they left the city’s docks.
“The captain suggested the Third Tower Tavern, didn’t he?” Luna said, as Seline nodded.
It should be three streets over, Ma’non’go signed to them, as they walked up the road into the city proper.
The Third Tower Tavern was not exactly what Luna and Seline were used to growing up in Kalstrand, but they’d long since stopped worrying about such things. In any case, they only intended to stay the night before looking for paying work the next morning.
“So we’re headed to the caravan office?” Seline said once they’d rented some rooms and sat down with a meal.
It’s as good a place as any to start, Ma’non’go signed. Or maybe we could inquire at the barracks. From what I heard the barkeep say, it’s just about the start of raiding season and there’re expected to be more attacks than ever from the Pomarj this year. The pay would probably be better too.
“Maybe,” Luna said with a frown, “but from what I heard many of the Ulekian dwarves don’t care much for magic or the people that use it. It’s associated with the elvenfolk, as we would be. Would they really accept us?”
Could it be any worse than Idee or Sunndi? Ma’non’go pointed out.
“Ah, the joys of being descended from a Celestial House,” Seline said as she took a drink of wine.
“You just need to know who to talk to,” Weimar said as he came up to join them, a full flagon in his hand. “The scouting units will take anyone who’s willing to volunteer.”
“And you are?” Seline asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Weimar Glendowyr,” he said with a bow. “Might I join you in a drink? I’ll be more than happy to buy the next round, if that’s your desire.”
“Certainly,” Seline said before Ma’non’go or Luna could intervene. “And what did you mean by scouting units?”
“I mean the Ulekian scouting units that defend against raiders from the Pomarj,” Weimar said. “I take it you’re new in town?”
“…We just got off the ship today,” Seline said with a frown.
Are you sure this is wise? Ma’non’go signed to Luna and Seline. You should tell him that he should watch himself around me, he finished.
“What did he just sign?” Weimar asked in confusion.
“That you’d best watch yourself around us,” Luna said.
“Come now, I’m just being friendly,” Weimar said.
Ma’non’go stared impassively back at him.
“Yes, well…” Weimar said, clearing his throat. “You just got off the ship? Where from?”
“…A distant land,” Seline said, a sad look in her eyes.
“Yes, but what distant land?” Weimar asked, before he saw Ma’non’go shaking his head, a sombre look on his face.
“It’s just not something we like to talk about,” Luna said. “Where are you from?”
“The taverns of Niole Dra, the woodlands of the elves, and the barracks of the Keoish Army. That said, I can assure you that my axe is much keener and my aim much sharper than a typical Keoish soldier’s,” Weimar said with a proud smile.
“What do you mean by that?” Seline asked.
“I think it means he’s a better fighter than most of the rabble that make up the Keoish Army,” Luna said with a wry smile. “After all, it’s the same army that’s been defeated by everyone from the Ulekian states to the Grand Duchy of Geoff to the Hold of the Sea Princes.”
“Aren’t you a bright lass,” Weimar said with a laugh. “Yes, Keoland has a very long and very rich tradition of military shame, I’m afraid to say. That’s why I consider myself lucky to have only been placed in one of the irregular scouting units.”
“Why did you leave?” Seline asked curiously.
“I simply mustered out. I went back to Niole Dra, but as you can see,” Weimar said with a smile before he took another drink from his flagon, “I sometimes get too far into my cups. I ended up in too many fights-duels, especially-for my own good and I had to leave.”
“I see,” Seline said, unpleasant memories of Idee and Sunndi coming back to her. “So what are your plans from here?”
“As I said, I was thinking of seeing what work I could find with the scouting units dealing with Pomarj raids,” Weimar said. “From there I might head west through southern Keoland, or north to Greyhawk. There’s plenty of work in either direction.”
“Perhaps we could join you?” Seline said, her words catching Luna, Ma’non’go and Weimar by surprise. “You seem to know your way around.”
“If that’s what you want, you’re welcome to join me,” Weimar said with a shrug as he finished his drink. “Indeed, it’d be good to have some fellow mercenaries I already know for a change…”
“You don’t typically know them?” Luna asked.
“Not very well,” Weimar said, shaking his head. “Most of them tend to drift away, or die, or both…”
“I can assure you we don’t have any intention of dying any time soon,” Seline said with a smile that Weimar found immensely appealing. “Your offer remains open, then?”
“If you want to take it, then it does,” Weimar said with a nod.
Luna, Seline and Ma’non’go exchanged glances.
“Agreed,” Luna said.
The companions had no trouble finding work at the scouting units’ offices. Given the hazardous nature of the scouts’ job, the officials were always looking for new recruits. As Weimar explained to his new friends, their job would be to track the progress of any major humanoid raiding parties, track their progress and kill them if possible.
The companions’ journey was uneventful for the first three days. On the fourth, they encountered several grisly sights. Those sights were of the bloody remains of no less than three other scouting parties. Their corpses were alternately torn, crushed or even burned, with large pieces of flesh torn from them before they were left to rot for the scavengers. Bizarrely, none of them had any gold or other valuables on them either, their killers taking their wealth as well as their flesh.
“These parties were all following a common trail,” Weimar said when the companions finished inspecting the third party. “Something’s been killing them one by one…”
“And we’re on its trail?” Luna asked, glancing warily at the trees around them.
That’s what we’ve been paid to do, though, Ma’non’go reminded Luna and Seline before they translated for Weimar. And how do we know this creature, whatever it is, isn’t also on our trail?
“We don’t,” Luna said, “which is why it probably won’t be long before it’s after us.”
Luna’s prediction was proven right on the fifth day of the companions’ trek, as they reached a wide dale between two forested hills. The officials at the scouting office had asked them to specifically investigate the dale, as it was a popular trade route between Gryrax and Celene, and the officials were receiving reports of caravans disappearing in the area.
The companions were on the alert, and they were not surprised by the lions’ roars, dragon shrieks and goat bleats that filled the air as the chimeras struck. The two monsters flew down in a synchronized dive as they breathed fire at the companions. Luna managed to block the flames with her shield, and Weimar rolled out of the way, but Seline and Ma’non’go were not so lucky and were burned by the flames. The chimeras brayed in triumph as they came to ground level, charging in to attack the adventurers.
Weimar ducked the chimera’s next burst of fire and blocked its claws and goat’s headbutt with his shield. Before he could strike back, the chimera’s lion head jutted out and bit deeply into his shoulder. Yelling in pain, Weimar struck back with his axe and cut a gash across the chimera’s underbelly. As Weimar struck again, this time chopping into the creature’s leg, he heard Seline chanting behind him. She released a flurry of silvery-blue energy bolts from her fingers, blasting the chimera and causing all of its heads to cry out in pain.
Ma’non’go caught the other charging chimera on his trident, but that didn’t prevent it from slashing his arms with its claws. Gritting his teeth in pain, Ma’non’go was grateful for the healing spell Luna cast on him from behind, which soothed the pain of his burns and cuts. He ripped his trident out of the chimera’s body and struck again, this time driving it through the chimera’s dragon head. The monster bleated and roared with its other heads and tried to strike at Ma’non’go, but Luna came to his side, blocking the attacks with her shield.
Weimar was slashed painfully by the claws of the chimera he was fighting, but he struck back with his axe, this time cleaving more deeply into its wounded leg. The chimera was about to attack again, but Seline muttered a quick chant and tossed a small blob of butter between Weimar’s legs. The butter expanded into a puddle of slick grease that spread all over the ground under the chimera’s feet. The chimera gave a surprised yelp as it lost its footing, and Weimar split the lion head in two and chopped off the dragon head. The chimera tried to butt him with its goat’s head, but Seline came up beside him. She held up her hands before it, casting a spell that caused them to burst into flame. The flames burned the chimera’s goat head, incinerating it and leaving the creature dead on the ground.
The other chimera recoiled and tried to attack again, but Ma’non’go easily dodged aside and Luna bashed it in its lion’s head with her mace. The creature staggered for a moment, dizzy from the blow, and Ma’non’go tore into the creature’s wings with his trident. Luna hit it again with her mace and then Ma’non’go thrust his trident into the monster’s spine. With a grunt, he slashed his weapon up the chimera’s body towards its heads. The creature shuddered and fell dead, killed by the shock of the blow.
The companions stood in silence for several moments, catching their breath as Luna healed Seline’s and Weimar’s injuries.
“Well, at least we know what targeted those caravans and the scouting parties,” Seline said, smiling weakly.
“And we’ll likely be in for a substantial reward too,” Luna said. “Who knows how much wealth these creatures collected from the people they killed?”
“That’s only if we can find their den, of course,” Weimar said, “which won’t be a problem, I can assure you.”
“I take it there’s a lot more work where this came from?” Luna said as she followed Weimar up one of the hills to look for the chimera’s tracks.
“At this time of year, yes,” Weimar said, as Seline and Ma’non’go fell in line behind them, “but we can do a lot more in this part of the world than act as border scouts. I could show you…”
“I’d like that,” Luna said with a smile.
As the companions crested the top of the hill, Weimar’s glance briefly met Ma’non’go’s.
Weimar could have sworn that he saw the hard look in the other man’s eyes soften.
“Soften, you say?” Revafour said, raising an eyebrow at that. “Pelor only knows what Amyalla would have said if she’d seen that.”
“Something amusing, I’m sure,” Weimar said with a laugh. “In any case, we returned to Gryrax in time for Growfest. We did some more scouting work before we set sail for Hardby in Planting. From there, we started for Greyhawk and met the Listells on the way. You know the rest.”
“Growfest, eh?” Revafour said, rubbing his chin. “I suppose you enjoyed yourself,” he said, a wry smile playing about his lips.
“You wonder how Luna, Seline and Ma’non’go put up with me? Well, sometimes I wonder how you and Airk ever put up with Amyalla,” Weimar shot back, returning Revafour’s smile.
“That’s a tale worth telling, I suppose,” Revafour said, rubbing his chin again.
“And don’t forget, you owe me a story for the one I just told you,” Weimar pointed out. “You’re the one always talking about the stories of the Flan-“
“-and how they’re often belittled by the Oerids and the Suel,” Revafour said, frowning. “Seline’s one of the few people I’ve met who’s treated them with respect.”
“I haven’t belittled them,” Weimar said. “In fact, if that’s how you want to repay me…”
“No, it’s quite alright,” Revafour said. “It’s funny how you mentioned Growfest, since that’s where Airk and I first learned to put up with Amyalla…”
The magnificent city of Chendl was not only Furyondy’s political capital, but also its economic centre. All of Furyondy’s major trade routes centred on it, and caravans were always coming and going. Adventurers and mercenaries visited the city all the time to find work with the merchants who were always seeking guards for their caravans. The city was especially busy at this time of year as it celebrated Growfest, celebrating the bounty of the land and commemorating a new agricultural season.
Airk was impatient for the festival to end and to be out of Chendl. While he’d enjoyed the first few days of the festival, he’d had all the socializing he could take for the time being. He considered himself lucky to find a caravan planning to leave on the sixth day of Growfest, its caravan master eager to depart before tomorrow’s Foolsday festivities.
“You don’t mind walking?” the caravan master asked Airk, raising an eyebrow. “We won’t be providing our guards with horses.”
“I can manage well enough,” Airk said, twitching his moustache in annoyance.
“Be ready, then,” the caravan manager said with a shrug, before he turned to leave. “We’re leaving in less than an hour.”
“Don’t mind him,” Airk heard a feminine voice behind him say. “He thinks we’re somehow limited by our heights.”
Turning around, Airk raised an eyebrow at the sight of Amyalla.
“Do you like what you see?” Amyalla said with a smile.
“It is what it is,” Airk said with a shrug. “Are you a guard or a guest on the caravan?”
“Why don’t you guess?” Amyalla said with a smirk, hiding her disappointment at Airk’s lack of reaction.
“You could be either, judging by your attire, but if I had to hazard a guess you’re a guest who paid her way,” Airk said, gesturing at the strapless blue traveling gown and fancy hat Amyalla wore. “I take it your leather jerkin and boots are for conveniences’ sake, Miss…”
“Amyalla Reorsa, at your service,” she said, tipping her hat and giving a brief curtsy. “And you are?”
“Airk Venbelwar, formerly of Flinthold,” the gnome said, nodding in acknowledgement. “And where are you headed?”
“Radigast City, if all goes well. After that, wherever my whims take me.”
“You don’t have a destination?”
“No more than any other adventurer. And what about you? Is guarding human caravans all you want?”
“No, but it’s something to do while I seek something else.”
“Wherever your whims take you?” Amyalla said, a twinkle coming into her eye.
“Perhaps,” Airk said with a shrug.
“Best of luck to you, then,” Amyalla said, tipping her hat once again. “I must be off, since I have some more shopping to do before the caravan leaves, but I’ll be back soon enough.”
“Until then,” Airk said with a nod as he and Amyalla parted ways.
Airk introduced himself to the human and dwarven guards. They all seemed friendly enough, but they were all reserved and more interested in collecting their pay than forming any friendships. The guard captain organized them into pairs, and Airk found himself partnering with a large Flan man named Revafour. The caravan soon set off after that, and Airk chuckled to himself as he saw Amyalla sitting comfortably on one of the wagons between two handsome human men. They chatted merrily, their conversation interrupted by the occasional burst of laughter, seemingly oblivious to the world around them.
Airk tried to think about how to relieve his inevitable boredom as he walked alongside Revafour. It wasn’t likely the guards would do any fighting for the first few days of the journey, since bandits and orcs were almost nonexistent in the civilized heart of Furyondy. Not entirely sure what else to do, Airk struck up a conversation with his new partner, who seemed to live up to the Flan’s stereotype of stoicism.
“So, where are you from?” Airk started. “I’m from Flinthold in the Lortmil Mountains, myself.”
“Further north,” was all Revafour said, without returning Airk’s glance.
“I thought as much,” Airk said. “Are you from Tenh, then?”
Now Revafour returned Airk’s glance.
“It’s where I’m from,” he said, brushing some of his hair back before looking ahead at the road. “I left when I had to, though.”
“Much like me,” Airk said. “You’ve been wandering since then, I take it?”
“…Among other things,” Revafour said after a few moments. “And youself?”
“A fellow wanderer,” Airk said with a nod. “I couldn’t stand the Lortmils for very long after the Hateful Wars ended.”
“Why’s that?” Revafour asked, his curiosity piqued.
“You’d know if you’d seen the gnomes, the men and especially the dwarves betraying each other to claim the richest halls left behind by the humanoids,” Airk said, a bitter look crossing his face. “That’s the thing with dwarves, you know. They make fine promises, but then they don’t think anything of picking your pocket or sticking a knife in your back if it earns them a few extra coppers. They’ve done it to each other for millennia, and now they do it to their gnomish ‘cousins’ as well.”
“It sounds as though they’d make fine relations to most of the Oerids and Suel,” Revafour said. “I take it you’re familiar with the history of broken treaties, betrayed allies, and murders committed for gold?” he asked, referring to the fates that all too often befell the Flan in their dealings with the other humans who’d come to the Flanaess.
“But you’re working for them,” Airk noted. “Not to mention that your sword, your armor and your cloak are all of Oeridian make,” he said, pointing at Revafour’s sword, his plate armor and finally his red and green plaid cloak in turn.
“It’s the state of the world,” Revafour said, before frowning and looking away again.
Several days of travel passed uneventfully, the conversation between Airk and Revafour dying away. Airk wondered if he’d offended his partner, although Revafour shook his head when Airk asked him about it. Finally, they walked in a dull silence, as Airk felt boredom creeping over him again.
That boredom was shattered as the caravan passed into a small wood. The air was suddenly filled with loud bellowing and crashing sounds, and Airk was on his guard immediately. As Airk pulled out his military pick, he saw four massive forms emerged from the trees around the caravan. Two of the huge monsters came from each side, resembling large bull-like creatures breathing a sickly green gas and covered in metallic-blue scales. Everyone in the caravan recognized the monsters as gorgons, infamous for turning to stone anyone who inhaled the gas they breathed. The gorgons were dangerous enough on their own, but things were worse as they each bore a heavily muscled humanoid on their back. The humanoids were minotaurs, hideous creatures that resembled crosses between men and bulls.
Wielding huge battleaxes and flails, the minotaurs drove their gorgon steeds into the midst of the caravan guards, crushing and petrifying several of them in the process. A few of the guards tried to strike back, but they were easily cut down by the minotaurs.
Airk was faster than most of the other guards, raising his shield to protect him from one of the gorgons and minotaurs as they passed him by. Lashing out with his military pick, Airk caught the gorgon in the leg, piercing its joint and throwing the creature off balance. The gorgon reared up in pain, its injured leg causing it to stumble, and the minotaur fell off the gorgon. The minotaur was quickly attacked by one of the other caravan guards, leaving its gorgon mount to attack Airk.
The creature breathed again, but Airk used his shortness to his advantage. Holding his breath, he ducked under the gas cloud and ran under the gorgon’s head and between its legs. Smiling wickedly, Airk began hacking with his pick at the gorgon’s soft underbelly. He tore several wounds into the creature’s underside before it moved so he was no longer under it. The creature charged at Airk, but he struck it in the eye with his military pick, piercing right through into the creature’s brain. The dying gorgon reeled back, taking Airk’s pick with it, and crashed into the bushes at the side of the road.
The creature’s minotaur rider bellowed in anger, easily beheading the caravan guard it was fighting. Kicking the guard’s dead body aside, the minotaur charged at Airk, intending to avenge its mount’s death. Airk braced himself to receive the minotaur’s charge as he pulled out his morning star. He managed to strike first, but he cursed as the minotaur blocked the blow with its shield. The beast kicked Airk in the chest, knocking him off balance, and tore a gash across his back with its axe.
Airk was tougher than the minotaur gave him credit for, though, and his riposte was brutal. The minotaur expected him to collapse under its blow, and it was too surprised to prevent Airk from slamming it in the knee. A sickening crunch filled Airk’s ears as his morning star struck home, and the minotaur howled in pain. The monster stumbled from the blow and Airk struck again, this time breaking its thighbone. The minotaur collapsed on the ground, and the last thing it ever saw was Airk’s morning star streaking down towards its head.
Revafour had his sword out the moment the monsters attacked the caravan. He beheaded the first gorgon in a single stroke, cutting it down before it could even breathe at him. Its minotaur rider jumped off it easily, and lashed out at Revafour with a spiked flail. Revafour easily ducked the blow and thrust his sword like a spear. The minotaur was forced to dodge, but it quickly got its flail back into line to strike. It never got the chance, as Revafour brought his sword across in a powerful slash that cleaved deep into the minotaur’s chest. Gasping in pain, the minotaur dropped its flail before it fell, its lifeblood pooling all around it.
Looking around, Revafour could see one of the minotaurs still riding its gorgon. The two monsters killed the last of the caravan guards attacking them, before they turned to attack the nearest wagon. Before the gorgon could start moving, a dagger seemed to come flying in from out of nowhere, catching the minotaur right between the eyes. The minotaur was instantly killed, falling lifelessly off the gorgon before it slammed into the wagon.
Revafour saw Amyalla leap off the wagon at the gorgon, a dagger in her hand. Revafour saw that it was similar to the dagger that had killed the minotaur, and realized that Amyalla must have thrown the first blade. She landed on the gorgon’s neck, holding onto its horn with one hand while stabbing at its neck with the other. The creature breathed its petrifying gas at her, but she held her breath as she twisted around, looking for a vulnerable spot on the gorgon’s hide. Finding what she was looking for, she cut the gorgon’s throat and leaped free, running away as the mortally wounded gorgon went into a stamping, dying frenzy. Amyalla wiped her bloody dagger on a nearby bush before running to retrieve her first blade from the forehead of the minotaur she’d already killed.
The last gorgon and its rider, who’d both been badly wounded in their fight with the caravan guards, immediately fled back into the woods. Of the original twenty-five guards who’d signed on to the caravan, six of them were lifeless stone statues and eight more were killed fighting the minotaurs and their mounts. Fortunately, the caravan found more recruits when it arrived in Critwall, the capital of the Shield Lands, several days later. The final leg of the journey to Radigast City in the County of Urnst was without incident.
The caravan would stay in Radigast City for several days to sell its merchandise and take on a new shipment of goods before returning to Chendl. Revafour and Airk didn’t intend to go back, though. They agreed to split the cost of a room at the Falcon’s Eye Inn, after which they’d decide what to do next.
“I hope I didn’t offend you with my previous comments,” Airk said to Revafour as they ate supper in the Falcon’s Eye’s common room.
“No, it’s just…I don’t know,” Revafour said, shaking his head. “It’s not something I like to discuss.”
“Fair enough. What are your plans from here on?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I’ll try to see if there’s any work I could find in Radigast City. I don’t feel like returning to Furyondy.”
“You won’t find much work amongst the Urnstmen,” Airk heard a familiar voice say before he could reply. He and Revafour turned to see Amyalla approaching them, a plate of food in one hand and a mug of ale in another. “Mind if I join you?”
“Not at all,” Airk said, before he pulled out a chair for her. As Amyalla sat down, Airk introduced her to Revafour, who returned her smile with a cordial nod.
“How would you know there’s not much work in Urnst?” Revafour asked.
“Suffice to say I’ve been around,” Amyalla said. “I’ve found my share of troubles and broken my share of hearts. Most of the troubles in Urnst occur behind closed doors. It’s so common in goodly lands, don’t you think?”
The looks Airk and Revafour gave Amyalla told her everything she needed to know.
“So, like yourselves, I’m in Radigast City without any plans,” Amyalla continued. “That gave me an idea-why don’t we cooperate for the time being? We can all look after ourselves, and from what I heard you discuss we have similar interests. Surely three outsiders could do worse than that?”
“And what do you get out of it?” Revafour asked.
“The same as you both,” Amyalla said. “A place in this world, somewhere to call home, people I could know…I suppose wealth and fame wouldn’t hurt either.”
The massive Flan and the diminutive gnome looked at each other, and then at the halfling. There was something in her voice that touched them, although they could not figure out what.
Slowly they nodded in agreement, and smiled.
“And now, here we are,” Weimar said as Revafour finished his story. “It’s fascinating, isn’t it?”
“What is?” Revafour asked.
“How people’s lives will cross when you never expect them to. We all began in different places, at different times, and now I can hardly imagine traveling with anyone else.”
“Maybe it’s not so strange. For a long time, I felt like I’ve been searching for something.”
“Maybe I’ve finally found it,” Revafour finished with a smile.
“You’re not the only one, believe me,” Weimar said as they finished their drinks.
All In The Family
Ma’non’go looked curiously at his companions as they approached the gates of the Cranden estate outside Zelradton. He’d come here several times with Luna and Seline before they’d been forced to flee South Province, and he didn’t expect anything changed in the years since they’d left. The Cranden estate held no surprises for him, but he was interested to see how his friends would react.
Weimar glanced admiringly at the beautiful woods in the estate’s grounds, which showed above the imposing stone walls guarding the place. Airk paid little attention to the scenery, his attention focused on the modest but tasteful manor that sat at the centre of the estate. Amyalla didn’t seem to have anything on her mind, her expression calm and serene. Revafour was outwardly calm, but Ma’non’go could tell that he was in an aggravated mood and trying to keep his frustrations under control. Ma’non’go could guess why Revafour was so upset, but he also realized that now probably wasn’t a good time to ask about it.
Luna’s and Seline’s reactions interested Ma’non’go the most, though. Luna seemed to be almost as on edge as Revafour, as her eyes flickered from side to side in nervous anticipation. Seline had a pensive look on her face, appearing deep in thought, before she looked up towards the Cranden estate and then back towards the west at the city of Zelradton.
For a moment, Ma’non’go thought he could see tears in her eyes, although she blinked them away.
He was more than a little surprised at that, and wished he could ask Seline about it. As with Revafour, he got the feeling that it would be a bad idea to ask her anything at that moment. He wouldn’t get the chance anyway, since the companions had reached the front gate of the estate. A troop of six guards, all wielding halberds, stood in front of a portcullis with thick bars. The portcullis was flanked on either side by a large guard tower. Two archers looked warningly down on the companions from each tower, their bows pulled back and ready to shoot.
“Halt!” one of the guards said, as he and his fellows raised their halberds. “What business have you with House Cranden?”
“I am Luna Roas Del Cranden, and this is my sister Seline,” Luna said as she and Seline came to the head of the group. “We seek entrance as is our right as maidens of House Cranden, with our companions accompanying us.”
“Let me see some proof of your heritage,” the guard demanded.
Luna and Seline nodded in unison. Reaching into their pockets, the sisters each pulled out a silver medallion inscribed with a pattern of two crescent moons, each on one side of a crowned sun.
Ma’non’go smiled at the sight of those medallions. They were the pendants the Celestial Houses often issued to their young women, each inscribed with the House’s personal heraldry. Luna and Seline rarely wore them, since they didn’t usually care to reveal their Aerdi heritage, but they always kept the pendants with them.
Ma’non’go was glad they did-they, at least, had no reason to try and forget who they were.
The guards readily admitted the companions once they saw the proof Luna and Seline offered. When the companions reached the manor, they were readily welcomed and given rooms they could stay in while conducting their business in Zelradton. The companions were also invited to a midday meal with some of the other members of House Cranden and their entourages who were staying at the manor.
Memories came flooding back to Ma’non’go as the companions entered the manor’s dining hall. A long buffet was set up against one wall, set with sumptuous wines and a bewildering variety of foods. Groups of Cranden nobles and their guests sat at large tables, and the air was filled with the din of their conversations. While other Celestial Houses would never consider allowing the nobles’ entourages and bodyguards to eat with them, House Cranden was an exception. Valets drank with counts, footmen ate alongside baronesses, and maids conversed with dukes. It would have been scandalous at the gatherings of any other Celestial House, but for House Cranden it was quite normal.
Ma’non’go always enjoyed these kinds of meals among Aerdi high society. Given his Olman roots, most Aerdi nobles and their servants, even the generally more benign Crandens, tended to think of him as an ignorant savage. They often spoke more freely in front of him that would have in front of someone like Lord Roas. In fact, it was Ma’non’go who learned of House Garasteth’s plot against Lord Roas, giving Roas time to send Ma’non’go and his daughters to safety.
It’s always so funny how they consider us savages, Ma’non’go thought, referring to the views many Aerdi had of the Olman who lived in the Amedio Jungle and Hepmonland. Never mind that they can be just as brutal, he continued, as he got in line behind Seline.
After getting some food, Ma’non’go and Seline sat down at a table where several other Cranden nobles and members of their entourages were already eating. As the Crandens and their servants looked up at the new arrivals, one of them brightened with pleasure as her gaze met Seline’s. Seline returned the gesture, beaming happily as she recognized the other woman.
“Praise Pelor, it’s really you!” Jerrica Wolwhyn Del Cranden said in surprise, getting up to hug Seline. “Oh Seline, we missed you so much!” Jerrica had been like an older sister to Seline growing up. She was just as Seline remembered, her curly red hair shining in the sunlight coming into the dining hall and her deep gray eyes reflecting both kindness and support. While Jerrica never had any interest in weapons or magic, Seline found her an impeccable tutor in court etiquette and a rock of support and encouragement.
“We missed you too, Jerrica,” Seline said, returning Jerrica’s hug before they sat down again.
“We?” Jerrica said in surprise. “You…ah, Ma’non’go!” she said with a smile, looking past Seline to greet the large Olman, who returned her smile. “So Luna’s with you too?”
“Yes she is,” Seline said, “and so are our other companions.”
“Companions?” one of the other Cranden nobles said from across the table. “So you’ve taken the adventuring path, then? Likely a wise course.”
A brief silence hung in the air at that, and Ma’non’go resisted an urge to scowl at the other Cranden noble. Everyone at the table knew about the debt House Garasteth claimed it was owed by House Cranden, and how Luna and Seline were supposed to be the payment of that debt.
“We’ve only been together a few months,” Seline said, “but we wanted to show our friends the splendor of Aerdy. We also wanted to come home to see you all. We’ve been away from our House for so long, after all…”
“And we’re glad to have you back,” Jerrica said. “What kind of heroic tales do you have for us? Are you here to battle raiders from Nyrond or Sunndi?”
“We’re looking to meet with any nobles who have any interest in older artifacts and curios,” Seline said. “There’s an interested collector in Greyhawk who’s willing to pay good money for such things. We’re Aerdi, so we were hired to act on his behalf.”
Ma’non’go did well not to smile his approval at how well Seline lied about the companions’ purpose in South Province. The claim about an interested buyer in Greyhawk was a cover story to keep anyone from wondering why the companions would be interested in buying the Crown of Arumdina when they managed to find it. A group of adventurers coming in on their own seeking a specific item, and knowing exactly what it was, would make more than a few powerful people wonder what was so special about the trinket they sought. It would have brought the companions all kinds of attention they didn’t need.
By pretending to act on behalf of a wealthy buyer, the companions intended to disguise their intentions and ‘conveniently’ choose the Crown from among the other items they would look at. Once they’d bought the Crown, the companions could leave for Flinthold without anyone in Aerdy being any the wiser.
“Then why don’t you and your companions join us for the autumn ball that’s being held in Zelradton this Freeday?” Jerrica asked.
“Autumn ball?” Seline asked in surprise. “I don’t recall-“
“It’s being hosted by Prince Xavener Norreck Del Darmen,” Jerrica said, “heir to the head of House Darmen itself. This is only the second one-it started after you and Luna left. It’s become the place to be in South Province for the fall season!” she continued, an eager light coming into her eyes. “With all the nobles that’ll attend, you’ll easily find what you’re looking for, I’m sure.”
“And we’ll be admitted?” Seline asked, her own eyes reflecting a hopeful light. “What about our friends?”
“Of course you’ll be admitted,” Jerrica said, her expression showing that the answer should be obvious. “You and Luna are both daughters of House Cranden, aren’t you? And since I haven’t heard anything about you or her being disgraced, I don’t see why you’d even need to ask. As for your friends, they can be your guests and escorts. Don’t worry about the Garasteths,” she continued, before Seline could ask her next question. “Prince Xavener wouldn’t tolerate such a blatant confrontation at any gathering he hosts.”
“Good,” Seline said, the relief palpable in her expression. “I’d love to participate,” she continued, and Ma’non’go could see she wasn’t lying when she said that. “And what’s become of Prince Xavener since Luna and I left? He was just a little boy at the time.”
“Sixteen years old now, and as wealthy as he is wise,” Jerrica said, smiling admiringly at the thought of the handsome young prince. “He’s the pride and hope of House Darmen-artist, philosopher, romantic…and the most eligible bachelor in the whole of the Great Kingdom,” she finished with a twinkle in her eye. “Is that why you and Luna really returned? Seeking a husband?”
Seline blushed at that, shaking her head.
Again, Ma’non’go did well not to smile.
There’s No Place Like Home
For the first time in years, Seline felt like she’d truly come home again. Attending Xavener’s autumn ball brought back fond memories of her teen years, when she and Luna were aspiring young debutantes just introduced to high society. Just as before, she was dancing with dashing young military officers, trading gossip and stories with other young noblewomen, and chatting amiably with older nobles sharing their experience and wisdom. Luna was never entirely comfortable at these gatherings, finding them exhausting after a while, but Seline did enough conversing and dancing for the both of them.
Seline was especially proud of the fashionable clothing she’d designed for herself and her companions. Seline’s rose pink and lavender purple gown made her feel especially feminine, and she knew she shone even more brightly than the moon she was named for. She basked in the attention the young noblemen gave her, enjoying it for how it made her feel as much as for it making the noblemen she conversed with more likely to tell her about the Crown of Arumdina.
Luna was just as resplendent in her sky blue and sun gold gown, colored that way in honor of Pelor. Seline was happy to see her smiling as she conversed with Jerrica and some of the other women of House Cranden. Seline knew that Luna would open up some more when she was with people she already knew. She hoped Luna would get to show off some of her dancing skills-Luna always loved to dance, but she was often reluctant to do so in public.
Seline could only admire how much effort Xavener had put into the autumn ball. He’d rented Nightingale Hall, the finest venue in all of Zelradton, for the occasion. An impressively skilled orchestra played everything from rousing military songs to soothing romantic ballads, while colored lanterns and beautiful tapestries decorated the walls. Many of the men wore stately dress uniforms or impressively tailored outfits, while the women wore beautifully cut gowns. A bar off to the side served some of the finest wines in all the Flanaess, ranging from Celenese claret to port from the Hold of the Sea Princes. The menu included finely cut beef and lamb from North Province, lobster from the Sea Barons and the Spindrift Isles, fine breads, fruits and salads homegrown in South Province itself, and even chocolate imported from Hepmonaland, all tastefully arranged and garnished to please both the eyes and the palates of the diners.
While most of the guests Seline spoke to were from South Province, others came from the Aerdy heartland around Rauxes, the fabled former royal capital of Rel Astra and even from North Province and the Archbarony of Ratik. Seline was surprised at this-in previous years, the nobles of the Great Kingdom only attended balls held by nobles whose provinces they shared. Xavener went out of his way to draw guests from every part of Aerdy, something even the herzogs of the North and South Provinces didn’t do.
Seline was distracted from her musings as she saw Amyalla walk by, looking gorgeous in a gown of copper and sapphire blue. The halfling had a handsome man on either arm, and she returned Seline’s smile.
Seline only chuckled. She was all thumbs when it came to sewing and embroidery, and Amyalla’s and Ma’non’go’s help was invaluable in getting the companions’ outfits ready for the ball.
“Can you show us a totem pole dance?”
“No, show us how to smoke signal!”
“Shouldn’t you be wearing a headdress to the ball?”
Revafour had been on edge over the last several days at House Cranden’s estate. He wasn’t comfortable among the people whose ancestors had conquered the lands of the old Flan kingdom of Ahlissa, particularly given how few Flan he’d seen in South Province aside from the odd servant. He’d have eagerly spent another year at House Cranden’s estate if it meant he didn’t have to put up with the insufferably stupid questions of the young noblewomen surrounding him, though.
Revafour might have been flattered by the attention the women were giving him, considering the dashing figure he cut in his maroon red, gold and tan brown plaid outfit, which complemented his beaded cloak nicely. Ma’non’go had helped Seline and Amyalla prepare it, and he was surprised at how skilled his Olman friend was at fashionable attire. Ma’non’go was acting like a fashionable man about town, dancing with any woman who took his fancy and enjoying the attention, but Revafour simply felt awkward and unhappy.
Give me a failed hunt, he thought, give me a battle with fire giants, give me a forest fire, but deliver me from stupid questions, he thought to himself.
One of the women surrounding Revafour had an annoyed look on her face. Revafour realized she was probably unhappy at his not answering their questions. He braced himself, wondering how he could answer her retort without embarrassing Luna or Seline or hindering the companions’ search for the Crown of Arumdina.
“Don’t mind my friend, ladies,” Weimar said before the woman could say anything, walking up to the gathering and holding a full glass of port in his hand. He was dressed in a rumpled emerald green and wood brown shirt, diamond-patterned in the southwestern Oeridian style, darker mahogany brown pants and a somewhat gaudy forest green cape, along with his most charming smile. “He’s the strong, silent type, as those frost giants learned to their sorrow.”
“Frost giants?” the woman who’d been about to criticize Revafour said, an intrigued look on her face.
“And more besides,” Weimar said, “including their pet polar worm. We were the only humans who could stand against them when they invaded the lowlands. It was a grim battle, and we lost many a good friend that day…”
“How many?” one of the women asked.
“Forty, possibly more,” Weimar said, “and another two-score more to the dragon leading them,” he continued, leading several of the women to gasp in horror. “That’s why my friend doesn’t say much-he doesn’t like to talk about the past.”
It took Revafour a couple of seconds to realize what Weimar was doing, but once he did he took the opportunity to discreetly slip away. A couple of the women watched him go, but they soon turned back to Weimar, enthralled by his tall tale.
As Revafour walked away, his gaze briefly met Weimar’s.
You okay? Weimar mouthed to Revafour, raising his wine glass to his lips to disguise his action.
Yes, thank you, Revafour said, before walking away in relief.
While Revafour found the attention of the young noblewomen insufferable, Ma’non’go thoroughly enjoyed it. He was having a grand time dancing with many of them. The women had heard stories about Luna and Seline’s unusual guardian and wanted to meet him for themselves. He wished he could speak, knowing he could likely charm them with tales of X’tandelexamenken, but he contented himself with kissing their hands and responding to their graceful curtsies with elaborate bows. His clothes were similar to Revafour’s, albeit more colorful in the Olman tradition, and he was distinctly proud of how well he wore them.
Unfortunately, Ma’non’go saw several of the young noblemen looking jealously at him, none too pleased to see some of Aerdi high society’s most attractive debutantes focusing on him. A few of them had the unsteady looks of men who’d taken more than their share of wine that evening, and Ma’non’go knew it was only a matter of time before one of them said something about him.
It came about the time that Ma’non’go expected. One young man, his harsh, hawklike features making his scowl seem even more threatening, came walking up to Ma’non’go as he released his latest dance partner. The young man’s cheeks and eyes were flushed, and his hands twitched irritably as he approached. Behind him, Ma’non’go saw two more men approaching, one looking cold and hateful, the other burning with fiery rage. Ma’non’go was bemused at how well they complemented each other, the hawklike man seeming a balance between the fire and ice of his companions.
“You really think this is your place, jungle man?” the hawklike man said, his eyes narrowing angrily at Ma’non’go, who remained unruffled. “Think you can step above your station, and threaten our women’s virtue?”
Ma’non’go just smiled back, completely at ease. He nodded, which seemed to anger the men all the more.
“He’s no threat to their virtue,” the man with the icy demeanor said, his hand going to the rapier at his belt, “not after Roas’s whelps likely wore him out.”
Ma’non’go’s smile vanished in an instant, rage filling his eyes as he stared daggers at the three men. All three of the noblemen laughed at that, their hands on their rapier hilts.
“What’s the matter, darkling?” the fiery man said with an unpleasant leer. “Don’t like your betters putting you in your place? Have you got something to say?”
“It doesn’t matter if he does,” the hawklike man said, drawing his rapier as he stepped forward. “Our blades will tell him what to-“
The hawklike man was stunned in an instant as Ma’non’go sprang forward, hitting him in the jaw with a vicious right hook. The hawklike man collapsed, his rapier not even halfway out of its hilt. The fiery and cold men managed to draw their blades, and nodded to one another before charging at Ma’non’go.
Ma’non’go wasn’t of high enough station to carry a weapon at an Aerdi ball, but he didn’t need one. He easily dodged the fiery man’s clumsy thrust, grabbing the younger man’s arm and pulling him forward. Ma’non’go slammed his head into the fiery man’s face, knocking him senseless and making him drop his rapier. Ma’non’go picked the rapier up in one quick motion, falling back on his heels as he parried the thrusts of the cold-faced man.
Ma’non’go wasn’t formally trained in battling with a rapier, but he wasn’t afraid of his opponent. His practiced eye told him right away that all three of the noblemen possessed more arrogance than skill. Even though he’d never wielded a rapier before, Ma’non’go knew he could have defeated all three of the noblemen at once if he’d had one. As it was, he took pleasure in watching the icy man’s calm turn into a look of embarrassed frustration as Ma’non’go deflected every one of his blows. The man screamed in frustration as Ma’non’go blocked yet another thrust, knocking the blade wide. The man prepared to bring his sword back in a sideways slash, before Ma’non’go lunged forward and kneed him in the stomach. As the young man staggered, Ma’non’go dropped his rapier and hit him in the jaw with a vicious one-two punch, knocking him senseless.
A few of the noblewomen applauded Ma’non’go’s show, and he turned to take a bow. His triumphant smile made the noblewomen sigh in admiration, but several of the men gave him withering looks. Ma’non’go knew none of them would likely try anything, though. The young nobles who’d attacked him would be in trouble for starting a fight at Xavener’s ball. They would likely be also punished by their house-House Naelax, judging by their medallions-for letting themselves be beaten by an Olman man.
Ma’non’go only smiled to himself. A part of him regretted drawing attention that the companions didn’t need, but a larger part of him felt an immense satisfaction.
Weimar enjoyed the attention he was getting from the young debutantes, but that was about all the pleasure he felt. He hated the fancy clothes he had to wear, hated that the bar mostly served light, high class wines instead of the harder stuff he liked (the Sea Princes port was only the best of a bad selection), hated the number of wind instruments the orchestra played in their music, and the general stuffiness the ball seemed to hold. It contrasted with the poverty and brawling tavern life he’d experienced growing up in Keoland. While Seline appeared to be having the time of her life, Weimar felt more like a fish out of water. He could only imagine how much worse it was for Revafour.
A few of the debutantes, enchanted with the stories he was telling of his exploits in the Keoish army, clearly expressed their invitations to him. That only made Weimar feel even worse. While he would have happily accepted their invitations, he knew he’d likely make trouble the companions didn’t need. It was one thing for Amyalla to seduce any of the human noblemen present tonight, men who already held power and influence, but it was quite another for Weimar to seduce any of those noblemen’s sisters or daughters.
The final straw came when Weimar recounted his role in a battle against a troop of hill giants in the Dim Forest. One young man, jealous of the attention Weimar was getting, ambled up with an ugly smile on his face.
“That’s the best a Keolander can do, eh?” the young nobleman smiled. “Likely couldn’t even beat an Onnwallian if you tried, not when your swords are softer than your-“
Without missing a beat, Weimar gently pushed aside the debutantes between him and the young man, and knocked the young fool flat on his back with one punch. As the dazed young man got to his knees, rolling onto his stomach before he rose up, Weimar gave him a good swift kick in the rear end, knocking him flat on his face, before returning to his place and continuing his story.
Weimar cheered up a bit from that. It was one thing to insult Keoland’s shameful military history–he did it all the time himself. It was quite another to take the insult from a coddled young dandy who’d never cut his mother’s apron strings or seen a day of hard combat in his entire life!
Airk was pleased with how his nut beige and tan brown-striped coat, tan breeches, forest green belt and matching boots contrasted with his impeccably waxed moustache. He was equally pleased with how well he’d endeared himself to some older members of House Cranden with his tales of the Hateful Wars. The men were veterans of skirmishes with Idee, Nyrond and Sunndi, and they retired to a private dining room to swap war stories with Airk.
Eventually, Airk broached the subject of the Crown of Arumdina to the humans, using the cover story of acting on behalf of a Greyhawk collector.
“I’ve never seen such a thing, but I could make inquiries for you,” one graybeard said, as several of the other humans nodded in agreement. “If anyone were to hold something like that, though, it’d be House Naelax.”
Airk rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
The first young soldier Amyalla seduced that night knew nothing useful about artifacts or bedroom skills. The second soldier, an officer of considerably higher rank and a member of House Naelax, was more helpful.
“My kinsman Caradoc Golias Del Cranden showed me something like that a few years back,” the officer said as he helped Amyalla tie her gown once they’d completed their liaison. “It’s a point of pride for him.”
“A point of pride?” Amyalla said in surprise as she pulled on the fancy slippers she’d gotten for the occasion.
“Oh yes,” the officer said. “He’s almost as proud of his collection of valuable art objects as he is of his record in acquiring them.”
“His record?” Amyalla asked in surprise.
The officer blinked in astonishment at her question, before he remembered that she wasn’t Aerdi.
“Ah yes, you’re one of the guests of the late Lord Roas’s girls,” he said with a chuckle. “Perhaps they didn’t tell you about the traditions of Aerdi duels. The winner of a noble duel can often claim the estate of the loser, including their family members and slaves. Caradoc’s won nearly a dozen such duels, and built up a fine collection of curios, artifacts, paintings and jewelry. It’s amusing how anyone who has something or someone he wants always ends up wronging him in some way,” the officer finished, laughing out loud as Amyalla handed him his boots.
Amyalla pretended to laugh with the officer, as she asked him for more information about Caradoc.
Her mind began racing with thoughts of what to do next.
Seline curtsied elegantly to the military officer she was dancing with as the waltz ended, admiring how his handsome, refined features contrasted with his confident, determined military poise.
“If you fight as well as you dance, it’s no wonder you’ve fared so well against the Nyrondese,” she said as she stood up.
“I could tell you a hundred more tales, if you like,” the officer said. “Would you care for another dance?”
“Later, perhaps,” Seline said. “I’d like some more wine first.”
“As you wish,” the officer said, offering a chivalrous bow before turning away to find another partner.
The night was everything Seline hoped it would be. She felt like herself again, playing her part to perfection in a world that was all a stage. She loved to listen to the military officers’ war stories, finding them as fascinating as the Fables of Burdock or Heward’s plays. She missed this life more than she realized, missed the opportunity to participate and perform.
Seline tried to find her next dance partner, but her next partner found her instead. Before Seline realized it, no less than Prince Xavener himself appeared before her, beaming with pleasure. Seline briefly tugged at her choker, smiling in admiration at the younger man’s charming smile and handsome face.
“I take it you’re enjoying yourself, my dear?” Xavener said, his eyes gleaming.
“Yes, of course,” Seline said, offering a curtsy. “This is by far the grandest ball I’ve ever attended-“
“Yes, it’s been a few years since you participated in one, wasn’t it?” Xavener interrupted her.
“Certainly…but why do you…” Seline said, blinking in surprise.
“And yet you and your sister return, despite the outstanding debts Cranden owes to Garasteth,” Xavener said, the look in his eyes becoming cold and hard.
Seline felt a chill run down her spine as she tried to think of what to say next.
“I-I was led to believe…” she stammered.
“That nothing would happen at tonight’s ball?” Xavener said, his beaming smile turning to an unpleasant leer. “Under normal circumstances, yes. Those Naelax idiots your Olman friend humiliated just now will deserve everything that’s coming to them. But circumstances change…especially when the organizer of the ball is involved,” he finished, his eyes gleaming again.
Seline began to tremble, her good mood gone in an instant.
“What…what do you…” she said, swallowing hard.
“Your company in my private quarters,” Xavener said, holding out his hand to Seline. “And no, I wouldn’t be so gauche as to do what you might be worrying about. I merely want to chat, perhaps over some Celenese claret. Would you care to join me?”
Seline realized that it would be extremely unwise to refuse Xavener’s offer.
Wordlessly, she took his hand and accompanied him to the bar.
“I take it you’re comfortable?” Xavener said with a smile once he and Seline were seated in some comfortable chairs in a private sitting room.
“What do you want?” Seline asked him, her expression cold and wary.
“I just thought I could help you with what you’re looking for. I understand you’re searching for some sort of treasure on behalf of a collector from Greyhawk, something along the lines of a crown, an orb, some kind of royal trappings. I suppose this fellow has more money than he knows what to do with…not that I’m one to talk, of course,” Xavener said, before taking a sip of his claret.
“Yes, that’s right,” Seline said. “Do you have any suitable pieces that match what we’re looking for?”
“I have to say, that’s a very strange reason for taking such a risk in coming back to South Province and possibly being claimed by House Garasteth. That debt is still owed, and can be legitimately claimed. What do you and Luna owe this Greyhawk collector, may I ask?”
Seline tried to keep her breathing under control as she thought of what to say.
“Not that it matters,” Xavener continued. “Aerdi honor debts like the ones House Cranden owes House Garasteth can be transferred. A new buyer can claim the debt by compensating the original creditor, and then have full rights to what they’re owed.”
Seline did a masterful job of keeping her emotions under control at that.
“You and your sister would both make such fine brides,” Xavener mused, looking into his wine glass as he swirled it. “Beautiful, talented, refined…what queens either of you would make!” he continued, before looking up at Seline again.
Seline stared at him in astonishment.
“…Who do you think you are?” she asked in amazement. “The Overking?”
Xavener just smiled and took another sip of his wine.
Seline set down her wine glass and stood up, her fingers and lips twitching all at once.
Xavener’s smile grew wider, as she realized the consequences of what she was about to do. She forced herself to stand still, pressing her lips together and clenching her fists. Casting a spell, any kind of spell, at Xavener would be a catastrophe, not just for Seline and her companions but for all of House Cranden.
“Very wise,” Xavener said, repressing a chuckle. “There are other ways to pay off a debt, as I’m sure you know. Ways to guarantee your safety and that of your friends, so you could search for your little treasure, whatever it is, without looking over your shoulders.”
“What do you mean?” Seline asked as she sat back down, taking a long hard drink of her wine.
“Let me tell you a little story, one that involves a plan to break the Iron League,” Xavener said, “a story that involves the murder of Idee’s Count Fedorik in a failed attempt to kill some Aerdi double agents. If you and your merry band put an end to what Caradoc and Xeravho are planning, your debt will be amply paid. You won’t have anything to fear from House Garasteth ever again.”
Seline stared at Xavener in shock as he recounted all the details of the South Province plot. When he was done, she stared at him again for several minutes, struggling to understand what he was saying.
“Why on Oerth would you want a war with the Iron League to fail?” Seline asked in amazement.
“Caradoc, Xeravho and especially Herzog Chelor would all gain amazing prestige and wealth from such a conquest,” Xavener said. “Suffice to say it wouldn’t be…advantageous at the current time. And besides, as a Cranden do-gooder, isn’t it incumbent on you to thwart the ambitions of evil?”
Seline leaned back in her chair, her mind whirling at what Xavener told her.
“I’m sure you realize that you can’t tell anyone except your companions,” Xavener said, finishing his wine. “If you do, I’ll just deny everything. After all, who would the rest of South Province society believe? The golden child of House Darmen, or a woman who disgraced her Celestial House by reneging on a debt of honor?”
Seline finished her own wine, her mind abuzz with emotion. Anger, humiliation and shame competed for her mental attention. She wished she could say something else-anything else-but she knew there was only one thing she even could say.
“I’ll speak to my friends in the morning.”
“Very wise,” Xavener said again, his smile as warm and inviting as a crocodile’s.
The Eyes Have It
Xeravho Charren Del Naelax was often referred to as ‘the serpent’ by many of his fellow South Province aristocrats. None of them ever called Xeravho that to his face, however, deeply afraid of incurring his wrath. Xeravho wouldn’t have minded the epithet, though, as he considered it a fitting nickname. His entire body was pale and lean, and he seemed to move to side from side when he walked, giving him an almost slithering gait. The tight-fitting robes he wore, colored in a diamond-shaped pattern of alternate light and dark green, only added to his snakelike look. It was his long, narrow face, framed by a mane of whitish-blonde hair that flared like a cobra’s hood, that truly made him look serpentine. His eyes were a cold, piercing green that seemed to be everywhere at once, with nothing escaping their gaze.
Caradoc feared nothing that he understood. He couldn’t fathom Xeravho, though, and that disturbed him. Xeravho was the one who’d come up with most of the details to murder Count Fedorik of Idee, while Caradoc was responsible for planning the military invasion of Idee that would come with the Count’s death. The country would be in chaos with Count Fedorik dead and Idee at loggerheads with Sunndi, so that South Province would overrun it with little difficulty.
“Everything’s going apace?” Caradoc asked Xeravho as they ate a meal in one of the private meeting rooms at the most exclusive club in Zelradton. While Caradoc tore greedily into the large ham he’d been served, Xeravho slowly ate raw fruits and salads with some raw meat whose source Caradoc realized he probably didn’t want to know.
Xeravho waited several several moments after he swallowed before he spoke. Caradoc hated how that put him on edge, and hated the fact that Xeravho deliberately did it to unnerve him.
“Of course it is,” Xeravho said. “The forged documents directing the assassin as being an agent of the Count of Sunndi have been drawn up. I’ve selected the agents who will plant the papers framing the members of the Ideean court as Aerdi double agents, and they’re preparing to depart for Naerie. What’s so important that you demanded to speak with me?”
Xeravho’s eyes flared as he said that.
Caradoc found himself wondering if those eyes were the last sight some doomed rodent saw before a serpent devoured it. He drew courage from his next words.
“I have a feeling that Prince Xavener of Darmen knows about our plan,” he said.
Everything else in Caradoc’s sight seemed to vanish as Xeravho fixed him with a cold glare. He felt almost hypnotized, yearning for Xeravho to speak so he could answer any questions the serpent had.
“What makes you say that?” Xeravho said.
“Because I’ve been hearing inquiries about royal artifacts like crowns and scepters that might be for sale,” Caradoc said. “I’m known for collecting those things, and one of the people making those inquiries was seen at Xavener’s ball heading into a private room with him last night.”
“And you don’t think it’s a coincidence?”
“No. What possible reason could Xavener have for wanting to meet that woman alone? She was a disgraced maiden of Cranden, hardly a suitable romantic match for him.”
“You presume much.”
“How do you think I survive as part of House Naelax? Xavener could be seeking to avenge his father for my insulting him at the Herzog’s court.”
“By claiming credit for our plan? Or do you suspect some other method?”
“I don’t know, but I doubt his agents are who they claim to be. For all we know, Xavener brought them in as part of his own plot. This crown, or orb, or whatever they’re seeking, could be the payment they collect for assassinating us…or part of some larger gambit on Xavener’s part.”
Xeravho’s eyes narrowed as Caradoc finished speaking. He fell silent for several long, tense moments, and Caradoc wondered what he was thinking.
“…Whatever the case, I won’t let it get any farther,” Caradoc said. “My lieutenants will deal with them, and I’ll review my collections to see which of my artifacts they’d be interested in. If anything I own has interest to Xavener, then it clearly has value beyond its workmanship or what it’s made of.”
Xeravho nodded once, and Caradoc did well not to breathe a sigh of relief.
The serpent was satisfied with Caradoc’s plans, but he knew there were still too many unknowns. That was a danger not just in South Province, but across the Great Kingdom. Knowledge was power, and Xeravho noticed how knowledgeable Xavener was for someone of such tender years.
Exactly what Xavener planned to do with all that knowledge was both the biggest unknown and the biggest concern for Xeravho. Their plan was an intricate thing-the false documents implicated Count Fedorik’s assassin as a Sunndian agent, and the false documents implicating some of his courtiers as Aerdi double agents strengthened the claim that Sunndi was acting against Aerdi spies. The plan depended on misdirection, and information falling into the wrong hands-hands like Xavener’s-could be disastrous.
The serpent decided to let Caradoc proceed with his plans. They might solve the problem of Xavener’s agents, if that’s what the Cranden woman and her friends were, for him. Even if Caradoc was being overly cautious, Xeravho knew from personal experience that a lack of caution often led to catastrophe.
Xeravho himself had other things to do, namely casting some divinations.
And taking appropriate measures.
A Matter Of Perspective
The Company of the Silver Wolf sat in a corner of the dining hall at House Cranden’s manor, eating lunch as Seline told them about Xavener’s offer at the previous night’s ball. When Seline finished, silence filled the air for several minutes as her companions mulled over what she’d told them.
Finally, Weimar spoke up.
“You’re sure that this army officer you spoke to told you that this knight Caradoc collects all this royal regalia?” he said to Amyalla. “And the noblemen you talked to said that something like the Crown would be held by House Naelax?” he asked Airk.
“That he did,” Airk said, as he and Amyalla nodded. “In all likelihood, our goal is intertwined with Xavener’s. But is it just Caradoc and that wizard friend of his organizing this plot? Or is it sponsored by the Herzog himself?”
“Xavener said the Herzog condoned it,” Seline said, her shoulders slumped and an anxious look on her face. “He talked about how much prestige the Herzog would gain with the Overking if the plan succeeded, especially given the disgrace the Herzog currently faces.”
The companions knew that Xavener wasn’t lying about that, as they’d all heard rumors at the ball. One of Ivid V’s first acts when he took the Malachite Throne in 556 CY was to purge the then-ruling line of South Province for their failures to regain the lands of the Iron League. Ivid appointed Chelor’s father Loren as the new herzog and executed him sixteen years later when Loren failed to conquer the Iron League. Chelor had only been in power for four years, but Ivid’s patience was already said to be growing dangerously thin.
“Our course seems clear enough, then,” Luna said after she’d taken a long, hard drink of tea. “We thwart Caradoc’s and Xeravho’s machinations, and Seline and I don’t have to look after our shoulders for House Garasteth pursuing us anymore.”
“And how much does this Xavener boy benefit from all this?” Airk asked. ”How on Oerth does he benefit from a strong Iron League?”
“He said that it wouldn’t be ‘advantageous’ to him,” Seline said, shrugging. “Whatever that meant.”
““I can’t say I like the idea of him profiting from anything we do. And who’s to say he won’t betray us?” Revafour said.
“What else can we do?” Luna pointed out. “We can’t just let South Province invade!”
“I never said we should,” Revafour said, “but I won’t be surprised if he betrays us. Do you have any idea what his agenda is?”
“I wish I knew,” Luna said, shaking her head sadly.
Amyalla scowled as she listened to her friends talk. It was no wonder Ma’non’go, Luna and Seline had to leave the Great Kingdom in the first place. Amyalla felt almost suffocated listening to her friends’ discussing the Aerdi nobles’ intrigues. Those intrigues were like a prison, trapping anyone caught in them. Any possible exit only promised death.
It reminded her of life back in Leukish, and she clenched her fists in rage as she recalled everything she endured there.
Her anger faded as she saw the melancholy on Airk’s face, melancholy that didn’t vanish despite the long, hard drag he took on his mug of ale.
He probably blames himself for getting us caught up in this, she thought. First his guilt over what happened to Laessar, now this.
Glancing at her other companions, she saw that their moods weren’t much better. Luna, Revafour and Ma’non’go were earnestly discussing what the companions should do. Weimar also saw Airk’s distress and was trying to cheer him up, although Amyalla doubted he’d succeed. Seline sat by herself, her hands trembling as she wiped at her eyes. Her distress was as bad as Airk’s, and Amyalla wondered what could have gotten into her.
Taking a deep breath, Seline stood up and walked into an adjacent drawing-room, as Amyalla ran to follow her.
“Are you alright?” Amyalla asked, grabbing Seline by the arm to get her attention when they’d stopped.
“I…I don’t know,” Seline said, her expression clouded.
“Why are you so upset?” Amyalla said, pulling Seline to a sofa and sitting down with her. “You looked so happy at the ball. Did Xavener do something-“
“No, no,” Seline said, shaking her head. “It’s just that…”
“What is it?” Amyalla asked.
Seline was clearly reluctant to speak of it, but Amyalla took Seline’s slightly larger hand in her own. Swallowing hard, Seline finally began to speak.
“It’s because of the ball,” Seline said. “I loved being able to take that stage again. I loved the glamour, the conversations, the chance to dress up. I always knew I missed it when Luna, Ma’non’go and I had to flee, but I didn’t realize just how much.”
“Would you stay if you could?” Amyalla asked. “If we take Xavener’s offer, and he keeps the Garasteths from pursuing you-“
To Amyalla’s surprise, Seline didn’t react positively to that. Instead, it only made her seem more unsure, as she shook her head and hugged herself.
“I…I don’t know if I can take Xavener’s offer,” Seline said, as tears began to appear in her eyes.
Amyalla stared at her incredulously.
“You…you can’t be serious! You’d let South Province conquer the Iron League? How can you say that?” she said, her expression showing her amazement.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Seline said, and now a tear flowed down each of her cheeks. “I just feel like I’d be a…a…”
“A what?” Amyalla asked.
“A traitor,” Seline said, taking a deep breath. “A traitor to my family, my heritage, my home, my being Aerdi. I know it’s wrong, and I know we need to stop the Naelax plotters, it’s just…”
“…You just think of everything that once was, don’t you?” Revafour said as he entered through the drawing room door.
“How long have you been listening?” Amyalla asked him.
“Long enough,” Revafour said to the halfling, before he turned back to Seline. “You sound like you don’t want to betray the Great Kingdom. Does that kingdom even deserve your loyalty, considering what the original Aerdi did to the Flan of Ahlissa who originally lived in these lands? Is all the treason and cruelty worth your loyalty? Everything the Aerdi did from Blackmoor to Sunndi? The Aerdy that plans to make the Iron League burn?”
Seline flinched at that, and Amyalla glared at Revafour, who stared back at Seline impassively.
“No!” Seline said, standing up. She locked stares with Revafour, her eyes blazing. “I’m loyal to the Aerdy that helped the Flan of what became North Province free themselves from the dragons that enslaved them. I’m proud of the Aerdy that defeated the Frost Barbarians at Shamblefield. I believe in the Aerdy that protected the innocent from hobgoblins and ogres across the Flanaess. I cherish the Aerdy that strove for justice and peace under House Cranden. I love the Aerdy that created so much art, music and beauty. That’s the Aerdy I care about, not the one with the fat, stinking slug of a Herzog and the addle-brained piece of trash tainting the Malachite Throne!”
Revafour raised his eyebrows at Seline’s tirade, before he spoke again.
“And that makes up for the oppression the Flan suffered, and everything else the Great Kingdom’s done? Does that make up for their plot against the Iron League?”
Seline took a deep breath.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I just remember all the joy I experienced growing up in House Cranden, attending the balls, reading the histories, performing in the plays. I thought of what Aerdy was like before the rot that set in under House Rax, and how much Aerdy’s lost since the Turmoil Between Crowns. Those are the things I love…and the things I miss.”
Revafour thought about what to say. He wasn’t convinced that what Seline mentioned made up for the wrongs the Ahlissan Flan had suffered. Even so, he’d heard stories in Tenh similar to Seline’s about the good that came out of the alliances between the Aerdi and the Flan in North Province. Those same stories also mentioned the many victories the Aerdi helped the Tenha and other peoples across the Flanaess win against evil monsters. The stories named Cranden as the Celestial House that, as much as it could, always tried to do right by the Flan who remained in the Great Kingdom.
He had to admit, he was also amused by Seline’s outburst against the Herzog and the Overking. Her rant would have brought her to the guillotine if she’d said it in public.
“I can respect that-I even appreciate it,” he said. “But it won’t help things if the Herzog’s plot succeeds.”
Seline took another deep breath. She closed her eyes and nodded, as if drawing up her resolve.
“I take it our friends agree with taking Xavener’s offer?” she said.
“It’s our best option,” Revafour said with a nod, “so long as we’re ready for any treachery from Xavener.”
“All right,” Seline said. “It’s likely our best chance to find the Crown too. But you were right to wonder how Xavener benefits from all this. House Darmen prizes profit above all else, and I don’t understand what the profit is for him.”
“How do you like it?” Xavener asked Norreck as they ate a private meal. “Exotic, isn’t it?”
“And sharp,” Norreck said after he’d swallowed another mouthful of the stew and the glittering, colored spice that Xavener added to it. House Darmen nobles and their sons frequently ate meals on their own when they needed to discuss strategy, not wanting to risk giving even their closest kin an unearned advantage.
“And you said you get it from the Hold of the Sea Princes?” Norreck said, raising an eyebrow.
“Finely cut and worth every copper piece paid for it,” Xavener said with a smile, before taking a large mouthful of the stew himself.
Norreck narrowed his eyes before taking another bit of stew. One of House Darmen’s customs was for fathers and sons to meet strategically in private. The other was for both men to eat the same fowl, or stew, or whatever meal was served. It was considered an effective deterrent against one man trying to poison the other, since they would both have to eat the toxic foods.
Norreck knew that didn’t prevent a third party from trying to poison both him and Xavener. That was why he’d spent a considerable fortune on the magical sunstone crystal he kept on him at all times. The sunstone made him completely immune to poison, such that he could drink a flagon of giant scorpion venom without harm. Norreck hired a diviner to confirm that Xavener had no such protections against venom, and was not trying to poison him with it.
If Norreck ever found proof that Xavener was trying to murder him, the younger man’s life would be forfeit.
Norreck didn’t notice that Xavener was wearing his ring of coral and hematite to the meal.
At dusk, the companions made their way through the outskirts of Zelradton towards Caradoc’s personal estate. The companions planned to break into the estate to see what they could learn of Caradoc’s conspiracy, as well as possibly find the Crown of Arumdina. While most of the nobles of House Cranden stayed at the family manor when they had business in Zelradton, their counterparts in House Naelax were more paranoid. The Naelax nobles each kept to their own private estates, with guards loyal only to them.
As the companions turned off the main road, planning to enter Caradoc’s estate from a far side near a thick copse, Airk thought about their lack of options. They couldn’t simply buy the Crown from Caradoc, since that would leave him and the other conspirators free to carry out their plot. They couldn’t warn the Ideeans of the conspiracy, since they had no proof and the Ideeans wouldn’t have any reason to believe them. It wouldn’t help the companions to get the Crown either. Worse, it would have opened Luna and Seline, and possibly all of House Cranden, to retribution from the conspirators, Xavener and possibly even Herzog Chelor.
Of course, this is all my fault, he thought to himself as the companions stalked through the copse to the point where it came nearly to the walls of Caradoc’s estate. I let Kalrek murder almost all my brothers in arms. I let Flinthold nearly fall to the Steelhearts. I let Kalrek kill and rob Garl knows how many people in his search for the Crown. I finish Kalrek’s murdering my brothers when I murdered Laessar. I’m probably going to lead my friends to disgrace, if I don’t lead them to death.
He tried to remind himself that his friends chose to come with him, that he’d helped them with things important to them, that Luna and Seline benefited from what they were doing, that the Iron League needed to be warned about the conspiracy…
…but the voice kept coming back to him.
Airk managed to put the dark thoughts out of his mind as Luna walked up to the stone wall surrounding the estate. Holding a small piece of clay Airk had crafted to resemble a stone wall with a hidden door crafted in it, Luna went up to the estate wall and touched it with the clay. She chanted quietly, and Airk saw a fine line appear in the estate wall. After about a minute, the piece of clay Luna was holding collapsed into dust, but a portion of the estate wall now resembled it.
Even with his gnomish knowledge of stonework, Airk needed a few seconds to find the secret door Luna’s spell had carved into the estate wall. Giving it a push so its outer edge was no longer flush with the rest of the stonework, Airk grunted as he pulled it open. He entered first, his human friends having to crawl through the door behind him. Luna couldn’t cast the spell strong enough to make the door taller than that, but it also made the door more difficult to see.
From there, the companions made further preparations. Amyalla snuck off to scatter some materials to confuse any potential tracking dogs. She said that the Greyhawk Guild of Thieves swore by mustard powder, oil of citronella and crushed stinging nettle as a way of masking scents. Amyalla had little difficulty buying those materials in Zelradton, and she spread them out with practiced ease.
When Amyalla returned, Luna cast a spell of silence over Airk and Revafour to mute the sound their heavy plate armor would make as they walked. Finally, they set off, as Weimar led them along the route he’d scouted earlier that day with his spyglass.
Caradoc’s manor was on an island surrounded by a lake moat. Only one bridge connected it to the mainland, and there was a large guardhouse at the front of the bridge. A dozen guards stood ready and waiting. The companions expected this, and most of them waited in one of the nearby stands of trees as Seline used her magic ring to make herself invisible.
Moving forward stealthily, she quietly cast a spell, creating an illusion of people trying and failing to be stealthy from the other direction. The guards reacted in surprise, as several of them ran towards the sound. Seline began her next spell, putting several of the guards into a deep sleep. The spell broke Seline’s invisibility, and some of the surviving guards saw her. Before they could attack, Seline quickly cast another spell, putting the remaining guards to sleep. Gesturing, Seline brought the rest of the companions over, as they prepared to pass through the gatehouse and cross the bridge.
The companions were startled at the bright lights that came up all around them and the sounds of eager battle cries and swords being drawn. To their shock, nearly a score of armed men seemed to appear out of nowhere, dressed in chain armor and wielding dangerous-looking swords and spears. Their shields and helmets bore the emblems of House Naelax, and they didn’t look at all surprised at the companions’ arrival.
In the light of the lanterns, Weimar suddenly saw there were suddenly fewer trees than there were just a few seconds ago, or that he’d even seen this morning when he was scouting the estate with his spyglass. He cursed the companions’ bad luck, realizing this was an ambush. He’d heard of spells that allowed wizards to disguise armed warriors as foliage until they were ready to strike.
Glancing in the direction of the men Seline had felled with her sleeping spells, Weimar saw they’d vanished, as if they never existed. Indeed, they didn’t exist-they were just illusions made to react to Seline’s magic. That meant-
Weimar realized a wizard was involved. As he defended himself against the Naelax guards attacking him, he tried to think of how the wizard might attack.
The wizard’s attack was the last thing Weimar or any of his friends expected. The waters of the lake moat began to bubble and stir before they rose into a massive column nearly twenty feet tall. Two smaller columns extended from the column’s sides, growing what looked distinctly like human hands. A trio of bubbles formed nearly at the top of the column, two small ones appearing over a larger one, reminding Weimar of a human mouth and eyes.
Weimar realized just how much trouble he and his friends were in. They might have overcome the human guards, but they were not prepared to fight a water elemental. The otherworldly things could only be injured by magical weapons, and only Weimar’s axe could damage it. Luna’s mace, while blessed to destroy the undead, simply didn’t have the necessary power to injure it. Grimacing, Weimar realized that neither Luna nor Seline probably had enough magic to destroy the thing, either.
Weimar wasn’t afraid of dying, but he never expected it to happen so soon.
Amyalla knew she and her friends were outmatched by the towering elemental, but she also knew they had their weaknesses. In her days in Greyhawk, she’d had a brief romance with Sir Aaron Strachan, a powerful wizard and the ambassador from Furyondy. Strachan told her about how the wizard summoning an elemental always needed to concentrate on controlling it. If that control was disrupted, even for a second, the elemental would turn back on its summoner. The wizard also had to be relatively close by to direct the elemental.
In the few seconds in which her friends and the Naelax guards were distracted by the elemental’s appearance, Amyalla slipped into the shadows of the guardhouse. She glanced around, looking for where the wizard might be. The wizard would almost certainly be human, and he’d need a light source to see what he was doing…
Amyalla spotted a robed man, looking to be in his mid-thirties with pitch-black hair, standing halfway across the bridge leading to Caradoc’s manor. He might have stood farther away, perhaps even on the manor island itself, but Amyalla realized that in the twilight he probably needed to be close enough to see the battle on the mainland. He’d almost certainly cast some magical protections on himself to guard against magical spells or missiles, and so he probably thought himself safe from any attacks…
…but Amyalla realized he’d likely only guarded himself against attacks he could see coming.
She ran for the bridge, her heart in her mouth.
Revafour instantly killed the first Naelax guard that came at him, and took the arm off the second one. He was forced to turn to defend Seline as another guard came at her, and left himself open to yet another guard tearing into his thigh with a spear. His heavy armor kept the gash from getting too deep, but it still stung. The spear-wielding guard raised his spear again as Revafour turned to face him, but hastily jumped back.
Revafour wondered why the guard was running, and his question was soon answered when he heard what sounded like a tidal wave surging towards him from behind. Turning around, he barely managed to get his sword up in time before the elemental struck him with a wavelike fist. Pain lanced through Revafour’s body and he crashed to the ground, rolling once before he came to a stop.
The spear-wielding guard charged at Revafour, thinking to impale him before he could regain his bearings. Revafour struggled to get to his feet, but the guard seemed to be faster. The guard raised his spear as Revafour got up on one knee, but then Revafour saw a flash of light as a dagger flew past him and buried itself in the guard’s throat. The man collapsed, blood gushing down the front of his chest, as Revafour regained his feet.
Turning around, Revafour saw Weimar struggling against another guard. Weimar had lost his axe, and was stabbing furiously with one of his daggers. As his gaze met Revafour’s, Weimar briefly winked at him.
Revafour’s eyes gleamed determinedly as he picked up his sword. He felt the battle lust rising within him as he charged back into the melee. The elemental struck again, this time hitting Luna, who fell to her hands and knees, dazed by the blow. One of the Naelax guards raised his sword, planning to take her head off, but Revafour made him lose his head instead.
Weimar cried out in pain as he took a nasty gash across the abdomen, though, and Seline could barely keep the edge out of her voice as she tried to cast a spell. The companions were fighting as hard as they ever did, but they weren’t sure if they could hope to win.
Theran Josiah Del Haxx smiled at the intruders’ struggle. They were helpless against his elemental, and they’d been caught completely off guard by the illusion he’d cast over the guards. Several of the guards fell to the companions’ determined resistance, but they were easily replaceable. Even if the guards were all killed, they’d have delayed the companions long enough for the elemental to finish them. He’d cast protections against arrows and most magical spells to shield himself, and he had every confidence he’d win.
Theran was so intent on the battle, and so focused on keeping the elemental under control, that he didn’t feel the dagger tear into his back until it was too late. Screaming in pain, he turned to see what had attacked him. His eyes widened at the red-haired halfling behind him, and at the bloody dagger in her hand. He raised his hands to cast a spell at her, but then he saw the look of alarm on her face as she looked past him.
His blood ran cold as he realized he’d lost control of the elemental. Elemental spirits hated being summoned to the material plane, and he was all too vulnerable to the wrath of the water elemental he’d conjured. To his immense relief, the elemental simply dissolved as its spirit returned to the elemental plane of water. Its body fell back into the waters of the lake moat, which soon became as calm and placid as if the elemental had never been there.
Theran felt relieved, and then he smiled as he turned back to blast the impudent halfling. She was faster, though, and slammed the hilt of her dagger into the side of his head, knocking him senseless.
When the elemental disappeared, many of the Naelax guards were stunned for a moment. They never expected the elemental to simply vanish, and wondered what happened to Theran. The companions didn’t waste the opportunity, and tore into the guards for all they were worth. Several of the guards had already been killed by the companions even with the elemental to help them, and they were quickly overwhelmed.
Several of the guards tried to run, but Seline cast a wave of deadly steam over them with her wand. The steam scalded the guards, making them scream in agony as they fell dead. The cloud lingered, and Revafour and Ma’non’go tossed some of the remaining guards into it. Soon, there was no one left alive but the companions, who were injured but alive.
“Is everyone alright?” Luna said once she’d cast a healing spell on herself.
“I’ll live,” Airk said, wiping the blood off his military pick with the hair of one of the dead guards, “but I don’t see Amyalla. Did the elemental…”
Any dismay the companions may have felt was broken by Amyalla’s calling out to them. Looking out over the bridge, the companions saw Amyalla waving to them, standing over the prone body of the wizard who’d summoned the elemental. They hurried across the bridge to join her, wary of any further attacks.
“Are you alright?” Weimar asked in surprise as the rest of the companions came up to Amyalla. “How on Oerth did-“
“I crawled on the bridge’s underside,” Amyalla said, indicating the scratches on her hands. “It wasn’t easy, but he didn’t see me coming. Once I put a knife in his back, it shut him up.”
“You didn’t kill him, did you?” Seline said, before Amyalla shook her head.
“I thought you’d want to interrogate him,” Amyalla said, “but I don’t know if he’ll be willing to talk.”
“We have ways around that,” Seline said with a determined frown.
Luna healed the companions’ remaining injuries, but nothing else came to attack them. As Airk grimly noted, the wizard and the guards knew they were coming. It was likely that any proof of Caradoc and Xeravho’s conspiracy was long gone, and the Crown of Arumdina along with it. The companions bound Theran’s hands and feet, before they carried him to the island holding Caradoc’s estate. He regained consciousness in a few minutes, scowling angrily at the companions despite his helpless position.
“You’re going to answer our questions, or-“ Airk said, before Theran cut him off.
“Spare me your threats,” he said with a sneer. “There’s nothing you can do to me that wouldn’t be worse than what my lord would. You’re wasting your time if-“
He fell silent as Seline chanted a spell. His expression grew serene, with warmth reflected in his eyes and his expression.
“I do hope my previous refusal hasn’t caused you any distress, my lady,” Theran said with a smile. “Is there any way I can rectify my offence?”
A few of the companions looked at Theran in surprise before they turned back to Seline, and realized she’d cast a charming spell on the other wizard.
“Caradoc and Xeravho knew that we were coming, don’t they? They set this trap for us,” she said.
“I’m afraid so,” Theran said, nodding in confirmation. “They also know about your search for some royal regalia you’re after, so Caradoc took his entire collection with him. You won’t find anything like that in his manor,” he continued, gesturing with his head back towards the manor house. “They’re also planning a suitable vengeance on that Xavener boy for interfering with their plans.”
“They’re not just going to betray him to the Herzog?” Amyalla said in surprise.
“I doubt they have any proof that Xavener was behind our coming to the manor,” Luna said, shaking her head. “He can disavow any knowledge of us and just let us suffer any consequences that might come. We’re alone in all this, and time’s running out.”
Ma’non’go clapped his hands once to get his friends’ attention, and they turned to look at him.
If we are alone in this, that might not just be our curse, but our salvation, he signed, as a smile crossed his face.
The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword
The next morning, Xavener received a letter written and signed by Theran, Caradoc’s wizard aide. There was no question it was from Theran, as Xavener recognized the wizard’s handwriting. It was delivered by one of Caradoc’s messengers, who would obey Theran without question. The wax that held the letter closed was stamped with Caradoc’s distinctive seal.
In the letter, Theran detailed how he’d captured the adventurers Xavener sent to try and ruin Caradoc’s plans. He described them in detail, and Xavener knew they were that Seline woman and her friends. The letter concluded by telling Xavener that Caradoc and Xeravho were planning a suitable punishment for his interference.
That disturbed Xavener more than a little. He knew that Seline and her friends were likely tortured or charmed into revealing why they’d raided Caradoc’s estate. In that case, Caradoc and Xeravho would almost certainly retaliate against him immediately…and several of the other nobles involved in the conspiracy would follow suit. Their plot was too important to let a loose end like Xavener continue to threaten it.
Xavener knew he could be expecting visitors soon, and not pleasant ones. It made sense that someone as prideful and hot-tempered like Caradoc would want to punish Xavener not just for interfering with his plans, but for humiliating him in front of Herzog Chelor. Xavener could deny being involved in the plot, and he could likely muster enough support from other nobles who’d benefited from dealing with him to force Caradoc and the rest to lay off him. Norreck wouldn’t appreciate the attacks on his son either, and would muster House Darmen to defend him. The Naelaxians wouldn’t want a feud with Darmen, not at this point.
Unfortunately, their attacks would still cause serious trouble for House Darmen and cost Xavener dearly in favors and prestige. That could be fatal, especially when dealing with his father.
Xavener was about to plan what he’d say and do to mitigate the damage, when a stray thought crossed his mind. He wondered if the adventurers had bested Theran and whoever else Caradoc had guarding his estate, and were trying to trick him into anticipating an attack from Caradoc or Xeravho. If that was the case, he could punish them appropriately. He had to admit that he was also increasingly intrigued by the adventurers’ search for some kind of royal regalia. Whatever this mysterious crown or sceptre or other artifact was, it was obviously important for them to be taking the risks they had so far. The gods only knew how valuable such an artifact could be, not just in wealth, but also in power…
I need more information, Xavener realized. If Caradoc and Xeravho really are after me , and they kill me…everything I’ve done…everything I’m seeking…it’ll all come to nothing. And if I’m exposed…
He didn’t want to think about the consequences that would come from that.
Fortunately, there was one resource he could consult. Doing so was a dreadful risk, but he was running out of time. He didn’t dare proceed without ensuring he knew everything he possibly could.
“I should have known!” Caradoc said, his face red with anger as he slammed the letter down on his desk.
“What is it?” Xeravho asked as he came into Caradoc’s study.
“Theran bested those adventurers Xavener sent against us. A couple of them surrendered to him and confessed that Xavener hired them. He’s bringing them here so we can interrogate them,” Caradoc said, smiling triumphantly.
“And the bodies?” Xeravho said, reminding Caradoc of the instructions he’d given Theran before they’d left Caradoc’s manor. He’d ordered Theran to bring him the bodies of any of the adventurers killed in Theran’s ambush. He planned to interrogate the dead adventurers’ spirits with his magic to learn what they knew and to gather more evidence against Xavener.
“He’s bringing them in tonight, once he’s had a chance to replenish his spells,” Caradoc said, folding up the letter again.
The two noblemen were staying at a small, nondescript keep a few miles east of Zelradton with several of the other nobles involved in the conspiracy. To the public, the keep was the summer home of an eccentric merchant from North Province. It actually served as a convenient place for members of House Naelax to gather when they conducted some of their most secret operations.
While Xeravho and Caradoc were the conspiracy’s leading members, the other nobles would contribute to the plan by smuggling the spies and assassins who would plant the false documents and kill Count Fedorik into Idee and Sunndi. The other nobles would help surreptitiously fan the flames between the Iron League states with agents that couldn’t be tied to the murder of Count Fedorik.
In just a few short weeks, everything would be in place. Count Fedorik would be dead and Idee would be at South Province’s mercy. The rest of the Iron League states, fractured by the conquest of Idee and the further disruptions of the Naelaxian agents, would fall one by one.
Caradoc smiled wickedly at Xeravho, and Xeravho returned his smile with a cold, pitiless stare that reflected his thoughts all too clearly.
Weimar shook his head as he helped Ma’non’go lift a barrel of oil into the wagon the companions planned to use to reach the conspiracy’s headquarters. The enchanted Theran told Seline everything about the layout of the keep the conspirators were staying at, including its layout and defenses. Theran then told Caradoc’s manor servants, none of whom dared to question their master’s second in command, that the companions had gone over to Caradoc’s side. The servants were to help the companions in any way they could. They’d stayed in the manor during the previous night’s battle, and hadn’t seen the companions’ actions.
Seline thanked Theran by telling him to get some rest and to study his spells, since they would need his help later that evening. She and Luna slept through part of the day and replenished their own magic. The rest of the companions took turns getting some sleep of their own in between preparing for what would come later that evening.
“There’s something I don’t get,” Weimar said as he and Ma’non’go sat down to rest and get some water in a room where they could speak in private. “Why doesn’t this cabal go back to the Herzog and tell them about what Xavener’s doing? You’d think our efforts would be evidence enough. They won’t even adjust their plan because of us or Xavener.”
You don’t know Aerdi politics, or you wouldn’t say that, Ma’non’go said. A change now would risk their chance to earn glory and fame. Most Aerdi aristocrats would rather die than give up such an opportunity.
Besides, there’s too much riding on the conspiracy, Ma’non’go reminded Weimar. You recall hearing how angry the Overking is with the Herzog’s failure to regain the lands of the Iron League? That failure’s cost the Overking’s coffers a great deal of coin…and another failure, or even a delay, could cost the Herzog even more than that. If Chelor’s at risk of losing his head, he wouldn’t have any problem offering Ivid the heads of the conspirators in his place.
“That makes sense, I guess,” Weimar said with a shrug. “How do you understand this so well? Did Lord Roas tell you?”
What makes you think I needed Lord Roas to tell me? Ma’non’go said, raising an eyebrow.
“Sorry, I-“ Weimar said, clearing his throat in apology.
It’s alright, Ma’non’go said. Suffice to say that I learned a great deal about this kind of intrigue and betrayal in X’tandelexamenka. Try to imagine four false friends, men you cherished as brothers, who betrayed you and left you for dead. I’d have died alone in the jungle if Lord Roas hadn’t found me. It’s why I can’t bring myself to speak…the shock, the bitterness…it’s not unlike what Airk’s going through right now.
All Weimar could think to do was pat Ma’non’go’s arm sympathetically.
Total Party Kill
Caradoc and several of the other conspirators smiled to one another as Theran brought his wagon into the keep through the tradesman’s entrance. The wagon appeared nondescript, carrying several barrels and several other large objects concealed under a large sackcloth, with two lanterns hanging on each side. Three passengers rode in the wagon behind Theran, each securely shackled. One was a halfling with long red hair, the second a woman with long brown hair and the third was a large man with black hair. They each wore hopeless, defeated expressions, realizing they had no escape.
Marching up to the wagon as Theran climbed down from the driver’s seat, Caradoc shook the wizard’s hand.
“You brought them all?” Caradoc said as Theran led him to the back of the wagon.
“Of course, my lord,” Theran said as he and Caradoc pulled the sackcloth away to reveal the four corpses the wagon carried. Caradoc’s smile widened as he considered the bodies of the second large black-haired man, the blonde-haired man, the gnome with the blonde moustache and beard, and the strawberry blonde-haired woman.
“Well, well, well…” Caradoc said, swaggering past the back of the wagon and towards the front again on the other side, as some of the other conspirators untethered the horses. “Is House Cranden that desperate to be acting as mercenaries for House Darmen now?” he said with a sneer to Luna. “You wanted that badly to avoid being betrothed to the Garasteths?”
Luna tried to crawl away from him, passing by Amyalla. The halfling shuffled past her, and soon Luna was at the other side of the cart away from Caradoc. She looked up at the ceiling, her fingers twitching as she muttered something inaudible.
“What, too ashamed to speak?” Caradoc said with a smile. “Or did working for Xavener leave you as mute as your pet Olman?” he said, gesturing with his thumb to Ma’non’go.
Ma’non’go glared at Caradoc, and tried to crawl towards him, but Amyalla stopped him short. She held her hands up to his, shaking her head.
“Go easy on them, Caradoc,” one of the other conspirators said with a smirk. “The poor lass has just lost a sister, after all!”
All the conspirators burst out laughing, as Amyalla began breathing heavily. The conspirators laughed even louder, amused at her despair.
“Please don’t kill us,” she said, her voice ending in a whimper.
“You needn’t worry about that, pretty one,” another conspirator said, walking up to the wagon. “You and the Olman will each fetch a fine price in the slave markets. And as for the Cranden…I’m sure your new master will take you to her wedding. House Garasteth’s always been known for its grand ceremonies!”
The conspirators all resumed laughing, now completely off their guard. None of them could react in time as Ma’non’go suddenly stood up, his shackles seeming to fall off him. Picking up his trident, which had been hidden under a second sackcloth, he drove it into the chest of the taunting conspirator in one swift move.
As the conspirator fell dead, blood pouring from his chest, the seemingly dead companions in the back suddenly sprang to life. For a few moments, the nobles were too stunned to react. That was all the time Weimar, Revafour and Ma’non’go needed to fling the barrels the wagon contained against the far walls. As the barrels burst, spilling oil all over the walls, Airk picked up one of the lanterns on the side of the wagon and threw it into the walls and floors covered with the oil. Seline followed suit, as did Luna and Amyalla, the shackles seeming to fall off them.
The lanterns shattered as they struck the walls and floors, igniting the oil into a blazing fire. The flames quickly spread, reaching the room’s support beams and ceiling, threatening to turn the entire place into a blazing inferno.
The conspirators finally began to react, some of them shouting that they needed to stop the companions and others saying they needed to stop the fire. The companions grabbed their weapons and attacked the conspirators, who were still too confused to organize an effective defense.
The companions’ plan was inspired by everything Theran told Seline about the keep. Although the keep was made of stone, its support pillars, ceiling beams and roof beams were made of wood. A hot enough fire also risked weakening the mortar that held the walls together, which risked shifting the walls’ stones and making them collapse.
Seline got Theran, still under the influence of her charming spell, to write a letter to his master saying he’d captured the companions. That got Caradoc and the other conspirators to lower their guard and have Theran bring the companions to the keep. Luna used some of her magic magic to make it seem as if Seline, Revafour, Airk and Weimar had been killed, while she, Ma’non’go and Amyalla were shackled. Amyalla had palmed the key to their shackles, however. When she’d passed by Luna and Ma’non’go she’d used her skills at sleight of hand to conceal her unlocking their shackles when she passed by them in the wagon. The companions’ fire was a fine way of keeping the nobles distracted, and incentive for them to save the false documents they needed for the conspiracy against Count Fedorik.
The conspirators who saw the fire start soon became more interested in trying to put out the flames than fight the companions. They fled, yelling to warn their friends of the fire. Caradoc in particular cursed and shouted, running from the main hall to a nearby stone staircase. He was determined to save as much of his precious regalia collection as he could.
Ma’non’go and Airk determinedly followed him. They caught up with Caradoc as he shoved open a heavy bronzewood door and dashed into a room filled with several elaborate glass-fronted cabinets and display cases. Royal sceptres, orbs and crowns sparkled in the torchlight, causing Airk and Ma’non’go to both catch their breath at the royal regalia’s exquisite craftsmanship.
One piece stood out above all the others to them, though. Airk and Ma’non’go both recognized it from the description Kalrek Burunne’s researches gave. For Airk, the recognition ran even deeper, as he knew in his heart he was gazing at the symbol of Flinthold’s proud ancient heritage.
The Crown of Arumdina was a magnificent piece, every part of it beautifully crafted and assembled with pride. Its cap was made of pure sable fur, its tailoring fit for a king. The Crown’s circlet was of gold and ringed with rubies, while its arches were of platinum, each lined with two rows of diamonds on either side of each half-arch. Each of the four spaces between the Crown’s half-arches bore the image of a separate burrowing mammal, a raccoon, a sable, a badger and a mole, wrought in gold to match the circlet, and bearing bright emeralds for eyes. The monde was of platinum like the arches, and atop it there stood a piece of mithril crafted to resemble a battleaxe. The mithril was said to be a piece of Arumdina, the sentient battleaxe wielded by Garl Glittergold himself. That mithril axe was the source of the Crown’s power, giving a powerful magical blessing to the gnomish king that wore it.
Airk’s and Ma’non’go’s eyes turned away from the Crown back to Caradoc, who stared at them hatefully as he drew his sword. They briefly exchanged glances and nodded, before raising their weapons. Ma’non’go charged at Caradoc, forcing him back as Airk ran past them towards the case holding the Crown. Raising his morning star, Airk shattered the case’s glass and grabbed the Crown. Reaching into his pack, he pulled out a silk bag that he slipped the Crown into, before returning it to his pack.
Caradoc shouted in anger at Airk, but he was forced to deflect Ma’non’go’s thrusting trident. Forced back on his heels, Caradoc managed to parry Ma’non’go’s first few stabs until he regained his balance. Livid with rage, he swung his sword in a horizontal slash that might have taken Ma’non’go’s head off, but the Olman warrior skilfully ducked underneath it. Caradoc tried to bring his sword back for an overhead strike, but Ma’non’go was faster. Lunging forward, he tore a long gash into Caradoc’s thigh, causing Caradoc’s trousers to turn a deep crimson as blood poured from his wound. Caradoc cried out in pain, suddenly falling off balance. Ma’non’go quickly followed up by slashing his arms, causing him to drop his sword. As Caradoc reeled from the blows, Ma’non’go brought the butt of his trident squarely into the side of Caradoc’s head, causing him to collapse senseless.
Ma’non’go might have finished Caradoc, but he realized he probably didn’t have the time. He was lucky that Caradoc was upset and distracted by the keep’s flames and the theft of his precious regalia, and wasn’t wearing all the armor he normally would have, making him less effective than he’d normally be. The companions’ plan depended on speed, as they had to find the Crown and the conspiracy’s documents and escape before the conspirators could stop them.
Ma’non’go only paused to wipe the blood off his trident before he ran out of the room after Airk.
The other companions were grateful that Theran had described the layout of the keep to them, and told them where the conspiracy’s documents were kept. They ran up a second staircase further away from the main hall, running up to Caradoc’s study, where Theran told them the conspiracy’s documents were kept. A couple of the conspirators tried to stop them, but Revafour and Weimar easily cut them down.
The companions emerged into an upstairs corridor lined with several doors. The corridor had three staircases, two of them at either end. The third staircase was in the middle of the hallway, which the companions had come up. Theran guided them along the corridor unerringly to their destination.
“Just through there, my lady,” he said to Seline, pointing to the second-last door to the companions’ right. “Finally, you can-look out!” he said, stopping in surprise as Xeravho materialized between the companions and the door they sought. The serpentine mage stared coldly at Theran and the companions, the way a viper might eye a particularly juicy collection of mice, before he raised the wand in his hand and began to chant.
A bitterly cold wave of ice shards and crystalline motes dancing in white light flew towards the companions from Xeravho’s wand. Chanting frantically, Theran cast a spell of his own, releasing a wave of gold and black light from his hands. Theran’s light wave collided with the wave of cold coming from Xeravho’s wand, dispelling it. The wave of ice and cold vanished, and Weimar and Revafour charged at Xeravho, their weapons raised.
Xeravho hastily backed up as he thought of what to do. He hadn’t been expecting a battle this day, and most of the spells he’d prepared were for interrogation, not combat. He might have cast a spell on one or the other of the warriors advancing on him, but he wasn’t sure if he could finish it before they reached him. Realizing he was out of options, Xeravho chanted a quick spell and simply vanished, disappearing before Revafour or Weimar reached him.
At that moment, Ma’non’go and Airk emerged from the room further down the hall that held Caradoc’s regalia. They ran to down the hall to join Theran and their friends as Amyalla walked up to the door Theran indicated to her. Amyalla inspected the door, and was surprised to see that it wasn’t locked or trapped. She pulled at the knob, but found that it wouldn’t turn.
“A wizard’s lock,” she muttered in annoyance.
Seline chanted a spell, and a magical sigil appeared on the door, colored a deep green. It suddenly shattered, and Amyalla looked back at Seline, who smiled and winked. Amyalla returned her smile as she opened the door and walked into the elaborate study behind it. A large, elaborate desk took point of pride in the room, with a locked cabinet on one side of it. It didn’t take Amyalla long to open the cabinet’s lock, or to disarm the poisoned needle trap that protected it. The cabinet contained a series of neatly organized papers, which Seline picked up and held out to Theran for confirmation.
“Right, that’s all of them,” Theran said. He gave them to Luna, who stuffed the letters into her pack. “Now hurry, we need to get going!”
Leaving the study behind them, the companions and Theran hurried down the staircase at the far end of the hallway.
“Do you have the Crown?” Weimar asked Airk as the companions and Theran reached the bottom of the steps.
“Safe and sound,” he said with a smile, gesturing towards his pack. “All we have to do now is head for Idee to warn them of the cabal’s plot. Once that’s done, we can finally return to Flinthold.”
As the companions made their way out of the keep, they saw how much of it had been damaged by the flames. The surviving conspirators had managed to get it under control, but many of them were suffering from smoke inhalation and burns. The only conspirator who could have stopped them was Xeravho, and he’d mysteriously disappeared.
“No time to waste, then,” Weimar said as he led his friends across the keep’s courtyard to the stables some distance away. “What are we going to do with…” he said, lowering his voice as he came up to Seline and gesturing towards Theran.
“I’ll tell him-“ Seline said, before she and Weimar both looked up at their companions’ astonished cries. A bolt of livid blue-white lightning seemed to flash out of nowhere and struck Theran head-on, killing him instantly. His smoking corpse collapsed to the ground as the companions gathered back to back, raising their weapons in alarm.
At first, the companions couldn’t anyone who could have attacked them, but then a single figure came into view. The man was dressed in black robes threaded with silver demonic runes, a thick purple cloak with symbols of protection woven into it, jeweled golden wristbands and an amulet with an opal the size of a goblin’s hand. He was tall and imposing, thickly built, with a surprisingly gaunt and narrow clean-shaven face framed by a man of thick black hair. What caught the companions’ attention was the man’s eyes, which blazed with rage one moment and smouldered with repressed hatred the next. Power seemed to be almost tangible around him, almost as intent as the stare he fixed the companions with.
Luna, Ma’non’go and especially Seline paled in horror as they saw the man, and their friends realized just how much trouble they were in.
Reydrich Faustin Del Naelax was one of the most powerful wizards in the entire Great Kingdom, perhaps second only to Xaene, the court archmage to Overking Ivid V himself. He was widely feared even among the murderous, manipulative Aerdi nobility. They feared him not only for his terrifying magical power, but his explosive temper that stood out even among the men of House Naelax. Rumors flew about the horrific fates who befell those who crossed him, rumors that Reydrich never denied. Even other Naelaxians such as Chelor and Ivid preferred not to cross him if at all possible.
“Run…” Seline said to her friends, who glanced at her in surprise as Reydrich approached. “It’s all you can do…I’ll try to…”
Seline wanted to say that she’d hold Reydrich off, but she knew she stood almost no chance against him. He had a good two and a half times her power as a wizard, and the best she could was likely delay him for a few minutes while her friends ran for their lives. It wouldn’t matter, though-Reydrich would just as easily track and kill them all too.
Her companions understood it too, and she knew they’d never leave her to die. Luna and Seline each began a spell as their friends raised their weapons to charge at Reydrich.
It never got that far. The companions expected Reydrich to cast a spell at them, but all he did was reach into a pocket and pull out a small stone. He almost casually tossed the stone at them before any of them could react. It easily bounced off Airk’s shield and fell to the ground. The companions were about to attack when the stone suddenly shone with a sickly green light. Glancing at it, the companions saw a magical symbol on the stone, glowing with a sickly green light.
As he looked at the symbol, Revafour felt a crushing weight on his shoulders, even as a crippling tension began in his head and his chest. Dropping his sword, he sank to his knees, barely able to move. He realized it was futile to resist Reydrich, and that he was entirely at the archmage’s mercy.
Glancing at his fallen sword, and then up at the slowly advancing archmage, he began to wonder what the point even was in living. Reydrich was so much more powerful, intelligent and determined than him.
How could he possibly even try to compare?
Glancing around, he saw that most of his friends came to the same realization. They knelt passively on the ground along with him, recognizing the same truth he did.
Only Weimar and Amyalla were still standing. At first, Revafour thought they were too stupid to realize that they couldn’t defeat Reydrich, but then he realized they were smarter than he gave them credit for when they fled. Let them run-it wouldn’t matter in the end when Reydrich caught them.
Revafour and the rest of his friends sat quietly as Reydrich cast a spell. Three large, stinking ogres, each seven feet of pure muscle and power, seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Reydrich cast another spell, bringing another three ogres into existence. At first, Revafour thought Reydrich would have the ogres kill the companions-it was no more than they deserved, after all-but instead the ogres forced the companions to their feet and placed them in shackles.
Meekly, the companions let themselves be dragged along by the ogres as Reydrich led them towards a large, elaborate carriage drawn by four jet-black horses. The ogres forced the companions into a locked cell built into the carriage, taking their equipment, while Reydrich climbed into a plush, luxurious compartment containing a fine selection of chilled wines and food fit for the Overking himself. The ogres put the companions’ equipment in a large trunk at the back of the coach, and then vanished as Reydrich dismissed them. Finally, Reydrich rang a bell inside his compartment, signalling the driver to leave. The driver whipped up the horses, and they were soon on their way.
Revafour knew the companions couldn’t hope to escape, but it didn’t matter.
Everything was right with the world, as it should be.
To survive on the treacherous stage that was Aerdi high society, Xavener knew he had to not only know his lines but those of his fellow actors as well. He prided himself on being aware of what the script called for and how he could rewrite it when needed.
Reydrich was one of the rare exceptions to Xavener’s understanding. The wizard’s foul temper and great wizardly power made him dangerous to deal with. If he decided he didn’t like whoever approached him, he’d turn them into an ant and literally crush them like one. Xavener took a dreadful risk in approaching Reydrich to divine what Caradoc and Xeravho’s cabal was doing, and to capture the Company of the Silver Wolf for him. Most people wouldn’t dare harm the heir to the head of House Darmen, but Reydrich hardly cared about the consequences if he did.
Even so, Xavener knew he had an edge in dealing with Reydrich that most people didn’t. House Darmen was by far the wealthiest of Aerdy’s Celestial Houses. Powerful wizardry often required vast sums of money. Xavener offered Reydrich such a sum, and so the mage agreed to carry out Xavener’s task. Now, the two men were relaxing in a sitting room of the Darmen family estate outside Zelradton, the Crown of Arumdina sitting on a table between them.
“Where’s Norreck in all this?” Reydrich demanded, his glare seeming to pierce right through Xavener. “Why’d he entrust you with this?”
“My father’s in Zelradton on business with House Torquann,” Xavener said truthfully. He suspected Reydrich had cast some mind-reading spell to understand his thoughts, and he didn’t dare lie to the wizard. Reydrich might use the lie as an excuse to incinerate him. “He’ll be away for another couple of days, so suffice to say this is my own initiative.”
“So House Darmen can be the ones to lead the attack against the Iron League,” Reydrich said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “And in a way that can’t be traced back to Norreck. That makes you expendable, doesn’t it?”
“We’ve no desire to supplant Naelax in leading any invasion of the League,” Xavener said. “It’s only right that the House of the Herzog and the Overking be the ones to gain the glory and the wealth if such an invasion happens.”
Reydrich’s eyes narrowed as Xavener finished speaking, and the younger man could hear his heartbeat in his ears.
“Rightly so,” Reydrich said. He fell silent for several moments, as if considering what to say next. Xavener knew Reydrich had little sympathy for Chelor, who he considered an incompetent buffoon. Xavener also knew Reydrich didn’t care much for Ivid V either, hating the Overking for passing him over as Herzog in favor of Chelor.
That was what Xavener had counted on in approaching Reydrich.
“What about this bauble?” Reydrich said, gesturing towards the Crown of Arumdina. “Planning to start a collection similar to Caradoc’s? Or are you just looking for a profit?”
“Never you mind,” Xavener said, as his own eyes narrowed. “It’s my concern and none of yours!”
“Its magic is incredibly powerful,” Reydrich said. “I ought to take it as payment for everything I’ve done for you.”
“The thirty thousand gold ivids I’m paying you are ample reward,” Xavener said, referring to the Great Kingdom’s gold coinage, “particularly since you didn’t capture all of those adventurers.”
Reydrich’s eyes blazed at that. He grasped the arms of his chair, as his cheeks turned a deep, angry red.
“Better to lose your crown than your soul,” Reydrich said as he stood up.
Xavener stood up to match him, not backing down an inch.
“Family ties are a wonderful thing, aren’t they?” Xavener said with a sneer.
“You’re fool enough to think I side with Caradoc, or Xeravho, or any of those other-“ Reydrich said, before his mind-reading spell showed him that wasn’t what Xavener was thinking about.
“I know all about it, of course,” Xavener said. “About your true relations to the rest of House Naelax.”
Reydrich felt his blood run cold as he realized the implications of what Xavener was saying. His mind-reading spell confirmed that the younger man wasn’t bluffing.
“I could disgrace you overnight,” Xavener continued. “You could kill me where you stood, of course, but if you did that the knowledge would be made public. And all your power wouldn’t be able to change that.”
Reydrich stared at Xavener with pure hatred, but he said and did nothing. Again, his mind-reading spell showed him Xavener wasn’t bluffing.
Xavener reached into his pocket and pulled out a bulging pouch. Wordlessly, he tossed it to Reydrich, who glanced inside. The glitter of thousands of gold ivids worth of diamonds shone back at Reydrich, who placed the pouch in his pocket.
“I believe our business is done,” Xavener said, his expression stone calm.
“This isn’t over, boy,” Reydrich said, before he chanted a spell and promptly vanished.
His eyes seemed to linger for a second after he disappeared, staring at Xavener with poisonous loathing.
Xavener breathed a sigh of relief as he felt his heartbeat start to slow down. His sides and back were uncomfortably cold from the sweat pouring down them, and he winced at the tension in his chest. Dealing with Reydrich was a harrowing experience, and one he hoped he wouldn’t have to repeat for a very long time.
He felt his frustrations drain away as he went the next room to converse with another very special guest. That guest was securely bound in her chair, and her mouth was stuffed with a thick gag. Seline began struggling as Xavener approached her, smiling that same smile he had when he’d met her at the autumn ball three days ago. His men had locked the rest of the companions in the dungeons beneath the Darmen estate, but he wanted a few words with Seline before she joined them.
“I have to say, I admire your cleverness,” Xavener said to Seline as she pulled fruitlessly against her restraints. “I wondered how you might steal the documents Caradoc and Xeravho need for their plan, not to mention your precious gnomish crown. More the pity it wasn’t enough. Don’t blame yourself, though. No matter what you tried, I would have won in the end.”
“This venture’s been more profitable than I could have expected. We Darmens pride ourselves on recognizing the value of things, and that crown of yours is worth some eighty thousand gold ivids…or possibly more if a gnomish king could tap into its power,” Xavener said, his eyes gleaming at the possibilities. “House Garasteth will pay back my buying your debt when I turn you and your sister over to them, and the rest of your friends will fetch fine slave prices. Best of all, the plans of Chelor’s cabal will be ruined once I arrange for the Iron League to find their papers.”
Seline tried to mumble something through her gag, and Xavener understood her perfectly.
“The halfling and that drunken blonde man will save you?” he said with a smirk. “Let them try-the puny huts of Caradoc and his cabal don’t have the defenses my humble home does. But don’t worry-they’ll join the rest of your friends in the slave markets!”
Xavener smiled as Seline thrashed in fury, shouting invectives at him through her gag, as he walked over to the door leading to the outer landing. Opening it, he gestured to the armored men he’d posted as guards to keep anyone from disturbing him.
“Take her down with the rest of her friends,” Xavener said as he gestured Seline, “and then find the castellan. I dare say I deserve to celebrate!”
Xavener walked off along the landing, laughing triumphantly all the way as visions of castles and crowns danced in his head.
“I’d rather try and break into the Greyhawk Grand Citadel,” Amyalla said to Weimar as they huddled around a fire in a small copse. “If Xavener can afford the services of a wizard that powerful, there’s no way we can get into Xavener’s manor with just the two of us.”
The halfling wrapped her arms around her legs, closing her eyes in shame. She and Weimar were the only members of their group who’d managed to fight off the effects of Reydrich’s magical symbol, and she felt terrible for abandoning her friends. Weimar pointedly reminded her that they would have been slaughtered if they’d tried to fight the wizard, and assured her that he could follow Reydrich’s carriage. She’d gotten completely discouraged when she saw the carriage’s destination, wondering what they could do.
“Actually, there just might be,” Weimar said as he tossed another log onto the fire. “If I’m right, then all the defenses won’t matter one bit.”
Amyalla stared back at Weimar skeptically.
“How do we do get in, then?” she asked.
“We go in the front door,” Weimar said with a twinkle in his eye.
Xavener was all smiles as he considered Weimar and Amyalla kneeling before him. He was perfectly at ease, sitting on a raised thronelike chair, surrounded by some of the manor’s most senior guards, the residing priest of Zilchus and the manor’s castellan. Weimar and Amyalla were helpless and unarmed, as his guards had confiscated their weapons when they’d turned themselves in to the guards at the gate of his manor.
Xavener felt like the Overking at that moment, reveling in the power he felt. He thought back to the castle he’d painted those months ago, the castle he saw so often in his dreams. The Iron League’s remaining intact allowed that dream to continue, and Xavener knew he was another step closer to making it a reality.
“You were both wiser than I’d have given you credit for,” Xavener said to Weimar and Amyalla. “Turning yourselves in saves me the trouble of hunting you down.”
“What else could we do?” Amyalla said, a defeated expression on her face.
“How true,” Xavener said, his smile growing wider.
“Could that lead to some mercy?” Weimar asked, his expression hopeful. “Maybe a last meal, as reward for saving you the trouble of having to find us? My magical flagon can serve the finest of drinks at your bidding, if you like,” Weimar persisted.
Xavener raised an eyebrow, intrigued at how useful such a treasure could be. He turned to his attending priest.
“Find any lies he speaks,” Xavener instructed the priest, who cast a spell to do just that.
“I suppose this flagon of yours is poisonous?” Xavener asked, “able to kill anyone but you who drinks from it?”
“It’s perfectly safe to drink from,” Weimar said, “and the liquor it produces isn’t poisonous or drugged.”
“Every word the truth,” the priest said to Xavener.
Xavener chuckled to himself, realizing he could afford to be generous.
“It won’t be the last meal before your execution,” he said, “but it will be just as fine.”
The meal Xavener served Weimar, Amyalla and his highest-ranking minions was fine indeed, and it was only enhanced by Weimar’s flagon. Weimar started the meal by giving the words of a toast, from which he poured a generous helping of light, sweet wine to Xavener and the rest of the dinner party. The wine tasted delicious, and Xavener and his men soon demanded more. Weimar duly recited another toast, and poured another round of drinks.
Xavener was so pleased with himself that he didn’t notice how little Weimar or Amyalla were drinking, and neither did his minions. Nor did Xavener or his minions notice that the next round of drinks was stronger than the first, or that the third round was even stronger than that. Weimar continued to toast, and continued to pour, even as the strength of the liquor increased every time.
One of the magical flagon’s powers was to continually pour stronger and stronger alcohol.
The other was to keep anyone who drank its alcohol from noticing how each pour was stronger than the last.
Soon, Xavener and his men saw their vision blurring in front of them. They were more concerned with remembering the bawdy songs they were trying to sing than in what Weimar and Amyalla were doing. Dizzy with the alcohol, Xavener thought nothing of his prisoners. The cabal’s papers and the Crown of Arumdina were securely locked in a strongbox he kept on a nearby table, and he’d stored the only key in a secure place before joining his prisoners for their last meal.
The last thing he saw before falling into a blissful stupor was Amyalla tipping her hat, decorated with orchids and lilacs, to him.
The guards standing outside the doors to the House Darmen manor’s feast hall were surprised to see the door open slightly and Xavener looked out at them. Xavener looked as if he’d been enjoying himself, his clothes slightly disheveled and the scent of alcohol thick on him, but he bore the same confident smile he wore when he sat down to dinner.
“I’ve come to an agreement with the prisoners,” Xavener said, looking from one of the guards to the other. “They’re to work for me in exchange for their freedom. Go fetch the rest of the prisoners from the dungeon and return their belongings. They’re to take the estate’s fastest coach for their departure. Escort the halfling and her human friend to join the rest of them.”
“…My lord?” one of the guards asked in surprise.
“…Must I repeat myself?” Xavener said, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
“No, my lord!” the guard said as he turned ashen pale.
“Good,” Xavener said, his cheerful mood returning in an instant. “My men and I are not to be disturbed after that. Is that clear?”
“Of course, my lord,” the other guard said, hastily saluting.
The door closed again, and a few moments passed before Weimar and Amyalla emerged, again closing the door behind them. The guards at the doors to the feast hall summoned some of their fellows to carry out what they thought were Xavener’s orders.
Seline and the rest of the companions felt anger and despair at being locked in the Darmen manor’s dungeon. Those feelings changed to confusion when Xavener’s guards released them and returned their belongings. Their confusion turned to shock when they met up with Weimar and Amyalla in the manor’s stables as Xavener’s coach was prepared for them. Weimar drove the horses, while the rest of the companions climbed into the carriage.
Once the coach was some distance from the manor along the road leading out of Zelradton, the rest of the companions looked askance at Amyalla in the coach.
“How did you get Xavener to let us go?” Airk asked, his face lined with worry. “You didn’t bargain the Crown to-“
Amyalla merely tipped her hat in response, and her friends were startled to see Xavener suddenly sitting in her place. The young nobleman winked at them before fiddling with a ring on his finger, which caused him to turn back to Amyalla. Reaching into her pack, she rummaged for a moment until she found the Crown of Arumdina, which she handed to a grateful Airk. She then retrieved the letters that Chelor’s cabal needed for their plan, which she handed to Luna. Luna began reading them intently, casting a spell to give herself more light as Amyalla spoke.
“I was just lucky Xavener’s on the short side,” Amyalla said. “My hat can only vary my height so much. It’s a good thing it can vary clothes, too-I had to add lifts to my boots.”
“So where’s the real Xavener?” Seline said.
“Likely sleeping one off in his dining room,” Weimar said from the front seat of the coach. The carriage’s front window was left open, and Weimar was listening to the conversation through it. “I always said my flagon would come in handy someday!”
“Shouldn’t we have taken some horses instead of a coach?” Revafour asked.
“We can carry more supplies this way,” Weimar said from the front, “and we’ll need less food for only two horses. These ones are stronger than they look,” he said, gesturing towards the dappled gray horses pulling the coach.
“…You’re right about that,” Revafour said once he’d taken a good look at them. “They look like they’ve got good reserves of speed, too. But where are we headed? We’re not going back to Ekehold the way we came, are we? Xavener and the cabal are both going to be watching it.”
“We were thinking of going straight through the Iron Hills,” Weimar said. “Remember the maps we bought in Ekehold before we entered South Province? They showed some roads we could take through the hills to reach Idee’s northern border fortresses.”
“But what about the conflict we heard about there?” Seline said.
“If we’re lucky, it might have ended by now,” Weimar said. “Even if it’s still going on, we might be able to lose any Aerdi pursuers coming after us.”
“The cabal’s papers also said Count Fedorik’s doing an inspection tour of Idee’s hill fortresses right now, too,” Luna said.
How’d they know that? Ma’non’go said, surprised.
“Aerdi spies have been tracking the Count’s movements,” Luna said, holding up one of the papers she’d been glancing through. “They’ve mapped out his schedule and when he’s due to be assassinated. The entire plan is laid out here…”
“Pity we’ll be ruining it,” Revafour said with a smile.
Most of Revafour’s friends returned his smile, but Seline looked distinctly ill at ease.
“Let me know when the horses need feeding and water,” Revafour called through the carriage’s window to Weimar. “I can help you, and I can take over driving if you need a break.”
“Thanks,” Weimar said with a nod.
Revafour turned back to look at the rest of his friends in the coach. Most of them were discussing how they could watch for pursuers and what they’d do if the coach was attacked. He realized that he was probably the only one who noticed how downcast Seline looked.
He knew why she was so distressed, and wasn’t entirely sure how he should feel about it.
When Xavener woke up the next morning, he was in a foul mood. He didn’t know what angered him more-his hangover, the fact that the adventurers escaped or his own foolishness in trusting them.
Curse me for a damned fool! he thought as he emerged from the privy after expelling the remains of last night’s meal. I was too sure of myself. I let my ego get the better of me, and it could cost me everything!
Now the adventurers were on the loose, taking knowledge of his efforts to ruin the cabal’s conspiracy with them. If Caradoc, Xeravho and any of the rest of the cabal were still alive, they might follow the adventurers’ trail back to him. He didn’t want to think about the trouble that would bring over the short term, and especially over the long term.
Unlocking a cabinet at the other end of his bedroom, Xavener reached inside and pulled open a hidden door in its back wall. Glancing through the various treasures sitting in the hidden compartment, Xavener selected one of the potions and placed it in his pocket. Xavener quickly closed the hidden compartment and locked the cabinet up as he walked to his bedroom door. As he emerged onto the landing, he thought about what he’d say to the cabal members if they came to him, and how his long term plans would have to change.
Xavener was halfway along the upper landing when he heard a commotion coming from the main entrance hall. Running down the stairs, gripping the potion flask in his pocket, he stared hard at the manor’s ashen-faced castellan. Behind the castellan, Xavener could see several of the manor’s staff and a few of the lesser Darmen nobles at the front door. They were gathered around a group of other people bearing something on a stretcher, covered with a white sheet.
“My lord…my lord…it’s…” the castellan said, gasping as much from shock as fatigue.
“What is it?” Xavener said, grasping his shoulder. “Out with it!”
“Your…your father, my lord,” the castellan finally said. “He fell ill in Zelradton, and he was teleported back here to receive care!”
Xavener nodded, suddenly calming. No Aerdi lord, particularly not a head of a Celestial House, would want to be medically treated anywhere except one of his own demesnes where the clerics were dependent on him. He followed the castellan to the crowd at the door, who parted in recognition of him. The castellan pulled the sheet on the stretcher back, and Xavener’s eyes widened at the sight of Norreck, his face ghastly pale and his mouth streaked with blood. He resembled a corpse, and it seemed as though any further trauma would push him into the grave.
Xavener knew he had to act quickly. Looking around, he saw one of the senior priests of Zilchus in Zelradton, who’d accompanied Norreck back to the Darmen manor.
“Can you treat him?” Xavener asked the cleric. “Do you have the correct spells-“
“Not at the moment, my lord,” the cleric said. “I’ll need time to prepare one. It will take several hours-“
“Then do it!” Xavener exclaimed, waving his hands in the air. “And hurry! Find him a suitable place to rest,” he directed two of the manor’s guards, who led the cleric away. Taking a deep breath, he turned to some of the other guards who were bearing Norreck on a litter.
“Take him up to his chambers and lay him in bed. Do not let anyone except myself or Jonnass,” he said, referring to the senior cleric of Zilchus, “in under any circumstances. Guard my father with your lives. Is that clear?”
The guards saluted Xavener before they marched to carry out his orders. The rest of the servants and lesser nobles began to disperse, reassured at Xavener taking charge of the situation.
Xavener raced upstairs, knowing he had to hurry. Returning to his bedroom, he opened the hidden compartment in the cabinet and took out a small pouch full of the special colored spices he’d been adding to the meals he and his father had been eating. He also picked up a beautiful sunstone, one that happened to be cut just like the stone Norreck carried as protection against poisons.
Xavener’s sunstone was enchanted too, although its enchantment was much weaker than the one Norreck’s stone carried. Xavener’s stone merely carried a petty spell, first developed by the wizard Nystul, that made whatever it was cast on detect as magical. It conferred no other powers, but Xavener didn’t need it to.
Placing the sunstone in his pocket, he left his room and walked to Norreck’s bedchamber, which was already being watchfully guarded. The guards saluted Xavener as he came up to them, and one of them unlocked the door so he could enter. Xavener then entered the room and locked the door from the inside, so he would not be disturbed.
Norreck lay in his bed, his breathing shallow. He was only sleeping lightly, as he started at the sound of Xavener closing and locking the bedroom door. His eyes opened and lit up in recognition at the sight of his son. He tried to raise his hand, but only managed to get it up a few inches before it fell again. He fell into convulsions, coughing up blood as he desperately tried to stop.
Xavener was at his side in an instant, holding his hand and whispering reassurances into his ear. Norreck calmed at that, and smiled faintly as Xavener poured each of them a glass of water from a carafe on a nearby nightstand. Xavener added some of the colored, glittering spice to each of their drinks, and took a long swig for several seconds before helping Norreck do the same.
“Everything will be alright, Father,” Xavener said, a reassuring look on his face. “House Darmen’s fortunes will flourish brighter than ever. I’ll help the crowned sun shine, and House Darmen will shine with it. That I promise you, as a son of House Darmen, a son of the Great Kingdom and most of all as your son.”
Norreck smiled happily at that, before a look of pain and horror crossed his face.
Xavener stared impassively back at him as two tears formed, one in each of his eyes, as he watched Norreck’s eyes close for the last time.
He switched his sunstone with Norreck’s, placing the one that guarded against venom in his own pocket.
An hour or more passed after Xavener entered the room before the guards outside heard a wailing cry of grief come from Norreck’s bedroom. The guards kicked the door open and ran into the room, their swords raised. They found Xavener kneeling on the bed next to Norreck’s corpse, clasping his father’s dead hand.
“My lord…are you…” one of the guards said, placing his hand on Xavener’s shoulder.
Xavener started as if awoken from a trance. He looked around, seeming like he was in a daze, before he saw the two guards looking at him.
He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Taking several deep breaths, he tried again and finally managed to say something.
“Wake Jonnass,” Xavener said, seeming like he could barely keep his composure. “There’s no healing him now. We…”
Xavener took another deep breath, and it seemed like it took all of his willpower to keep his aristocratic calm.
“…we must prepare the pyre,” he said.
At Xavener’s request, the ceremony commending Norreck to Zilchus’s embrace and consigning his oerthly remains to the funeral pyre took less than an hour. The servants, guards and lesser nobles who attended the funeral thought that Xavener seemed almost overwhelmed by his father’s loss. When he said that he wanted to get the horrible experience over as soon as he could, they easily accepted his statement.
Neither Norreck’s brother or sister had the opportunity to attend the funeral, but that was common practice among Aerdi nobles. The longer a deceased noble’s relatives delayed staking their claim to the decedent’s property, titles or lands, the greater the relatives’ risk of losing anything they stood to inherit. Some ninety minutes after Norreck’s death, Xavener had already sent a petition to Herzog Chelor asking for recognition of his claim as the new overall head of House Darmen, and his right to his father’s estates and wealth. He was fortunate that he was an only child, which saved him having to dispute with any siblings over the estate. As he predicted, Norreck’s will left everything to him.
By noon, Xavener gave orders that he was not to be disturbed except for the most urgent of matters. He told the guards, servants and other nobles that he needed time to grieve, and to work on a fitting portrait for the late patriarch of House Darmen. Again, they accepted his explanation without question.
By half after one o’clock, the visitors Xavener was expecting arrived. The castellan barely had time to tell him that Caradoc and Xeravho wanted to see him before they burst into his bedroom, glaring suspiciously at him.
Xavener dismissed his castellan, leaving him to face the Naelaxian nobles.
“What do you want, bursting into my house like this? I’m in mourning, and-“ he said, before Caradoc cut him off.
“You know damn well why we’re here,” Caradoc said, seething with rage. His eyes flared angrily, and Xavener suspected that if Xeravho wasn’t also there, Caradoc would have tried to murder him on the spot. “You set those adventurers on us, and-“
“Adventurers?” Xavener said, an incredulous look on his face. “You mean those Cranden maidens and their little entourage? Why would you think I-“
“We know you dealt with their wizard,” Xeravho said, his expression as icily calm as Caradoc’s was fiery with anger. “People saw you speaking to her at your autumn ball.”
*-“We were discussing her intent to purchase some sort of royal relic,” Xavener said, his expression showing the annoyance at the Naelaxians’ intrusion and questions. “Didn’t her gnome and halfling friends make similar inquiries?”
Caradoc took a step forward, but Xeravho put a hand on his arm. Xeravho fixed Xavener with a cold, penetrating glare, which made Xavener wonder if Xeravho could see into his soul. Likely he could-Xavener suspected that Xeravho was employing a mind-reading spell to try and detect any lies he said.
“The Cranden maidens and their friends stole something valuable from us,” Xeravho said calmly, “and it’s of the utmost importance we get it back.”
“I’m as much a victim of them as you are,” Xavener said, shaking his head. “They stole my finest traveling coach when I had them brought here. For all I know, they’re halfway to the Iron Hills by now!”
Caradoc and Xeravho looked at one another in alarm, realizing they needed to hurry. Xeravho, however, couldn’t resist one last question.
“Why did you have them brought here?” he asked.
“To discuss how they might help me in exchange for my purchasing the debt Cranden owes to Garasteth,” Xavener replied. “They abused my hospitality and betrayed me in my own house!”
Caradoc looked at Xeravho expectantly, and Xeravho thought about what to do. His mind-reading spell showed Xavener wasn’t lying. At best, he might have been exaggerating about getting the adventurers to help him, but that didn’t prove that Xavener was behind their theft of the cabal’s documents. He suspected Xavener was involved, but he had no proof of anything Xavener might have done.
“We’re wasting time,” Xeravho said as he turned to leave. Caradoc looked at him in disbelief, until Xeravho glared back over his shoulder.
The snakelike look in Xeravho’s eyes made Caradoc wish Xavener’s guards hadn’t confiscated his sword, but he got the message.
“This isn’t over,” Caradoc said, giving Xavener a threatening glare as he followed Xeravho.
The Naelaxians shut the door behind them, leaving Xavener alone.
Reaching into his pocket, Xavener smiled at the bottle he pulled out. It contained the potion he’d drunk when he’d first heard the castellan’s frantic footsteps approaching his bedroom. The potion made anything he said sound truthful, even to the point of shielding him from spells to read his thoughts or detect lies.
Xavener thought of the alchemist he befriended in Kalstrand some two years ago. The man was brilliant at magic and chemistry, a credit to his profession, but utterly hopeless at managing a business. He’d been head over ears in debt when Xavener paid off his creditors, and was so grateful he eagerly made whatever potions and concoctions Xavener asked of him.
They’d proven just as valuable now as they had two years ago.
Xavener knew that the endgame was approaching. Whatever might come of any conflict between the adventurers and the Naelaxians pursuing them, as the new head of House Darmen he was well-placed to meet it.
He smiled, ever so briefly, as he resumed working on his painting of Norreck. The painting featured Norreck as golden and resplendent, fiercely loyal to Aerdi’s crowned sun.
It was only noticeable to anyone who studied the painting very carefully, but that crowned sun was already starting to set.
Over The Hills And Far Away
“They’re coming,” Luna said to her friends as she came out of her trance. She’d just cast a divination spell to determine whether their enemies were after them, and her expression was grim as she blew out the incense candle she used as part of the spell.
“Which of them is it?” Revafour asked. “Xavener, or Caradoc’s cabal?”
“The cabal,” Luna said. “They’ll be here in a matter of hours. Are you sure it was wise for us to take the coach instead of the horses?” she said, gesturing back to where the dappled grey horses were eating the food Weimar and Airk had just given them. “The cabal’s horses can catch-“
“The coach had more of the feed and supplies the horses needed,” Revafour said. “It’s the middle of autumn. Any horses we took would have a much harder time feeding themselves in the wild. At least this way, we can carry their food with us. The cabal won’t have to travel as far to get back to Zelradton-they wouldn’t need it as much.”
“I suppose,” Luna said, shaking her head, “but we’re still vulnerable out here. We caught the cabal by surprise last time. How’re we going to fight them when they’re prepared?”
“More easily than you might think,” Airk said as he and Weimar came up with some of the things they’d found in the traveling coach, “if you’re willing to be creative.”
Revafour and Luna contemplated the various odds and ends their friends brought them.
These included fine pewter cups, silken cords and some thick fur blankets.
And some bottles of high-class absinthe and overproofed rum.
Caradoc led a group of his fellow cabal members along the path Xeravho said was the fastest way to catch the companions. The wizard used his spells to track the companions, and when he’d told Caradoc where to go he’d fixed the knight with an almost hypnotic look that robbed Caradoc of any desire to question him.
Caradoc contemplated the forces he and Xeravho had brought with them. There were half a dozen fellow warriors, a respected priest of Hextor and a pair of assassins who would act as liaisons to their spies in Idee once the plot began. Their party wasn’t much larger than that of the Cranden women, but Caradoc also noted the long scroll Xeravho put into his pack before the cabal set out.
He would have asked Xeravho what the scroll contained, but Xeravho’s cold, serpentine stare convinced him it wouldn’t have been a good idea.
“Where will you be coming back?” Airk asked Seline and Weimar as they prepared to set out.
“Right about there,” Seline said, gesturing with her staff at the spot where she and Weimar would return when they teleported. “Are you sure this will work?”
“We need every advantage we can get,” Airk said as he pulled the Crown of Arumdina out of his pack. “Hopefully there are still enough of them around at this time of year.”
The companions were making their stand at the top of a wooded hill. As the rest of the companions continued their preparations, Seline and Weimar walked down the hill in one direction, Weimar carrying one of the heavy fur blankets they found in the coach. Airk walked down the hill in another direction, glancing around for the telltale signs. Airk held tightly to the Crown as he walked, praying to Baervan Wildwanderer and Segojan Oerthcaller, the gnomish gods of nature and the oerth.
Baervan and Segojan seemed to answer his prayers, as he found what he was looking for after only half an hour of searching. He came upon a burrow carved into the side of a good-sized hillock, one with several entrances. Nodding, he set down his shield and held the Crown of Arumdina out in his hands as he started to speak.
Airk’s speech was nothing his human or halfling friends would have recognized. It was a series of growls and barks that his fellow gnomes would have recognized as a way of speaking to burrowing animals, a gift from Baervan and Segojan to the gnomish race.
A powerfully built animal with black, white and brown fur, a wedge-shaped body and dangerous-looking claws emerged from the burrow. It growled threateningly when it first came out, ready to defend its den, but then it saw that Airk was a gnome. More than that, it recognized the power the Crown of Arumdina held, power that came from Garl Glittergold himself. Garl and the rest of the gnomish gods had a long affiliation with the world’s burrowing mammals, and the creature instinctively respected them.
Airk greeted the creature, which any self-respecting gnome would recognize as a badger. The badger returned in kind, asking him why he was here.
Airk sighed. He was going to ask the badger and its kin for help, but a part of him didn’t want to. He hated the idea of endangering the badgers, but he and his friends needed every advantage he could get. His human and halfling friends were risking themselves for his sake, and it wasn’t fair to expect them to be the only ones to face danger. Airk’s asking the badger for help was well in keeping with gnomish tradition, too. Gnomes and burrowing mammals had always been friends, and helped each other countless times over the centuries.
The badger listened attentively to Airk’s request. It dismissed his apology for disturbing it, saying how it was honored to help a son of the gnomish gods. Finally, it told him to return to his friends, saying it would join him there with the help he requested.
Airk knew that seeking the help of burrowing mammals was an old gnomish tradition. He knew that he was trying to return a sacred gnomish treasure back to its rightful home. He knew that, as his adventuring friends had helped him so far, he would help them with things that were important to them.
But as he walked back to rejoin his friends, he heard that same voice at the back of his mind again, the voice he’d first heard in the Wizard’s Hat Inn back in Greyhawk.
When the companions slew the gnomish warlord Kalrek Burunne and defeated his minions several months ago, one of the treasures they’d found was a scroll containing several arcane spells. Seline had copied some of those spells into her spellbook, but the scroll also included a couple of spells she didn’t have the power to cast on her own yet. One of those spells allowed the caster to teleport themselves and anyone nearby. Seline lamented that she wouldn’t be able to add it to her spellbook, as she’d need it to get herself and Weimar back to their friends. She could cast it off the scroll, but that would expend the spell’s energy and cause it to fade away for good.
She stood by anxiously as Weimar scanned the horizon with his spyglass. They stood atop a hillock some distance away from where their friends had set up camp, and Weimar had a fire going with some damp grass. The damp grass smoked heavily as it burned, and soon a steady plume was rising above the hillock. Weimar kept the fur blanket he’d taken from the coach nearby, ready to use it at a moment’s notice.
Seline was glad she’d cast a spell to shield herself and Weimar from being tracked by scrying wizards. She knew it was likely that Xeravho or any other wizard likely already knew where the companions were, but she also knew those wizards could only scry so many times in a day. Hopefully they’d only spared some of their magical resources for scrying, saving the rest of it for battle when the time came.
Finally, Weimar reacted.
“They’re coming,” he said, still looking through his spyglass. “It’s strange, though. There’s just under a dozen of them. You’d think they’d have more support with them, especially since we’ve had time to set our defenses…”
“May I see?” Seline asked, before Weimar handed her his spyglass and pointed her to where the cabal’s party was gathering.
She saw Caradoc instructing the party, and she saw Xeravho take a scroll out of his pack before unrolling it.
Nodding, she told Weimar what to tell their friends.
After Seline put Weimar’s spyglass back in his pack, she reached into her own pack and took out the scroll containing the teleportation spell. As she did, Weimar picked up the fur blanket and held it out over the fire. He let the smoke build up under the fire before pulling it away and allowing the smoke to plume up into the air. Once it did, he put the blanket back, blocking the smoke again.
The Flan had been using smoke signals to communicate over long distances since well before the Great Migrations. Depending on the length and patterns of the smoke that was released into the air, the signaller could share all kinds of information. Some Flan still used the technique in the modern day, most notably those who lived in Tenh and various independent communities. They’d also taught it to some other peoples, notably some elves and halflings, and human Suel and Oerids.
As Revafour pointed out when he suggested it, the nobles of the Aerdi cabal were unlikely to know what the smoke signaling meant, much less take it seriously. He and Weimar both had experience using it as part of their wilderness training, and they used it now. Revafour was back at the companions’ camp reading Weimar’s signals, and they knew what to expect.
When he was done, Weimar poured a pail of water over the fire. Picking up the pail and the blanket, he walked over to Seline as she read from the scroll and put his free hand on her shoulder.
They vanished once the spell took effect, returned to their friends.
It was time.
A Hill To Die On
Revafour saw the first four attackers coming up the hill, and was surprised to see that they were orcs. Weimar didn’t mention the cabal having any of the pig-faced monsters with them when he’d viewed them with his spyglass, but Revafour suspected the cabal’s wizard had summoned them. It didn’t matter anyway, as Revafour raised his bow and fired at the approaching orcs. His aim was true and he dropped two of the orcs immediately. They screamed in agony as they died, before their bodies tumbled down the hill.
The two surviving orcs fired their own bows at Revafour, but he stood in the midst of a group of cedar trees. The orcs’ arrows stuck harmlessly into the trees on either side of Revafour, and they cursed as they tried to reload their bows. Revafour was quicker on the draw, though, and soon the two orcs suffered the same fates as their kin.
Revafour heard orcish screams and curses coming from elsewhere on the hill, and he smiled. Weimar and Amyalla were covering those other parts of their hill with their bow and sling, and Ma’non’go and Airk waited to support either of them if any of the orcs managed to get past the companions’ missiles. Luna and Seline were waiting in reserve in case of an emergency, or if the cabal tried something unexpected. They didn’t dare unleash their magic too soon, and the companions had to do with non-magical solutions until then.
Revafour nocked another arrow to his bow. He knew the orcs were just fodder to show the cabal the companions’ defenses, and that the battle was just beginning.
Amyalla cursed as she saw the four men approaching where she was concealed. Three of them were likely warriors, dressed in plate armor and carrying dangerous-looking swords or axes along with shields decorated with the crowned boar’s head heraldry of South Province. The fourth was dressed in banded armor and carried a spiked flail on a chain, and his shield bore the image of six arrows, all pointing downwards in a fan.
The halfling realized to her dismay that the man with the flail was obviously a priest of Hextor. For some reason, the sling bullets she’d flung at them after slaying the orcs always seemed to miss. She suspected that the priest had cast some sort of protection spell on the warriors to guard them against attacks as they approached.
Amyalla thought about what to do next. The cabal no doubt knew that she was concealed in the bushes, given that her sling stones came from there. She couldn’t fight them on her own, so she knew she had to run. That would draw the warriors after her…and hopefully into the tripwires she’d put together with the silken cords the companions found in the wagon. Of course, the priest might have cast a spell to detect those tripwires.
That was the point, after all.
“The tripwires are between the bushes,” Sezion, the Hextorian cleric, said to the armed knights that surrounded him as they watched the halfling flee. “All we need to do is go straight through the shrubs,” he continued, before gesturing with his flail. The knights nodded as one, running up the hill in formation. They were using a classic Hextorian tactic, where a cleric cast a spell that gave an aura of protection from goodly foes to everyone in its radius. The warriors then all charged together, staying within the radius of the cleric’s spell.
A series of angry growls were the only warning Sezion and the knights received before a group of angry badgers suddenly set on them. The badgers were hidden in the bushes along with Amyalla, and they caught the knights completely by surprise. The badgers weren’t the only things that caught the knights by surprise, as Airk suddenly materialized out of nowhere and viciously attacked them to help his animal kin. Seline had cast an invisibility spell on him before the battle began, while the badgers dug tunnels to hide in. When the knights moved to avoid the tripwires Amyalla had set up, they stepped into a perfect point for Airk and the badgers to ambush them.
One of the knights, howling in pain as a badger tore into the back of his ankle, stumbled off to the side and into one of the tripwires Amyalla had set up. His yell grew even louder as the ground gave way into a shallow pit and he landed in a cluster of wooden stakes. He was killed instantly as one of the stakes pierced his eye.
Placing heated and sharpened wooden stakes in concealed shallow pits was a common halfling’s trick, one that Amyalla recommended to her friends. The badgers Airk recruited were a valuable help in quickly digging the pits Amyalla needed.
Another knight took the head off one of the badgers attacking him, but he barely got his shield up in time to block a furious Airk’s morning star. He stumbled back from the force of the blow, lowering his shield. Airk swung at the knight again, this time hitting him in the face and striking him dead. Finally, he advanced on the third knight, blocking the knight’s axe blow with his shield before the knight did the same to Airk’s morning star strike.
As Airk and the knight fought, Sezion gripped his holy symbol and began a spell, one that would make the gnome’s armor so hot it would burn him alive. He’d barely begun the spell when he felt pain lance all through his body, and his chant ended in a pained scream. Whirling around, leading with his flail, Sezion clipped Amyalla on the shoulder as she backed away from him, the dagger she’d stabbed him with dripping with blood.
Sezion might have killed Amyalla, especially with Airk still battling the last knight, but he stopped short as Revafour came between them. Revafour swung his sword down a vicious slash that might have cut Sezion in two, but the priest still carried Hextor’s evil blessings. He dodged Revafour’s slash and retaliated with a vicious flail strike that caught Revafour in the ribs, making him cry out in pain.
Weimar covered Ma’non’go with his bow as his Olman friend advanced toward Caradoc and the three knights flanking him. One of the knights, dodging Weimar’s arrow, hit the silken tripwire Amyalla had prepared and landed in the spiked pit the halfling and the badgers had prepared. The stakes tore into the knight’s throat, and he died in an instant. A second knight was hamstrung by the stakes, and Weimar put an arrow into his throat. The third knight blocked Weimar’s attack with his shield and charged forward, screaming a war cry, and Weimar quickly set down his bow.
He’d just picked up his axe and shield when he felt a sting in his arm that forced him to drop his axe. Glancing down in alarm, he saw a small dart protruding from just above his wrist. Weimar grabbed the dart out with his teeth and pulled it out, before spitting it out as he picked up his axe again. He came down to meet the knight, who blocked his first axe strike with his shield.
The knight cut Weimar in the shin, and he felt pain from the blow. That pain, however, was nothing compared to the agony that coursed through his body as the venom that was on the dart took effect.
As Weimar cried out, convulsing from the venom’s effects, he saw another man in a black cloak approaching him. The man had a face crisscrossed with jigsaw-like scars, and he held a dagger in one hand and a dart in the other. Both weapons dripped with a viscous, sickly dark-green liquid.
Weimar regained control of himself and blocked the knight’s next sword thrust with his shield, but he knew he was in serious trouble.
Ma’non’go knew that Caradoc would be a much more dangerous opponent than he was when they fought at the cabal’s manor. Caradoc was dressed in heavy plate armor, and carried a large broadsword and shield a bearing the crowned boar’s head of South Province. Caradoc also had a murderous look in his eyes, one that promised the Olman warrior a slow, painful death for his previous humiliation. Ma’non’go knew he’d offended Caradoc’s warrior pride, and their clash would only end with one of them dead.
Caradoc screamed a battle cry as he swung his sword in a slash that would have taken Ma’non’go’s leg off if he hadn’t dodged in time. Deflecting Caradoc’s sword with his trident, Ma’non’go brought his weapon back the other way before thrusting it at Caradoc, who easily blocked it with his shield. The two men broke off and circled each other before attacking again, and the sounds of their weapons clashing tore through the air.
Their battle carried Ma’non’go and Caradoc back up the hill to more even ground, and they took a moment to regain their footing before coming at each other again. Ma’non’go caught Caradoc’s sword in between the prongs of his trident, forcing his blade up and back. Too late, Ma’non’go realized that Caradoc planned that exact maneuver, as he kicked out with his armored leg and slammed Ma’non’go in the knee. The blow caused Ma’non’go to lose his balance, and his grip on his trident weakened. Caradoc tore his sword free and slashed Ma’non’go across the chest, causing a well of blood to rise up along his torso.
Ma’non’go reeled from the blow, and he was fortunate that he managed to parry Caradoc’s next strike and keep the Aerdi noble from severing his head. His own eyes flared with anger as he used the butt of his trident as a lever to push Caradoc’s shield aside. Faster than Caradoc could react, Ma’non’go turned his trident around and tore it into Caradoc’s side and thigh. Caradoc’s thick armor kept Ma’non’go from piercing too deeply, but soon Caradoc had a well of blood all along his leg. It was suddenly his turn to reel from the blow, but he stubbornly came back at Ma’non’go, swinging his sword viciously.
Sweat and blood poured from both men, but if they felt any pain or fatigue they did not show it.
Luna emerged from the trees where she and Seline were hiding, waiting to reinforce their friends with their magic when they needed to. She saw that Weimar was in serious trouble, and he’d likely be killed if she didn’t intervene soon. She wasn’t carrying the magical mace she normally used in combat, which still hung from her belt. Instead, she carried another, smaller mace, which vanished into nothing as she cast a spell. Another mace, this one glowing gold, appeared in midair as Luna’s spell took effect. The mace was Pelor’s answer to Luna’s prayers, and it would follow her commands as long as her spell lasted.
Luna drew her own magical mace and ran towards where Weimar was struggling with the knight he was fighting. The golden mace followed her obediently, flying through the air beside her, until she gestured with her own mace. The golden mace suddenly flew ahead of her and struck the dagger-wielding man coming at Weimar from behind. The man cried out in pain and dropped his dagger before drawing a second one from his belt. He thrust up at the golden mace, but his dagger passed harmlessly through it before Luna hit him with it again. Glancing around, the man realized that Luna was the one controlling the mace, and he threw the dart in his hand at her.
Luna raised her shield, and the man’s dart bounced harmlessly off it before falling to the ground. She gestured with the mace she held, and the golden one viciously slammed the man in the side of the head. Crying out in pain, the man fell to his knees as Luna made the golden mace hit him one more time.
Luna winced at the sickening crunch the man’s skull made when the golden mace hit it for the last time. She hated doing that to anyone, even someone who was likely a trained assassin, but she knew she didn’t have much choice. She comforted herself with the fact that she’d likely saved Weimar’s life, as he beat back the knight he was fighting. Weimar finally slew the knight by driving his axe into the man’s chest, and gratefully accepted the healing spell Luna cast on him.
Amyalla came up to join them as Luna finished her spell. They saw Ma’non’go locked in a fierce battle with Caradoc on one side of the hill, and saw Revafour and Airk attacking Sezion on the other side. Before they could decide which of their friends to help, their hearts sank as they heard a series of loud noises that resembled a cross between owl hoots and bear roars. The companions’ worst fears were confirmed, as five of the horrific creatures seemed to come out of nowhere.
Luna and Amyalla only heard of the creatures secondhand through listening to Weimar’s tales, but that was more than enough to make them never want to meet the things. The owlbears lived up to their names, having the builds, furs and paws of bears and the eyes, feathers, beaks and talons of owls. They were a beautiful deep brown in color, but that beauty was marred by the sheer viciousness the creatures emanated. Three of the owlbears charged Luna, Amyalla and Weimar, while two more ran down to attack Revafour and Airk.
Luna realized the owlbears must have been magically summoned, and she realized the wizard they’d fought at the cabal’s manor was likely their master. She and her friends prepared to defend themselves against the owlbears, but the monsters were the least of the companions’ problems.
A loud squelching sound filled the air as nearly a dozen thick black appendages suddenly burst from the ground. They resembled gruesome tentacles, which might have been found on a particularly large octopus or squid. They immediately lashed out at the companions, even as the owlbears adeptly kept their distance. One of the tentacles ensnared Amyalla, making her scream as it began to crush her. Weimar and Luna freed her by breaking the monstrous thing with their weapons. Unfortunately, they were soon surrounded, with the remaining tentacles on one side and the owlbears lunging at them from the other.
Seline saw Xeravho materialize in the midst of the tentacles, his invisibility spell wearing off as he cast the magic to summon them. She was still concealed by her own invisibility ring, but she knew she had to act. She already had a small glass rod and a pinch of rabbit fur to hand, but she almost had to force herself to chant the words to her spell.
Rationally, Seline knew she was doing the right thing, that her friends needed her help, and that the Iron League didn’t deserve the suffering that Chelor and the cabal had planned for it. Despite what she told herself, a small voice at the back of her mind told her she was disgracing her heritage, that she was betraying her family and her ancestors, that she wasn’t a true Aerdi.
The voice grew louder as she finished her spell, and louder still as her lightning bolt ripped through the tentacles. Her spell vaporized the tentacles, and she caught one of Xeravho’s conjured owlbears in the blast. Her invisibility faded as the creature screamed and died, and Xeravho turned to face her.
The voice continued to speak in Seline’s mind, but its words quickly faded as she locked eyes with Xeravho. Soon, all Seline could think of was how the older wizard threatened to kill her friends, the people she’d bonded with after she’d been forced to flee South Province with Luna and Ma’non’go.
You’re going to pay for threatening them, she thought. The voice that tormented her was gone, and her vow was the only set of words passing through her mind.
Xeravho’s eyes narrowed, as if he knew what she was thinking. His eyes were cold and pitiless, the eyes of a predator who wanted its prey to know that it wasn’t long for this world.
Seline’s eyes were blazing with passion, the eyes of someone who would fight to the last for the friends who were all she had left.
Revafour had always hated owlbears. Legend held they were created by some demented wizard or godling in ancient times using nature-perverting magic. Each of the provinces in his homeland of the Duchy of Tenh was named for the sacred animal or plant of the clan that ruled the province. Revafour’s clan was the People of the Bear, and he considered owlbears an insult to the animal his people revered. When the owlbears charged at him and Airk, he was more than willing to return their hostility.
Revafour met the owlbear that came at him with a powerful horizontal slash that turned its chest red with blood. The wound barely slowed the vicious creature, and it retaliated with a clawed paw swipe that tore into his already-injured ribs. Revafour staggered from the pain, and the owlbear tore at him with its beak, but he was fortunate that his armor blocked the owlbear’s strike. The owlbear struck at him with its other paw, but he managed to block it with his sword.
Off to the side, Airk was nearly bowled over by the other owlbear’s charge. He fended off its attacks with his shield, but he dropped his morning star as he stumbled back. He tried to draw his military pick, but he wasn’t sure if he could before the owlbear mauled him. The owlbear reared up to attack, but it suddenly stopped short. Its hooting growls suddenly became cries of pain as two of the badgers who’d come to the companions’ aid bit into its lower legs.
Airk smiled as he used the respite to pull out his military pick. Badgers fought fiercely in defense of their kin, including the gnomes who were like cousins to them. Airk quickly returned the favor, running at the owlbear and ripping a gash in its paw with his military pick. The owlbear tried to peck at one of the badgers as it scrambled away, but Airk struck again, tearing into its face.
Airk wasn’t afraid of the owlbear, and he was confident he could kill it. He wasn’t sure if he had enough time to do it, though. He could hear Sezion chanting behind him, and knew that the cleric could easily cripple or even kill him or any of his friends.
The voice he’d first heard at the Wizard’s Hat Inn began echoing in his mind again.
The other races of the Flanaess often assumed halflings preferred to use stealth or diplomacy to avoid direct conflict. That was true for most halflings, but the halflings of the Duchy of Urnst were famous for their daring and active nature. Amyalla took pride in combining the best traits of both her fellow Urnstian halflings and their kin in the rest of the Flanaess.
One of her favorite tricks was to hide her lockpicks and other tools on the garters she wore under her traveling gown, which few guards would ever think of searching. She used that technique to sneak her tools into Xavener’s mansion and open the box containing the Crown of Arumdina. Right now she needed direct action, as she worked quickly to ignite the bottle of absinthe she held. The companions had found many bottles of highly flammable liquor like absinthe and overproofed rum in the carriage they’d stolen from Xavener, bottles that could serve as flaming missiles when needed.
The cloth wick Amyalla stuffed into the bottle was soon alight, and she quickly placed it into her sling. Glancing around quickly, she saw Sezion down the hill casting a spell. With a whispered prayer to Arvoreen, Amyalla twirled the absinthe twice with her sling before she let fly. Arvoreen was apparently listening to Amyalla’s prayers, as the bottle of absinthe struck Sezion in the shoulder and splattered flaming liquor all over his chest and face. Screaming, the priest fell to his knees as he dropped his flail.
Amyalla pulled a dagger from her belt as she considered her path to Sezion. She hated to leave her friends struggling against the owlbears, but the last thing she wanted was for the priest to recover. She could only hope that Ma’non’go and Seline could handle Caradoc and Xeravho on their own-she knew she had to get to Sezion, and quickly.
Ma’non’go could do nothing to help his friends. He had all he could handle fighting for his life against Caradoc’s frenzied assault. Caradoc slashed back and forth with his sword, constantly forcing Ma’non’go back as his eyes burned with hatred. Ma’non’go’s eyes locked with Caradoc’s as he parried the Aerdi knight’s latest backhand slash. He was stunned how much the look in Caradoc’s eyes reminded him of the looks he saw in the eyes of his false friends, the men who’d destroyed his old life back in X’tandelexamenken.
The elf Vincenzeken twisting his words. His fellow soldier Zed’der’in falsely testifying against him. The bureaucrat Mez’darro ‘finding’ documents that supposedly proved his intent to betray their homeland. The magistrate and shaman Dix’an’aletettel condemning his family for falsely accused treason, even as he was the only one to escape.
Ma’non’go’s own eyes flared with rage as he recalled everything he’d lost, leaving him with nothing until Lord Roas found him. Faster than Caradoc could react, Ma’non’go used his trident to knock Caradoc’s sword aside and slashed him across the chest, but Caradoc felt no pain. He brought his sword back quickly and gashed Ma’non’go’s left forearm before Ma’non’go could parry, before bringing his sword up for a vicious overhead slash.
Ma’non’go dodged to his left as Caradoc brought the sword down, and drove his trident into Caradoc’s hip. Caradoc turned towards Ma’non’go, leading with a vicious backhand slash, tearing himself off the trident. Ma’non’go ducked underneath Caradoc’s strike and stabbed into Caradoc’s calf. Caradoc cried out in pain as he stumbled, and only his heavy armor kept him from being hamstrung. He slashed down at Ma’non’go again, this time catching the Olman warrior across the back before Ma’non’go sprang off to the side.
Both men were drenched with blood and sweat, but they ignored it as they resumed their struggle. Caradoc seethed at the thought of the glory and treasure he stood to gain from invading the Iron League, gains that the companions threatened. Ma’non’go felt the rage he’d been carrying for nearly a decade rise up again, rage at losing his family, his honor and his home due to lies and betrayal. Their eyes locked again, and they both saw the anger and hate in each others’ souls.
Caradoc sprang forward, seeming to thrust his sword before he turned it into a slash aimed at Ma’non’go’s wrist. He tried to sever Ma’non’go’s hand, but Manon’go slid his hand back along his trident’s handle and Caradoc’s sword clanged harmlessly off it. Ma’non’go knocked Caradoc’s sword off to the side and thrust straight at the Aerdi knight’s chest. Caradoc smiled evilly as he moved his shield to block Ma’non’go’s straight thrust. The trident skidded harmlessly off the shield, and Caradoc tried to bring his sword back to strike at Ma’non’go.
It never came to that. Ma’non’go kicked at Caradoc’s injured thigh while the Aerdi warrior was distracted and struck it head-on. Caradoc cried out as pain lanced through his side and he fell off balance. He dropped his sword and lowered his shield, and couldn’t use either one to block Ma’non’go’s next attack. Ma’non’go drove his trident deep into Caradoc’s chest just below the first wound he’d inflicted there, and the blood along Caradoc’s torso became a torrent. Caradoc opened his mouth to scream, but blood poured from it as well.
Caradoc’s death was slow and agonizing. Seconds seemed like minutes as he slid off Ma’non’go’s trident and slumped to the ground.
The last thing he ever saw were Ma’non’go’s eyes, somehow seeming to stare into his soul and into the past at the very same time.
Seline’s mind raced as she considered what spell to cast at Xeravho first. She knew he was more powerful, and decided she had to take out his sight. She started casting a spell of darkness, intending to cover Xeravho with it, but he was faster. He cast a lightning bolt at Seline, blasting her before she could finish her own dweomer. Seline’s chant turned into a scream as she nearly collapsed from the blast, her own spell utterly ruined.
Even as pain lanced through her body, Seline knew she was done for if she lost her focus. Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out the wand she carried, one that allowed her to cast clouds of warm steam and fog. The fog suddenly engulfed both of the wizards just before Seline used the magic of her ring to fade from sight.
Seline prayed silently to Pelor as she moved off to the side, expending another charge from her wand to expand the fog cloud. She reached into her pockets and retrieved some pieces of tallow, sulphur and powdered iron, this time chanting out loud as she began chanting the spell that created a flaming sphere she could control. To her relief, she heard her voice coming from where she’d previously been. Seline had cast a ventriloquism spell shortly before she’d first attacked with her lightning bolt. Just as she’d planned, her spell tricked Xeravho into thinking that was where she still stood.
As Seline finished the spell and her flaming sphere came to life, she strained to hear Xeravho’s footsteps as he walked towards where her voice was coming from. Tossing her flaming sphere towards the ground, Seline gestured it towards Xeravho’s feet, knowing she had to time the sphere’s placing just right.
Airk cursed as the owlbear dodged his strike. He’d heard Sezion’s scream as the priest was burned by the absinthe Amyalla shot at him, but he didn’t know how long Sezion would be delayed. He ducked as the owlbear swiped its claws at him again, and they deflected harmlessly off his helmet.
The owlbear tried to press its advantage, but it cried out as a badger lunged in from the side and bit hard into its paw. The owlbear turned to peck at the badger with its beak, but Airk raked it in the chest as another badger bit into its footpaw. Screeching in pain, the owlbear collapsed as two more badgers leapt on top of it. All four of the badgers began biting and tearing at the owlbear, and the monster howled as one of the badgers tore open its throat.
Turning away from the monster, Airk charged at Sezion, who’d recovered his flail and swung it at him. Airk easily blocked Sezion’s blow with his shield, and retaliated with a vicious strike that pierced the priest’s mail and gouged his chest. Sezion screamed in pain, but his cries were cut off abruptly as Airk struck him again, this time crushing his ribcage.
Amyalla came running up to Airk as he pulled his pick free from the dying Sezion’s chest, but she realized the gnome didn’t need her help. They turned to help Revafour fight the last owlbear, but the Flan warrior didn’t need their help either. Revafour swung his sword in full battle lust, taking the owlbear’s head off in a single stroke.
Revafour smiled at his smaller friends. He bled from several wounds, but if he felt any pain he didn’t show it.
The owlbear’s claws raked across Weimar’s shield, and he ducked under the monster’s snapping beak as it tried to bite at him. He wasn’t deterred, though, and responded by chopping at the owlbear’s beak. His axe sheared off a large chunk of the beak, and it reeled back, hooting and growling in agony. Weimar didn’t let up, as he cleaved into the side of the owlbear’s skull, causing it to fall dead.
He turned to aid Luna, but he saw that she was holding her own. There was blood along her side from where the owlbear she fought had cut her in the side, but her chain mail had taken most of the blow. The owlbear growled in frustration as she blocked its beak with her shield and slammed her mace into its left paw. Weimar heard the satisfying crunch of the bones in the owlbear’s paw breaking, and knew that Luna had her situation well in hand.
Turning back towards the other battles on the hill, Weimar looked to see if any of his friends needed his aid. Most of them appeared to be holding their own, but Weimar saw a hooded man approaching Seline from behind as she emerged from a cloud of fog. The man carried a discolored dagger, and Weimar didn’t need to be told what he planned to do to Seline. Dropping his axe and shield, Weimar quickly snatched up his bow. In one quick motion, he’d nocked and fired an arrow, one that caught the dagger-wielding man square in the side of his face.
The assassin died never knowing what hit him.
Weimar turned back to help Luna again, but he saw the owlbear slumped on the ground before her, its head caked with blood as Luna pounded it mercilessly with her mace.
Within the fog cloud, Xeravho raised his wand, which was enchanted with frost magic. The look on his face was utterly cold and expressionless, showing no mercy to the younger wizard he’d chosen as his prey. He was unconcerned with her retaliating, as he’d cast protections on himself that would nullify almost anything she could cast at him.
Xeravho felt that same confidence as he heard the crackling of Seline’s flaming sphere as it rolled towards him. He didn’t think about why the sphere was coming from the side, or why it passed just in front of his feet. He knew his protections would shield him from Seline’s magical flames.
Xeravho’s spells protected him from Seline’s magical flames, but they didn’t protect him from the mundane flames that erupted when Seline’s spell made contact with the nearly buried bottles of absinthe and rum he was standing over.
As part of the companions’ preparations for the battle, Seline had gotten the badgers Airk recruited to conceal several of the bottles of flammable absinthe and rum at strategic points around where she planned to fight. Those bottles could be set alight by Seline’s flaming sphere, exploding into mundane flames that protections against magic couldn’t block.
As Xeravho collapsed, screaming, Seline chanted another spell. One of the new spells she’d learned from the scrolls the companions found in Kalrek Burunne’s lair allowed the caster to conjure a thick wall of ice. She targeted the spell to land on Xeravho, planning to put the older wizard out of his misery.
Xeravho was just as skilled at keeping his focus as Seline, though. Forcing himself to focus through the pain, he began chanting a teleportation spell. He heard Sezion’s agonized screaming and the pained cries of the owlbears he’d conjured to bolster the cabal’s forces as Seline’s friends tore into them. He couldn’t hear the sound of Caradoc fighting with the Olman man, though, and instinctively knew that Caradoc was dead. Xeravho knew the rest of the cabal’s members who’d come with them were likely dead too, all at the hands of Seline’s friends.
The cabal’s cause was lost, but Xeravho didn’t intend to lose his life along with it. His spell took effect just before Seline’s did, teleporting him away as the wall of ice appeared above him. The wall landed with a loud crunching sound, but there was no one underneath it.
Taking a deep breath, Seline looked around the battlefield. There were corpses all around her, her eyes were stung by smoke from the still-burning fires, and the entire hill seemed to be stained with blood.
Normally, Seline would have congratulated herself on her planning and her choice of spells, and how she’d outsmarted Xeravho. She’d always enjoyed these types of challenges, including creative ways she could use her magic. All she felt now, though, was exhaustion and shame. The voice tormenting her returned, reminding her once again that she’d betrayed her heritage.
She knew she could never go home again, never again attend the balls, perform in the plays, or enjoy the company of other young noblewomen.
Then she saw her friends. They were battered and exhausted too, but they were all still alive.
The voice in her mind faded again, as a smile crossed her face.
You Can’t Go Home Again
The dwarf Connor Longlaive wore his uniform as an Ideean patrol captain with pride. After nearly a century of service to the County of Idee, Connor’s beard showed as much silver as gold. To Connor, his beard symbolized his sterling record and the golden opinions his superiors had of him. The Longlaive family had called the Iron Hills home for generations, although Connor’s father had moved to Idee as a liaison to the human merchants his family dealt with. Connor preferred to enlist in the Count’s army rather than become a merchant, and his family’s fame in the Iron Hills made him an ideal scout and eventual leader of County’s patrols there.
While some of Connor’s human subordinates were grumbling about patrolling on a Godsday, it didn’t matter to him. He revered Clangeddin Silverbeard, and if he found battle with the County’s enemies today, he’d merely be doing his god’s work. At the head of a good forty troops, evenly made up of dwarves and humans, Connor feared nothing the hills could offer. Unfortunately, the patrol had seen no action in the last several days, and Connor was bored.
When Connor’s scouts reported a solitary carriage moving south through the hills towards the patrol, it was all the incentive he needed. Rallying his men, he set off to intercept the carriage, determined to find out what it was doing in the Iron Hills. With the threat of Aerdy always looming over them, the Iron League states had long ago learned that caution was wisdom.
The seven people traveling with the carriage, five humans and a gnome and halfling, immediately complied when Connor ordered them to halt. They stood calmly beside the carriage, some of them coming out to face Connor and his men as they approached. The seven travelers would have been fools to put up any resistance, as the patrol’s archers were armed and ready.
As he approached the travelers, Connor raised a curious eyebrow. The bedraggled travelers had the exhausted look of people who’d recently fought a fierce battle and hadn’t fully recovered from it. Connor realized they were likely adventurers, who weren’t unusual in the hills, but their fancy wagon had the emblem of the Aerdy House Darmen on the side. His eyes narrowed at that, and he kept a firm grip on the handle of his warhammer as he came to a halt in front of the travelers.
“What’s your business in these hills?” Connor asked, glancing from one to the other of the companions. “You’d best answer me, and answer honestly, if you hope to leave these hills alive.”
A couple of the human travelers looked like they wanted to say something, but then the gnome stepped forward. The gnome was armed and armored much like Connor, and in spite of himself Connor admired the cut of the gnome’s moustache and beard. He clearly had the mark of a soldier, and Connor immediately respected him.
“Our business is your business, if you’re Ideeans,” the gnome said. “We-“
“What’s your name, then?” Connor interrupted him. “And those of your friends?”
“My name is Airk Venbelwar, of the Kingdom of Flinthold in the Lortmil Mountains,” the gnome said, before he introduced his companions. “We come bearing news of a plan to attack the County and fracture the Iron League. We have-“
“-two women of Aerdi descent with you,” Connor interrupted him again, gesturing at Luna and Seline. “You’ll pardon me if I don’t take your words at face value.”
Airk’s eyes flared at the accusation, and Connor was slightly startled at the haunted look in the gnome’s eyes. It was quite unlike the often wry and humourous demeanor that most of the gnomes Connor knew displayed. For a moment, Connor thought he saw a seething anger boiling within Airk as the gnome stared at him, before Airk made a visible effort to calm down.
“We have ample proof of your claims,” Luna said. “Check my pack if you don’t believe me,” she said, slipping it off her back and then holding it out.
At a gesture from Connor, one of his lieutenants stepped forward and took Luna’s pack. Connor came over and took it, before rifling through its contents. Most of it was food and standard adventuring gear, but Connor was startled at the pile of parchments folded neatly into one pocket. The parchments bore stamps and seals of high-ranking House Naelax nobles, and Connor seized on them immediately.
Gathering them up, he tossed Luna’s pack aside before spending several minutes going through the parchments. His eyes widened in shock as he read of the plot to murder Count Fedorik.
Finally, he glanced up at Airk and Luna.
“…You’ve clearly quite the tale to tell,” Connor said. “I’ll be taking these, and my men will search your carriage and the rest of your belongings.” Connor knew he had to get these parchments back to the Count’s court immediately, but he still wasn’t convinced the companions were all they seemed to be. For all he knew, the parchments could be forgeries, or the companions could have another agenda.
The companions consented to let Connor and his men carry out their search. Some of Connor’s men were suspicious of the Crown of Arumdina, but Connor allowed Airk to keep it, recognizing that it was of gnomish make. Almost everything else the companions carried was ordinary traveling gear, except for the items that convinced Connor they were telling the truth about the Aerdy plot.
The companions had a series of Aerdi nobles’ medallions decorated with the heraldry of House Naelax, the medallions that no noble would ever willingly give up.
They also had the heads of several of the cabal’s members, which the Ideean authorities would use to verify the companions’ story by interrogating the spirits of the dead cabal members.
The people of Idee were often said to have a siege mentality. Out of all the Iron League states, they were the ones most vulnerable to a direct invasion from the Great Kingdom of Aerdy. They maintained a line of strong fortresses to defend against Aerdi attacks. While they were often inclined to ‘live and let live’ in other situations, many Ideeans were suspicious of outsiders and took a long time to trust them.
His Brilliant Lordship Fedorik Eddri, the Count and ruler of Idee, was no exception to that siege mentality. He was not particularly tall or physically imposing, but the piercing glare of his gray eyes and his thick, bearlike brown hair and beard made those he met think twice about crossing him. He was never without a full suit of splint mail and a large two-handed battleaxe, both of fine dwarven craft. He was reputed to be one of the finest warriors in the whole Iron League, and his men respected him for being blunt and to the point.
Eddri was inspecting Idee’s westernmost border fortress when Connor Longlaive’s messenger reached him. Normally a patrol captain wouldn’t have been able to see Count Fedorik on such short notice, but he was on high alert after the defeat of House Darmen’s plot to assassinate several of Idee’s leading aristocrats. He was convinced the Great Kingdom had other plans brewing, and he’d issued a standing order to his officials that evidence of any other such plot was to be brought to him immediately.
That order allowed Connor to meet Eddri immediately, not even two days after he’d met the companions. It also allowed Eddri and his most trusted officials to review all the papers of the Naelax cabal’s plot against Eddri’s life. Eddri was furious at the plot, and he directed his officials to start taking appropriate countermeasures, including warning Count Hazendel, who ruled the County of Sunndi. He could review their actions later, but first he wanted a measure of the strange band of adventurers Connor brought him.
Finally, less than forty-eight hours after the companions met Connor Longlaive, Airk and Luna were brought into the fortress’s dining hall to meet Count Fedorik himself. They were surrounded by guards, including a wizard who held his rune-carved staff in a tight grip and looked all too eager to use it. Airk and Luna were themselves unarmed, as they’d had to leave their own possessions with their friends.
Characteristically, Count Fedorik didn’t wait for Airk or Luna to even introduce themselves before he spoke.
“You and your band clearly have an interesting tale to tell,” Fedorik said, “and I’ll hear all of it here and now. What business brought you to South Province, and what business led you to bring me everything you said of an Aerdi plot? If this is all some trick, you and your friends won’t live to see the sunset.”
Fedorik and some of his senior officials recognized the handwriting and seals of several prominent South Province nobles on the papers outlining the plot. That gave the companions’ claims credibility, but Eddri wasn’t entirely convinced they were what they claimed. He still wondered if this was part of some other plot.
Luna was about to say something, but Airk held up his hand to silence her. He stood up and locked eyes with Fedorik as he answered the count’s question.
“I traveled to South Province for my own reasons,” he said, “reasons that include a blood debt to a dead kinsman. Our only goal was the crown my friends are holding for me, a crown that’s key to righting a centuries-old wrong.”
“This woman,” Airk continued, gesturing to Luna, “and her sister came at great personal risk because they could be claimed in the Aerdi’s sick power games. I’m sure Your Brilliant Lordship knows all about them. Now, unlike you they don’t have a home they can return to anymore, not with the disgrace they’ve suffered by our exposing the the noble cabal’s intent on your life. We had no obligation to do that for you-and what have we asked for? All we want is to leave in peace! Surely you can grant us at least that?”
Several of Fedorik’s guards shouted angrily at hearing their liege spoken to that way, but Fedorik silenced them with a wave of his hand. He and Airk stared into each other’s eyes for several long moments, as he sought the truth of the gnome’s words.
What Fedorik saw surprised him. In Airk’s eyes, he saw guilt and shame that had been festering for decades, countless sleepless nights, and Airk seeing blood on his hands every time he looked at them.
Airk and Luna were surprised at how Fedorik’s suspicious, angry glare almost seemed to soften.
“You can leave in peace, if you so want,” Fedorik said. “If you prefer, though, you may remain in Idee as my guests in thanks for all you’ve done.”
Luna’s mouth fell open in surprise, as did those of several of Fedorik’s guards, while Airk simply looked relieved.
“We wouldn’t want to impose-“ Airk said, before Fedorik interrupted him.
“At this time of year you’ll likely find it difficult to travel,” Fedorik said. “It’s nearly the month of Sunsebb. There won’t be a caravan or ship taking a long journey until after Needfest. I could arrange travel for you some time in early Fireseek, but not before that.”
Luna was somewhat surprised at Fedorik’s change in mood, but Airk less so. In Fedorik’s eyes, he saw the fatigue of a man always waiting for disaster to strike, long and seemingly endless hours of strategizing, and constantly looking to the northeast, expecting the Aerdi war banners at any moment.
“Your Brilliant Lordship’s offer is most kind,” Airk said, “and we should like to speak with our friends about it.”
Fedorik merely nodded, and Airk returned the gesture.
Man and gnome each found the look in the other’s eyes to almost be a relief.
When the companions met to discuss Fedorik’s offer, they decided to take it. For the past six months, they’d done almost nothing but travel and fight, pausing only to deal with the aftermaths of their adventures. The companions agreed they could all use a rest before they set out for Flinthold in the new year to bring the Crown of Arumdina home.
The next day, Revafour caught Seline as she emerged after studying her spells from the room she and Luna had been given. He was generally satisfied with how the quest to retrieve the Crown had gone, but he still had some questions he wanted answered.
Revafour frowned at the troubled look on Seline’s face. A part of him wasn’t sure if now was a good time to ask her what he wanted to, but he had to know. More than that, he suspected she’d probably feel better after speaking with someone about it.
“Are you alright?” he asked Seline as they walked down the corridor to the stairs that would take them to the fortress’s mess hall.
Seline looked at Revafour and shrugged. She tried to smile, but they both knew she wasn’t fooling him.
“We did the right thing, you know,” Revafour said as they walked into the mess hall. “You did the right thing. The Iron League will be ready if South Province tries anything. How many lives do you think we’ll have saved?”
“People are going to die anyway if South Province attacks,” Seline said, shaking her head.
“Not as many as would if the Iron League was fractured,” Revafour pressed. “We’re the ones who enabled them to stay united, aren’t we?”
Seline didn’t answer until they’d gotten some food and sat down at a table. She took a long, hard drink of water before she spoke again.
“I know all that,” she said. “My head knows it, but my heart just says I dishonored my heritage. I keep telling myself it’s wrong to believe that, but then I think about how…” she trailed off.
“About how you never wanted to leave Aerdy in the first place,” Revafour said.
The way Seline flinched showed Revafour he was correct.
“I know…with everything that’s happened…” she said, visibly embarrassed and recalling their previous conversation about the subject.
“…Which you weren’t a part of,” Revafour said as he patted her arm. “And I think most of us know how you feel-I sure do.”
Seline wondered what he meant by that, until she remembered the story Revafour told them about being banished from Tenh by his nemesis Tuomad Wolf-slayer’s treachery.
“Even more than me, I think,” Seline said. “Luna and I at least had the choice to return to Aerdy. I take it you never did?”
“No, I didn’t and I don’t,” Revafour said. “I wish every day that I could go back, but I can’t. All I can do is wander…but it hasn’t kept me from finding another home of sorts.”
Revafour loved it when Seline smiled, but the happiness she showed when she smiled in response to his words cheered him all the more.
“We did what we had to do,” Seline said. “There wasn’t any other way around it-people like Chelor and Xeravho made their own choices. I miss the performances, the balls, and the heritage…but if even if I can’t return to that home, I can return to my other one can’t I?”
Revafour returned her smile.
Airk stared long and hard at the Crown of Arumdina, which stood on the table in front of him. Once he returned the Crown to Flinthold, its old monarchy would be restored and the kingdom would regain Garl Glittergold’s blessings. His debt to Trendin Bradon for killing Laessar would be fulfilled.
Or so everyone else said.
Gazing at the Crown, and then at his hands, Airk thought he could still see Laessar’s blood on them. Looking at the fortress’s stone floors, he thought he could see the blood of his brothers in arms running over the stone as the Steelheart dwarves butchered them.
The voice he’d first heard in the Wizard’s Hat Inn began speaking to him again. He tried to ignore it, responding that his friends had all survived the battle. He knew his friends would see this quest through to the end with him, and that gave him comfort. If anything, his fellow adventurers felt more like a family to him than the kin he’d left in Flinthold. He’d stayed long enough after the Hateful Wars to ensure his relatives were financially secure and Flinthold wasn’t in danger of falling. After that, he couldn’t bear to stay, as he thought the guilt and despair would drive him mad if he did.
How can you go back? the voice said to Airk. If you weren’t such a damned fool, you’d have seen through Kalrek’s plotting. Your brothers in arms would still be alive, and so would all the Flintholders who died when the Steelhearts invaded.
And, more than anyone else, the voice continued, deliberately drawing out its words, Laessar wouldn’t be dead by your hands.
Airk put his face in those same hands for several long moments.
He knew he would bring the Crown back to Flinthold, and that he’d have his friends beside him. He wondered what kind of reception would await him when he returned after nearly twenty years of being away.
He took heart, knowing that whatever he faced, his friends would help him through it.
The voice fell silent at that…
…but it continued to fester at the back of his mind, despite his efforts to ignore it.
While the nobility in other parts of the Great Kingdom of Aerdy were looking forward to Needfest and the end of year celebrations, the atmosphere in the South Province court was decidedly tense.
Herzog Chelor personified that tension. His stubble had grown into a full, unkempt beard, his eyes were bleary and had dark circles under them, his hair was filthy and and he reeked of a pungent body odor. He looked like a dead man walking, seeming only to wonder whether the executioner Ivid sent for him would be a human or a devil. While lesser Naelax nobles like Caradoc and Xeravho carried out the plot, it was originally Chelor’s idea and responsibility for its success or failure rested with him.
The nobles who’d been in Rauxes when Ivid V learned of the Naelax cabal’s failure reported that Ivid flew into a screaming rage. Ivid even went into one of his dramatic soliloquies, which he delivered whenever the mood struck him and which no one dared interrupt. In that rant, Ivid asked the gods whether he should have Chelor killed on the spot for dishonoring House Naelax and thinking too highly of his own life. Ivid gave a similar performance before purging Chelor’s father, and when news of the Overking’s newest performance reached Chelor he was sure he was doomed.
Xavener heard all about it from some of his House Darmen kin who saw the Overking’s tirade. In the last week of Ready’reat, he visited the Herzog’s court. He planned to return to Kalstrand in Sunsebb to finalize some of the details of his ascension as House Darmen’s leader, but he had some important tasks to perform before he left Zelradton.
When Xavener saw Chelor, he wisely hid his smile at how completely cowed the Herzog was. From now on, Chelor would be terrified at any dispatch that came from Rauxes, fearing that it would be his death warrant. He would eagerly comply with any grand ideas Ivid had, always keen to stay on the Overking’s good side.
Despite Ivid’s anger, Xavener didn’t think he would kill Chelor. Instead, he’d hold the threat of purging over Chelor’s head. The Great Kingdom had long been fractured, with Rauxes forced to give great leeway to the Kingdom’s different provinces, but under Chelor South Province would be tightly bound to the Malachite Throne.
Still, Xavener knew that Ivid might decide to purge Chelor later on. Xavener couldn’t prevent that, but he could help Chelor make it less likely.
Xavener joined in the game of poker that Chelor organized, knowing that the Herzog was always in a better mood after winning at gambling. Whatever his other faults, Chelor was an expert gambler with a lucky streak a mile wide. He tripled the wealth he had on hand, and was particularly proud at drawing to an inside straight against Xavener.
That was the moment Xavener was waiting for. When the other two nobles who’d been playing with them walked away, Xavener requested a moment of the Herzog’s time.
“My lord, I understand that you may be preoccupied with the recent…’difficulties’ of late,” Xavener said, choosing his words carefully, “but I must insist on restitution against those of your kinsmen who accused me of colluding with those Cranden maidens who caused so much trouble. It’s pure slander, I tell you!”
Chelor’s eye twitched at that, and Xavener knew he had the Herzog would be receptive to his suggestion.
“It was them and them alone who caused the failure of your otherwise flawless plan!” he said. “Restitution on my behalf would be an ideal means of emphasizing that!”
Chelor’s eye stopped twitching at that. Instead, both of his eyes started burning with rage as his temper exploded and he screamed for his guards.
The surviving members of the Naelaxian cabal were arrested over the next few days and brought back to Zelradton. Chelor publicly blamed them for the failure of his scheme, and emphasized in his report to the Overking that he was not at fault.
Most of the Naelaxians screamed in agony as the Herzog’s torturers worked them over. They were subjected to burning brands, rats trapped in heated boxes, stretchings on the rack or flayings, depending on the torturers’ sadistic whims.
Out of all the prisoners, Xeravho was the only one who did not scream. Despite the torturers’ best efforts, he kept his mouth firmly shut, except for occasionally showing the tip of his tongue. One of the torturers commented on how Xeravho looked like he was impersonating a snake, and made a joke about it to his fellows.
It was anything but a joke to Xeravho. Every moment wracked his body with burning agony, and soon pieces of his skin littered the floor around him. In the few moments of respite he got, he smiled to himself when he considered that fallen skin. He knew all about how serpents shed their skins at important times in their lives, growing wiser and stronger in the process.
Xeravho was outwardly silent, but he was boiling with anger on the inside. He hated Xavener and the Cranden maidens for ruining the cabal’s plans, hated them for making him lose status within House Naelax. He tempered his hatred, though, knowing he had little chance of ever getting revenge on Xavener if he survived. Xavener was now one of the wealthiest men in the Great Kingdom, and even in the entire Flanaess. He was also affiliated with Reydrich, who had nearly twice Xeravho’s power as a wizard and who Xeravho would never dare to cross.
The Cranden maidens and their friends were another matter. Xeravho seethed at his defeat by Seline, a wizard not only nearly two decades younger but lesser in power. She’d outwitted him despite her tender years, and he was determined to make her pay.
Xeravho kept silent, containing his anger and hatred.
He contained them.
And let them grow.
As Xavener sat in the study of what was once his father’s and was now his primary mansion in Kalstrand, he was quite satisfied with his work of the last two years. As part of the ‘restitution’ he collected from House Naelax, he acquired the late unlamented Caradoc’s colletion of art objects, which he would sell back to everyone Caradoc had taken them from…at market rates, of course.
He smiled as he swirled the Celenese claret in the jeweled silver goblet he held. The goblet was a beautiful piece of dwarven craftsmanship, decorated with the images of lions and owls. A couple of his guests had commented on it, and Xavener claimed that it belonged to his late mother before she was foully murdered two years ago.
The goblet did belong to Xavener’s mother, albeit indirectly. Xavener noted how his mother Eloine enjoyed a cup of fine wine before she went to bed. She and Norreck often slept in separate rooms, as their marriage was not a happy one, and Xavener was their only offspring. She typically locked her room from the inside when she had her evening drink.
Xavener commissioned a dwarven silversmith to craft the goblet as a gift for his mother, and she used it to have her evening drink every night. What no one else knew was that Xavener also commissioned the silversmith to create a second goblet that looked exactly like the first, except for one deadly addition.
When anyone drinking the second goblet tilted it towards their mouth, they caused the goblet’s handles to turn, releasing a blade in the base of the goblet that plunged into the drinker’s throat. A particularly clever gnome assassin had first created the device. It was used more than once by ambitious Aerdi nobles, particularly during the Turmoil Between Crowns.
Xavener knew his mother’s habits, and he was above notice in their manor home. It was easy to enter his mother’s room and switch the normal goblet with the deadly one. Once the deadly goblet cut his mother’s throat, all Xavener had to do was use a potion that turned him into a gaslike form, a concoction of the grateful alchemist whose business Xavener saved.
Once he was in gaseous form, he exited his bedroom through the gaps in the shutters and bars of his bedroom window. From there, he could enter Eloine’s bedroom the same way. Their rooms were next to one another, so it was a quick flight. Once he was in Eloine’s room, Xavener simply switched the deadly goblet for the safe one and then used a second gaseous potion to return to his own room. So it was that Eloine appeared to have her throat cut, despite the door being locked and the shutters and bars bolted from the inside, and despite there being no murder weapon and no apparent intruder.
Norreck investigated, of course. He thought of everything from disguised assassins to intruders using passwall or teleportation spells to enter to kill her, and had divinations cast to find the killer. The divinations found nothing, since Xavener did not technically enter his mother’s room to kill her, but rather to take back the murder weapon. Eloine’s death was never solved, and Xavener persuaded Norreck that some other Celestial House was likely responsible. Just as Xavener anticipated, Norreck would never suspect him.
Xavener took no pleasure in killing his mother, but the wealth he inherited from her was critically important to his ambitions. It helped him acquire further resources, resources he needed to deal with his father.
Xavener took a drink of claret and then set the goblet down on his desk. He then looked at the ring of coral and hematite he never removed, and smiled.
Gemstones had many uses in sorcery and alchemy. Some gems were better suited to some purposes than others-peridots were said to ward off enchantments, while diamonds were used to protect against the undead. Gems such as coral and hematite were said to be good at treating physical injuries, which made them ideal materials for a ring that regenerated a wearer’s physical wounds.
The regeneration ring Xavener commissioned took considerable money and effort, both to make the ring and keep its creation secret, but it was worth every copper piece.
Norreck was always concerned someone might try to poison him, so he’d commissioned a magical crystal that made its owner completely immune to toxic venoms. He knew that Xavener didn’t have such a crystal, and so he felt secure against any attempt by Xavener to poison him. They ate many of their meals together, and Xavener would also consume any poisons in their food.
Norreck didn’t realize the crystal’s limitations, however. It was only useful against toxins, and did nothing against non-fatal drugs or other substances. Xavener realized this, and that made all the difference.
The ‘colored spices’ Xavener often added to their meals were in fact shards of multicolored glass, a favored assassination tool in the Hold of the Sea Princes. Normally, anyone eating food containing such shards would instantly notice them, but Xavener laced the shards with another concoction from his alchemist friend. The alchemist’s potion deadened any pain the eater might feel, and also caused the shards to break down after they’d been in the eater’s innards for a time so they didn’t appear in his excrement.
Norreck couldn’t feel the glass shards as they tore at his insides, slowly killing him bit by bit. Xavener ate the shard-treated food too, but his magical ring healed any injuries he suffered from the glass.
Now, at just sixteen years old, Xavener was one of the wealthiest men in the entire Flanaess, and the head of one of the Great Kingdom’s most powerful Celestial Houses.
Xavener smiled as he turned his gaze from the ring on his finger to the painting of a castle on his wall. It was the same painting he’d done at the Darmen estate in Zelradton, when Norreck confronted him about going into the estate’s wine cellar.
That castle, after all, was the reason Xavener used those adventurers-the Company of the Silver Wolf, he’d heard some of the Crandens call them-to ruin the plans of Chelor and his cabal. Conquering the Iron League would have brought Chelor great wealth and honor, but it wouldn’t have brought him closer in line with the Malachite Throne. North Province, Rel Astra, Medegia and Ratik would also all be as independent as ever. Ivid would have been pleased at the conquest, perhaps enough to change his plans.
That, more than anything, would have been Xavener’s ruin.
Most people dismissed Ivid V’s dramatic soliloquies as the ravings of a madman, but Xavener found them absolutely fascinating. Ivid frequently waxed eloquent about escaping his cursed fate, or going down in a final blaze of glory, where he would take his enemies to the Nine Hells with him.
That, along with Ivid’s love of the theatre, made Xavener suspect that the Overking was setting the stage for a grand play of his own. Little by little, he was casting his nobles in certain roles, and using the different parts of the Great Kingdom as settings. In the process, he was drawing the different parts of the Great Kingdom back under control of the Malachite Throne.
The Great Kingdom would be united as it had not been in centuries, ready to follow Ivid’s depraved script. By thwarting the cabal’s plot, Xavener helped ensure that Ivid would not change his plans, and that the fear of death would force Chelor to obey Ivid’s every command.
Xavener knew he might be wrong about Ivid’s goals, and that the Overking’s ravings were nothing more than what they seemed. In his heart, though, he was convinced that he was correct.
One notable scholar Xavener held dear to his heart wrote that intelligence and willpower were not the only virtues a ruler needed to succeed. A ruler also needed to adapt to sudden changes in fortune, whether his own or others. The ruler had to be ready to seize fortune and make himself its master, so that he might use his own gifts appropriately.
The inferno Xavener suspected Ivid of planning would be a perfect example of that fortune.
And when it came, Xavener would be ready to seize it.
Dedicated to Gary Holian, Erik Mona and Fred Weining, the Three Wise Men of Greyhawk.
I needed a lot of help to write For Crown Or Country, particularly in getting information about aspects of medieval life that I wasn’t aware of. A list of the people who provided this information include:
- Gary Gygax, who listed the reputed magical properties of gemstones in the 1st Edition AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide
- Anna Meyer, whose beautifully detailed maps of the Flanaess helped me plan the journeys of the characters and keep an appropriate timeline
- Lane Taylor, Robert Hughes, Len Lakofka, Chris Wellings, Ed Kearns, Olaf Bjornbakken, Nathan Irving, Drew Griffiths and Francois Terrida on medieval ventilation or a lackthereof
- Josh Popp, Jukka Sarkjiarvi and Rodney Hart on the weather patterns in Idee and the Azure Sea
- Rob Gruder and Jason Zavoda on naval ship-to-ship combat in a D&D world;
- Patrick Vander Reest, Rob Sagris, Dave Fairbrother, Joe Stevenson, Tom Roberts, Tommy Jon Kelly, Joshua Roumonada and Andrew Veen on the impacts of heavy drinking; and
- Lenard Lakofka, Matt Kandoll, David Russell, Dane D. Whalen, Michael Brown, Xaviar Fideli, Ed Kearns, Jerald Dughler, Glyn Dewey and Andrew Veen on the makeup of medieval stone walls.