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Craving the Wild

    • 89 posts
    November 19, 2020 7:14 AM PST

    Introduction

     

    This is a continuation of several loosely-connected stories taking place in Kingsreach.

    1. Orphan Druid
    2. Sword of Serengeral
    3. Song of Seret
    4. Craving the Wild

     


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at November 19, 2020 7:16 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    November 19, 2020 7:14 AM PST

    Chapter One

    They say his name is Amon. Sometimes on busy market days, a crowd will gather around him, listening to his ravings. He wears an old robe, tattered but clean, perhaps cast off years ago by some hopeless novice wizard. Dark gray hairs drape around his face, and though he is hooded, one can see that he has lived many years.

    Trees around Peacemade Plaza scatter spring petals to blanket the stones as his voice rings out. Those who come to market might draw close to hear him, straining at his rough voice. Some jeer, though he has followers kneeling before him as if they wait for his benediction.

    "All of this, the world we know," he intones in a tremulous voice, "is but a shell over chaos and uncertainty. Who do you cling to for protection when the wind blows? The Regulars of Bedark? The rangers and the mad adventurers clearing the fields and forests of evil? Or maybe," he stretches out an arm toward the high walls of Thronefast, "maybe you believe we are all safe within our haven. These magnificent fortifications could never bend or sway in a harsh wind. 'Be at peace!' they say to you, and like a lamb you curl up at the feet of lions."

    He looks up and sniffs the breeze, the scent of flowers in the spring. "But lions... hunger."

    A man and a halfling stand nearby, listening. At last the man leans over and says to his companion, "'Mad adventurers'. Are we mad, Crow?"

    The halfling laughs quietly. "I believe we are."

    They turn and continue on their way toward the rows of market booths. "If he is a seer of some kind," says Jalasko, "what do you think he's warning us about?"

    "Lions," says Crowsinger.

    "And the lions represent the powers that be in the capital."

    "And they eat people."

    Jalasko looks down at the halfling, who is smiling. She shrugs. "Maybe they're cultists, you don't know."

    The market is full of people shopping, shouting, hawkers vending out of baskets, a riot of colors and signs and banners. Food vendors stand in the middle of the throng, offering flavors from all over Kingsreach. Crowsinger runs over and buys a chevapi—heavily-seasoned game meat in toasted flatbread with a spiced sauce.

    "It's been forever," he says through a mouthful of food.

    "Is that some kind of halfling sandwich?"

    "Mmm."

    "Looks messy. Oh, there it is."

    Jalasko finds a vendor of woodsman supplies, while Crowsinger sniffs at the plants for sale in a nearby booth. Medicinal herbs, says the sign. Leaves in many shades of green, some wilting in the sun.

    Crowsinger returns to Jalasko, who is finishing a purchase.

    "What are you laughing at?" he asks.

    "Ynica doesn't heal anything, it just gets you high."

    He raises his head and looks toward the herb vendor. "They have some?"

    "Help yourself," she says.

    They head back along a carpet of flowers. Crowsinger finishes her food and licks her fingers. "Any jobs?"

    He sighs. "Nothing. I spoke with Nisto a couple of weeks ago, and he swore he would let us know if there's any work."

    "I've been doing some healing in the villages," says Crowsinger, "but humans can be..." she shrugs.

    "What?"

    "Humans."

    "Well, this human has been doing a lot of odd jobs," says Jalasko, "here and there. A few days ago, I escorted a couple of wagons through Avendyr's Pass. But work has been scarce over the winter, so I've been doing a lot of hunting."

    "Have you spent it all?"

    "Oh no, I've put most of it away for an uncertain future. I'll dig it up if I need to."

    "I thought humans used banks."

    "Banks ask too many questions."

    "Let me know if you hear about any work, okay?"

    "Trust me."

    They part ways at a busy intersection. Behind them, a man watches.


     

    "I appreciate the invitation," says Nisto, staring at the glass of expensive wine in his hand. This one drink might cost more money than the soldier he used to be earned in a month. "But I admit, I am unsure why you've asked me here."

    "Your reputation," says Nureck, "precedes you. I understand that the last several months have been difficult."

    "You could say that, yes." Nisto takes a large drink of wine, then realizes that this is probably uncouth. He tries to cover for his error by holding the wine in his mouth to savor it, as he has seen nobles do, but it's too much—he swallows the wine, nearly chokes, and coughs.

    Nureck gestures to a servant, who brings a cloth. Nisto nods in thanks as he wipes his mouth, says "Forgive me, I am new to such surroundings."

    Nureck waves this away. "It's quite alright. His Grace the Duke was intrigued by your story. Naturally everyone in the upper circles of Thronefast knows the details of the Serengeral Incident."

    Nisto groans inwardly. "I never wanted such fame... or infamy, as it seems to be."

    "The high court of Ocirico pronounced you innocent. The paladin testified that Baron Choath had turned to necromancy, that he ordered a squad of soldiers murdered to be his servants. And it was the paladin who killed the baron, not you."

    "We were all there. All implicated. And it has been made known to me that some in the city still hold a grudge. We killed a baron! Nobody gets away with that unscathed, no matter how justified."

    Nureck nods sympathetically. "And you've had difficulty finding work."

    Nisto nods and takes another sip of wine—a smaller sip this time.

    "It is most unfortunate that you did not have time to grab some of the treasure on your way out. By this time the treasure might be unreachable without an army."

    "You may be right."

    "Some believe," Nureck continues, sipping from his own glass, "that you did manage to procure some of the treasure, and stashed it in the wilds before reaching civilization. But the paladin testified otherwise, and surely..." he shrugs, smiling.

    "Paladins are known for telling the truth."

    "Unless they have sworn otherwise, of course. But you were not invited here to be interrogated once more."

    "I was beginning to wonder."

    "No." Nureck sets down his glass and leans forward. "The Duke is troubled of late. He has concerns about the peace of the city. Something is stirring beneath the surface, and though he has people investigating, he feels that inquiries need to be made at levels he is not privy to."

    "Levels," repeats Nisto. "What level does the Duke feel needs to be investigated?"

    "The level, say, of an adventuring party who has proved themselves, yet are not quite trusted in polite society."

    "I see." Nisto thinks a moment, swirling his wine. In truth, he did not feel comfortable getting involved in a Duke's business, but he and his companions needed the work. "When can we meet the Duke?"

    Nureck smiles. "Four days from now. Bring them to the Duke's city estate on the east hill."


     

    They are escorted to a large sunroom on the third floor of the Duke's estate. Soft chairs and couches are scattered about the room, and a sideboard boasts carafes of fine wine alongside bread and cheese. On one small table lies a crossbow.

    The room is open to the air on one side, columns supporting stone arches through which they can see all of Thronefast beneath them—the towers, other estates, the Vaceran Trust, the Forum of Ocirico, the Arches, and of course the palace.

    "I can see the whole city from up here," says Jalasko. "Never seen it all at once."

    "Not the poorer streets," counters Crowsinger. "The slums, the weavers' houses..."

    "I can't see the Archive either," says Eske'drai.

    "That's because most of it is a basement."

    The elf turns to Nisto. "You did not enjoy your tour?"

    Nisto scoffs. "Books and scrolls are not for me."

    "So I gathered. Where is our host?"

    "Forgive my delay." The Duke sweeps into the room with his long coat billowing behind him.

    "His Grace Aeresken Sersu," announces the footman, "Duke of Rischae and the lands around Colwallow."

    The Duke is about thirty, having taken the position after the death of his father several months past. The city mourned his passing with a procession led by Korceran priests, the Queen and high nobility, and all of the dignity due a man of his position. This younger Duke is tall, with long dark hair in a ponytail secured with braided leather. His shirt is embroidered silk, his vest and trousers rich brown, his coat a medium blue. He wears the chain and sigil of his rank over it all.

    "Please, make yourselves comfortable." His arm sweeps toward the sideboard. "Help yourselves to whatever food or drink you… Hello, why is this here?"

    He frowns and bends to pick up the crossbow. He chuckles slightly, turning it over in his hand. Dark wood and dark steel.

    "Denkin," he says, and holds it out toward the footman. Denkin walks over and takes the weapon, then withdraws.

    "Sit, my friends, please." The Duke drapes himself across a chair near one end of the room. He flings one leg over an arm of the chair, rests his chin in his hand, and gestures toward the furniture scattered about the sunroom.

    Everyone chooses a place and sits somewhat awkwardly. Nisto clears his throat. "Your Grace…"

    The Duke laughs. "No, no. Nooo no no no no. Let's," he waves an arm, "dispense with this. Although I have inherited my father's position, I am still uncomfortable with these expectations, with title and bombast. Call me Aeresken."

    Nisto's eyes grow large. "Your Grace, that hardly seems—"

    "I insist."

    "Very well my, um, Aeresken. We have come as I discussed with your man Nureck."

    Aeresken frowns. "There seem to be two of your party missing. Where is the girl, Foal... and the paladin, Hera?”

    "Foal prefers to keep a low profile, and to be honest, I'm not entirely sure where she is. As for the paladin," he shakes his head, "she accompanied us on our expedition as part of a deal with the Archive. I doubt she would want to be associated with us again."

    "I see. Well then," Aeresken takes a breath, "you must understand that what I'm about to tell you must be kept quiet. There are people, powerful people, who might seek to eliminate you if they suspect that you know some of this."

    "Every one of us has learned discretion," says the elf, Eske'drai.

    Aeresken nods to the elf, then stands and begins to pace, his silhouette moving across the open arches. "What do you know of the Witherfen?"

    "A minor cult," says the elf. "A few magic users, possibly necromancers, and their minions prowling swamps and engaging in cultic sacrifices. Is there evidence of them in Thronefast?"

    "My father was troubled by strange events, connections between mysteries. He kept records of all of his suspicions in a special safe. I often wondered what was within, but it was only after his death that I inherited the key. Over the last several months, I've studied these documents, and I believe he might have been onto something."

    "Did he share these concerns with anyone?"

    "Yes!" Aeresken rushes forward and leans over a chair. He holds up fingers, counting. "Kanad, a merchant trading in grains from the southern farms. Count Sirallo. Kelyn, a priest and scholar in the Forum of Ocirico. In the five months since my father passed away, all three have died under mysterious circumstances." He pushes away from the chair and begins to pace again.

    "You father wasted away, I heard," says the elf.

    "I'm sure there are poisons that could produce that effect."

    "Then are you not in danger as well?"

    Aeresken stops. "Yes, I suppose I am."

    There is silence until Nisto says, "How close were you with your father?"

    The Duke laughs silently. "Not very close, I'm afraid. My older brother is off adventuring in the Silent Plains, so the responsibility for the duchy fell to me. But I didn't take it very seriously until suddenly it all fell upon my shoulders. I was a troublesome youth, and so..." Aeresken spreads his arms, "he never shared any of this with me."

    "I think I remember something about the count," says Jalasko. "News criers were saying that he was young and hale before his death."

    "Quite so. And there is more. Rumors of people disappearing from the poorer neighborhoods, unpredictable shortages of food in warehouses in which there should be plenty, priests whispering to one another in secret about something amiss in the capital."

    "Would it be possible," says the elf, "for me to study these documents?"

    "I'm afraid I cannot allow them to leave this estate, but you are welcome to spend as much time in my father's study as you wish."

    "May I speak openly, Aeresken?" says Nisto.

    "Of course."

    "Are you asking us to investigate this matter? A disgraced adventuring party that barely even sees one another anymore—"

    "Not together, obviously." Aeresken moves to sit down in a chair opposite Nisto. "Each of you, alone, applying your disparate skills to look in places I have no access to—or even know they exist!"

    Nisto looks at Jalasko, Crowsinger, and finally, Eske'drai, who nods. Nisto turns back to the Duke. "I'm going to be indelicate now."

    "I am hiring you, yes, as," he smiles, "mercenary investigators. And the payment, if you manage to unearth the truth behind these events, will be enough to keep each of you living quite well for some time. We can—"

    "We accept."

    Aeresken blinks. "Good. Very good." He claps his hand together, and the footman approaches. "Please escort my guests to the exit. The elf may use the study at any time."

    "Of course, your grace."

    After they leave the estate, they are silent for some time. As they walk a less busy street, Nisto says quietly, "What did you see?"

    "One of his men, in the shadows near the large plant," says Foal, suddenly appearing beside them.

    "Did he see you?"

    "Yes," she chuckles. "We had a very long stare that no one else could see."

    "So the Duke already knows that you lied about Foal," says Jalasko.

    "He must have known we would try. Ah well, let's do the job. If we pull it off, perhaps this will get us through a few seasons."

    "I shall return to the estate tomorrow and begin my research," says Eske'drai. "What about the rest of you?"

    Crowsinger looks at Jalasko and says, "I'm going to go find that seer."


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at December 19, 2020 4:15 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    November 19, 2020 7:14 AM PST

    Chapter Two

     

    Hera kneels before a low altar, the scent of incense filling her awareness. Both hands grip the hilt of her sword, the sword point resting on a stone set into the floor. She breathes slowly, feels the warmth of the afternoon sun streaming through a window above her. She imagines herself as the point of her sword, focused to a sharp point with one purpose.

    She remembers her words to Baron Choath.

    "Every paladin chooses their own path of justice. Whose justice? For whom?"

    Most people misunderstand the path of a paladin. Never the same path from one to another. Individual warrior-clerics, each choosing how to serve in their own way.

    "Undeath is a solid substance, a darkness as searing as the brightest light, and it is my holy mission to eclipse that unholy star with the light of the true heavens."

    Her mission is a sharp point, no deviation, no ambiguity. And she must be the same.

    She remembers her last conversation with the others after they left the caverns of Serengeral behind them. She was standing at the edge of a forest in the Roan Mountains, watching the eastern horizon while the others went off in separate directions to bury their portions of the treasure in the ground until needed.

    After they had all returned to the campfire, Nisto approached her with his hand on the hilt of his new sword—a treasure that, she knew, he would keep near for the rest of his life.

    "And our bargain?" he said.

    "Is sealed," she replied. "Your journey into the forest today never happened, and we found no treasure worth taking, and no more time to search."

    "And we will contact you in secret if we find ways to help you with your mission."

    When it came time for them all to face the formal inquest, Hera had no difficulty bending the truth to favor the interests of her party. Most people seem to believe that paladins are paragons of whatever they believe truth to be, and whatever they believe justice to be. Only a few of those in the room understood that the truth of paladins is somewhat more complicated. If any suspected she was lying for her own reasons, they did not choose to question her more closely.

    I killed a baron, she thinks now. Do I have any regret?

    She opens her eyes and looks down at the point of her sword against the stone. The steel flickers in the light of a dozen candles.

    "No," she whispers, and feels a rush of joy. "I have no regret. My mission is pure."

    A rush of wings above her. She looks up and sees a dark bird flying down from an upper window of the sanctuary. Impertinently, the crow lands upon the pommel of her sword. A piece of paper is tied to one leg.

    "I would help you with that," she says, "but if I move my hands, you will fall."

    The crow settles down onto the low table near the incense burner. She gently lays her sword upon the ground, then reaches over to untie the tiny string, careful not to hurt the messenger.

    Once unwrapped, the note reads:

    EVENTINE FISH WAREHOUSE, NEW MOON + 4, SUNRISE

    She looks at the crow. "Thank you."

    It clicks softly, then flies away through the window above.

    Hera whispers a benediction, then says, "Finally."


     

    Crowsinger is kneeling on the ground before the seer Amon. If he is surprised to find that one of his devout followers is a halfling, he gives no sign.

    "You just want to live your lives," says Amon in a soft voice. "I understand. Who doesn't just want to live their life in peace and prosperity? But you feel the truth of this world, don't you? You will believe me when I say that the noble and highborn in their soft palaces care nothing for your peace. Care nothing for your lives."

    Crowsinger stares up at him, watching his beard move as he speaks, the way his fingers gesture, imploring his listeners to understand. He says many of the same things as time goes on, trusting to the flow of the crowd to bring new listeners to the same words.

    Suddenly there is a disturbance at the edge of the crowd. One of the Thronefast Regulars steps into the inner circle, glaring at Amon.

    "You will come with me," she says.

    "I have done nothing wrong," says Amon.

    "Yes, I've been listening to you speak of the lions of Thronefast throwing the common people into pits of... what was it?"

    "Rabid slimes."

    "This is sedition against the rulers of the human world, who guide our very civilization through—"

    "If you find yourself interpreting my prophecies in such a horrible light, then this is your own heart speaking to you."

    "You are a charlatan, and your so-called portents are treason against the Crown."

    As she begins pulling Amon away, he yells toward the crowd, "People have already disappeared! Ask around in your district! They are coming for you—"

    The Regular cuffs him and he quiets.

    "That was going to happen," mutters someone behind the halfling. By her side, one of Amon's followers gives voice to her outrage.

    Crowsinger stands and begins to walk through the crowd. She watches the Regular dragging Amon away, the old man stumbling along beside her.

    "I'll follow him." Foal's voice.

    "Good," says Crowsinger. "I'll meet you at sundown."

    Crowsinger sees a nearby tree emerging from a gap in the stones of the plaza. Suddenly she climbs up and drapes herself across the branches. Like taking a deep breath of air after confinement, she feels the life coursing up from beneath the stones and through the tree.

    "Speak to me," she whispers, fingers caressing the wood. "Speak to me of the voices of roots beneath the plaza. Speak to me of the wind. Anything but the stone that surrounds me."

    Not far away, a man stands in the shadow of a tree, watching the halfling.


     

    Eske'drai doesn't know what to expect when he pays his first visit to Aeresken's study. A library, perhaps, books on dust-covered shelves up to the ceiling. Scroll cabinets, notebooks scribbled with the self-important thoughts of a man of great wealth and power—or perhaps rare curios collected by generations of the Duke's family.

    What he finds is chaos.

    Books and notes lie in every orientation on the shelves, spilling over onto the floor. Pages are scattered across the desk and the central table, half off the edge. An inkwell stands as a paperweight toward the edge of the table, while the quill lies nearby, ink scattered across several pages. As he looks, a page falls off the table and drifts, back and forth, until it settles on the floor.

    As an archivist, Eske'drai believes that a person's study is a mirror of the mind. As such, he feels as if he has gained some insight into the mind of the young Duke of Rischae.

    In one corner stands a safe, open. Pages spill out as if their chance to escape has come, frozen in the act of fleeing their confinement.

    "Where should I begin?" wonders the elf.


     

    The colossal front gates of Thronefast stand silent and steadfast, guardians of the largest human community in the world. Jalasko stares up at them for a long time. He knows that they are a forbidding presence to those who would bring darkness to the city, yet cannot help but feel they are also a cage. Live long enough in one, and you come to accept it. These are the boundaries of my life. I am safe here.

    Jalasko starts walking through the gate. He nods to one of the Regulars watching those who exit the city, then begins to walk across the bridge. A Regular on the outside glances at him, then says, "You're early today."

    "I know," says Jalasko. "I just needed to feel the wind and see the mountains again."

    Beneath the bridge, the river flows toward the ocean. From here he can smell the salt, like the tears of a city.

    He walks into the forest. He breathes in the scent of northern pine, feels the undergrowth beneath his boots. Rustlings among the leaves and branches speak of life unseen. He didn't bring a bow—he isn't here to hunt today. He feels another need, a need to see the sunlight filtered into the forest, smell something other than stone and unwashed humans.

    He kneels on the ground and moves grasses aside… there. Next to the moss. The hind footprint of a wolf.

    On impulse, he turns away from the wind. And there she is, creeping up on him.

    "Of course you came from over there," he says, smiling. "I hope we can be friends for a while."

    He whispers a few more words, and the wolf straightens. No longer aggressive, lips pulled back from her teeth, now she looks at him for a moment, then pads up to greet him. He scratches the fur above her forehead, behind her ears.

    "How are things here?" he asks. "How are the woods?"

    For a while, they hunt together. For a while, he is pack again.

    Much later he returns to the city and feels the walls close around him.


     

    The smell of the sea fills the air in Thronefast, as in any coastal city—but nowhere as thick as near the docks. Warehouses cluster together, buildings of stone and wood, row after row, with carts parked alongside. Closer to the sea, a range of winches and cranes for lifting. And always the scattered ships with sails furled at the docks and anchored in the harbor. Here and there a nightwatchman moves in the twilight.

    The Eventine Fish Warehouse is unremarkable, another in a row of buildings pretty much the same unless you work there. On the great doors are painted a symbol: the sharp ends of a trident with stars around the points.

    In a corner behind stacks of crates, two people speak quietly.

    "Witherfen," repeats Hera. "I have heard of them, though little is known."

    A lantern sits on a nearby crate, giving light to the corner in which they speak. In its glow, Nisto reads from his notes. "The elf agrees with you. Either they're small and haven't accomplished much, or they're one of those cults that just likes to retreat into obscurity and practice dark arts. In any case—"

    "I know someone I can ask, but I might be away a few days." Hera looks closely at Nisto. "What is it you seek, Nisto? Beyond this job."

    He shrugs. "What any man seeks. Power, some fame, to not feel like the sum of his mistakes. The freedom to live as I wish." He takes a breath. "You know how to get a message to us?"

    Hera grimaces. "A musical instrument shop near Peacemade Plaza, place a coded message on the southeast corner of the roof along with some peanuts. That will attract the halfling's crows?"

    Nisto nods. "They love peanuts."

    "Fine, I know someone who can get up there easily." She takes the paper from Nisto. "Until then."


     

    Crowsinger leans against a wall, pulls her legs close to her, and wraps her arms around them. The sounds of other people drift up through the floor. Foal sits across from her, dressed in subdued cloth—the sort of clothes worn by one who wishes to fade into the background. As usual, the rogue's hair spills down over her eyes.

    "It is rather windy up here in the loft," says Foal. "I would have expected you would want the basement so that you can claw at the earth as you like to do."

    "I can feel the wind here," says Crowsinger, "and when I need to feel the earth, I go for a walk and find bare patches in the stones, places where the weeds have broken through as they will. Everything in this city is cut stone and metal and long dead wood. But up here," she breathes in, "the wind, and my winged friends who come to visit me."

    "Is this going to make me see flowers?" asks Foal as she sips her tea.

    "I don't know," says the halfling. "You're not the first human to drink halfling tea, and I haven't heard stories about people chasing flowers around the city."

    Foal looks around. "You still don't have many possessions."

    Crowsinger shrugs. "Should I?"

    "Where's the staff hidden?"

    Foal was there when Crowsinger took the staff from the caverns of Serengeral—the only treasure she took away from that place.

    "My staff has a very interesting and useful feature."

    Foal raises her eyebrows and waits. The halfling reaches into a pocket and pulls out a cylinder about four inches long. It looks like a length of pewter with wooden caps, though on closer look one can see spiral carvings in the metal. Crowsinger holds it out away from her, horizontally. Suddenly it has become a staff about three feet long. The pewter grip is near the middle, with dark wood on either side. On one end is what looks like malachite carved into the shape of a wolf's head, with lapis eyes that glow softly.

    Foal whistles. "That is handy."

    "I've spent some time in the woods with it. It's good for fighting, and my magic hits harder."

    "Do you wish it was a fox instead of a wolf?"

    "I'm not complaining." Crowsinger takes a breath. "Where did they go?"

    Foal takes another sip. "The Regular took Amon to the extra special jail. I stayed around for a watch or so, but neither of them came out."

    "Interrogation? The things he said sounded more like implication than… what's the word?"

    "Treason."

    "Yes, that."

    A crow flies through the slightly opened window, landing on the floor near the halfling.

    "Ikaa," she says, and rubs the crow's neck feathers.

    "Do you name them all?" asks Foal.

    "No, they tell me their names. I can't speak their sounds any easier than they speak ours, but I try." She looks back down at the crow. "This one is my oldest friend in all this patchwork world."

    They sit silent as candles make shadows dance along the wall. Foal's shadow curls like a hawk peering down toward prey. The winds howl against the windows and shutters, and in their voices Crowsinger can hear a restlessness at play, rough in the streets of the city.

    Suddenly Foal stands up. "I have things to do tonight."

    "It's your time," says the halfling, feeling sleepy now.

    Foal stops just before the door. Without turning around, she says, "I owe you."

    "For what?"

    "I took a risk, pushing the baron's knife guy into that creature. I was counting on someone, you or the paladin, to help get me out of there." She laughs once. "Turns out it was both of you."

    Crowsinger shrugs. "We were a team. We still are."

    "What was that thing you did? That encased me in something when I would have died?"

    "Hirode wove a chrysalis around you to protect you. Then Hera pulled you out of danger."

    "All I'm saying is I'll pay you back."

    "Pay?"

    Foal looks back, one corner of her mouth turned up. "When the time comes."

    Then she is gone.


     

    The sounds of soldiers training, the thud of swords against straw posts, the short song of arrows flying. Nisto feels a twinge of regret. This is a place he could have been, perhaps, in time. The regret fades when he realizes this would have felt to him like just another cage.

    He straightens and walks with his head high toward a certain building. Some part of him wonders at every voice if someone among them has recognized him, will call him out in front of the troops. But no one does.

    His name is known, however, and the guard at the door frowns and sends word for confirmation before allowing him admittance. Nisto is shown to a room with a bear rug and walls covered in parchment, as well as the names of those fallen in some battle in the service of Thronefast. He stands on the rug and waits.

    After a long time, Nisto hears someone thundering in the next room, giving orders. A moment later, Captain Rheage walks into the room, throws a full pack onto his desk, and sits down. He stares at Nisto for some time before speaking.

    "I know your history," he said at last. "You were a soldier at a fort in Orc country, until you weren't. You were a city guard in Harrow, until you weren't. Then you led an expedition for treasure financed by Baron Beldynor Choath, who subsequently slaughtered soldiers at the fort to use as undead servants and was killed for it."

    Nisto opens his mouth to speak, but the Captain makes a sweeping motion with his hand, cutting him off.

    "I don't hold anything against you for allowing the murder of the baron on your expedition. Any one of us might have asked to be first in line to end his life. I am curious, though, why an experienced soldier left his post before his time of service was up."

    Silence. Nisto realizes it is his turn to speak and clears his throat. "I have a temper, sir."

    Rheage raises his eyebrows, and Nisto adds, "Sometimes I can hold a grudge. It can be difficult for others to work with me."

    "The commander at the time made it clear that you were respected. You had comrades at the post who would have died by your side."

    Nisto swallows. "You are aware, captain, that younger sons of nobility are sometimes sent into the military to give them something to do."

    "You butted heads with a lordling."

    "That would be a kind way to describe it, sir."

    Rheage leans forward, clasps his hand together, and frowns. "Your name got you this appointment to speak with me. Your name and my curiosity. What do you want?"

    "A noble currently in Thronefast requested…" he smiles slightly, realizing the irony, "requested that I and my people look into something. I'm looking for evidence of a cult called Witherfen operating within Thronefast."

    "I haven't even heard of that one," Rheage says. "And I know a lot of cults. But you know as well as I that any dark arts within the city are against the will of the Queen. Do you have evidence?"

    Nisto chuckles slightly. "I wish I did. But the more I look, the less I find."

    Rheage stands up. "A little advice, soldier."

    "Yes, captain?"

    "The noble born are fond of games. Sometimes we play along within reason. But now and then, those of us who serve the Queen, and the peace of the city, have to know when to say no."


     

    The spring rains move in from off the coast, washing the streets of Thronefast. Two days of steady rain have driven many from the plaza.

    Nisto looks down on the plaza from his room. It's still cold after the long winter, but he feels in his bones that the rain will end soon.

    "I know you feel… confined in this city. I can't say I feel much different."

    "'Confined' is a good word for how I feel," Jalasko says. "I've remained here through the winter. I did hope we could work together again, and you asked me to wait."

    "And I appreciate your patience. This job…" Nisto shakes his head and turns away from the window. "This wasn't what I'd hoped for, to be honest, but times are what they are. Will you stay a while longer?"

    Jalasko puts his head in his hands, then looks up. He looks ragged in the lantern light; a wolf caged too long. "I'll help you do this job. After that, I need out. My path leads into the forests, the mountains, not the streets of the city. You know that."

    "I do." Nisto sits in a corner chair, feels it creak under him. He listens to the rain slow down outside and feels a certainty slide into place within him. "I don't think we're all that different, ranger."


     

    A convocation is called in one of the gathering halls of the great city. Criers on the street corners sing the announcement, and in the halls of power there are whispers of tension between the great houses.

    The note says simply:

    I will ensure that you can enter the hall, but you must not be seen with me. Observe, watch what I cannot see, hear what I cannot hear. We will speak later.

    You may bring one other.

    Nisto folds the note and tosses it into a brazier to burn. After a few moments' thought, he decides to bring along the ranger. Jalasko has a far-seeing eye, and he remembers. The halfling would stand out too much, and Foal—she must remain hidden. A card he can play at uttermost need.

    They wear medium quality clothes as from one of the merchant houses.

    When they arrive at the hall, people are already milling outside. Nisto pushes through with the ranger behind him. At the door, a guard holds up a hand to stop them.

    "I am Nisto Krevin. We are expected."

    The guard's eyes widen, but he doesn't mention Nisto's reputation. He calls to the man beside him, who consults a scroll in his hand. The man nods, and the guard waves them forward.

    "Good as his word, our duke," says Jalasko.

    The hall has rows of raised platforms on each side, with seats filling quickly. On the walls are hung bright banners of Thronefast, symbols of the queen, and of the pride and seat of human civilization. Running down the center of the hall is a long fire pit, dividing the room in two. Having no idea where they should sit, Nisto moves toward the right side of the hall and takes one of the highest seats, near the wall. Jalasko sits beside him, shifting nervously.

    Nisto leans over to speak in his ear. "Remember, we belong here."

    "We really don't," mutters the ranger.

    At one end is a seat set high upon a dais, a seat for the queen. She enters last with her guards and retinue, and the hall stands until she is seated.

    Nisto looks around, trying to figure out where this is going. Then a man on the first row across the hall stands and walks toward the fire pit. He is dressed in the finest robes, thick wool and dark furs.

    "Your majesty," he bows toward the queen, then turns to survey the hall. "Great lords of Thronefast. I, Veringias, Marquis of Induvay, bring word from the borders—and an accusation."

    A ripple of murmuring moves through the hall, but the queen holds up a hand. When it is quiet again, Veringias continues.

    "On the border, there are constant dangers. I would not be here to report skirmishes with bandits, or orcs. Even if it were war, I would send word to the queen while I prepare my forces to defend human lands. I only come myself because, my friends, the danger lies far closer to home."

    He looks around the hall, then frowns when he sees his target. He raises his arm to point toward someone not far from Nisto, on one of the seats near the floor.

    "Briary Adjic, Countess of Kalos, is a traitor to the queen!"

     


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at February 15, 2021 10:24 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    November 19, 2020 7:15 AM PST

    Chapter Three

     

    "I saw nothing," says Nisto, "but a bunch of nobles shouting at one another. Countess Briary seemed unshaken. And she has a lot of friends."

    "She does," says Aeresken. He is looking through one of the arches down upon the city, his back to Nisto.

    "And you are one of them? I saw you stand and defend her character."

    Eske'drai turns and shakes his head. "I've met her several times, of course, but I would not say that I know her. My father held a deep admiration for her, though, so I cannot believe she would be capable of treason."

    "Accusations of necromancy, of disturbing the peace of the kingdom. Of being behind the disappearances of common folk in Thronefast itself. What do you think?"

    Aeresken spreads his hands and sits down. "I cannot imagine anyone doing these things. Certainly not an old friend of my father. Please sit, Nisto, you're going to frighten the couches."

    Nisto sits. "I don't believe we saw anything different than what you saw. Have you seen any of the so-called evidence that Veringias spoke of?"

    "No, it was presented directly to the queen. She has ministers looking into it. Her intelligence operatives, of course."

    "I…" Nisto looks up. "I don't know what you expect us to find. Eske'drai is still doing research in your study. My comrades have been listening to whispers on the street, but all they hear about is the disappearances. Oh, there was a would-be seer of some kind preaching doom in Peacemade Plaza. Name of Amon."

    "A seer." Aeresken thinks for a moment, then shakes his head. "I don't know if we can make anything of that. There's always someone raving in the plaza, looking for an audience. Let me guess: He was bearded, dressed in a robe and hood, and leaning on a staff."

    "No staff, but the rest, yes."

    The duke laughs a moment, then sobers, lost in thought. Nisto watches him, feeling a sorrow for this young man who has had his father wrenched away from him, who now must shoulder a burden he never wanted. In the duke's face he sees disquiet, but also a firm resolve.

    "All right," says the duke, standing up. "I intend to send a letter to Briary. I might need you for another job. This one will be dangerous."

    Nisto stands, then sinks to one knee before the duke. "Your Grace, I and my people will do what must be done."

    Aeresken's face relaxes, and his shoulders droop slightly as if a burden has been lifted. He smiles, nods. "I thank you, Nisto. I trust this to no one else."


     

    A steady rain beats against the windows as the wind roars outside. Countess Briary Adjic of Kalos reads the letter with a look of incredulity, then hands it to a servant standing beside her. She is a woman of some fifty years, dressed in the colors of her line: a shirt the blue of blackbird eggs, a vest of dark plum, and a long gray coat over it all. Her hair is pulled into a long white braid.

    At her side hangs a long sword with an elaborately jeweled hilt. Though it could be a ceremonial badge of office, Nisto judges from the way she moves that she might know something about its use.

    The countess looks over the ragged crew in her office. "I'm not sure why Aeresken chose to send me you, other than to make worse my already tarnished reputation."

    "My lady," says Nisto, "all I can say is that the duke is concerned for your welfare."

    A huff of air conveys her feelings about that. "I have never known that boy to be worth anything. And now you have no doubt been seen by several factions entering my house. I don't know if this is good or bad."

    "I admit, my lady," says Jalasko, "we're not sure of our reputation either."

    "But we are at your disposal," says Nisto.

    "For what, I wonder." She stares at the four of them for a long time, then turns to a footman. "Take them to the red suite in the north wing; a fire is already prepared. Tomorrow I'll probably send them back to the duke, storm or no storm. I'll decide in the morning."

    She leaves through another door, leaving Nisto's party standing alone on the rug.

    "That went well," whispers Jalasko.

    The footman approaches and gestures to a door to their left. "This way, please."

    The second floor of the north wing is one long hall with doors on either side. Armed guards stand at either end of the hall, and one halfway down its length. The visitors are shown to a modest suite with a bedroom on either side of a sitting room. Several chairs are grouped around a hearth with a warm fire, and the party sits down.

    Foal is chafing in her upper-class clothing. This is an unpleasant assignment. Her hair is slicked back from her forehead with some kind of sticky substance she desperately wants to wash off. Earlier, Jalasko made a comment about seeing her eyebrows for the first time and she wanted to knife him.

    "Nisto," says Crowsinger. "What are we doing here?"

    "His Grace wanted us to help the countess through the next several days. That's all I know. That is our assignment."

    "And if she wants us to leave tomorrow?" asks Jalasko.

    Nisto sighs. "That would disappoint His Grace. And I have no wish to do that."

    Foal frowns, then turns at a knock at their main door. A servant enters with a tray full of food and drink. He leaves it just inside the door, then bows out.

    "I'm going to take what they offer," says Foal. "It isn't often I get to eat food that's worth more than me."

    While Foal and the halfling help themselves, Jalasko says quietly, "You seem to be taking this more seriously than I expected."

    "And?"

    He spreads his hands. "It's a job, Nisto. And not a job really suited to our talents. We should be out beyond the city, in the wilderness, not pretending to be courtiers."

    "Look, I gave my word to the Duke, and I shall keep that word!"

    Jalasko is taken aback by the intensity of Nisto's response. "All right." He looks away.

    Later in the night, Foal is restless. She took a long bath earlier, cleaning her hair of the horrible gel, and now her hair is loose around her face like it's supposed to be. She has also exchanged formal layers for loose-fitting cloth. She should be sleepy.

    But something is wrong. Everything has been wrong since this job began. To be honest, she's been doing quite well since the Serengeral incident. She could live decently for a long time off the few handfuls of treasure she brought back from the caves, and over the winter she's been taking jobs for the thrill rather than out of necessity.

    But this job is wrong. Right now it's especially wrong, and she can't figure out why. The rain is still coming down outside, although the wind has calmed.

    Foal rises and puts on her boots, then gathers her weapons. She knows better than to wear them openly here, so she stashes them in several places in her clothes. Thus prepared, she creeps by Crowsinger, who is asleep in the next bed, and leaves their suite.

    Lanterns flicker along the empty hallway. Apart from the sound of the rain outside, the house is very quiet. She reaches the stairs at the end of the hall, then turns back.

    She stops and frowns. The hallway is empty. Where are the guards she saw earlier? She looks back to the stairwell. No guards.

    She turns to run back to their suite, but before she can move, she sees a man in the corridor. Dark clothes, mask, knives.

    Assassin.

    Foal reaches into a pocket in one sleeve, then tosses a smoke bomb toward the target—at the same time he tosses one toward her.

    "Damn," she whispers, and leaps through the shadows toward him.

    He is already there.

    A silent dance, a dance that each of them knows well. Knives flash in the dim corridor, dodge and feint, strike and miss.

    Foal doesn't even notice her opponent's first hit until a moment later. She can feel the poison seeping into her arm, a numbness meant to slow her down.

    He is better than I.

    She moves, kicks off the wall and spins around behind him. He barely misses a strike as she moves. She shifts one knife to prepare for a backstab—but he is suddenly several feet away from her.

    Her heart is beating quickly. Less than ten seconds have passed, and she knows she cannot beat this assassin. She's going to die.

    Foal and her opponent both pause at the sound of voices at the end of the hall, near the stairwell. She steals a glance in that direction, sees several men who are not in the countess' livery.

    "Kill them both," says one man.

    She looks at the assassin, holds his gaze for one moment. His eyes narrow and he is gone, reappearing farther down the hall to attack one of the newcomers.

    Okay then. She leaps through shadows until she is behind one of the others.


     

    "Foal," says Crowsinger. The other bed is empty, but that isn't what woke her. She feels something, a struggle close by, blood flowing. Sounds of fighting in the hallway.

    Staff appearing in her hand, she runs to the room occupied by Nisto and Jalasko, opens the door without knocking.

    "Wake up," she says. She knows better than to try to wake a sleeping ex-soldier by shaking him. When he doesn't move, she beats on a table with the end of her staff until he opens his eyes.

    "Crow," he says. "Why are you in my room?"

    "Foal is fighting somebody in the hall."

    Nisto's eyes grow wide. "Damn rogue." He grabs his pack and his sword belt, then throws a pillow at Jalasko to wake him up.


     

    Foal dodges around sweeps of a greatsword. Her new opponent is big, lumbering around the stairwell and swinging that ridiculous sword. Normally she would have no trouble dodging his attacks, but the assassin's poison has slowed her. She barely catches the sword in her two knives, but the force of his swing knocks her into a nearby wall. She collapses onto the floor.

    The big man brings his greatsword down from above. Foal watches it fall.

    A fierce wind in front of her, a tempest that catches his sword before it can hit her. She looks down the hall, sees her companions there. The druid with one hand out, the ranger nocking an arrow, Nisto shouting and running forward with his sword.

    Foal swiftly tosses a smoke vial at the man with the greatsword. He coughs and brushes at his eyes, sways.

    A small fox appears in front of Foal, and she feels the warmth of healing.

    Nisto's opponent is good. Very good. Foal jumps up and stabs the man low, up into vital organs, keeps her head down. Nisto's sword sweeps into the man's neck and he falls.

    Breathing heavily, she looks around. The intruders are all down.

    "What happened to the guards?" asks Nisto.

    "I was wondering that myself," says Foal. They all turn to look at the assassin.

    "You are defending the household," he says.

    "Of course," says Nisto.

    "The countess is in danger," he says, and runs down the hall and into the south wing. The others follow.

    They run past the stairwell, and the sounds of fighting on the floor below. They reach a door, locked. The assassin kneels in front of the lock with a couple of fine tools. In moments the door is open.

    Inside, Countess Briary stands with her sword unsheathed. In front of her is a man with sword and shield, prepared to defend her. Foal locks the door again.

    "You're alive," says Nisto.

    "Who is this?" asks Briary, looking at the assassin.

    "I am called Nine," he says.

    Briary's eyes widen. "Lark," she whispers. Then her stern expression returns.

    Someone running in the hall. Voices. Someone tries the door from outside.

    "Is there an exit from this room?" asks Nine.

    Briary sheaths her sword and walks over to a bookshelf. She pulls away several books, then fiddles with something in the back.

    The bookshelf swings away from the wall.

    "There is a ladder. Follow me."

    Someone is throwing himself against the hallway door.

    "We'll follow her," says Jalasko.

    They descend the ladder one at a time. Foal is sure they are somewhere below street level by the time the ladder ends. Briary has lit a lamp.

    Jalasko says, "Won’t they figure out the bookshelf?"

    The assassin called Nine reaches the floor last. "I made sure it looked like it did before, then sealed it. They still might figure it out."

    "This way," says the countess' man. "I will follow my lady."

    Foal stands next to the halfling. "I owe you again," she says softly.

    "Pay me back," says Crowsinger, and smiles. "When the time comes."


     

    They emerge from the tunnels in one of the warehouses near the docks. Briary says, "Aldus," and hands the lamp to her guard. He nods his head and takes it.

    She steps forward. "You have probably saved my life. I am in your debt."

    "We fought on behalf of His Grace Duke Aeresken," says Nisto.

    Nine frowns.

    "I see," says Briary. "In any case, my guards disappeared, and I must find out why. I will return to my estate in Kalos… with the Lark's permission, of course."

    Nine nods. "We will know where you are."

    Aldus leads his countess out of the warehouse.

    Nisto looks at Nine. "What is the Lark?"

    "Secret intelligence for the queen," says Foal.

    "Why have I never heard of them?"

    "Most haven't," says Nine, glancing at Foal. "You were there to protect the countess. That was unexpected."

    Nisto frowns. "Why?"

    "Because you were there on behalf of the duke."

    Nisto steps forward. "What are you saying…"

    Jalasko grabs an arm and says, "Nisto. Why don't we go to the meeting place and talk this over?”

    Nisto is breathing heavily, but he nods. "Yes, let's have this out."

    They follow Jalasko to the docks. There is a boat waiting for them, empty. They climb in, and Nisto rows them out to a merchant vessel anchored in the harbor. Nine watches Nisto closely.

    The ship rocks and sways with the waves. They find the elf waiting for them in the ship's hold.

    Nisto turns to the assassin. "Now what is this about?"

    "I was wondering that myself," says Nine. "Who do you serve in all of this?"

    "I serve His Grace, the Duke of Rischae, Aeresken Sersu! He is my lord."

    "What," Jalasko blinks, "what did you say?"

    Eske'drai moves closer to Nisto, frowning. He looks into the warrior's eyes.

    "You have been charmed, my friend," he says.

    "What?"

    "That explains," says Foal, "several things."

    Nisto turns to her with anger in his eyes. Foal sees Eske'drai whisper something, and Nisto blinks. His eyes seem to clear. He turns to look at Eske'drai, who says, "So our good duke made you his trusted servant and sent you to protect Countess Briary Adjic on the very night that her estate in the city is attacked. What an interesting coincidence."

    Nisto runs his fingers through his hair. "I am… ****, that wasn't good."

    "No, it wasn't. But don't feel bad. I now know that Aeresken is a rather skilled enchanter. And who is our new friend?"

    The elf turns to look at the assassin.

    "I am Nine. I represent Her Majesty Queen Amenthiel, and I am not charmed."

    "No," says Foal, "you certainly are not."

    "I have a question."

    They all turn to look at Crowsinger, who is sitting with legs crossed on a cabinet on one side of the hold. "Who attacked Briary's estate?"

    "I might have an answer for that," says the elf. "It took me several days to sort through the old duke's notes—without the young duke's help. It seems Aeresken's father believed that the Witherfen cult has been secretly active within Thronefast, and he believed it possible that someone among the nobility was working with them. I don't know if he realized before the end that it was his own son."

    "But why accuse Countess Briary of what he himself is doing?" asks Jalasko.

    No one seems to have an answer.

    Nisto turns to Crowsinger. "Did you learn anything from that seer, Amon?"

    "Amon is also the duke," says Nine.

    "Excuse me?" Crowsinger looks at him.

    "He is very good at disguising himself. I've identified three different people he has been playing around the city."

    "He was arrested by one of the Regulars," says Foal.

    "One of his own agents, Rysiri."

    "She took him to a jail."

    "I have no doubt that is what you saw."

    Nisto turns to Eske'drai and says in a low voice, "No offence, my friend, but I hate enchanters."

    "I take no offense."

    "If Umbric Skel knows all of this," says Foal, "why is the duke still free?"

    Nine looks at her. "Because we haven't seen him communicate with the cult, and we need to see who his contact is. And you know far too much about the Lark."

    "Where is the duke?" Nisto's voice has an undercurrent of menace when he speaks of the duke.

    Above his mask, Nine's eyes turn to Nisto. "He has not been seen within the city since the convocation; at least not in any disguise with which we are familiar. It is possible he might have gone to ground in his estate in Rischae."

    Nisto looks around at his companions. "Then we're going to Rischae."

     


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at November 19, 2020 9:11 AM PST
    • 89 posts
    November 19, 2020 7:15 AM PST

    Chapter Four

    A light wind and the sound of Foal's silver flute are all they hear once they've bedded down for the night. They've chosen a space between hills in a grassy plain, a place where their campfire, small as it is, won't be visible. Eske'drai is taking first watch, the elf standing on a hill above them.

    Clouds are scudding across the moon, giving them light and shadow alike. Crowsinger leans back against her pack, listening to Foal play and watching the sky. Being outside the city is exhilarating. Here she can breathe again, feel the earth speak and lie in the grass under sky.

    A crow lands beside her with word that scouts are flying around Rischae.

    "Good," she says. "I hope they will bring me word of what they see."

    The crow points out that the scouts are crows and likely to be very bored if it takes too long for the party to get there. That could lead to mischief.

    "I know," she replies.

    "Word of Hera?" asks Nisto.

    "No, nothing yet." Crowsinger sits up. "Are you sure we should count on the paladin?"

    "No, I'm not," he says wryly. "But she could be handy to have around."

    Eske'drai runs down the hill into the camp. "Horses," he says. "Maybe a hundred yards, heading southwest in the direction of Rischae. The riders are robed."

    "Robed," says Jalasko. "Wizards? Or cultists?"

    Foal puts down her flute. "Nobody wears robes for a night ride under the moon. I doubt they are shepherds."

    Nisto runs up the hill, then crouches near the top, watching. Soon he is back down in the camp. "Let's get some sleep," he says, "and leave before sunrise."

    Eske'drai starts back up the hill to resume his watch. He hears he is being followed.

    "What do you wish to say, Nisto?"

    The big warrior's eyes are shadowed under the moon. "I know you have… calmed me down in the past. Fair enough. But you've never tried to make me a servant or force me to do something I would not do."

    "No, and I never would."

    "There was a time when I would have tried to kill you for even that light touch. But I think we're past that now."

    "Are we?"

    "I need you," says Nisto, "to counteract anything Aeresken might try to do to any of us."

    "That is my intent. We are facing a powerful enchanter, and my primary task will be to shield all of you from his persuasion."

    "Good." Nisto begins to turn away, stops. "I intend… more than our mere survival."

    "I believe you, my friend."

    Nisto nods and returns to the camp.

    "Nisto," says Jalasko. "Forgive me for asking, now that we're almost there. You know I love being on the move again. But I'm still wondering why we're here. The Queen's intelligence people seem to know what's going on, and it's really their job to handle things like this, isn't it?"

    Nisto sits and stares into the fire. "Probably. But I think they have their hands full. Aeresken was trying to stir up discontent, even insurrection, among the common people. I'm sure he didn't rely upon words alone, but also manipulated listeners in Peacemade Plaza. There's a lot to undo. Besides," he looks up at the ranger, "if you had been turned into a puppet by the duke, what would you want to do right now?"

    "Fill him with arrows, of course. Painfully."

    Nisto smiles. "Then surely you would want to do that on my behalf."

    "Of course." Jalasko lies back and looks up at the stars. "We were in the city too long, Nisto. I've stuck with the group through the winter because... I don't know, I thought we worked well together. But there was ever that pull, that song calling me back to the wilderness. I honestly don't know how I have held out against it for this long."

    "I know, and I appreciate all of you for remaining with me. It isn't even about the money anymore. I just need to do this."

    "I think the duke never intended to pay us," says Foal, "but if we can pull this off, there must be some fine treasures in his estate, don't you think?"

    "You are welcome to them, my friend," says the warrior. "Now I'm going to sleep."


     

    Plains become brush, and they walk through tall grasses flecked with gorse and heather. Gray clouds sulk overhead, and the air carries the scent of approaching storm.

    As morning hurries on, Crowsinger feels a familiar pull along her skin, the warmth of a nexus in a web she knows well.

    "Wait," she says.

    Everyone looks at her.

    "I think this is important." She leads them over several hills until they come to a bowl-shaped depression in the earth. In the center is a rune-marked crystal that reminds her of home. She can feel the web, here where strands meet.

    "What is this?" says Nisto, but Crowsinger only hums for a while, matching melody with harmony, drone with chanter, voice with voice. The crystal glows brighter, and she knows she can return here. Like she could have returned at any time to the place of her birth, if she would ever choose such a thing.

    "I'm done here," says the druid.

    "Tell me this will help us in some way," says Nisto.

    "If we find ourselves in serious trouble, it might."

    "Good enough."

    Midday they see a crow flying low over the grasses. It swoops up and curls around to land on the druid's shoulder. After a lengthy conversation, Crowsinger turns to the others.

    "It sounds like Hera is killing cultists who are scouting beyond the estate."

    "She could have waited," growls Nisto.

    "Paladin," Foal points out.

    Crowsinger listens while petting the crow. "We'll be there by dusk."

    "So will the rain, I think," says Jalasko, watching the northwestern sky.

    "Yes," agrees the druid. She writes something on a small scrap of parchment, then ties it to the leg of the crow. "Off you go."

    Nisto says, "Does Hera know we're coming?"

    "I'm sending a message."

    "Good." Nisto watches the crow fly. "Let's go find a paladin."


     

    The grasses sway a sunbaked amber in the late afternoon sun. They follow a crow into a collection of large rocks. Hera is camped there, hidden from the plains.

    "I understand you started without us," says Nisto.

    Hera finishes cleaning her sword. "I saw a cultist who was practicing giving orders to an undead minion. He seemed to be new in his study of the dark arts."

    "Sure," says Jalasko. "A boyish young necromancer tossing sticks for his faithful corpse to fetch—"

    "Have you scouted the estate?"

    Hera stands up. "Yes. There are several buildings, loosely connected by covered walkways. It looks as if every generation has added on with no regard to the previous generation's vision."

    "What would be the best approach?"

    "I'm not sure. Buildings are taller than the perimeter wall, so there are windows looking down on the wall, as well as guards patrolling."

    "Rain soon," says Crowsinger.

    "That will help," says Foal. "I'll find a way up the wall and lower a rope."

    Sometime in the night, they approach the estate from the south. Beneath a leaden sky, grasses bow before the winds of spring, and the first drops of rain fall around them. Crowsinger can feel the restlessness of thunder holding its breath, a waiting above the world.

    In her mind's eye she sees through the eyes of the crow Ikaa, who is one of her scouts. Suddenly Ikaa shivers in fear at a sudden call, the cry of a Ru'lun hawk. She folds her wings and dives, twisting through the tense air.

    Crowsinger feels her panic, and the fear of her other scouts, who are also under attack.

    -a sharp pain as claws pierce her skin, feathers ripped away-

    -she screams in her ragged voice, dives again, making for a brittle hedge along the ground-

    -the hawk plummets from above throwing her into the ground beneath its claws, then ripping at her neck-

    Crowsinger screams and falls. Foal catches her and sets her gently on the ground.

    "Hawks…"

    "What did you see?" Nisto says.

    "Hawks," she sobs. "Hawks."

    "I believe," says Eske'drai, "that we may have lost our scouts."

    "Do they know?" Jalasko asks. "Do they know the crows were scouts and not just…"

    "We have no way to know," Hera says. She glances back at the halfling, then to Nisto, who says, "We continue as planned."

    Quickly they move through the grass and scattered sedge toward the south wall. Trees gather more closely near the wall, and Nisto leads them toward a dense copse of maple.

    "Wait," says Foal quietly. Crowsinger sits down in the grass next to her.

    Nisto's head turns in the dark.

    "This is too obvious. Let me sneak in there and be sure."

    He waves her ahead. As she passes Jalasko, she whispers, "Watch her," and he nods.

    As she moves into the embrace of trees, she can barely see in the darkness. The moon is shuttered by the looming clouds. Then lightning flares above and in a brief flash she can see a wire stiff between two trees. She crawls back exactly the way she came, then moves swiftly when she is out of the forest.

    "No good," she tells Nisto, crouching beside him. "Wire traps between the trees. Even if they're not spelled, they're probably rigged to make a lot of noise."

    "No trees in the back, and the grass is low all around the estate wall."

    "I imagine they leave tasty things in the grass to lure animals to clear around the walls," says Jalasko. When the others look at him, he says, "That's what I would do."

    Nisto sighs. "Foal. Check for traps in the back, then clear a path."

    "Got it."

    Foal moves through the darkness until she can see the back corner of the wall. One guard that she can see, wearing a robe. All right.

    She continues another two dozen yards, then checks to make sure she sees nothing dangerous on the wall. She climbs slowly and quietly until she reaches the top, then peers over. Guard near the corner to the right, another far to the left. Windows that can see down onto the wall, all dark. Another window further on flickers with lamplight.

    She moves through shadows along the wall until she is near and draws the blade that contains her fastest poison, intended to quickly make breathing difficult. She leaps onto his back and covers his mouth with one hand while stabbing upward into a lung.

    He draws a breath, trying to shout out, but can't find the air. She stabs again, then lowers him quietly to the ground and draws the blade across his throat.

    Her gaze darts to one side, but the other guard appears to be drinking from a wineskin. She moves along the top of the wall and kills him as she killed the other.

    She returns to the corner and lowers a rope. Soon her companions have reached the top. She looks around, and for an instant it seems there is something in one of the dark windows—a face?—but she cannot be certain in this light.

    Nisto descends the steps leading down into the yard, then across to a door in the back of one building. Foal crouches before the door, examines the mechanism, and unlocks it in a matter of moments.

    Foal whispers, "That was surprisingly easy."

    "Trap?"

    "Maybe."

    "You first."

    Foal gives him a look, then fades from sight. When the others enter the room, they see a room with a desk, several chairs, and lockers.

    "Makes sense," says Nisto. "Guard room near the back wall. But where are the guards?"

    "The two I killed were both dressed as cultists," says Foal. "That lovely puce robe with the angry badger embroidered upon it."

    Jalasko has been looking through the lockers but sees nothing interesting.

    "Has he brought the entire cult here?" asks the paladin, "Or converted his own guards?"

    "Either way, robes are far easier to skewer than armor," says Foal.

    They move into the next room, a large area with tables and chairs, and doors on all sides.

    "Trap," mutters Jalasko, just as several of the doors open.

    Seven cultists enter the room from different directions. Five are robed, but two of them wear chain mail.

    "Stay here," says Hera, and runs toward the center of the room. Looking around at their foes, she says, "I, Hera, Paladin of Elkrin Tower, am here to slay you all for consorting with darkness!"

    She seems to glow slightly in the lantern light. Several enemies move toward her, baring their teeth. One cultist tries to move around behind her toward the rest of the party. With a Word, she pulls him through the room until he is next to her.

    Flames cover the enemies around her, and they attack. Suddenly one cultist on the right stops moving, a look of confusion on his face.

    "Armored one on the left," says Nisto, "and don't hit me with anything."

    Nisto runs in and strikes the man with his sword. The man growls and turns to engage Nisto.

    Suddenly there is more light in the room, though Nisto doesn't have time to see its source. Then Jalasko is fighting beside him, his sword and long knife glowing.

    Once the two armored cultists are down, the fight turns more quickly. One of the cultists tries fire and ice against the paladin, but soon he falls to the floor, revealing Foal behind him with twin daggers.

    When their enemies are all dead, Foal says, "Search the rooms?"

    "Time for that later," says Nisto, "I hope. Let's move."

    They pass down a hallway until they reach another outer door. The next building is twenty yards away through a covered walkway. Rain pours down in sheets on either side. Foal disappears and heads toward the other side.

    "This is definitely a trap," mutters Jalasko.

    "How fast can you run?" Nisto says.

    "She's had twenty seconds," Hera whispers. "If we're going to go…"

    "Now."

    Nisto runs out onto the walkway, stands behind the first column, and looks up at the windows overlooking the garden. In flashes of lightning, he can see that some windows are open, but he doesn't see any faces or lights in them. Walls isolate this area from other parts of the estate; there is no way out except the ends of the walkway.

    The others follow, moving from column to column. Soon they are spread out along the covered walkway. Several crossbow bolts land at their feet, but they reach the other side and run through the door that Foal has already opened.

    Another short hallway, and they're in the great hall of the central keep.

    A voice mutters a few words, and the light of a magic barrier glows briefly against the door.

    "This was the trap," says Jalasko.

    "Hello my friends!" Aeresken's voice, from a balcony above. "Welcome to Rischae."

    "Have you come to pay us for the job, then?" shouts Nisto.

    The duke's laughter swirls down. "Indeed, you have done very well. I expected you to die with Count Briary, but I am delighted that you have come to join me instead."

    "I came to ask about hazard pay." Nisto looks around. Most of their enemies are on the balcony with Eske'drai, but several corpses move from behind curtains to cut them off from both exits.

    "I agree, you have earned it. Here…" Aeresken throws down a large bag that lands with the sound of many coins. "A bonus for you all! Won't you join me for tea?"

    Nisto feels his heart pulled toward the man above. Charm, charisma, someone truly worth… the charm dissipated like mist. "Thanks, Eske'drai," he says.

    "I have a question," says the elf to the duke. "Why instigate violence against nobles in the city? Attacking your father's allies, destroying whatever respect he had—"

    "Respect," says the duke. The laughter is gone from his voice now.

    "Did you not respect your father?"

    "I hated him. I'm very happy, deliriously happy, that he's dead, painfully dead and gone and buried in the ground. I know that makes me sound ungrateful, my filial duties ignored, but what can I say? Now I have no filial duties." He laughs again.

    "And Countess Briary?"

    "Why should my celebration stop at my father? His friends, his interests, his beliefs. Everything must fall and crumble into dust. If I could bring down the walls of Thronefast itself, nothing would make me happier, but alas that is not one of my talents."

    "He is… not well," mutters Jalasko.

    "This is a long way to go just because you hated your father," says Nisto.

    "Not just him. The structure of what he represents, the nobility, the great accomplishments of great men. It is a crumbling edifice painted to reek of glory, but rotten all the way to the Queen."

    He leans forward and speaks more softly. "You, Nisto, you understand. You chafed against the strictures of order in your time as a soldier. You chafed against the anonymity of being a city guard."

    "That isn't why—"

    "Isn't it?"

    "Did you join the witherfen cult," says Eske'drai, "or did they join you?"

    The duke seems to consider. "A little of both, I believe. Anyway, congratulations, it's been fun, your payment is on the floor over there, come, take it."

    "Can you pull him down?" Nisto asks the paladin.

    "Not with the railing in the way, no."

    "Oh, is that the halfling hiding over there behind the ranger?" calls the duke. "Were those crows yours? I noticed quite a lot of them flying around, and thought to give my hawks some hunting practice."

    Jalasko only half listens to the conversation. Behind him, Crowsinger has begun to chant.

    "Anakirra rje kove a svaska dori hrva. Eshcha sva pravi duhu kovi kovi kovi...."


     

    The freezing in her heart has only grown with every step she takes. Claws of cold frost twisting through the earth, tearing canyons in its path. It courses through her veins, her heart missing every other beat, her lungs pressed in as if crushed.

    "Vines that can feel your way through rock and split stone, I beg you to rise, rise, rise…"

    A rumbling in the ground as the ones the druid calls begin to answer. They seep through the foundations, through the floor, prying apart wood and stone, the work of centuries over the course of seconds. Still they climb and wind up the wall toward the balcony as the halfling chants.

    "Shoot her!" Aeresken shouts.

    Several crossbow bolts fly toward them. Foal picks up the halfling and spins away through shadows. Hera's shield blocks two bolts.

    "Oh no, no," laughs a new voice. "Surely, Nisto, that is enough."

    "It is," says Nisto as he watches the vines pull the banister away, leaving Aeresken exposed.

    Then the duke is flying down toward the paladin.

    "Fight me," she says.

    "I think you'll find," he says, drawing a saber, "that I am well protected by this coat. And your companions are somewhat preoccupied FIND THE HALFLING!"

    Nisto holds out his sword, points it toward the duke. "If it is blood you seek, then feast."

    The duke blinks at this, and two of his guards step forward. but Nisto swiftly cuts one of them down, moves on to the next

    "Excuse me," says Jalasko. "Was that your sword talking a moment ago?"

    Foal appears behind Aeresken, stabs him in the back, then dodges out of the way of a crossbow bolt.

    Jalasko yells as his armor smolders. "Mage!"

    Somewhere near the wall, the druid says, "Zradoshli."

    Windows shatter as lightning reaches into the balcony, arcing. Again and again it strikes, until the cultists up there are dead or writhing on the floor.

    The duke backs away from the paladin, who is dealing with two heavily armored cultists.

    "Now?" asks Nisto's sword.

    "Now," he replies and runs toward the duke.

    "Heavily protected," Nisto breathes, "but you are no fighter. And your sword," Nisto releases his grip and steps back, spreads his arms, "is not mine."

    The sword of Serengeral drifts in the air, its point considering Aeresken's chest.

    The duke's eyes widen, and he tries to flee through the door at the other end of the hall—but suddenly Nisto is there, sword in hand, to block his path.

    "Oh, no," he says. "We have business, you and I."

    Aeresken holds up a hand, whispering. But Nisto feels nothing, not charmed, not awed, not wavering.

    "Never again will someone control me as you did," growls Nisto. "Now it is you who will fear me."

    The duke backs away slow, his eyes wide, staring at phantoms only he can see.

    Nisto attacks, his thirst for vengeance guiding his hand, his strength, again and again, one cut after another, until at last the duke lies on the floor bleeding from many wounds.

    When at last Nisto turns around, he sees that their enemies are dead, and everyone is looking at Nisto.

    "What curse is upon that sword?" says Hera, her voice dangerously calm.

    "Curse, you say? Boon, I would say. The sword and I have spoken, and we have an understanding. It has taught me many things."

    "I am… sated," says the sword.

    Jalasko clears his throat. "I don't want to offend any… sword, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this."

    "Neither am I," says Hera.

    "You did something to his mind," says Eske'drai. "Something that terrified him."

    "I stab people in the back," points out Foal. She points a finger toward Eske’drai. "He controls peoples' minds, and the druid kills people with plants and lightning."

    "This is different," says Hera. "Do you realize what path you have stepped upon? Is it your intention to become a Dire Lord?"

    Nisto cleans his sword, then sheathes it. "You came here because you've taken an oath to cleanse the world of undead. You said nothing about talking swords, as I remember."

    "Was the entire treasure cursed?" Hera shakes her head. "What kind of a man was Serengeral?"

    "I do not know. But I do know that I am not him." He points down toward the dead duke. "I have no hatred of the halls of power in Thronefast. I have no quarrel with a queen that I have never met. I hope they stand, for the sake of all humanity. But I," he shakes his head, "I cannot stand with them. Any more time within those walls, and I will be as a guttering flame. I will be nothing."

    "I think that we have crossed a border."

    Nisto looks closely at the paladin. "And that means?"

    "I have no qualms with Nisto and his sword," says Foal. "However they fight, however they revenge, I will stand with them and bleed their enemies."

    Hera shakes her head. "I cannot walk this path any further with you. I am going to search the estate for more necromancers. It would be best if we do not cross paths again."

    The paladin leaves through another door.

    Nisto stands with his head down. He looks up. "I thank you, my friends, for accompanying me on this journey. I'm afraid it turned into something different than I'd hoped…. Regardless, I cannot ask you to follow me further if you are troubled."

    "What do you intend?" asks the elf.

    "For now, I intend to walk the world and seek adventure. I would rather not walk alone."

    "I suppose you need a guide through the wilderness," says Jalasko.

    "I'm not going back to the city either," says Crowsinger.

    "There is a lot of treasure in there," says Foal, emerging from a room off the main hall. Everyone looks at her.

    Nisto smiles. "I could not ask for better companions. Treasure, then. And then we find our way out of here."

    A short while later, three humans, an elf, and a halfling appear beside a crystal obelisk in the plains. Their bags are heavier than when last they were here.

    Nisto looks at the elf. "Will you be returning to the Archive?"

    Eske'drai shakes his head. "I will remind you that now we have killed a baron and a duke. Whatever our cause, however justified, this story will end with us exiled from Thronefast. Especially if you continue on the path you seem to have chosen. I believe I will walk the world with you, if I am welcome to."

    Nisto smiles. "You are most welcome."

    "Where shall we go?" asks Jalasko.

    Nisto looks north toward Thronefast, then turns around. "South."

    After a short rest, they walk south under a clearing sky, nothing but the endless plains before them.

     

    - end -


    This post was edited by Crowsinger at November 25, 2020 3:59 PM PST