Elder Players' - Interlude Thirteen - The Story
This is our little experiment. Can we really "play" between games? Read and see if you like it!
WRAPPING UP THINGS IN GREENMARK
Swinging a weary leg over the bay's huge shoulders, Will hopped to the ground. He handed the reins to the groom
who would take the great beast to the Green Grape's stables. One of the few intact buildings left in the once thriving
town of Greenmark. He swatted trail dust from his tunic as he strode towards the two pavilions flying the Imperial
banner. He thought he had seen Ruadhin outside the Ambassador's tent, and wanted to know if he and Jeremiah had
found any trace of the Gnolls today. They appeared to have vanished now that the Ambassador had been safely recovered.
Finding no trace of Ruadhin he ducked down to enter the pavilion only to find himself face to face with the massive
beard of his friend Oren. The Dwarf had stayed behind to provide security for the Ambassador who was down to one
guard after the Gnoll attack and the disappearance of his Sargent. Apparently killed by one of the doppelgangers
who had then assumed his place.
"WILL! Good to see you then." Oren boomed. "I'll just leave our friend… Mr. Ambassador, sir… in your capable hands. We've a caravan to organize you know. I'll see to that!" Leaning in towards Will he whispered, "He can't quit whining to save his life, and no offense but all that tea makes me have to piss like a mountain goat."
Will couldn't help but smile as Oren hurried in a stiff-legged gait towards the latrine. The Dwarf meant well, but he and the Ambassador would have little in common, and had probably nearly driven each other mad today.
Will cleared his throat and spoke, "Lord Ambassador, it appears that your kidnappers have fled the area. However we can't be sure they might not try again and given your dearth of guards at the moment I must insist that you travel with us to the Azure Keep. I and my company can see to your security. Once there I will organize a proper contingent of guards for your return to the Empire."
"I thank you Mr. Fitzpierce. It's good to find an Imperial Soldier in this gods forsaken land."
"Yes milord. I'm pleased to have been in a position to offer aid."
"It will be good to leave this place, after all my mission is a shambles"
"Milord I beg to differ. Tragedy has befallen your mission no doubt. But you may yet return to Citadel in triumph, to reap the praise and reward of the Emperor. I know you have an agreement in principle with Dumit, and I have every belief that you will also secure one with Lord Javair at the Azure Keep."
"But this land is so barbaric. I started this trip with nine, and Kempin willing will return with but five."
"Aye, Lord Ambassador. It's true this land is rough. But the same can be said for the Grasslands of Shronth, the homeland of our beloved Emperor. I trust Kempin will yet show us how to use this lands nature to our advantage. I pledge my sword and my mind to the success of your mission. Keep close in the Azure Keep, I will advise you as I may, and keep an eye towards opportunities. My Lord, this land is filled with opportunities."
THE TOME OF PURITY
Warm breezes swirled on the surface of the lake. Jeremiah stood at the end of the new dock. Fishing boats lightly
knocked upon the sides of the dock as the waves moved them. The priest's hands were clenched and his eyes were
closed. His lips moved as he softly prayed. "...give me a house of worship, oh lord...give me the strength
to take back your temple...." Behind him loomed the huge blue mountain with the Azure Keep at its peak.
Jeremiah bowed his head, touched his forehead with his fist, and his prayers were finished. He turned from the end of the dock, and walked towards shore. He stopped short a look of shock on his face. "Father Tunder! What are you doing here?"
The old priest stood on the blue rocks where the dock met the shore. "I bring information for you, my son. Heironeous is a generous lord, and the Order of the Rose has become aware you mean to purify an ancient temple...Birchmont."
Jeremiah stepped from the dock, and bowed to Father Tunder. "Yes...I plan to face the ancient evil there. It is time we took back what rightfully belongs to our Lord. Be it demons or devils...they have no place upon the alters of Heironeous."
"Sir Phineous Thorn sent me to speak with you. If you don't purify the temple correctly, you will be releasing a horrible dark plague upon the world. He wanted me to make sure you understand the gravity of this situation?"
Jeremiah looked up at the blue sky. White fluffy clouds were blowing overhead, and the sun warmed the rocks they stood upon. "Father Tunder, this past year has been filled with dangerous quests...and I have faced all manner of dark threats to humanity. Tell Thorn that I am fully aware of the dangers involved here. Fully aware."
Father Tunder nodded. "You will need the white book...the Tome of Purity. Only its power can reclaim the temple...and drive the evil back from whence it came. Without this book, you will surely fail."
Jeremiah put his hand out. "Thank you for bringing me the book, Father...."
"No...no. We don't have the white book. It was perhaps stolen long ago...or some say sold away by a wayward soul among our order. No one is sure how we lost it those many years ago...but we know where the white book now rests." The old priest paused and stepped very close to Jeremiah. And then in a low voice, "You will find the Tome of Purity in....
"...in Tunis! You want us to go to the City of Thieves!?! You are surely kidding!" Will's tone was incredulous. The Finders of the Key had gathered in the large tent that served for the time-being as Ockrote's new bar in the City by the Lake.
Jeremiah's face was grim. "No...I am very serious. Father Tunder was very clear. The Tome of Purity is in the possession of a politically powerful thief named Robert Nivo. During his early career he was known as "Bumbling Bob," and some still call him by this name. Now he holds a position on the Council of the Knife...in Tunis."
Eytai spoke up. "What use would a thief have for such an item?"
Jeremiah shrugged. "The Father said he kept it in his trophy room. Perhaps he has many such treasures tucked away."
Zeek rubbed his chin with a tattooed hand. "The elders of my tribe keep items of value to show their own worth. Perhaps the thieves of Tunis show their importance by owning rare and valuable items...."
Vikos laughed. "Who cares why he has it? We should go there and take it from him. He has no right to such an item...and we have much need of it...according to the old man and Jeremiah, at least."
Eytai looked away from the others. He whispered, as if to himself, "Thieves...." Then he fell silent and appeared to be brooding.
Zeek raised a cup. "It is clear then. To Tunis we must travel. But we don't know where Tunis is...or how we will get in once we arrive. Who amongst us can solve these mysteries?"
"Before we discuss how to get there, I must make it clear to all of you that there will be more trouble
in Tunis than perhaps we expect," he said quietly while raising his head to face the others.
Jeremiah was resolute. "Theives do not part with their treasures willingly. But this party has strength backed by the will of God!"
"There is an unresolved issue involving me…in Tunis. During my travels before I joined this group, I learned of a band of men who wanted the Key to the Storm Gates for their own devices. I was in the town of Dumit and met with Armis, the leader of this group of thieves. I convinced him I wished to restore the elven civilization and would retrieve the Key for a reward. He didn't realize the only way to restore the glory of the Forest of the Ancients was to eliminate the perpetual winter. Through some hard barganing I was able to secure this wonderful bow (+1 hit/ +2 damage) as an advance."
No thief is good to his word. Even if I had brought the key back to Armis and his thieves, he surely would have killed me instead of paying me. So, I tricked this petty group of thieves into providing me with the means to join the quest for the Key to the Storm Gates!"
"You steal from thieves! This double-cross does not bring you honor in my eyes!" Will's face was twisted into a frown showing his displeasure.
Zeek rose laughing. He placed his hand on Will's shoulder. "Will, do not judge so quickly. Thieves are motivated by selfishness. Eytai choose his path to restore his people's way of life."
"We expected trouble going to Tunis anyway. This makes no difference." Oren was smiling, and had one hand on his axe. The dwarf was only looking for a reason to fight.
The group's path was unchanged but they were more aware of the troubles they were going to face.
THE FINDERS OF THE KEY GO TO WORK
Ruadhin was overjoyed. He had been sent by Phineous Thorn himself to locate the City of Tunis, and now it seemed
that finding Tunis was to become the Finders' quest as well. This would make his efforts much easier. What he had
failed to find on his own after months of searching in the frozen winter of the Azure Kingdom, would be much easier
to find with a group of fellow adventurers assisting him during this fresh spring.
Ruadhin had narrowed his search to a long river valley to the NW of the Azure Keep. This valley was somewhere between the Keep and the Martial Fields below Cameo's Castle. It was in this valley that the paladin had spotted the dark female elf that he had followed to Greenmark. The shape-changer that had tried to kill Javair. Ruadhin was almost certain that this assassin had come from Tunis…which he was equally certain was hidden in that river valley.
Walking about the City of Hope, watching the humans, dwarves, halflings and gnomes work on building new structures of wood and stone, Ruadhin was angered at the thought of this defiled temple…Birchmont. How dare the demons and devils that should be damned to burn below, come to the surface of this world and corrupt something perfect and good. This was a situation that Ruadhin was willing to risk his life to correct. Birchmont would belong to Heironeous once again.
Ruadhin's thoughts casually roamed over his adventures of the past year. The thoughts of demons and devils brought to mind a horrible place he had visited in the very river valley that the believed contained the hidden city of Tunis. The screams and the smells coming from Raker's Asylum reminded the paladin of the teachings he had received about the Nine Hells. The tortured souls that lived out their lives in that hellish building had saddened Ruadhin. It reminded him that evil came in many forms…and affected people's lives in many way.
As he walked the freshly flagged streets of Hope, the paladin smiled. Soon he would walk the streets of Tunis…and his first quest would be fulfilled!
Eytai sat within Ockrote's Bar, a tent in the City of Hope. He was brooding and slightly in shock. Jeremiah had just told the Finders of the Key that he needed the Tome of Purity to cleanse the Temple at Birchmont. And to get the Tome, they would have to enter Tunis!
Tunis, the City of Thieves was the last place on earth he wanted to go. Thieves had hired Eytai to join the party of adventures, to travel with them and make them trust him, and then to steal the Key to the Storm Gates from them once they had retrieved it. The deal had sounded so good in that tavern in the town of Dumit. 5,000 gps for the silly key. 5,000 gps to make a fool of the charleton Javair. 5,000 gps to help rebuild the forests and the elvan communities in the Forest of Ancients.
But then Eytai had joined the group, and taken a liking to the party members. He began to trust them, and they obviously began to trust him. He met Javair and found him to be an interesting human...with many tales and a certain intelligence to him. Eytai had found it impossible to steal the Key from the party...and now the Javair had actually succeeded in closing the Gates for the first time in 500 years! Eytai was extremely happy he had not stolen the Key, but he was not looking forward to facing the Thieves of Tunis.
In that tavern in Dumit, the leader of the party of thieves that approached Eytai, Armis...had been very clear how important it was that the Key be delivered to the thieves. He had offered the 5,000 gps, but he had also made a less-than-subtle threat regarding what would happen to Eytai if he were to fail. Eytai pictured Armis' closely set eyes and thin nose and non-existent lips in his mind's eye. This was not a man to be trifled with….
Eytai was glad he had told the other party members of the extra trouble that might be facing them on his account. He felt no guilt for twisting the truth a bit about his original motivations when joining the group. After all, it was he who had changed, and the group was in no danger from him now that he had come to believe in Javair and the Finder's quest. Hopefully he could keep them from finding out that he had come to the group with every intention of stealing that Key. Several of them would find no humor in finding this out!
Zeek sat upon the blue stone stairs that wind upwards to the gates of the Azure Keep. He was about 200 feet up the incline, and had an excellent view of the building and cooperative efforts going on below in the City by the Lake. The raw living environment reminded Zeek of his village in the Valley of the Mists…Viesland der Tunderoc. The difference of course was that Zeek's village never got any better than this…while the City by the Lake would one day be a large teeming metropolis. That is if the war with the giants ended happily….
Zeek glanced at the blue sky, marked here and there with bright white clouds. The sun shone down upon the lake, causing its waters to glisten.
"AZEEKEIL AH-RATHRA TOJIERO!" The loud voice came from behind Zeek, causing him to spring from his sitting position, up onto one hand, pivot gracefully, and land lightly on the blue stone of the steps…facing who or what had called his true name. A tiger-headed man stood causually on the steps, one backwards hand on his hip, and a long smoking pipe drooping from his mouth.
"How dare you approach me here! Prepare to die…old man!" Zeek was angry, but he was in control of his anger. This was a dangerous enemy, and Zeek knew that his body, as well as his mind, was in jeopardy.
The tiger's lip curled exposing his sharp white teeth, which still clenched the long pipe. "Relax, Zeek. It is night…and you but dream. How flattering that you dream of me."
Zeek believed the Raksasha…this must be a dream. "I do not dream of you. You have chosen to haunt me. Why won't you let me be…."
"You and your friends have started down a path that may free my beloved to enter your world and destroy it…without my help. I have struggled too long to earn my beloved's love and trust, to let you accidentally stumble your way into releasing her upon the world. What good would the blood of my many victims serve if she were to enter this world without my help? I am her life mate and protector…AND IT WILL BE BY MY DESIGNS THAT SHE RAVAGES THIS WORLD!!!" Spittle sprayed from the tiger-man's mouth as he roared these last words.
Zeek shook his head. "Even in this you choose to be self-serving."
"I am true to myself." A tiger's smile flashed across his face. "Call me consistent…."
Zeek's posture relaxed slightly. "How can I trust what you say? You once fed me human flesh…and you cursed me with tattood runes that could have brought the end of all things."
"You would be stupid to trust me outright, little brother. But, you are no longer part of my plans bring forth my lover and the thousand horrors that suckle at her breast. There are others that carry the Spells of Ending. It was I that saved your soul from the greedy spirits who took your life in the Condiero…and it was I who nourished you and sent you back into the world of the living. You would be stupid to trust me, but you would also be stupid to not at least meet with me."
Zeek rubbed his chin. In his heart he knew not to trust this evil beast…but what was the harm of at least hearing what advice he had to give. "Where will I find you?"
"In Tunis, little brother. In the Black Temple…I will await you. Bring a worthy victim to please the dark gods."
Zeek awoke in his bedroll with a start. It would be hours yet until dawn…but he would sleep no more that night.
As Zeek stares into the fire, his thoughts are on his future and that of his kingdom's. To himself Zeek ponders: "Know this evil one, you will die at my hands. This world will be free from your secret terrors. You will tell me what my friends need to know to be successful on their quest. Then you will die. You will be the 'victim' to your dark gods!!!"
Then, to the spirits Zeeks asks: "Will it be allowed that I rid the lands of this evil one?"
The spirits swirl before him, and Zeeks feels his consciousness rise to hear them. "If the land is to be rid of the Raksasha, then it will be your task to do so. As he calls you little brother, you are truly connected as a family member to him…through the spirits. If you live, he dies. If he lives, you will surely die."
Zeek smiles a dark smile. "Then it will be he who dies. Perhaps at our meeting in Tunis…perhaps later. But I will live…and he will die."
Flying down the steps from the Azure Keep, the letter from Andrew tucked in his tunic pocket, Will nearly tripped and went the rest of the way head first. Major Feld had sent him a message he had someone for him to meet at shift change, but Will had gotten so wrapped up in the letter he'd lost track of the time. Andrew Kempwell-Smythe was Will's best friend. They had met at Whitehall. The military academy both had attended. Both younger sons of families with only the vestiges of wealth remaining. They would be forced to make their way in life on their own. The only advantage gained from their birth's being good names. Andy's letter said he was on his way here, and he was making arrangements for some "other good lads" to follow. This was indeed good news. Now if Will could only find the right opportunity, they could make a name for themselves in this cold land. Just as Baron Crunal had suggested. Perhaps one that would even be heard of back in the Empire!
Will sat upon a rough hewn wooden chair in the common room of Major Feld's Tower. Soldiers once of Greenmark, now of Hope, milled about the room. It was shift change, and the guards were exchanging information of their night's watch on the perimeter of the city under construction. These guards were so used to the quiet work of Greenmark, and Will was amused at their reaction to the harsh environment at the heart of the Azure Kingdom. The first Spring in 500 years had thawed more than just the hills, and all manner of hungry creatures wandered the Mountains surrounding them.
"Will!" Will recognized Major Feld's voice immediately. He turned to face the man who had led the first group of settlers in this city-building quest. Major Feld had a strong build, short blond hair, and light blue eyes. His right hand was still wrapped and in a sling, strapped to his chest. He was accompanied by a robed middle-aged man, balding with a white cloudiness on the surface of both eyes. "This is the man I told you of Will. Rovenel of Walhquist's Towers. He was interested in your plans, and asked to be brought before you."
Will stood and faced the two men. "I hope you had an easy trip wise Rovenel. Please, sit by me." Will maneuvered a chair behind the older man, and guided him into the chair. Will had seen blind eyes before, and he wished to be polite. "Major, let the clerics tend to you. There is no reason to heal slowly, when the gods will heal you for your good works."
"I lost fingers in the battle, Will. I don't wish to erase that lesson with the wave of a priest's hand. I'll heal as I've always healed. Scars are my medals."
Will sat across from the blind sage. "So you know what I seek?"
Rovenel placed both his hands on the table. "You seek a lordless land a fertile, once-prosperous land to settle and protect. You seek to found a province or kingdom, and make it your own. Do I speak the truth?"
Will nodded, but then realized his mistake and answered aloud. "You do speak the truth. I have no knowledge of this land before the long winter, and the people themselves have forgotten their past. I seek a rich and fertile province, rich in pure blue stone, gold and gems, that was wiped from existence by the 500 year winter. It is there that we can begin again. I do not wish to displace anyone, I simply wish to start from scratch and have a fighting chance."
The older man smiled. "That was the part of your plans that pleased me. You respect history, and the powers that were. I am the benefactor of a vast oral tradition, and I have the knowledge you seek. The Province of Valender, to the South-South-East of the City of Stormgate was once the secondary throne province. Ruled over the history of the Azure Kingdom by the brothers and cousins of the Azure King himself. It was a land of rich soil, pure blue stone without flaws, and even a mine or two of valuable ore. This province was outside the heaviest effects of the open Storm Gates, but it was cut off from the fleeing population, and it people slowly died off. At least that is the story that is told."
Will's voice was anxious. "So what are the negatives, Rovenel? You have only spoke of the positives."
"The Province of Valender lies on the border of what has become the orkish nation of Gunderunk. Though I do not subscribe to the theory, it is said by some fringe scholars that Valender was raped and pillaged out of existence by the orks. Valender is also home to a defiled TempleBirchmont. Said to be infested with a desperate and deadly evil. But there are pluses too. Cador, when it existed, was a city on a trading route that led to the Empire. The Capitol of Valender was the City of the Falls a beautiful city built onto the side of a cliff-face speckled with rushing thundering waterfalls. He that could re-found, and restore Valender and the City of the Falls would be known across the Kingdom and across Kempin"
Will pulled a purse of gold from his belt, placing it into Rovenel's hand, and closing the older man's fingers around it. "Will I be that man, Rovenel?"
"I'll let history be the judge of that, William Fitzpierce."
"Will you talk with me further? I have many questions and you are certainly the one man that can answer them…."
Rovenel looked very weary. "I will speak with your further. But not tonight. Invite me to spend a week with you at the City of the Falls…once you've got at least one roof over your head!" Rovenel smiled as Will helped him stand and retire to a guest bedroom in the Tower for a well-earned rest.
Oren sat upon a pile of blue stones that had been cut from the mountainside. Soon these stones would form buildings and walls within the new city. Oren had never been much of a digger or a builder. He had always relished battle, and the letting of blood for money or a good cause. The shaping of stone so popular among his people held not real fascination for him. Though he fully respected those who did toil their whole lives to build the massive dwarven halls and pillars in the Crests of Dumathoin.
The whole Birchmont quest seemed like an excellent excuse to swing his axe. How would its blade stand against the flesh of a demon or devil? Jeremiah always seemed so better-than-thou, but he certainly came in handy for keeping the rest of the party alive. Yes, Oren was interested in this quest and would lend his help. Many demon heads would roll across the floor of Birchmont!
Oren felt more like himself than he had in almost a decade. His mind was clear of the fog that had been with him for so long. He now saw the silliness of believing that Galen Green was his father. Though he still felt a certain affection for the man. He now saw Vax as a servant of Vendra, and wondered at the loyalty that he had taken for granted. Had Vax ever really been a friend to Oren?
One thing was sure. Oren had been a leader of dwarves, and once led a whole mercenary army of dwarven warriors. He had stood against the evil of Skurge Dwarfbane…he had faced the Liches of Omision…and he and his army had stood against Zelagorn the false savior. He had taken Zelagorn's eye in that final battle, and Oren had lost his mind.
With his mind getting clearer by the day, Oren missed his days of leadership. He felt solitary and alone…even among these friends…the Finders of the Key. Oren was sure that he would find more of his old self, if he could only rebuild an a new army. Lead them in grand quests…for money and honor. Oren put a hand on his Rubacite Dwarven War Axe. "Demons will die. An army will be rebuilt. And I will reclaim my heritage!"
Pausing, Oren sat down sliding on the blue rocks. "My heritage. My heritage?" Oren twirled his
axe. "While my memory serves me, I left to do good out in the world. My royal heritage would have placed
me somewhat down the food chain, and I am of the adventurous sort." Oren sat his axe down, started gazing
into the blue rocks. "Who chooses one's fate anyway? Why are we dwarves concerned with these rocks? Why?"
Oren started shuffling the rocks back and fourth with his feet. Oren then ploped himself back on the rocks, drifting
into deep thoughts.
Oren had never deeply pondered much about his 'royal heritage' until now. He had been missing from the family for over ten years, and not one family member had gone off looking for him, as far as he knew. While chucking rocks at a tree stump, Oren started talking to himself. "Does my heritage still run the royal kinship? What about my siblings?" While leaning forward, Oren looked down at his leg where he had once been burned from one of his adventures. "Nonsense! I am a mercenary for hire. Who needs royal politics when I can roam free and clear. Being back home, I would just be tied down!"
Oren picked up his equipment and headed to the pub.
The next day, Oren had woke with terrable thoughts regarding the attack in Galen Green's house. "Bah! Dreams of such are for weak humans!" Oren picked up his gear and was headed to meet with the rest of the party. Along the way, Oren pondered what kind of new adventures lay ahead. "I need to regain the rings of my axe. Maybe after this Birchmont ordeal, my companions will help me regain these precious items." Oren had thought. "I shall ask them today."
Zeek has been more and more walking in the 'mists'. He has found himself heading upstairs in the Azure keep when a mist enveloped him. The walls and stairs fall away. He is in the 'spirit world'. Not wanting to stay long, Zeek runs and appears at the very peak of the keep. "Whoooaaaah! This place msut be cursed!" Zeek manages to keep his balance and makes his way back down to where ever it was he was heading. (Abundant Step, 12th lvl)
That next day Zeek searches for Javair. Zeek confronts him and abruptly says; "You know, this could back fire on you and all you have worked for. There was a reason that Birchmont was made into a prison. Shouldn't we be preparing for war with the Giants?! It seems the risks outweigh the reward on this one. My elders would say; 'Too much ambition makes for an early grave.' How many enemies do we need this day?"
Javair replies; "It is that ambition I wish to keep at bay. I may be able to avoid war altogether. I don't need these young hot heads ambushing Storm Giants just to see how tough they are! Especially my old friend, Vikos. Vikos is excellent at making way, but horrible at making peace. Are there not others of this sort among the Finders?"
Javair grabs Zeek's tattooed shoulder. "You are wise beyond your years. You are a survivor. You may not be the toughest in battle, or most talented in the arts. But given a long standing quest or sent out completely alone, you would be someone I would choose to trust. We need a fall-back fortress should the Azure Keep fall. And we need some time to devise our plans. These two needs dove-tail well, don't you think…."
Zeek, with a look of enlightened surprise says; "Ahhhh, you are more gifted at subterfuge and gile than a woman!" Slapping Javair on the back, causing Javair to cough and struggle to regain his composure. "Javair, I will try my best not to unleash any demons upon the world…this time!"
Vikos sat within his campaign tent. With the sun of early Spring shining down, it was almost too warm within the tent…and he was forced to loosen his robes and tie the door flaps open. He moved back to his padded chair and his best map of the Azure Kingdom. He looked over it, as he as for hours this day. But his conclusion was the same…there were too many places that Tunis could be hidden.
"What an impossible task this is," thought Vikos. At different times, Galen of Greenmark, the Lord of Dumit, and Thorn of Rosehill had offered rewards for the secret location of Tunis, and still it was not found. The Council of the Knife did not tolerate squealers…and dealt harshly with anyone they even suspected might not be completely loyal.
Vikos then began to study over the markers and tokens that had been laid upon his map. Suspected giant stronghold within the Kingdom…and the pitiful forces at the call and command of Javair. Then there was the mass of marker just on the other side of the Storm Gates…a vast giant army poised to strike whenever they pleased. Vikos smiled at the chaos he had caused amongst that army recently…but he knew he had done very little but satisfy himself and perhaps strike some fear in the lesser giant-kin. Oh, but it had been worth it….
A thought suddenly hit Vikos, and he sat back in his chair. There were certainly some thieves among the orkish converts that followed Vikos. And these orkish thieves would be very afraid to reveal the location of Tunis…for fear of retribution from the Council of the Knife. Vikos smiled. If he could strike fear in an army of giants…surely he could strike fear in an orkish thief. Enough fear to overcome their silence….
"TOR-FORGEN! ATTEND TO ME AT ONCE!"
An ork that Vikos hated just a little less than any of the others entered his tent. "Tor-Forgen, have I not trusted you to carry my orders…and the wishes of Tobin to your fellows?"
The ork stood with downcast eyes. "Yes, Vikos. You have treated me well."
"Then perform the favor I am about to ask with utmost care. Go amidst the followers, and find one among them that was once an active thief of some skill. Bring this thief to me in chains…and be quick…for Tobin's patience is short and his vengeance swift."
The ork fled from Vikos' tent, and the lightning priest was pleased.
A short while later, Tor-Forgen brings an ork named Scrud into the tent. "Here is Scrud, High Priest Vikos. Before reforming himself, and dedicating himself to Tobin…he was a thief…a skilled thief."
Vikos commands, "Chain him down to the ground. Tor-Forgen leave me. Take the troop to patrol near the Storm Gates, do not return before tomorrow's dawn or after it's noon hour. Bring me any Gnolls or Giants you encounter…alive this time." Tor-Forgen hurriedly leaves and the troop of 199 takes off at a gallop.
Vikos approached the chained orkish thief. "Scrud, you have brought dishonor to yourself and your race with you past deeds of thievery and dishonesty. Now is the time to repent and confess to me and Tobin you wrongful deeds." Vikos spoke a few quiet words and subtly moved his hands in complex gestures. The ork's eyes opened wide as Vikos began to glow.
Scrud swallowed hard. "When I was young…human brigands captured me in a raid on my village. They sold me into slavery, and I toiled throughout my youth. When I got big and strong, I killed my master, and decided to take from others what I needed. I was fairly successful, and was eventually recruited by a gang of thieves in the city of Dumit. Thieves that are caught in Dumit, are usually maimed or killed…so to work there was quiet daring and earned me a reputation. Eventually, I returned to Tunis to train, and become more skilled. I found one of the brigands that sold me into slavery, though he was much older by then. I slowly wrung his neck. It took him 20 minutes to die…choking on his own blood. That is why I was drawn to your priesthood…to Tobin. I understand revenge…the power of revenge.
"Scurd you must be completely open of your past to give Tobin his retribution. You mentioned a town earlier, what was the name of this place, and what kind of people were there?"
"Do you mean the town of Dumit, High Priest?" Scrud immediately yelped in pain and smoke rose from his metal shackles.
Vikos leaned forward. "No, Scrud. Tell me of Tunis. What is it like, who lives there…where is it."
I would not be able to find its exact location, High Priest. But I will tell you everything I know. It is hidden behind a cliff-face, and its entrance is hidden in an old Mill. There is a waterfall, and a waterwheel. I was blindfolded for portions of the journey to Tunis, both coming and going. But I do know that Tunis is in a steep valley somewhere between the Azure Keep and the Martial Fields. There is some sort of strange hotel for crazy people in this same valley. The Council of the Knife run Tunis, and the Council is headed by Quincy the Quick. He is rarely seen, but the other council members are always competing and fighting for his favor. All manner of people live in Tunis…humans, goblins, orks, and other races you will see no where else…."
Vikos bent down and touched Scrud's metal cuffs. "Feel the healing power of Tobin, Scrud. You thoughts betray your honesty…you HAVE told me all you know. I bless you, and bestow upon you a spell that will ensure your next blow will land as true as any blow can be landed." Vikos helped Scrud up, and released his bindings. He placed a lightning bold symbol on a chain in Scrud's hand. "Carry this special symbol of Tobin. Your revenge upon the brigand was just. Every slave should have such a chance to free himself from shame. Rest this day, and when the troops return…join them, and tell them of your right revenge!"
Kit sat on the hillside, leaning up against a winter-stunted tree. The shadow of a large boulder fell across her preventing the spring sun from warming her. At times she felt comforted by the cool chill of darkness. Watching the men, elves, halflings, dwarves, and gnomes struggle to establish the new City of Hope below her, made her think of New Grove. The rebuilding there had been hard work, but a labor of love. It seemed to Kit that the same emotions existed among the people below her.
The work at hand in Hope reminded her of another town, and she let her mind wander across the miles between her and New Grove. Kit was fatigued from the time she had spent there. The spring thaw had brought the high waters as she had expected to the low lands. She had left Greenmark after the return of the Ambassador to return to the underground lab to find the water there already rising. Gremage was there moving as much as possible to the upper levels and after a short reunion they combined to finish this task. With things on hold there she headed for New Grove to find some surprising things. Milton Fedge had returned from getting seed and provisions with the 400 gold she had given him and he had conveyed her warnings of the coming floods to Sergeant Rukgar, the commander of the Ork patrol that had stayed behind. The Orks had worked hard to build a levy between the river and town to protect it from the raging waters but were hard pressed to stay ahead of it. Kit lent aid with spell to enhance the workers and finish the wall protecting New Grove.
Kit also found out that many of the Orks were considering living here since most were older veterans that found they were growing tired of marching all over the land and Underdark. Sergeant Rukgar was one of these and explained he had been wounded in his shield arm a few years back and it almost cost him his life in the last few battles when he found himself dropping his shield to low. He was a very good Smithy and his good arm could still wield a hammer with great skill. Kit also noted he seemed to have grown fond of one of the many Widows in town which probably had something to do with his decision. There were also some new faces as word was already spreading that this land would become productive once again and settlers were slowly arriving even though the land was covered with water.
Kit was uncomfortable at first with the notoriety she was bestowed since Milton had let out she was the benefactor of the Kerns he used on his supply run. Word of The Finders recovery of the Storm Gate Key had also spread and she was being honored with the title Guardian Tamer for how she had dealt with the Dragon Grazum and getting the last of Azure Knights, Gungkrot to hand over the Key without a fight. Kit soon found the sudden fame a little exhilarating and basked in it for the remaining time she was there. An uncomfortable feeling came over Kit one night and without a word she left town, which seemed to have become a habit of hers.
A chill ran along Kit's flesh, and goosebumps evenly covered her dark flesh. It brought her thoughts to the present…to the matter at hand. Kit had missed the party. Though coming back to find Vikos among them had been somewhat disturbing. He brought a large amount of power to the party…but Kit still held some ill feelings towards him. Hadn't he stood against them with lethal force. Hadn't he hunted them just months before. Kit knew they needed Vikos' abilities, but she would watch him closely. He was large and handsome…and dangerous. Perhaps there were other reasons Kit was watching him so closely?
Kit wondered if the quest to purify Birchmont wasn't too difficult for the party. Kit had heard whispered in the dark halls of her father, the power held by Demons and Devils. They were not something to be trifled with. Kit found it hard to even speak out loud of them, let alone face them in battle and free a temple from them. The dark beasts had been in the temple for over 500 years…what horrible surprises would they have prepared in that time for invaders. Perhaps the party of Finders should leave well enough alone….
Kit had hoped to search out Tunis on her own if need be, but now it appeared that a trip to Tunis would be required if Jeremiah's quest was to be fulfilled. That interested Kit, for Tunis was the home of Fedden. It was time the party took the battle to Fedden's front door. Now they would be hunting him….
When night came she would sneak into the fledgling City of Hope, and search out one of her stealthy friends from Greenmark. No one knew she was here and she meant to keep it that was as long as possible. She glanced up the mountain at the blue stone Keep, thinking again how she wanted to keep her presence here secret. The time was not yet for some reunions and there was no reason to bait the assassin Fedden. Hopefully Zane was in town, or perhaps Fitz Truggle, and they would have some information that would aid on this quest that The Finders seemed destined for. Hopefully, information to keep death from finding her friends.
Jeremiah knew he was dreaming, but he felt unable to escape the fitful deep sleep in which he was immersed. He was running through red-hot tunnels of rock…but why was he running? He couldn't remember if he was being chased, or if he was in a hurry somewhere. But he felt compelled to keep running through the steaming tunnels. Suddenly the tunnels opened up into a huge cavernous room and Jeremiah ran straight off the edge of a cliff into the open air. Hot air buffeted him from below, and he found it hard to breath in the hot sulfurous air as he fell. Below him stretched a glowing lake of molten rock…and Jeremiah was not longer falling…he was flying.
Skimming along the surface of the molten lake, Jeremiah noticed dark shapes in the lava ahead. The smell of burning bodies stunned Jeremiah, and he realized the dark shapes were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of writhing burning humans. The men and women flopped and struggled as they burned…and burned…and burned, without end.
Clouds of flies swarmed in the air, occasionally descending to the tortured humans below and feasting on their human flesh. Filling their eyes, noses, ears, and mouth with a mass of black wings and legs. Jeremiah avoided the clouds of flies and tried to focus ahead at the other side of the huge lake.
A twisted city appeared to rise from the edge of the lake, up the towering walls of the super-heated cavern. At the very top of this city there was a large tower, and upon its roof were six ornate obsidian thrones…and in each throne except one sat extremely diverse humanoid figures with horrific faces and strange bodies. Jeremiah became nauseous at the very sight of them. He called upon Heironeous to give him the strength to face the horrors before him, for he now realized this dream was a gift from his god. This dream was a source of knowledge…not a curse.
Jeremiah concentrated on each of the five figures that were present and sitting in the thrones. The first had a huge head that vaguely looked like the head of a fly. The second was fairly human looking, except for his bright red skin, glowing red eyes, sinister mustache, two horns on his head, and knee joints similar to that of a goat. The third was an incredibly obese red-skinned female with numerous breasts resting upon her bulbous belly. The fourth appeared male, and had pale white skin, solid black eyes, hundreds of small metal spikes sticking out of his skull and joints, and wore a black leather outfit with lots of straps. The fifth had no arms or legs, but was more the shape of a white pulpy larvae with a vaguely female human head, covered in long stringy black hair.
As Jeremiah had floated before the five seated horrors, apparently unseen…a sixth had come up onto the roof from the tower below and taken a seat in the sixth black throne. The last horror appeared in every way to be a living human skeleton, except that his eyes were large wet human eyes floating in his bony eye sockets. He wore long red and orange robes, and a simple black sword upon his side. While the other five horrors had appeared somewhat pleased with themselves, and the tortures that went on in the lake and city below them…this sixth horror appeared incredibly depressed and unhappy with his surroundings.
Jeremiah awoke from his dream with a start. The sixth horror had been Jack Skull!!!
Zeek seeks out Jeremiah, Ruadin, Javair, and Cedric. "The Tigerman is back. He says he has more pigeons to spread his evil. He is so twisted that he wants to help us succeed at Birchmont. With his way of thinking, he needs to be the one that opens hell's gate so that his Demon Queen will love him, and honor him. I am to meet him in Tunis. I need your help in the form of your prayers and protections. Once he tells me the secret to Birchmont, I plan to send him to his dark gods and end the threat of his evil.
"Zeek addresses Oren, Gungkrot, Etyai, and especially Vikos. "With the new knowledge of the note from Quincy the Quick, it is apparent we must go to Tunis. As I have witnessed the ruthlessness of these Imperialist, it makes me ponder... what vengeance is owed to the honorable Ambassador? Why would a thief pay to have him kidknapped? Unless the Ambassador was involved in some diabolical scheme?"
Vikos hung in the air, the power of faith and magic suspending him unnaturally above the treetops. Vikos smiled to see the buds forming on the winter-stunted trees. "With the return of Spring, so does life return to the land."
Vikos saw the bird returning to him across the tops of the treetops. The large eagle flapped to a perch near Vikos and let out a screech. Vikos spoke back the the bird and they understood each others words, though the spoke completely different languages.
The bird was young, and had not seen so many things in his life as to be called wise. "Flying-human, you ask for information on others of your kind…why?"
Vikos smiled. "The details are not important, Kyiiiiri, and you would be in danger were I to tell you. Are we not friends now? Do we not owe each other courtesy, and the sharing of important information?"
The bird had a glint in his eye. "No other birds would speak to you of this. The older birds warned me to stay away from you and your dangerous plans. So I think you owe me an explanation…between friends."
Vikos' smile vanished, and he rubbed his chin. "Trust me, Kyiiiri. You are young, and I am old. I know the habits and faults of man. I withhold information from you only for your protection. Did not the older birds warn you of danger? Friend. I need to know of a town of man…behind a fake cliff…or a wall made to look like a cliff. And there should be a mill nearby. I wish to counter a great evil, and the means to do so resides in this town…the town of Tunis. It should be between here and the Martial Fields."
The bird cocked its head to he side. "What is this…Martial Fields. You humans always give so many names to things. Foreign names of your own making. You never call things by the names by which they wish to be called!"
Vikos chuckled. "Men name many things in their own image, and with a certain selfishness. But focus, my friend! Tell me of a town of man behind a cliff-face."
The bird looked off into the distance with piercing eyes. "Did you bring me the gift you promised? A gift between friends?"
Vikos drew forth a bag and opened the strings that bound it shut. He reached in a pulled a string of many fish partially from the bag, and then dropped them back into the bag. As he tied the bag shut again and placed it in the eagle's talons, Vikos spoke. "Fresh fish from the Lake beneath the Azure Keep. I made sure the fishermen never touched them, as you asked. There is no human smell upon them."
The bird screeched loudly, and flapped its wings. "I will tell you of the town, but I will not take you there. I respect the counsel of my elders, and they have told me to have nothing to do with you…regarding his matter. Along the valley path that leaves the Azure Keep and heads directly across the great frozen wind, there is a hidden branch that follows the great wind. Up this smaller valley path, past a dark stone building with metal on its windows you must travel. Avoid the black tower…for nothing but ill can come of visiting it. Eventually there will be a mill. In the cliff behind this mill is a vast cavity open to the air above, and within this cavity lies a town of man…that you call Tunis."
Vikos was somewhat confused. "What do you mean the path that leaves the Azure Keep and head directly across the great frozen wind? I am new to the art of flight, and I am used to directions with landmarks or map-directions."
The bird took flight the bag held tightly in its grasp. "Directly across the frozen wind that seems to
have stopped most recently. Towards the Forest Green."
Vikos brushed past tree limbs as he descended back into his camp of ork followers. "I need a map…GET ME A MAP!!!!
Zeek assembles the The Finders of the Key in the main hall of the Azure keep. "Gorin Zachian is our main enemy this day. He has terrorized us time and time again. He was behind Oren's deception with Lo-Choi and again with Greenmark's ruin. Gorin is in alliance with the storm giants. That is for sure."
"Who among you will go with me to the Condiero? I seek to find where Goren resides and how he can be killed." Turning to Javair. "We might also be able to find out how to rescue Jack Skull. And I may find out more about Wudon."
"If we combine our powers we may be able to open a portal to the Valley of Mist. It sits between this world and the next. Jeremiah can start by first blessing an area of blue stone. Then make it a sanctuary, with the Paladin in the center to emanate a circle of protection. Encircle the party with a cloud of mist. Vikos, call forth a storm to attract the spirits. I will call upon the Spirits of the Mist to guide us. Our bodies will not go, but our spirits will travel to the Valley of Mists."
Zeek's gathered companions comply with his wishes, though a few do so begrudgingly. Several minutes later they stumble from the Mists, and they are in…The City of Hope! Zeek's frown is severe. "Oh, leave me alone. I thought it might work…with the spirits there are no guarantees!"
Jeremiah sat in Ockrote's Bar, along with Ruadhin, Oren, and Vikos. William, Zeek, and Eytai were all out of town, and Kit was still missing. Gungkrot was in Greenmark helping the refugees pack and protecting them from further attack. Everyone seemed to have plenty to say about the upcoming adventure. Jeremiah raised his mug to get the attention of Ockrote the Black Dwarf as Ockrote had recently raised a tent in the City of Hope in order to keep the spirits up of the community.
Within a couple of minutes Ockrote had sent over another ale being delivered by the Hollow Knight. At this time Jeremiah took the opportunity to address the group "it would seem to me that we need to get to Tunis as soon as possible. I want everyone to think, does anyone have any clue as to how to get to Tunis. Such as any history with anyone that might be able to shed some like on the current situation. While everyone ponders on this I wish to tell you of a dream I recently had. I wish to share this dream because at this point it would be best if everyone was upfront with any knowledge we may have. And I wish to begin with a dream that could be very important. I believe that it was given to me from Hierounous. Jeremiah then describes a horrible vision of hell, and six demon princes. The sixth prince appeared to be Jack Skull.
After I had this dream I prayed to Hierounous, asking some questions and receiving some answers.
I asked if the dream was connected with our current mission to Birchwood, and the answer was yes. I asked if there was some type of gateway in the Birchmont temple that might lead to where Jack Skull is, and the answer was strange. The answer was yes, but there was a warning. 'Do not allow that gateway to be opened.' I asked if Jack Skull is in immediate danger, and the answer was very clear. 'He is a prince of Hell…he is danger itself.' I asked if anyone has a connection or acquaintance that knows where Tunis is, and I was told that Kit has friends that might know, and that Vikos already has a good idea.
During the night, while the others were sleeping, Eytai had slipped out of the City of Hope. The others were putting out feelers and using magic to try to locate Tunis. Tunis was a Cleric's quest…not a Rangers. But Eytai was going to help all he could. He knew that sooner or later he had to face Armis and his gang of thieves. It was better to find them, before they found him. Eytai was amazed at the amount of thawing that had gone on in the Azure Kingdom. It had only been weeks, but the trees were budding, plants were sprouting up through dark wet earth, and the streams roared with melted ice and snow. The Kingdom was alive again.
Eytai had decided to travel to the Forest of Ancients. The new of Ganraith needed to be carried home…Eytai owed him that. Eytai would deliver mixed news, the sadness of the loss of a brother but the hope of the ending of winter. In the back of Eytai's mind, he thought that one more visit home before going to Birchmont might be a good idea. Demons trapped for 500 years would be angry…and hungry. Perhaps this would be Eytai's last visit home. Eytai wondered to himself if on Ganraith's last visit home…he had any inkling that he would never return?
Eytai arrived in the Forest, and was greeted by the small group of elves that still resided there. The was mourning for Ganraith's loss, but there was much celebrating at what had been achieved. An elven lord of a strong line gifted Eytai with a magical elven cape, which would help him when he was trying to fade into the shadows or creep through the darkened woods.
Eytai's journey back to the City of Hope to rejoin the party was uneventful. A pack of wolves trailed him for several miles, until Eytai made contact with them. "Old grey one…may a fey-one not pass your stretch of forest without being hunted like a common rabbit?"
The old grey leader of the pack growled and yipped at Eytai, but the elf seemed to understand. "Sorry ancient elf brother. With the thaw, we've been gorging on the plentiful meat that wanders about. We would never threaten one such as you. Not only may you pass our stretch of forest, but we will escort you and protect you. Many unnatural things have thawed along with all the natural."
Eytai spoke a while longer with the old wolf, learning much of the pack's past. Though this knowledge would do Eytai little good in the world of men…he was deeply interested in this wise old hunter among the leaves.
When Eytai wasn't walking with the wolves, he spoke quite a bit with the squirrels. They were fun and accidentally witty in a cheerful way. Almost every squirrel he spoke to was sick and bloated from feasting on old thawing stashes of nuts, buried 250 squirrel generations ago in a warmer age. Despite the company along the way, Eytai was extremely happy when he looked across the lake at the City of Hope. "I have missed my companions!"
Zeek was tired of talk. He was tired of waiting. And he was mad the spirits had not allowed him to travel to the Condiero by way of magic. Zeek decided he needed to get away from the city and walk about the country-side a bit. Perhaps a troll would try to ambush him and he could kick its ass…and let off some steam.
A day's walk out of Hope, Zeek met a strange old man in white robes. He spoke in poetry, and Zeek almost never knew what he was saying. There was one word that Zeek caught, and his attention was captured by the old man. That word was "Wudan."
"What do you know of Wudan, old monk? Tell me. I wish to go there…and soon!"
"The moons of Festis will blur, and the grey haze of Muntra will take on a pinkish hue. Daisies will smell sour, and the evergreens will turn needles up. Then your time is nigh. All places have their time…and people too."
Zeek scratched his head. "What!?! I didn't catch anything about Wudan or the Valley of Mist in that…not at all."
"You are not Wudan. A hard rind you have, and solid pulp, but you have only recently flowered, child. The Wudan take from your people, harvest the best of the crop. But you are rogue, and fell far from the vine. You will take longer. You were tainted, and now made whole. Ripen some. So speaks the Wudan."
Zeek cocked his head to the side, and he was deep in though. The old monk reached out and slapped at Zeek's head, but Zeek caught his hand. Zeek smiled, and just instants later the old man's foot impacted with Zeek's groin. Zeek fell to one knee, but jumped back up, stepped away from the old monk, and took a defensive position. "Damn you!"
The old monk laughed. "Well, your softer in some places than others. Eh, rogue child? Enough light, enough watering…I have brought you a gift. Follow me if you ever want to be Wudan." And with that the old monk walked away to the south.
Zeek limped after him. "Stupid old man," he whispered.
"I heard that."
Zeek followed the old man for two days. They spoke very little, though confusing poetry sometimes spilled out of the old man. Zeek was pretty sure the old monk's name was Dola, and Zeek called him Master Dola.
Soon they reached a clearing with a large blue boulder set oddly in the center. The rock seemed out of place and otherworldly. Zeek mistrusted the rock, though he had come to trust Dola. The old monk spoke. "Give me your morning star…it is not a proper thorn…and threatens to diminish you. I will take from it what you need, and shed the out-grown shell."
With the help of Master Dola, Zeek entered the spirit realm, and walked into the surface of the large blue boulder. Mist enveloped the blue stone slab and the outline of Zeek is seen for a moment. Zeek's screams could be heard, though they were muffled. He writhed in pain, as he bridged between the spirit world and the real. Master Dola swung the magical black morning star at the large rock. As it hit, the large blue slab exploded. BOOOOMMMM! Debrs is thrown in all directions, though Master Dola appears to side step being hit.
Zeek was kneeling where the stone once rested in the clearing. His hands ached, and he rubbed them together…grimacing. "What have you done to me?"
Master Dola stood holding the ruined morning star. "Made you a season more worthy. Birthed a man of blue stone…I have started you down the road of becoming what you shall be!"
(Fists of Stone is a magical bestowment that increases the force of unarmed blows. +1 against normal creatures, +3 against pure chaotic creatures. Fists glow a dull blue hue within 100 feet of a chaotic creature.)
The rumor of war draws many seeking to profit from its chaos. The closing of the Storm Gates had brought those rumors to the Grasslands of Shronth, Lornki, The Northern Holdings, and even the Empire itself. These rumors drew mercenaries like moths to a flame. So it was that Will had no trouble recruiting ten strong Empire swords to see the Ambassador safely back home. They had eyes for the gold the Ambassador offered and they dreamed of the chance to replace the fallen guards of his retinue. Adequate security was as important to Will as it was the Ambassador, for he carried letters that Will would have published in Citadel. The Ambassador had promised to have the letters posted to the common boards around Citadel, where the citizens of that great city sought information on job positions, items for sale, news of the day, and opportunities. It was opportunity that Will hoped to use, to persuade some of the idle and bored of the great capital of the Empire to leave their homes for the great unknown frontier that was the Azure Kingdom. In his letter Will advised the citizens of the promise of the untamed land and the promise of his own sword as well as those of other Ex-Imperial soldiers to defend them while they sought to establish their new lives.
Will was excited by the news of Valender that Rovenel had provided. He couldn't wait to start on taming this new land, although he knew that it would be some time before that could happen. Will bent all his thought to discerning what he could do now to advance his goal. He decided that he needed to see Valender. No real plan could be made until he saw what he was up against, so he resolved to find a guide and go see this place!
Will had made the decision to tour Valender with a feeling of guilt. The rest of The Finders were bending all their will to discover the location of Tunis, and he on the other hand was pursuing more selfish purposes. But it did occur to him of a way to procure the information. It made sense, he just hoped that he was lucky enough that the real world would offer him some luck and success.
Will wasn't very good at judging age, and he was doubly bad at it when it came to the Goblin races, but he felt sure the Goblin named Furst standing at his door could be no more than sixteen. The lad professed a passing knowledge of the lands around Gunderunk, which would include Valender, and a more thorough familiarity with Gundrunk itself. Beyond that he professed to have connections at the Royal Court of Queen Merick. Although it troubled Will to be placing his life in the hands of one who appeared so young, he perceived a sense of earnestness about the boy, and so came to agree to hire him as a guide. Trusting to his own sword should things go astray.
The journey through Valender was peaceful much to Will's surprise. The coming spring had made many a creek a torrent, but his guide was expert at negotiating these crossings and Will was glad for his expertise. The land was indeed lush, if overgrown. Tumble-down stone fences now enclosed little save for briar patches, although they did stumble upon the odd homestead still occupied. Smoke curing from the chimney of a well-maintained cottage. Will and his guide steered clear of these for fear of frightening the inhabitants. He had no wish to announce his presence just yet. He would wait for the right time. A grand entrance could be just the thing to bring these people to his side. Tracks of game and other creatures more foul were abundant. The land was well watered and ascetics stunning. The rugged hilltops provided majestic views of the blue tinged mountains, or looking the other direction towards what would presumable be lush valleys once spring firmly took hold.
The city of Cador was occupied by what looked to be a few hearty souls. His guide estimated no more than fifty. The citizens of Cador had viewed Will and his guide from afar, but made no effort to meet them. Will was again content to leave it that way. Will shook off an odd feeling he had toward these Cadorians seen from afar. They had some fairly strong orkish features…clearly the generations had seen some mixing with the nearby orkish civilization.
The City of the Falls was indeed an impressive sight. A roaring waterfall tumbled at least four hundred feet from a cliff to a large pool below. Further examination revealed to Will's eyes that the waterfall was actually hundreds of waterfalls, each tumbling water into a pool on a ledge below, which then fell again, and again…from pool to fall and fall to pool until it reached the bottom. The city itself set into the gradual cliff-side showed no signs of habitation, although the vines that covered much of the cliff side did appear to be sporting the first blush of green. In full bloom, the city would be quite stunning. Will was surprised that the building walls appeared fairly intact. Built of the blue stone native to the region, with blue mortar…they had held up quite well. The same could not be said for the shutters, doors, and roofs of these abandoned buildings.
Furst pointed up, to a point about mid-way up the falls. There was an iron door set into the cliff-face. A set of stair separate from the many stone stairways and cut hand-holds in the cliff-face wound two hundred feet up to this impressive door. Will climbed the stairs with Furst lagging behind. When he reached the door he carefully ran his hands over its surface. It had hardly any rust on it, and was stamped with deep runes in its surface. Will examined the handle carefully, and then tugged on it. Will knew from the moment he had seen the door that he would not be able to enter it this day. He would need someone with an expertise in such things. William Fitzpierce was the sort of man who knew his own limitations, and respected the help others could give him. He turned to his goblin guide. "Thank you, Furst."
Furst smiled and shuffled his feet. In broken Empire Common, the young goblin answered. "You paid me, and I have provided a service. It is the most civilized of transactions. If you build here…if you settle humans here…remember that a goblin showed you the way."
Will smiled. "Fair enough."
"Do you wish me to show you the way to Gunderunk, now…Mr. Fitzpierce?"
"I wish we had the time, Furst. It took longer to get here than I had originally thought. My friends will need my help, and I need to get back to them. Will you reside in Hope at my expense until I return? I will require you as a guide in the near future."
Furst nodded, and the two odd companions began their journey back to the fledgling city at the foot of the Azure Keep.
JAVAIR SHARES SOME INFORMATION
Javair had ice crusted in his hair, and droplets of moisture on the shoulders of his jacket. He was smiling,
and a laugh escaped him. Behind him Zeek, William, Vikos, Jeremiah, Oren, Ruadhin, Cedric, and Eytai crouched behind
him in a hallway. "FIRE IT UP, CRAGEN!!!"
The thick muscular dragon dwarf stooped with a burning taper and lit a fuse, which began sparking and writhing as it burned. Cragen Stoneslammer ran as fast as his short legs would allow, and took shelter behind Javair in the mouth of the hallway. BOOOOOOOOOOM! A well-placed experimental packet of fire-powder blew hard-packed ice and rubble into the air and across the floor of the large room.
Javair whispered under his breath, as if only to himself. "Another room of the Azure Keep is one step closer to being restored….." He shook his head and covered his mouth as the smoke cloud reached him. "Cover your mouths friends….back down this hall. I didn't ask you up the mountain just to watch expensive explosions. I wanted to brief you regarding dire current events within our Kingdom. To the feasting hall!"
Once everyone had shrugged the ice splinters from their clothing and wiped the black smudge of smoke from their faces, they took a seat at the long table in the well-stocked feasting hall. Javair instructed servants to feed the Finders and bring them warmed ale or wine. Then he pushed his chair back and placed Dutton's Harp…The Peacemaker, in his lap.
Everyone's gaze was attracted by its beauty. Its frame was solid gold, with scenes of love and scenes of battle ornately depicted. It was crusted with perfect diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. The strings were golden threads stolen from the spider-web of a gnomish technism…a golden mechanical spider. The strings were said to be unbreakable and never needed tuning. Legends say that in Dutton's hands the harp could inspire a love affair to last a lifetime, or it could inspire a war to end countless lives. Many have said that a certain song emanating from the harp could bring the dead back to life…sound in mind and body. Dutton was careful to never allow anyone to hear the Song of Gellhorn, other than the subject of the raising. He was heard to say that none but the dead should ever hear that song.
Javair did not strum his harp, but his fingers were upon the strings. "I appreciate you letting me know about the Band of Nine. They sound like a nasty crew…and I have sent some feelers out to see where they may have come from. I suspect that they made their way here from Respite…perhaps seeking to exploit the many opportunities that may develop here in the Azure Kingdom. I'm afraid we'll be seeing a lot of that in the months and years to come."
"I've asked you hear to tell you of matters around the Azure Kingdom. And to explain why Birchmont may end up being very important to us. The fact that the Storm Giants and Gorin Zachian had some sort of deal going…and that the attack on Greenmark was a plan orchestrated by the Giants is certain. It was horrible…it was evil…and it ended the life of a vibrant town. And if those were truly mad-fiends among Gorin's army, then the Mad Duke of Bantroth has lent at least some support to this necromancer. Some small good may come of the attack eventually, as the City of Hope grows below. But that was the farthest thing from the Giants' minds. They sought to destroy our ability to counter them…and keep the gates closed."
Will spoke up, completely comfortable in the presence of Javair. "Why Greenmark?"
Javair leaned forward slightly. "That's just it. Greenmark was one of many targets. The Town of Dumit was attacked by several tribes from the Grassland's of Shronth…two days after Greenmark was attacked. It was the largest, most organized, and well-supplied attack upon Dumit by the Grasslanders in 30 years. Walls were breached, and a small portion of the town was burned, but in the end…Lord Bradley Dumit's well-trained army took the day, drove back the barbarians, and pursued them…killing half their retreating number before returning to the city they defended. It is said that Lord Dumit was greatly affected by this attack and will not see visitors…neither casual nor diplomatic in nature. It is said he sits within the barracks of his personal guard mapping out defense strategies for further attacks."
"The day before Dumit was raided, Rosehill was infiltrated by an army of bandits from Tunkerak. They had been supplied with maps of underground drainage passages that could be used to bypass the thorny wall that surrounds the temple-city. These tunnels are heavily trapped and guarded, but the bandits avoided all the traps and easily dispatched the guards. There was a slaughter within certain dormitories containing young converts, but eventually the more experienced knights and priests of Heironeous were able to defeat the attackers. The bandits bodies were knee-deep in the courtyards of the temple, and a huge fire had to be built to consume them all. Sir Phineous Thorn is leading daily expeditions of men into the Forest of Tunkerak killing those bandits that will not surrender to them for prosecution."
Jeremiah's hands went over his face, and he could be heard quietly praying. Ruadhin sat staring downwards at his sword-hand, which he was tightly clenching, and then unclenching.
"Wahlquist's towers were attacked by gnolls…led by a trio of powerful shamen. Luckily the Madmen of Ridore were close by, and were magically summoned by D'Aranor himself. Deadly magics flew between the mages and the shamen…and Mad Remy and his men cut their way through the gnolls…finally gutting the shamen, and bringing an end to the attack. I sent word to D'Aranor of our trouble with the Giants, and he said he had evidence the Giants had actually made arrangements with the gnoll shamen, promised them powerful magics and more precious metals and gems then their army could carry. D'Aranor said he would send mages when he could…but that much talent had been lost in the attack."
"Only a day ago, the town of Cador in the south…which I had mistakenly thought abandoned…was attacked by an army of trolls and undead. Supposedly the army was led by a bard…carrying a silver harp! All that heard the harp were driven mad! An army of orks from Gunderunk came and helped the besieged town…driving back the undead forces and the trolls they were in league with. I fear this dread attack was also promoted by the Giants to distract us…to make us afraid and weak."
"I am unsure why, but a group of frost giants personally attacked Ludwig's Knoll. The gnomes lost quite a few of their ill-trained defenders, but the giants turned tail partway through the battle and abandoned what would have been a sure victory. The gnomes are inventorying their most powerful magical and mechanical devices to see if anything was taken. They have promised to send word if they discover anything gone."
"So far the Forest of Ancients appears untouched by these coordinated attacks, and I believe I have the support of the few elven tribes that remain there. Widow's Grove…I mean, New Grove is dealing with some minor flooding, but they have not been attacked. An army of orks remains in place there to protect them. Marcus of Whyx has promised to personally respond to our area with a few hardy halflings. He also said he would plead our case in a diplomatic missive to Emperor Jestak himself…an old friend of his."
"I've sent men to the City-State of Cornwalsh, but none have returned. I sent an expedition of diplomats to Lornki to speak with their king…only one member returned, and he was undead. The guards stopped him at the upper gate of the Azure Keep to question his intentions, and he set upon one of them, chewing off his nose and ear before he was struck down and beheaded."
Javair then looked across the head of the Finders, until his eyes found the painting of Vendra's Castle that hung upon the wall. "Only one of my possible allies has remained completely steadfast in his support of what we are doing here…Vendra…Demon-Mage of old, Blood Protector of Draven, Never-Dying. He has offered some valuable assistance of which I am not willing to speak at this time." Javair looked back into the party members' faces and his attention seemed to come back from somewhere very far away. Oh…yes, there is also General Fazirrel, and his army of undead…10,000 strong! We have two undead powers on our side, and hopefully our tenuous trust in them is not completely misplaced."
"That brings me to you…Finders of the Key. You have done so much already, that I feel guilty asking for more. But I sense you are hungry for challenges, and a chance to help the founding of a great kingdom. The Azure Keep has not yet been attacked…but the time will come when the Giants do so…and in force. We need a place…deep within the kingdom, a place where no one could foresee us re-grouping. A location so notoriously unlivable, that not even the most clever Giant sage or planner could expect us to fall back to it. That is the purpose that Birchmont serves."
"Perhaps the Azure Keep will not fall. Perhaps I can muster enough support, both militarily, politically, and spiritually that the Giants will step back from war…and consider a new peace. A new status-quo. But if this does not happen, Birchmont is the one location that no one will expect as a secondary seat-of-power. No seer with scry it…no general will send scouts to it…and no person or thing even wanders near the place. It was once a Temple of Heironeous, now it is a sealed prison for demons most foul. Please do what you can to secure it. Do not delay in this task any longer than is necessary to prepare. As lord of this Keep, I have no right to command you…I simply ask this of you. Suggest it, if you will…."
Javair looked around the room, from one set of eyes to another. "Will you do this?"
Zane sat on a crude stool in the tent that served as Ocrote's Bar, in the City of Hope. He leaned casually against
the taut canvass wall, a smile on his face. He had had a very lucrative week conning people out of their Kerns
as the City Registry Agent. Why he had never thought of getting into government work before was beyond him. When
the City by the Lake had thawed, none of the buildings were in good condition, and the only old building being
actively used was Goddo's blacksmith shop. Goddo was using half an old forge building, and had used large tarps
to made a fourth wall and part of the roof.
The citizens of Greenmark that had lost their homes and businesses were staking out land, putting up tents, and had begun building structures of wood and stone. A new interim government was set up to fairly divide up the land and buildings. Well, in truth Major Feld was the government for now. Refugees were supposed to stake out land, and then contact Major Feld…to be added to a master map of land possession claims. But citizens were much quicker to believe that Zane, posing as a lowly bureaucrat was in charge of splitting up the land. He was making money hand over fist, charging imaginary fees, taking bribes and kick-backs, and demanding all sorts of goods and services for his good favor. But how long could he keep this up before someone caught on?
A soft voice drew his attention from his little self-appreciation moment. " Is this seat taken?"
Zane's eyes gazed upon a lovely dark haired well-endowed young lady, one of many new arrivals to the city. He had seen her around town the last day or so but had been to busy meeting with new entrepreneurs to pursue her.
"Why of course not, here," he said as he arose and pulled back her chair. They sat, drank and talked the evening away, mostly about him as he boasted about his money and flashed it about. Zane was clearly suffering from an affliction that moneyed people call the "New Rich." Zane seemed to lose himself in her eyes, those large violet pools that seemed to look deep into his soul. Why did they seem so familiar to him? Zane and the lovely lady eventually left together, as he wanted to show her his well out-fitted tent on the edges of town.
Kit sat looking at herself in the standing mirror. Her dark wig had come off earlier but Zane never seemed to notice. The face paint was all but gone and it would take too long to reapply. She needed to leave before the sun rose and a change-self spell would last long enough for her to get past anyone that may see her leave Zane's place. His snoring was deep and the essence of yellow mushroom she had slipped into one of his drinks would make him forget most of what he had said the night before. It was amazing how men might resist being tortured to keep a secret but after a few drinks and get them in bed and they will tell a woman they have just met almost anything. Whether it's to impress the lady or just make themselves feel more masculine it did not matter.
Zane had told Kit of how he had been an important figure in the thieves' guild and had spent time in Tunis. He never gave many details about the position he held, or how long he had been in Tunis…so Kit suspected he was exaggerating a bit. Zane also had not described exactly how to get to Tunis, but had mentioned that a side valley cut off to the right on the way to the Martial Fields. You simply had to follow the River of Blood from the Azure Keep to the North-West, and the valley was on the east side of the River. It was a narrow valley and easy to miss, but you would know it was the right one when you quickly came across a building called Raker's Asylum. Further along the valley you would come to a Mill…a Mill that had been turned into an Inn. That was the hidden entrance to Tunis.
He also told her of some of the Council of the Knife and why he thought he would have one day replaced one of them because he knew their strengths and weaknesses. This Kit also took as bragging, for Zane was a petty con-man, and not worthy of being a leader of men…thieves or not. It was incredible someone who though he was such a great thief could be so clumsy in bed, even though he was pretty well three sheets in the wind. She hated conning Zane this way but it was best he not know what he said and who he said it to in case he ever let it slip. Anyway, he had also admitted to her the details of his latest con job, and she had saved herself the money of paying Zane for a spot of land in the City. She watched in the mirror as she cast the spell and the persona of Alicia appeared or perhaps Madam Alicia, giving herself a knowing smile she turned and silently left into the predawn.
Kit looked back over her shoulder in time to see Major Feld's men entering Zane's tent. She leaned into the morning shadows and watched as they brought him out bound in irons. One of the men pulled Zane roughly along behind him. "We'll teach you to rip off these poor homeless people! You are worse than scum." Men from the city began carrying away Zane's ill-gotten property, and another guard yelled a threat at Zane. "If this was Dumit you would hang! The Major will certainly exile you…and good riddance!"
Kit shrugged her shoulders. She had gotten what she wanted…and what she needed. Zane could take care of himself.
Jeremiah, walked slowly through the new City of Hope, mumbling to himself. A passerby actually overheard Jeremiah
saying, "If this is what you wish then this shall be done." It was early in the morning, and Jeremiah
knew that the Finders were preparing to leave for Tunis soon. Jeremiah had felt a little guilty requesting that
the group set aside all their personal goals and help him with getting the the Temple at Birchmont back. For he
thought that it would be best if he was able to handle this mission on his own. But prayers to Heironeous had made
it apparent that he intended for the whole group to embark on this… what should he call it? Mission? No crusade,
that was it, this was a crusade. That they were destined to accompany him became apparent when he had found out
that many members of the group needed or wanted for one reason or another to go to Tunis anyway. Perhaps it would
take each and every one of the Finders to counter the evil at Birchmont. As always Heironeous was correct and true.
He knew that Jeremiah would have to ask for aid from the group and had set reasons for some of his companions to
accompany him. Heironeous had directed his actions though visions and dreams, and there was no way he could deny
his deity's wisdom and will.
Jeremiah spotted Ruadhin first and requested that he join him for breakfast within the hour outside of Ockrote's Bar. Then he headed out to find Will Fitzpierce. Thinking as he walked that Ruadhin was a Paladin of Heironeous and that Ruadhin would not require any additional persuading about what he would soon request of him. The knowledge that the request was the will of Heironeous would be enough for the pious warrior. But getting William to recognize that his deity and Heironeous were one in the same, that might be a little more difficult. He still had trouble with the theological ramifications himself. But he was nothing if not a vessel of Heironeous' will and would do his bidding and deal with the theology later.
"Will prays to the same god using another name," Jeremiah mumbled to himself as he walked towards the stables where Will kept his horse. He almost didn't recognize Will standing behind a horse, he was so wrapped up in his own thoughts. Will was grooming the creature, and Jeremiah noticed that the horse seemed very happy with the job that Will was doing. The horse actually seemed to be smiling…if this was possible. Jeremiah motioned to get Will's attention for he had learned never to walk up on someone out of the blue and surprise them, especially someone who carried a sword and was very good with it.
Will spoke over the back of the horse, "Hello Father, what brings you to the stables? If you're looking for a horse I'd be happy to help you with the selection."
"Thank you Mr. Fitzpierce, but no. I've come to invite you to breakfast with Ruadhin and myself outside of Ockrote's bar within the hour if you would be so kind. We need to speak of your future as told to me by Heironeous…as it would seem it is connected with mine."
Will shrugged his shoulders and gave an expression that seemed to Jeremiah as if he knew this discussion was coming. "As you wish Father. Breakfast will be most welcome. It seems as this horse has taken all my time this morning and I am getting rather hungry."
Jeremiah had to laugh, "As always the stomach shall come first. I shall have stew and bread waiting for your arrival."
Jeremiah turned away to get breakfast for the three who would be meeting outside of a bar. "This promises to be an exciting conversation," he thought.
Will finished brushing out the big bay's coat. Father Jeremiah was a serious man he thought. No doubt he had some proposal for Will. Since Will had found out that Birchmont was located in the province of Valender, the very province he sought to make his own, he knew that this conversation would come. He was just a little unsure what part Ruadhin had in the discussion. Perhaps he was merely acting as the good Father's bodyguard. He had kept a close watch on the Priest since joining the Finders. At any rate, Will held out good thoughts for this meeting. Father Jeremiah, Ruadhin and Will, were the newest members of the Finders, and the most philosophically alike. He was sure they would be able to come to an understanding, even without knowing what the proposition would be.
Nearly an hour had past and Ruadhin had arrived twenty minutes early as usual. He was nothing if not punctual, considering this to be one of the obligations of his vows. The littlest manifestations of his commitment to Heironeous mattered greatly to the Paladin. He could still remember the words of his Knight-Commander. "It is by the smallest deed, not the greatest that we will be judged." Words to live by Ruadhin thought. Ruadhin and Jeremiah sat in silence until Will came around the corner and saw a make-shift table with a table cloth over it and three bowls, some bread along with water and some kind of milky substance. Jeremiah stood up and motioned for Will to take his place.
Will slowly sat down and spoke first, "Thank you for inviting me Father, but I am sure you wish more than my company on this morn."
Jeremiah spoke. "Please eat. it has been a morning of reflection for me and as I speak, it will not bother me if you eat". That seemed to be all Ruadhin was waiting for as he dug in and broke apart a piece of bread and started dipping it into the stew. Will was slightly more circumspect, still not entirely accustomed to the more 'rustic fare,' as Javair had described it, that passed for cuisine here in the Azure Kingdom. How he missed the cafes and bistros of Citadel.
Jeremiah sat in silence for a couple of minutes collecting his thoughts. Finally he broke the silence. "As both of you know, I have been blessed by Heironeous with visions and dreams. In more than one of these Heironeous has told me that Will worships him under a different name. This is not to be questioned by me or you Ruadhin as it was stated by Heironeous himself." Ruadhin and Will both set aside their bread and stew and looked up. Ruadhin somewhat reluctantly, Will less so.
Without missing a beat Jeremiah raised his hand. Letting both know that he had not finished what he had to say. He continued. "This being the case he has directed me to request Will's aid. Once we get the Tome of Purity out of Tunis and reestablish the temple, he has requested that I bring Birchmont back to it's former glory along with its people and the land. My visions reveal to me that I will need both of you to do this. It will be my duty to attend to the peoples spiritual needs, but to do this we will need a safe and secure land. That is where you Knights and an army that are devoted to the temple and keeping the people safe, will be needed. This is the task that Heironeous has set for both of you. Heironeous has directed me to ask Will if he would be willing to gather and lead the Knights. He has directed me to ask Ruadhin to be second in command, reporting only to myself and Will."
Jeremiah put a hand on Ruadhin's shoulder. "Ruadhin, please…before you object…the reason you will be second is that in the upcoming years there will be things to be done that should not sully the hands of one of Heironeous' most pure. I do not want to see you do anything that might require you breaking some of your beliefs and commitments. I will not see this cannot happen. You are a very important individual to the plans of our Lord. Will is no less important…because he has capabilities that will be needed, and the personality to do things that Ruadhin should not. I have also noticed that you have a way with people that makes them want to follow you."
Ruadhin simply nodded and said, "If this is the will of Heironeous then it shall be done. In service of Heironeous it is not my place to question him or you, just give guidance when necessary, and rest assured that the will of my Lord will be done."
Will sat quite for a moment, Ruadhin's words hanging in the air. He began to peel the crust off his bread, throwing it onto the ground where a few small blue and white birds eagerly awaited his generosity. He had not seen this type of bird in the Azure Kingdom before and he wondered what they were called. New settlers no doubt…the end of the five hundred year winter offering them the chance at a new land. Much like the settlers Will hoped would flock to Valender, now that it had seen the end of it's five hundred year winter of evil.
"Father Jeremiah, I would be honored to lead a group of Knights devoted to Heironeous, but I would see myself only as a figurehead, with the noble Ruadhin heading up the day to day operation of the order. I am a devout worshiper of Kempin. As you know Kempin is the whole and all other aspects of our world are but 'fragments of the whole.' Just as within ourselves we struggle to overcome the evil that resides within our souls and do good, so does Kempin struggle to do these same things. Evil is no less a part of Kempin than good. The majesty of Kempin is that despite the evil that resides within him he struggles for and ultimately achieves good. To that end Heironeous represents what is good about the Lord Kempin. So I who seeks to do good…venerate Heironeous and am humbled that I would be included in his plans." Will Tossed the remainder of his bread on the ground. The little flock of birds abandoned any decorum and descended upon the offering. Will smiled and added, "But please do not be offended when in my mind I see the words of Kempin passed to me through the good offices of Lord Heironeous."
Will paused, but Jeremiah and Ruadhin knew to wait for Will to continue. "Perhaps it would be best if I were to lay my cards on the table now, and describe what I see for the future of Valender. I am a man of the temporal world much as Ruadhin is of the secular. I feel that I can be of greatest use to the future of Valender and the most holy Temple of Birchmont by becoming the secular leader of the land. I would gather to me an army of men to secure the safety of the land and encourage settlement. Of this army a portion would be made up of the order devoted to Heironeous. I foresee the role of Birchmont and you Father as central to the successful refounding of Valender. Without a strong spiritual heart for the people to turn to, Valender will be a shallow place and not able to hold its people for long."
Jeremiah's thoughts were running a mile a minute as he realized that Will's plans were basically his own, or should he say Heironeous'. Noticing what Will had been doing with his bread, Jeremiah motioned with his hand and said a few words out loud to Heironeous and a small miracle appeared in the form of additional bread scattered thoughout the little flock. "I can see the goodness in you, Will. But, please have another piece of bread. Try dipping it into the stew, it will soften the bread and make it easier to swallow. You need the nourishment to sustain you for our upcoming trials."
Jeremiah said another short prayer to his god. Cocking his head to one side he smiled, "I have been requested to thank you from these little ones. They say that humans call them by the name of Jarreels and that they will be moving on soon, as they do not yet trust the weather to hold."
Will smiled at Father Jeremiah. "It is good to know their name. Tell them, if you would, to have faith. The land is returning to it's true form and I for one will not see it return to its dark days. Ask them to stay, I would like to see their beauty and noble songs grace our land."
Father Jeremiah nodded his head. The Jarreels did indeed add a welcome splash of color to what had been a drab white land. He changed the subject back to their conversation, wanting to conclude his thoughts. "Now as to what you have said, I want you to know I could not have asked for more and I appreciate your honesty and willingness to honor me with your goals. I will admit that I look forward to making Valender what it once was and that with you and Ruadhin at my side, and Heironeous never far, I believe we can achieve what has been requested of us."
Pausing Jeremiah looked at the majestic blue mountains in the distance, a look of optimism on his face. "I guess our meeting has been very successful and we should be going in order that we may prepare for our trip to Tunis. Oh, one other thing. What we have discussed at this table is no secret, so if you wish to share what we have discussed with the other Finders, please do so. I do not believe in building a community or Kingdom on a foundation of lies. There will be a time that they may be needed when dealing with our enemies, but that time it not now."
Jeremiah raised his glass and made a toast. "To the restoration of Valender and the rebirth of Birchwood."
In the two days before the journey to Tunis, Zeek spoke with Javair. "Should we treat the town of Tunis
as sovereign? Could they be an ally to us in our efforts against the Giants? Should we protect Tunis? Or should
we destroy it?"
Javair seemed a bit put upon, and then answered in a quiet voice so that the servants could not hear him. "I was a rogue myself…and did things for which I am not particularly proud, if you know what I mean. The black hand will always be a part of any civilization."
Zeek, looking confused, replied, "No, I don't know what you mean."
Javair breathed a sigh of frustration and simple said, "Go to the town as spies. Don't tell them you are connected with me in any way. Find out as much as you can. Try not to piss too many of them off. I'm not sure what role Tunis could play in our plans. It disturbs me that this City of Thieves is reportedly in our backyard. If what you have learned is true, then this hidden valley is very near to the Azure Keep."
Zeek scratched his bald tattooedhead. "It pains me to say this. If the ambassador is the type of creature I believe him to be, he has created more chaos and corruption than these poor bastards could ever do. I may not know the ways of your civilized world. But, I have learned fast. It takes a weak government to allow corruption. It is this weakness for your worldly things that fosters these evil men."
"Zeek, I appreciate your viewpoint. I really do. I suppose we could hang all pick-pockets and be done with it." Javair pulled forth a rope, quickly tied a noose, and handed it to Zeek. "Would you like to start with me?"
Zeek's face twisted into a disgusted look, and he turned to leave. Will was coming in the doorway as Zeek left, and Zeek handed the noose to a bewildered Will. Zeek stopped with a sneer on his face. "I will ne'er grasp yer world." Zeek continued down the hallway.
A startled Will shook his head and said, "Oh, and we're supposed to understand you? Crazy barbarian."
Will enters to meet with Javair. "You know, this noose should be for every last one of those theiv'n, murder'n bastards! We MUST destroy this Tunis. You smash them down, so they have nowhere to hide. They have become too organized. They will come back to haunt you…or perhaps assassinate you, if you don't take care of them now."
Javair calmly replies, "My good friend from the Empire, I am making arrangements as we speak to ensure they are not a threat. I need you to infiltrate and find out as much as you can. Without killing the entire town, please. Now that we possibly know their location, I don't want to chase them off. I would rather know who they are, where they are, and what they are up to…than to add another bitter hidden enemy to our list! One small favor, if you will?"
Will nodded and Javair continued. "If Quincy the Quick presents himself as an easy target, and he is in the way of your mission to get the white book…to Tome of Purity, then by all means eliminate him. Don't tell the entire party of this matter, just those you feel would have an understanding for it. It is Quincy that has made these thieves so organized and bold. If Quincy is gone, their organization will degenerate and make it easier for me to infiltrate their structure and plans. Do you understand what I mean?"
Will nodded. "Don't destroy Tunis. Don't do anything that might make them take the whole town into hiding. But if Quincy is an easy target, make sure he no longer is able to lead them. I understand, and I understand that I should probably not tell Jeremiah and Ruadhin about this. It is a small matter, and I will keep it for myself, as a personal mission. I warn you though. If Tunis must fall for us to get the white book, then Tunis will fall."
Kitzarncz Xeras, the only offspring of Murkarik Xeraz, also known as Murkarik the Magnificent, Murkarik the
Mixer or Murkarik the Mad, the renowned Drow Alchemist, stood within a shallow cave just outside the City of Hope.
She was poised to add the last ingredient to the mixture. This would be her third and final attempt to turn one
of the three vials of troll's blood into a potion of regeneration. She had translated the instructions from her
father's magical book on potions and had tried to follow them from her own notes. The first one sat to the side,
fused solid with the bowl it had been mixed in, the second still spotted the ceiling and wall of the cave and had
taken her hours to wash the green stains from her long white hair. She would be wearing a cap when working on mixtures
from now on. This last attempt she was taking the advice of Vavasha and had cast a comprehend language spell, then
read it from her father's manual. The words seemed to draw her attention to details she had not thought important
before, such as timing and the reaction of components. The book seemed to enhance her concentration and she felt
more confident she was doing it right.
The liquid started to bubble and when the sixth bubble burst she added the troll blood and watched as it changed from red to green. Kit gave a little flinch remembering what had happened the last time this stage was achieved but all that happened this time was a low hissing sound came from the potion. Well the only thing to do now was test it. She fill a small dropper with some of the potion and went to a box where a three legged frog she had rescued from a rat, which made a delicious stew, pushed itself in circles and forced it to drink the brew. Later Kit was studying the Holy Book of Kuda-Gar then glanced up at the happy four-legged Fly eater as it hopped around the room. Then a glint of light caught her eye and she looked out the small entrance of the cave to see the slushy ground outside her cave. Small bits of green were visible in the muddy ground. These were clear signs that the land was coming back to life. Soon this restored happy hopper would be hunting flies out under open sky. Kit smiled and went back to her readings since her predictions of the coming spring had come to pass she better have more prophecies ready for her next visit to Kuda-Gar so she might keep her title of Oracle.
Both the Master and Zeek were walking down a path in the forest. Fresh undergrowth was just breaking the first
layer of topsoil. As the Master walked, leaves swirled behind him covering his tracks. The Master was the first
"Bye my child. It is time for me to go."
"Master Dola, wait! Don't go!"
"You will soon join us at Wudon. Do not rush. That would not be natural. You have three more feats. You have passed the first. Become one with the world around you." The Master entered the mist and was gone. Only his words continued..."Remember the feeling in the stone..."
Zeek tried to follow, but the mist faded and he was left alone with an empty trail leading into a ravine. With his head bowed, Zeek trudged along, kicking rocks and mumbling. "Become one with nature!!? That's my lesson? Three more tests? Are there more men like me? Is there a group of blue men? Why are my hands so hot?"
Suddenly, 5 ogres jumped from above, blocking Zeek's front. "See-render! Y'er surrund'd eh ye noo weapons." Snarling viciously, the mongrels threatened the seemingly weaker traveler.
"What do you want?"
The lead ogre answered, "Wi want yu in me bellie!" Snort, snort...Laughter erupted among the brigands. "Wi hadn't a good human meal since long time back." Another lesser gnoll spouted out, "Well, me thinks this thing's human." More laughter. "We willn't know til we eats'em!"
Zeek's hands were in his pockets. As he pulled them out, they were glowing a dull blue. Looking above, he saw that there were two archers on each side of the ravine. Zeek slowly took his furs off and addressed his adversaries, "Friends of the forest, I dare say I wouldn't be much for eat'n. I'm very tough and not juicy at all." Zeek turned his back as he showed his would-be-eaters his striated physique.
"He don't have no plumpness to'um." And another ogre noticed his tattoos and whispers harshly, "He's a shamen. Ohhhhhh, ahhhhh, hmmmmmmm." They begun to whisper amongst themselves... "You must prove to us you are a shaman."
Unseen archers moved down into view and one pulled out a crossbow and cocked it. "If you are a shaman, the spirits will protect you." Zeek was between the crossbowman and the five infantrymen. As the crossbowman rose to fire, Zeeks fists glowed a bright blue, almost blinding the ogres. The crossbowman squinted and fired only three feet from Zeek's chest. Zeek timed the release of the bolt, thrust his hand outward, grabbed it out of the air, and spun. The force of the fired bolt brought Zeek's hand right where his heart had been a split second before.
The ogres gasped out of surprise and disappointment. The leader said to Zeek, "Ok, we willn't eat ya. But, come with us, you must." Wanting to learn more about these Ogres, Zeek agreed. "Become one with the world, become one with the world."
It was dusk by the time they reached Gnash, a cave town. Hundreds of ogres were milling about, women and children too. It reminded Zeek much of his homeland. There was an open fire with a boar roasting. (Luckily it wasn't another poor traveller.) They presented Zeek to their Clan leader, Ukknot.
"There are no human savages for hundreds of miles. It is good you did not eat this one." Turning to Zeek, Ukknot said, "You walk with the spirits, no?"
Keeping his hands in his pockets, Zeek said, "Yes, I have..." Zeek was cut off.
"Good, we have need of your services. We are without a shaman." Zeek looked a little panicked, and his face took on a shade of green. "No human, we do not want YOU as OUR shaman. We want you to call upon our ancestors and ask them, who among our people will guide our tribe? I am afraid we are lost. None of our first-born has been born with the sign. It has been 7 seasons since our Ogre Magi passed to the spirit realm."
A great feast was prepared. (Zeek was assured that no humans were killed in making the feast.) At the height of the celebration all became quite, except for the crackling of the fire. As babies were hushed and drunkards knocked unconscious, Utkknot the clan chief addressed the gathering, "We have been blessed by the spirits. They have sent a brother shaman to us." Ukknot motioned for Zeek to come to the center of the cave.
Zeek slowly got up from where two pleasantly unattractive female ogres were paying him attentions. He brought forth his brightly glowing fists and threw his bones and rune dice. "Hear me ancient ones! By my father's heritage from the Valley of the Mists in Viesland der Tunderoc, I call upon you. Show me the future spirit walker of the Clan of Gnash!"
An apparition appeared out of the smoke. It was the splitting image of young Atnock, the clan chief's son! The ghost reached into his side and ripped out his own rib. The real Atnock screamed and reached for his side. The ghost handed the rib to Zeek and disappeared. Young Atnock did have a sign. He had an extra rib on his right side. As several ogres slap Ukknot on the back, he smiles a proud smile. Zeek walks over to Atnock and hands him back his own rib. "This bone will hold much power for you to use."
…Meanwhile, back at Finder's Hall, "Where is Zeek?!" exclaims Kit. "Jeremiah, contact him. We need to be going."
There are hundreds of stories in the City of Hope and these are just a few of them. My name is Gungkrot Stoneface,
the last Azure Night and a half-ork. When I returned to the Azure Keep from the wrecked city of Greenmark I knew
what I had to do. Jack Skull, the one in charge of security for the Azure Keep and the Lord over it…who I had sworn
to protect over 500 years ago…had perished on the quest that had closed the Storm Gates. I approached Lord Javair
with the offer of my services to fill in that void. I had grown up in those walls as my mother had been a cook
for King Seneca and knew their secret ways. I saw how the Mage Cameo kept a vigilant watch for those who might
do the king and his queen harm. It was only by the powers of love and those closest to him that brought down Seneca
and with him the great Azure Kingdom. I ran the streets of the city that the Keep overlooked and knew what dark
alleys to avoid. I had sworn to give my life to protect he who held the key and would restore the Azure Knights
to also take that oath. I had brought back to the Keep twelve sons of the Azure Mountains. Young warriors who were
born in these lands and whose families still strived to make this their home. One was Trevor Alison, the one who
had followed the command to rally to me in the streets of Greenmark and felt he still alive because of me.
After a few hours of discussion, Lord Javair looked into my eyes and placed a hand on my elbow. "Gungkrot, I believe in your dedication to the Azure Kingdom, its Keep, and its Lord. I believe in your skills, your intelligence, and your willingness to give your very life to protect me. I believe in your heritage, and I am proud of your past…and all you hope to achieve in your future. But you may not be in charge of security here. I am sorry."
I began to speak, to ask one last time to be appointed to the job for which I had been born…but Javair squeezed my elbow and interrupted me. "I am sorry." My head sank to my chest and I could not hide my deep disappointment. "There is a job I want to offer you. I wish you to prepare to leave within several days, with the young warriors you have gathered, for the city of Greenmark. Someone must continue to protect that city until all of the refugees have made their way to the City of Hope below. This is a very important task, and one that I know you are capable of, without a single doubt. Once all the settlers have moved their belongings here, I would like you to work with Major Feld in protecting the City by the Lake. He has guards, but he will need specially trained guards of the caliber you are willing and able to produce. I would like you to lead an elite corps of military men, protecting this fledgling city."
I looked up, though my face was still in shadows. "I will do as you ask, until such time as you see fit to allow me the honor of protecting you and your Keep, as is my calling."
Javair smiled. "I am not demoting you Gungkrot. I am promoting you. Those people below, and the City they build will be much more important that this frozen old Keep, or myself. I give you a job worthy of your skills and honor. While you and your men prepare, I would like you to handle a special matter for me, if you would?"
I nodded, and Javair continued. "I have received word that a man named Zane was taken prisoner in the city for posing as a city official and ripping off the new citizens of the city. I would like you to interrogate him and see if he was working with any others. I fear what rampant thieving activities in the new city might cause. I don't want outlaws to rule what we do here. During his arrest he mumbled the name 'Alicia' and then the word 'Tunis.' Find out who Alicia is, and what this Zane character knows about the City of Tunis."
In a cell in the top floor of Feld's Tower, Zane was chained to a wall. I had asked Major Feld's men to leave the room, and had come on strong at first, making sure that Zane felt my physical presence. I was fairly threatening at first, but after I had caused Zane some anxiety and fear, I began to mellow my tone, and tried to make Zane feel like he could confide in me. Zane gave up the description of Alicia, her mannerisms, how she had dressed, and where he had met her. When it came to Tunis, Zane would say nothing. He maintained that he knew nothing of Tunis, except what the legends said of it. And he maintained that he had never been there, and did not know where it was. Zane joked that he thought for sure rip Alicia off for the purchase price of some land grants, but that she had been a harder nut to crack than he had anticipated. Then he talked of their intimate time together, and I wondered at this strange woman that had slept with Zane. "What were her motivations," I thought to myself?
I staked out the tent that served as Ockrote's Bar in the City of Hope for a day, one night, and then the whole next day. As night fell I had about given up, when suddenly she walked in. A strikingly beautiful young lady with long brown hair and large violet eyes that seemed, strangely familiar, walked through the tent flaps. She stood about 5'9" in a long blue dress that was low cut to show her ample cleavage. I knew the second I saw her that this was the Alicia that Zane had described. I stood and walked over to her, introducing myself. She seemed very friendly, and not at all shocked that a half-ork of my stature had approached her.
We sat at a crude table in the corner and I began to quiz her on her history, and how she came to be in the City of Hope. She said she was from the north and had come here hoping to establish a successful business with money she had come into from a wealthy benefactor. As I dug more deeply she seemed to struggle with some answers and tried to change the subject to other things. She was having difficulties with details and wouldn't tell me what sort of business she wished to begin. I made it clear to her that I was speaking to her on official business, and that I need to get the facts from her, but she just smiled at me and placed one of her hands on mine.
She asked if perhaps I would take a short walk with her in the night air, and though something about her had me on edge, I agreed. She walked towards a ruined building nearby, and stepped though its open doorway. I paused, but then followed her in…after all, I was hear to learn the truth about her. That was my assignment. Once inside, she turned away from me in the semi-darkness. Reaching up she pulled off her brown hair revealing the tightly bound white hair underneath that she then loosened. She took an oily rag from her pouch, and wiped away some of her body paint to expose the dark brown skin beneath. Taking of the 6" spiked heals beneath her dress a much shorter and familiar creature of beauty walked back to address me.
Kit explained she had taken on this alias so she might gain information on Tunis, Fedden, and the thieves' guild that as herself she might not be able to get. She finally told me about the misunderstanding between her and Javair and that she had nothing but the best interest of him and the Kingdom in mind. She asked as a favor since she had saved me from the onslaught of the other Finders when I was the Key Guardian to keep her secret from all and she would provide me with any valuable information she came across. After considering all she had told me I agreed and thanked her for her honesty.
I reported back to Javair that the Zane prisoner had been a dead-end. Clearly he knew more about Tunis than he was letting on, but it would be impossible to break him. Javair commented that where physical threats had failed, perhaps spells could succeed. Then he asked me about "Alicia." I kept my promise to Kit and did not tell him her true identity, but told him everything else. I said that Zane and Alicia had experienced a one night stand, and that this must have been why Zane was mumbling her name. Javair nodded and turned towards the raging fire on the hearth. "Thank you, Azure Knight."
As I left the Keep, I thought of the misunderstanding between Kit and Javair. I knew among the Drow when one points out how easily they might have killed you, that was their way of saying you can trust me. I chuckled to myself. This, among other reasons, was why nobody liked the Drow!
At a special meeting in Ockrote's Bar, the Finders of the Key had gathered. No one else was present, as Ockrote
had closed the business for the night, and stood guard outside to prevent eavesdroppers. There was hushed discussion
among the party members, when Vikos stood and addressed the Finders. "We all have been very busy. There is
much to do, Giants to slay, Necromancers to hunt down, Demons and Devils to send back to hell. They all seemed
to be intertwined somewhat. The Giants help the necromancer. The gnolls serve in coordinated attacks against points
within the Kingdom. And for some reason Quincy the Quick wants the Emperor's Ambassador. As much I a desire a great
battle with the Giants, I think that is what they expect us to do. Let use befuddle them and find out how Tunis
is connected with all of this. While we are there we can get Jeremiah's book and restore Birchmont, thus giving
Javair his sought after security. Although, I can't help but think that if we fail in the defeating the Giants…no
stronghold will save us. After we complete these missions, THEN we go off to slay Giants! Lighting will fall and
we will see Oren and his Ax dance with falling, dying giants like no Dwarf has before him. Let us prepare our gear
tomorrow…and the following dawn, we begin our search for Tunis. Should we start a rumor or diversion that the ambassador
has disappeared again, and use the ambassador, or a look-alike, as a ruse to enter into Tunis?"
Everyone agreed that Vikos had brought up an interesting line of thought, and every one of the Finders knew that this conversation might go on well into the night. Jeremiah stood, and held his arms out, his palms pointed upwards. "Lest we forget where true wisdom comes from, we should consult Hieroneous on the matters before us. It is important that we receive divine guidance before we make flawed human judgments. Please help me to ask questions of my heavenly lord…and he will provide us with answers."
In harmony with Jeremiah's Communion, Zeek quietly started his own séance and summoned the victims of Quincy the Quick to ask questions of the spirits… "Is he the Master of the Thieves' Guild?"
The spirits answered in a droning voice that only Zeek could hear. "Yes…he is the Master. He lives within the meeting hall of the Council of the Knife. He lives in a large hidden apartment."
As Jeremiah continued readying his spell, Zeek whispered another question to he spirits. "Who can we trust in Tunis?"
The spirits answered Zeek, "No one."
"What evil has the ambassador done to be deserving of Quincy's knife?"
The spirits answered Zeek's final question. "Quincy seeks the Ambassador, so that he may strike an exclusive deal to control trade between the Azure Kingdom and the Feron-Jacobe Empire. Quincy feels that if he can speak with this Ambassador, such a deal may be struck."
Jeremiah completed his chanting, and incense filled the air. He began to ask questions that the other Finders were providing him. "Is 'Q.' on the note, actually Quicy the Quick?" Then Jeremiah answered himself in a deeper voice with a hollow quality. "Yes."
"Who has the Book of Purity? Bungling Bob…in Tunis."
"Where is the Book of Purity? In the home of Robert Nivo."
"Why did Jack Skull help Javair? Trust and friendship come from unexpected places. There is history between them."
"When and how will the Giants attack? They will choke the fledgling Kingdom, attacking with the help of many allies over months and months, finally crushing the Kingdom once it is greatly weakened and desperate. They seek the Key, and the release of the Winter Storms to ravage your lands once again."
"What is the weakness of the Giants? Their hate for each other. Their greed for the return of Kuda-Gar. The Winter Storms themselves. And the Hammer of Tor, Smasher of Skulls, Tamer of Storms…."
"Who are allied with the Giants? Barbarian Grasslanders, certain rogue gnomes, Gorin Zachian who now recovers his energies in Lorn-Ki, human bandits in Tunderak, a few small gnoll armies, an lich-bard named Philoren Malrue, powerful lords within Cornwalsh, and a smattering of traitors throughout the land."
"How can we get rid of Goran? He protects himself from the great forever, but reserving flesh in remote and hidden locations. Find his flesh, destroy it all…and Gorin will cease to trouble the physical world. His ghost is in a monastery in Lorn-Ki, among evil monks who serve him in return for power."
"Will we find Fedden in Tunis? He is there, though free-will prevents even I from knowing if you will find him."
Jeremiah slumped in his chair exhausted. Zeek pushed a glass of water across the table to the priest.
Will stood. "Friends, allow us to compare notes and discuss the goals and plans of our near future…."