The Keymaster

Chapter Four: City of the Dead

The decaying hand scrabbled for purchase, its skeletal fingers scrabbling at the ruptured dirt before the crumbling headstone…

Lilith hissed a warning in ethereal and charged towards the grave. Kazdan turned, following Lilith’s trajectory to see the head and shoulders of a badly decomposed man struggling out of the ground. With a grunt of disgust, the assassin followed Lilith, swinging down with his sabre. The blade slid through the paper-thin flesh of the creature and emerged the other side with not a drop of blood upon it.
As the zombie’s waist emerged from the dity, Alyaa appeared beside Kazdan. Her axe whirled down and cleaved the zombie’s skull in twain. The putrefying creature slumped to the ground, grey sludge oozing from its rent skull.

Even as Alyaa cried out in victory, the earth before another gravestone began to move. Edward saw arms emerge from the gravestone, and loaded his crossbow with a gasp. Zoltan unleashed a bolt, which sunk into the zombie’s eye.
The creature reeled back, clutching at its eye, and screeched in a frail, rattling voice. “What are you doing!?”
“You’re not dead!?” Kazdan exclaimed.
“No,” the zombie wheezed, setting itself down on the broken earth before the gravestone. “Not entirely.”
“That wouldn’t happen to have been a friend of yours would it?” Kazdan asked, gesturing to the practically headless corpse across the way.
The zombie followed Kazdan’s finger, and mumbled; “No. I don’t believe I knew him.”
“Any… more of you about that we should be aware of?”
“I… I don’t know. I’m somewhat confused.”

“The dead should stay dead!” Alyaa bellowed, dashing over and drove her axe into the zombie’s side. The zombie cried out, crawling desperately away from the wild brunette woman.
“Don’t!” Edward exclaimed, holding a hand out to Alyaa.
“He’s dead!” Alyaa insisted. “He should be dead!”
“He’s not quite dead,” Edward pointed out.
“Please,” the zombie moaned, holding a hand to his vast, bloodless wound. “Please, no more.”
“He’s yielding,” Edward hissed, glaring at Alyaa.
Alyaa looked from the zombie to Edward with narrowed eyes, her axe still poised. Lilith walked over, looking at both the zombie and the members of the party inquisitively.
“No more,” the zombie repeated, shuffling away from Alyaa on all fours.

Kazdan approached, slipping his sabre back into its sheath and holding up his empty hands.
“Sorry,” he said. “Who are you? Why are you here? How did you come back to life?”
“In life, my name was Bor,” the dead man wheezed. “I’m… not really sure how I came to be here, or even what year it is.”
“It’s 1202,” Kazdan said softly.
“No,” Bor murmured, clutching his side. “No, no. That can’t be possible.”
“What’s the last year you remember?”
“You’ve been here a while, then?”
“This place… I do not know it.”

“The dead should fucking stay dead!” Alyaa roared, swinging again at the zombie. Kazdan grabbed the shaft of Alyaa’s axe, causing the blow to go wide. Alyaa glared at Kazdan and took a couple of steps back, her face red and her eyes wild. Bor again scrambled away, his head lowered.
“Hold off a while!” Zoltan shouted from behind a gravestone where he had taken cover. “Let’s hear what it has to say before we send it back to its grave.”
With a snarl, Alyaa pulled back her axe and stalked away. Glancing reproachfully at Alyaa, Edward walked slowly over to Bor.
“How did you die” he asked.
Bor looked up, casting a fearful glance at Alyaa, before he said; “I… It’s all so hazy. It seems like a dream. I… remember my family… We were on the road. We were travelling. We were heading from Fedelha down to Quarnse, in Spirilidon. Highwaymen? I believe we were set about by highwaymen. It all seems so hazy. So distant.”
“Is this the first time you’ve… risen like this?” Edward inquired.
“Risen?” Bor asked. “My last memory is being on the road with my family. Where am I?”
“You’re in a cemetary,” Zoltan said, “on account of being dead. You do realise that you’re a zombie, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Bor said with a tinge of sadness. “I’d interpreted as much from my state. I must say, this is… this is very strange.”

“Maybe we should head to where his family was going,” Kazdan muttered.
Bor’s head snapped up. “That is a noble thought, but I would imagine my family are long in their graves if it is truly the year you say it is.”
“Do you know if there’s anybody else here,” Kazdan continued, “who might rise out of their grave?”
“I… I don’t know where here is,” Bor said, sounding somewhat agitated. “I’m sorry, this is all deeply confusing!”
“You’re in Unquarth Cemetary.”
“Unquarth Cemetary? It was never this big.”
“Time has passed.”
“There has been a war since you died,” Edward explained.
“A war?” Bor gasped. “So much has changed. This is not the world I knew.”
“I’ll ease your suffering, if you like,” Alyaa snarled.
“No!” Edward exclaimed.

Bor glanced at Alyaa fearfully, then turned back to Kazdan and Edward. “If you were headed to Quarnse and you wanted to ask after my family, it would, of course, be greatly appreciated.”
“What’s your family name?” Edward asked.
“Sexton,” Bor muttered, before letting out a choked sob. “Oh, Ezda. Ezda.”
“Was that your wife?” Kazdan asked, but the zombie did not reply.
Kazdan looked around the gravestones in the immediate vicinity, noticing that they all showed burials between 1140 and 1142. He could not see another headstone marked “SEXTON.”
“Is there anything we could tell your family,” Kazdan went on, “that only a family member would know?”
Bor thought for a moment. “I don’t know. I don’t even know what family I have left. The place of Ezda and my marriage, perhaps? I don’t know. I honestly couldn’t say.”
“Where was it?”
“It was on Asaethe Beach in Spirilidon.”

Lilith, who had not yet approached the zombie, began to trudge towards the castle on the edge of the graveyard. The moment her hand touched the iron ring on the castle’s door, Edward saw Bor’s eye sockets flash a brilliant pink. Edward opened his mouth to speak, but suddenly, skeletal but strong hands grabbed at his throat. Edward hissed and stepped back, and a flap of papery skin peeled off of the zombie’s hand, sticking to his throat.
Kazdan’s eyes opened wide, and he quickly drew his sabre, slicing straight through Bor’s neck. The zombie’s head tumbled from his shoulders, and his withered body slumped onto the ground.
Lilith turned just as another grave ruptured and the shambling corpse of a turron pulled itself from the ground. Its eyes were also pink and luminescent. The darkling went for her daggers, but the zombie was surprisingly fast. It stalked over to her and lashed out with its hands, but its fingers slid slickly on her leather armour.

Alyaa scowled, dashing over to the zombie attacking Lilith. With a bellow, the brunette drove her axe into the zombie’s side. Lilith jabbed into the zombie with her daggers, but the blows seemed to have little effect.
“Foul abomination!” Zoltan cried, firing from the cover of the gravestone. The quarrel flew wide, clattering off the wall of the castle. The merchant suddenly heard a rumbling, and turned to see yet another pink-eyed zombie pulling itself laboriously up from the ground. This one, seemingly the corpse of a human, staggered over to Edward and grabbed at him, but the former policeman pushed the zombie away. Kazdan drove his sabre into the zombie as it lurched backwards.
Alyaa yanked her axe from the undead turron and swung it again, driving the blade almost all the way through the zombie’s body. The creature let out the slightest groan and slumped to the ground.

Lilith pulled away from the zombie and turned her attention back to the door. She found a large golden keyhole and attempted to prise it open, but without success.
“Bad zombie!” she heard Zoltan yelling. “Bad!”
She turned just in time to see the zombie slash out a hand at Kazdan. The assassin cried out as four long cuts opened in his arm. Blood seeped through Kazdan’s doublet, and with a yell, he lashed out with his sabre, separating the zombie’s head from its shoulders.
Lilith suddenly heard a soft sucking sound, and turned just in time to see a figure with gleaming pink eyes lurching towards her. Before the creature reached the doorway, Alyaa drove her axe into the zombie’s gut. A string of withered grey intestine slipped from the wound. Lilith scowled, plunging a dagger into the side of the zombie’s neck. As she lifted her second dagger, a quarrel emerged from the zombie’s glowing eye, and the zombie sunk to the ground.
Lilith looked past the fallen creature to see Zoltan hurriedly reloading his crossbow. With a smirk, the darkling turned back to the door and went back to work on the lock.

Another turron corpse dragged itself from the ground, looked around with bewilderment for a moment, then with a guttural snarl, made a beeline for Zoltan.
“No!” Zoltan cried, hastily winding his crossbow. “Fellow turron! Why!?”
The undead turron swung at Zoltan, but the merchant ducked out of the way, falling onto his back. With an anxious yelp, Zoltan levelled his crossbow at the zombie, but before he could pull the trigger, Alyaa’s axe swung down through the small creature and it hit the ground in two pieces.
Edward was suddenly set upon by another zombie, which slashed out at him with its long, claw like nails. Edward staggered back, just as Kazdan cut the zombie down.

Alyaa stalked towards the door, pushed Lilith aside and swung down heavily with her axe. The blade splintered the dark wood of the door. Another corpse rose nearby, but was taken by one of Zoltan’s quarrels and then Kazdan’s sabre.
Alyaa brought her axe down on the door again, and it was rent asunder. A large chunk of wood fell into the darkness beyond, while the rest of the door swung inwards.
“Door’s open!” Alyaa roared. A pink-eyed corpse shambled towards her, but she quickly swung out with her axe, and the zombie’s arm fell to the floor.
“Inside!” Lilith screamed in common, felling another zombie.

Zoltan dashed to the doorway, quickly peering into the dark, narrow corridor ahead before slipping inside. Kazdan and Edward followed. Alyaa stood by the door, urging her companions inside. Lilith moved up beside Alyaa, her eyes darting back and forth across the miles of gravestones behind them.
“Get inside, pale face!” Alyaa demanded as another set of pale, rotting arms burst from the ground. Lilith looked at Alyaa blankly, then whirled at the zombie, cutting into it with her daggers.
Spying another door some sixty feet down the darkened corridor, Zoltan pulled the trap from his pack and set about opening it.
“Get inside, women!” he grunted as he prised the jaws of the trap open. He cried again in ethereal, and Lilith ducked into the hallway. Alyaa followed, and with a shout of effort, Zoltan set the trap in the shattered remains of the doorway.

Lilith gently pushed Zoltan to one side, just as a zombie lurched into the doorway. Its foot landed straight in the centre of the trap, and the jaws snapped closed, severing the zombie’s leg. The undead beast collapsed backwards, leaving a decomposed foot in the closed trap.
Lilith hastily reset the trap, tossing the severed foot out of the door, as the rest of the group made their way down the small, dim corridor.
Kazdan pushed open the far door, which led into a large square room. The far end of the room was occupied by a raised dais. A number of braziers mutedly illuminated the room, reflecting off four suits of armour which stood in each corner of the room. Alyaa noticed a large black throne on the dais, seated upon which was a tall, slender man in a long black robe and tall hat. Next to the throne was a plinth, with a green glass orb resting on it.

“Greetings,” said the figure, his mouth curling into a humourless, lopsided sneer. Edward turned to look at the man, quickly deducing that this must be Herod, the Guardian of the Orb.
“Hello,” Zoltan said warily.
“Nice place you have here,” Kazdan ventured.
“Yes,” Herod said. “I’m quite happy with it.”
“Couldn’t help but notice you have a slight zombie problem outside,” noted Zoltan.
“I don’t consider it a problem, as such,” the man in black snorted. “Keeps unwanted visitors out.”
“Do you consider us unwanted visitors?” asked Kazdan.
“Yes, I do,” Herod said, standing up. For the first time, the party noticed that his eyes were blazing pink. Herod lifted up a golden staff, inlaid with many jewels, but the largest and most prominent being the glowing magenta crystal at its peak. Four bolts of pink energy flew from the gem, striking the suits of armour in each corner of the room. Slowly, the visors and eye holes in each of the suits’ helmets began to throb with a pink light.

Edward quickly fired a crossbow bolt at one of the glowing suits of armour, but the quarrel pinged harmlessly off the heavy breastplate. Kazdan dashed towards the four steps which led up to the dais, but before his foot met the first step, he was gripped by an intense cold and agony, and collapsed backwards with a groan.
One of the suits of full plate began to creakily move towards Zoltan, bringing about a hefty battle-axe as it did. Zoltan ducked out of the way, and the blade narrowly missed the turron’s head. Lilith jabbed a dagger into one of the suits, while Alyaa smashed her axe into another’s breastplate. The armour retaliated, jabbing a sword at Alyaa.
Scowling, Zoltan fired his crossbow at Herod. The sorcerer did not flinch as the quarrel flew straight at his head. However, when the bolt was about to cross the threshold between the floor and the dais, it stopped in mid-air and clattered to the floor. Zoltan cursed loudly.

One suit of armour fired a hefty crossbow at Kazdan, but the quarrel flew wide. The suit of armour wielding the battle-axe stalked over to Zoltan, driving the blade of the axe into the turron’s middle. Zoltan’s leather fauld turned away most of the blow, but the merchant still let out a cry of pain.
“Alyaa, help!” he cried. “I’m being injured!”
Alyaa turned and dashed towards Zoltan, narrowly avoiding a blow from the sword-wielding suit. Alyaa swung her axe into the armour attacking Zoltan, denting the aged plate.
A lance stabbed into Lilith’s chest, and with a hiss, the darkling punctured the armour attacking her with both daggers. The suit with the crossbow fired at Kazdan, and blood sprayed from the assassin’s shoulder.

“Five wairs to the person brings me his head!” Zoltan growled, glaring at Herod. The sorcerer looked down at the turron implacably.
One of Edward’s quarrels struck the lance-bearing armour, while Kazdan ducked away from the armour attacking him. Lilith ducked a lance blow and jabbed into the suit with both daggers. Alyaa was struck and staggered back, spitting blood.
Zoltan tossed a healing potion to Kazdan, who said; “I appreciate that!”
“You’re no use to me dead!” Zoltan retorted. Kazdan opened the vial and swallowed the blue liquid within.
A quarrel flew at Lilith, and as she dodged this, the suit of armour opposite her struck her a solid blow with its lance. Alyaa struck the axe-wielding armour solidly with her own axe, and as the armour stumbled backwards, Zoltan struck it with his mace. The head of the mace clanged hollowly off of the armour.

Lilith staggered back from another lance blow and then, hissing in ethereal, dove forward, driving her dagger straight into the visor of the armour before her. A reverberating rattling sound came from the suit, and then a blinding sheet of pink light flew from the suit, striking Herod. The sorcerer grunted, and the air before the dais flashed pink. The suit collapsed, its helmet rolling across the ground when it fell. Lilith saw that the armour was empty.
Seeing this, Alyaa let out a cry and swung her axe at the armour in front of her, slashing a hole into the suit’s breastplate.
“This is the part where you fall down!” Zoltan hollered, striking the armour in the back once again.

The suit of armour with the crossbow fired, missing Kazdan as the assassin charged towards the suit and swung at it with his sabre. The armour lifted its crossbow up to block the attack, then swung the crossbow at Kazdan.
Alyaa stumbled away from the suit with the battle-axe, downing a blue potion. The sword-wielding armour stalked towards Alyaa, who cast the empty vial away with a hiss and struck the armour with her axe. The armour turned from the hit, only to receive a heavy blow from Zoltan’s mace. Unnatural pink light began to leak from the armour’s dented helmet. Spying this, Lilith leaped nimbly forward and jabber her dagger into the helmet’s opening. The armour crumpled to the ground, pink light flashing across to Herod.
The suit of armour with the crossbow staggered away from Kazdan and fired at the assassin, a shot which narrowly missed. Kazdan dodged forward, striking at the armour and narrowly missing.

Seeing most of the armours go down, Zoltan levelled his crossbow at Herod. The sorcerer scowled down at him, and the jewel at the end of his staff began to glow with the same baleful pink energy as Herod’s eyes.
Alyaa swung her axe into the breastplate of the sword-wielding armour. It staggered back, lifting its sword to strike, when suddenly, a quarrel burst from its helmet. It collapsed, pink energy streaming from it. Alyaa peered beyond with surprise to see Edward looking flabbergasted, crossbow in hand.
A quarrel suddenly flew past Alyaa, and she turned to see the last remaining suit of armour hastily reloading its crossbow. With a bellow, Alyaa charged forward and drove her axe deep into the suit’s helmet.

The area before the dais flashed blinding pink, and Zoltan unleashed a quarrel which struck the sorcerer in the shoulder. Herod let out a bellow of anger. Zoltan took a step forward and loosed another quarrel, which Herod managed to dodge.
Scowling, Herod levelled his staff at Zoltan and hissed; “You will never leave this place.”
A bolt of pink light flew from the pulsing crystal at the end of the staff and struck the turron, who let out a scream of agony. His head snapped back, and his body began to convulse.
While Herod was distracted, Kazdan leaped forward, swinging down with his sabre. The sorcerer exclaimed and pushed the assassin to one side. As he did, another of Zoltan’s quarrels flew past, clattering off the back of the throne.

“This will not do,” Herod hissed, glancing from one foe to the next. The sorcerer lifted his staff and three beams of energy shot from the jewel at its tip. These beams struck three separate points in the stone floor of the chamber, which began to break apart. Pale, rotten arms emerged from the dirt beneath the floor.
“Not again!” Kazdan cursed as a trio of zombies pulled themselves up from the ground.
One of the undead fiends shambled over to Edward, striking the former policeman with its bony hand. Edward launched himself forward, leaping onto the dais. A second zombie seized Zoltan, digging its sharp nails into the turron’s arms.
Lilith jabbed at Herod with both daggers. The sorcerer lithely dodged the blows, but could not avoid a heavy blow from Alyaa’s axe. Herod swung out blindly with his staff, which clanged against the wall.
“Never bring a stick to an axe fight,” Alyaa taunted.

While Herod tangled with Alyaa and Lilith, Edward seized the Orb from its plinth. One of the zombies attempted to clamber onto the dais, but it slipped and fell clumsily to the floor. One of the zombie’s clawed at Kazdan, while the other continued to grab for Edward. The former policeman looked down at the zombie warily, slipping the Orb into his bag.
Lilith stabbed a dagger into Herod’s shoulder and another into his side. Dark blood began to seep through the sorcerer’s cloak, and he snarled, his eyes glowing brighter than ever. He struck Lilith with the staff, and the darkling staggered back, blood trickling from her lip. Herod smiled viciously, and with a hiss of rage and pain, Lilith drove her dagger forward. It sunk into Herod’s cheek, just below the eye, and the sorcerer let out a silent shriek of pain. Cerise light exploded from the sorcerer’s eyes and all three zombies fell to the floor, inert corpses once more. Lilith stepped back, pulling back her dagger, and the sorcerer slumped in his throne.

Lilith walked away from the throne, swigging a blue potion. Zoltan quickly strapped his crossbow to his belt and marched over to the throne, snatching up Herod’s hat and shoving it brusquely into his pack.
Edward looked around in surprise as the group immediately set about pulling the fallen suits of armour apart. Grinning greedily, Alyaa began tried out a set of dented steel pauldrons, then slipped on a set of vambraces. Lilith stripped the gorget from one suit, and took its lance, while Zoltan picked up the battle-axe, smiled and handed it to Alyaa. Edward shrugged and picked up the nearest suit’s crossbow.
Zoltan and Kazdan then set about stripping Herod’s corpse. Kazdan found a small leather pouch containing coloured sand, herbs, bits of fur, small fragments of bone and a couple of scraps of metal. Zoltan, meanwhile, discovered a gold pendant around the sorcerer’s neck, which he placed in his pack.

Kazdan then picked up Herod’s staff and inspected it. It seemed to be made of gold, finely crafted and inlaid with jewels. The assassin examined it for a moment, then slipped it into his pack.
As Zoltan looked up, he noticed a small depression in the thick stone wall behind the black throne. Zoltan alerted the group to this entrance, and Kazdan moved to the side of the throne to inspect the indentation in the wall.
“I saw it first,” Zoltan said quickly. “I lay claim to whatever’s behind it. If it’s treasure.”
Lilith joined Kazdan and pushed on the square of stone behind the throne and with a crunch it moved inwards. The darkling hissed and instinctively hopped back, but with a grinding rumble, the doorway slid to one side. Lilith ducked behind the throne and peered into the entryway, seeing a staircase lost in the deep shadows beyond.
“There’s stairs,” Lilith told Zoltan in ethereal.
“Where do they go?” the merchant asked.
“They go up,” Lilith replied.
The darkling began making her way cautiously up the stairs, coming across a hallway with four doors leading off from it. Lilith opened the nearest door, finding a huge, lavishly-decorated bedroom. A cursory search revealed a bundle of crossbow bolts, a golden goblet and a beautifully crafted breastplate. The door across revealed another, similarly furnished bedroom.

“Where’s she gone?” Zoltan asked when Lilith did not return after several minutes. “Do you think she died?” The turron made his way up a couple of steps and yelled; “Lilith? Are you alright?”
“Fine,” the darkling called down.
“What’s up there?” Zoltan cried.
Lilith padded back down the stairs and said; “There’s no threat that I can find up there, if you’d like to look yourself.” Saying nothing, Lilith held out the breastplate to Alyaa, who snatched it without thanks.
Zoltan began to head up the stairs, searching the remainder of the bedrooms, finding a vial of purple liquid and a moleskin bag full of gold coins.

Edward, meanwhile, inspected the Orb of Hagoph, which had become inert just as the Orb of Tephilin had when he had found the blue glass globe. Setting these two aside, he inspected the Orb of Gredi, which glimmered slightly when held vaguely northeast.
The party decided to head up to the bedrooms to rest. Alyaa volunteered to stand watch, and the group split up to spend the night in the opulent bedrooms of Castle Baphette.

The next morning, the group awoke, and after eating a quick breakfast, headed out of the castle. There was brief discussion about returning to Fedelha, but Edward pointed out on his map that Quarnse was more or less the same distance away, and the party decided to press on.
The cemetary was quiet in the early morning, with nary a movement. There was much disrupted earth, however, and the festering and largely bifurcated bodies of zombies still littered the graveyard.
The party left through the one gate into the cemetary and made their way back into the mountains. The descent was relatively easy, with but a few sharp drops which required a deft leap down.
As the party reached the base of the mountains, Kazdan again spied a shadowy figure darting from view behind them, further up the foothills. Kazdan informed the party, but they elected to carry on, deeming capture of the figure unlikely.

The hills and crags of the Fegedahn mountains slowly gave way to flatland, though it was still quite rocky and bare. The party travelled for four hours, passing into the province of Spirilidon, and then took a break, before continuing on.
The evening was darkening by the time the party reached the outskirts of Quarnse. The building seemed composed largely of wooden buildings, the closes being a huge, three-storey house of exquisite craftsmanship. Outside the house was a pen which contained a couple of grazing gealas.

Standing at the edge of the pen, with one foot on the fence as he hammered in a wooden post, was a tall white-haired man in a dusty brown coat.
“Hello there,” Kazdan called.
“Howdy,” said the man, turning and regarding the party with a smile. “What can I do for you?”
“Could you direct us in the general direction of a good inn,” Kazdan inquired, “and a good merchant, please?”
“Sure thing, traveller,” the man said, setting down his mallet and walking over to the party. “If you’re looking for vegetables, I can sell you them. If you’re looking for an inn, or… perhaps a little entertainment, there’s The Sapphire Saloon. If you’re after meat, I suppose you can go and visit Yrl Wystyrn. He’s… a bastard. But he’s got plenty of tann, and I’m sure he’d sell you some.”
“Is there a general store in town?” Zoltan queried.
“You can buy general supplies from Muhroon Darkhart,” the white-haired man suggested.
“Is there a magic store in town?” Kazdan asked hopefully.
The white-haired man narrowed his eyes and said; “I think you’ve got the wrong town, pard.”

“So where you come from?” the man asked.
Tephilin, originally,” Kazdan said. “But we’ve come from Shedhmi.”
“Shedhmi?” the man said. “You’re a long way from home.”
“Yeah,” Edward said with a snort.
“What brings you down our way?”
“Travelling trade,” Zoltan offered. “That kind of thing.”
“If you want to buy any vegetables,” the man ventured with a grin, “I’m your man. A.A. Pickett’s the name.” No one answered Pickett’s offer, and after a moment, he looked down with a resigned smile. “If you want, I can feed you. I’m just about to put dinner up for the family. We always welcome guests.”
“Yes,” Zoltan said. “We’ll certainly take you up on your offer, good ser.”
“If you want to head into town, have a look around and pop back in about an hour, it’ll be on the table.”

The party walked along the thoroughfare of the town, approaching a large wooden stall manned by a tall, balding blonde man. As the group approached, the merchant looked them over with piercing blue eyes. “Ah. Visitors.”
“We are indeed,” Kazdan said.
“We’ve come to trade at your stall,” Zoltan added.
“Looking to buy?” the man the group took to be Muhroon Darkhart asked. “Looking to sell?”
“Bit of both,” Zoltan said.
“Sell first then,” Darkhart grunted. “What have you got for me?”
“Magic staff,” Kazdan said eagerly, producing the rod. “How much would you give me for that?”
Darkhart took the staff and looked it over. “Fancy trinket. I’ll give you 500 wairs for it.”
“No thanks,” Kazdan said abruptly. “My apologies.”
“Keep hold of it, then,” Darkhart said brusquely, pushing the staff back over to Kazdan.

Lilith approached the stall and held up the lance, speaking briefly in ethereal. Darkhart glare down at her and said; “I’ll offer you a hundred wairs for the lance.”
Lilith glanced over at Zoltan, who nodded imperceptibly. The darkling then turned to the merchant, who snatched the staff and tossed Lilith a small bag of coin.
Edward asked a price for his light crossbow, for which Darkhart offered 30 wairs.
“35?” Edward prodded.
“30,” snapped Darkhart. “Take it or leave it.”
“32,” Edward offered.
Darkhart turned away without another word.

Lilith then produced the goblet she had found in Castle Baphette. Darkhart’s azure eyes lit up at this, and he took it from her, inspecting the cup closely.
“I like that,” he muttered. “I’ll offer you 500 wairs for it.”
Lilith nodded, and Darkhart eagerly took the goblet from her. Zoltan began to pull Herod’s pendant from his bag. Spying the twinkle of more gold, Darkhart smiled.
After inspecting the chain, Darkhart offered Zoltan 150 wairs, which Zoltan happily accepted. When the ornate breastplate made an appearance, Darkhart’s eyes practically bugged out of his head.
“Where in Yokurgin did you get all this?” he wheezed. When no one replied, Darkhart said in a low, dangerous voice; “If this is stolen, I’m not sure I want to take this.”
“It’s not stolen,” Alyaa said quickly.
“What’s your game?” Darkhart asked, his eyes narrowed.
“I think the owner of this stuff has been dead for quite some time,” Zoltan insisted.

Darkhart was quiet for a long moment. Then, he said; “Alright. But I don’t won’t any trouble from the military, you understand?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Zoltan chuckled slyly. “I doubt the military even know this exists, and if they did, they’d have no way of tracing it back to anyone.”
Darkhart frowned at Zoltan, then gave the breastplate a quick look over, tapping over it in several places. “800 wairs.” The exchange was quickly made. “Now, were you just planning on taking all my money, or did you want to give me some of yours?”
“What have you got, ser?” inquired Zoltan.
“What are you looking for?” countered Darkhart.

“Have you got a great axe?” Alyaa asked.
Darkhart turned and gestured to a huge axe hanging at the back of his stall. “1,000 wairs.”
“I’ve got a sword, a battleaxe and a chain vest I can trade,” Alyaa offered.
Darkhart nodded, and looked over the gear as Alyaa handed it to him. “Okay, I’ll swap you the great axe for all of this.”
“Done!” Alyaa exclaimed, eagerly grabbing the great axe as Darkhart handed it to her. Zoltan next offered to trade in his crossbow for a heavier weapon. Darkhart said he would take the crossbow and 550 wairs.
“450,” Zoltan offered . “You know that’s a reasonable amount.”
“You’ll give me 550,” Darkhart said, “or you’ll take your medium crossbow and leave.”
“I’m perfectly fine with doing that,” Zoltan countered, “but I could give it to you and 500, to take that old thing away.”
“Fine,” Darkhart snarled. “500 and the crossbow. Now get out of my sight.”

Lilith peeled away from the group as they left Darkhart’s stall, promising to meet up with them soon.
The group carried on up the thoroughfare, and Edward noticed another wanted poster bearing Galian Sial’s likeness. Intrigued, Edward split off from the group, vowing to meet them at the saloon.
He asked a passerby, a tall man with silvery hair and a thick moustache, if there was a military outpost in the town, but was told the nearest was Fort Pelamence.
“After the fugitive, are you?” the man asked.
“Sure am,” Edward replied.
“Think you’re gonna collect the reward?” the man said with a chuckle.
“Not too worried about the reward. Just… someone that dangerous needs capturing.”
The man laughed again. “Well, that’s a mighty fine attitude you’ve got there! But trust me, you’re not the only one looking for him.”
“Why, who else is looking for him?”
“Everyone who’s anyone is looking for him.”

The man squinted at Edward. “Not from around here are you?”
“No,” Edward admitted. “No I’m not.”
“Where you coming from?” the moustached man asked.
The man frowned cynically at Edward. “Don’t look like a Shedhmi type to me.”
“Well, that’s as close as you’re gonna understand.”
“So, what’s your name?”
“Edward.” The man held out a hand. “Yrl Wystyrn. Pleased to meet you.”
“Good to meet you,” Edward replied, shaking the man’s hand.

“Staying in town long?” Wystyrn asked.
“Probably not too long,” Edward said. “A day, maybe.”
“Well, if you’re here for a night,” Wystyrn said, “you should head over to The Sapphire Saloon. It’s a good place to drink, stay and fuck.”
“I’ll do one out of the three,” Edward said dryly.
Wystyrn grinned widely. “And I bet I don’t need to guess which one it is.”
“You ‘d be surprised, my friend.”
“Queer, are you?”
“I’m a happily married man, I’ll have you know.”
“A married fuckin’ man? Well, you’re gonna fit right in here. There’s only one happily married man in this town.”
“And that would be?”
“A.A. Pickett. He sits there in his Homber Lodge like he’s lord of all fuckin’ creation.”
“He seemed nice to me.”
“Seemed nice? You obviously don’t know the man.”
“He offered me a free meal.”
“Oh, yeah. He’s got the hospitality. But you see how you feel after you’ve dined with him.
“I will.”
“Beware of that man, pard. He may not be what you expect.”
“I’ll take your warning.”
“Well. Enjoy your… whatever it is you’re gonna do at The Sapphire. And watch out for Pickett. Don’t trust that fucker.”

The rest of the party headed over to the rather extravagant-looking Sapphire Saloon. The front was all masterfully carved wood, illuminated by lanterns hooded with patterned red cloth. The door stood open, and a fragrance of flowers, perfume, alcohol and sweat drifted out.
Inside, the bar was crowded with people. Someone was hammering discordantly on a piano, and the dim lighting and stifling heat made the sound seem even louder. Women in gossamer gowns and tight dresses milled about the place, some leading men and women by the hand. There were also a couple of men in full plate armour, bearing the flag of Marsheusis on their breast.
As the group took in their surroundings, a beautiful woman with pretty tattoos and brown hair piled atop her head slinked over.

“Well, hello strangers,” said she. “What’s your pleasure?” Alyaa nodded to the bar, and without waiting for a response, walked over. The woman smiled. “I take it she’s not here for the ladies.”
“No,” Zoltan said softly. “I don’t suppose so. Neither am I.”
Blushing, the turron shuffled off after Alyaa. The brunette woman turned to Kazdan and said; “What about you?”
“I’d be honoured,” Kazdan said with an easy grin, “but my travels have left me a little short of pocket. I’ll have to catch you on my return journey.”
“Well,” the woman said brightly, “we cater to all tastes here. Drink, food. There’s a place to stay and, if you do feel like some entertainment, just come and find me. Angele Lengdon’s my name, and I can provide you with whatever it is that you are craving.”
Zoltan ordered a bottle of wine while Kazdan and Alyaa purchased flagons of ale. Alyaa inquired after a room, and was told she could have a small single room for 5 wairs.

After a while, the party, minus Alyaa, reconvened at Pickett’s large house. The evening had grown dark, and the Homber Lodge was illuminated warmly from within.
Zoltan knocked on the door, and momentarily, a small woman of at least fifty opened the door. Warmth and light spilled out, and the woman smiled kindly.
“You must be A.A’s guests,” she said. “Come on in.”
The woman led the group into a cavernous dining room. Pickett was sat at the head of a large round table, at which were also seated three children, two boys and a girl.
Pickett smiled and stood up as the party entered. “So glad you could make it. Have you had a look around town?”
“Certainly,” said Zoltan, producing the bottle of wine with a smile. “I’ve bought some wine.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Pickett said. “Please, be seated.”

“What do you think to the town?” Pickett asked as everyone sat down.
“It’s got a quaint charm,” Kazdan said politely.
“Quaint,” Pickett said with a smile. “I like that. What can I get you to drink? Are we having our friend’s wine?”
“It would be churlish not to,” Zoltan said, popping the cork with a grin. Edward asked for a glass of water, which Pickett’s wife promptly fetched him. The children drank milk, and watched the newcomers eagerly.
“So,” Pickett said. “Are you staying in town.”
“Well,” Edward mumbled. “We have nowhere to stay.”
“You’re welcome to stay here,” Pickett said. “Plenty of space.”
“Thank you. Very kind of you.”

“I don’t mean to cause you offence,” Pickett said, looking around at his guests, “but it’s not often I see a group of such… mixed backgrounds, travelling together.”
“Strange times make for strange companions,” Zoltan said amiably.
“That’s true,” Pickett said, looking down wistfully. “The war has brought people together who never usually would have come together. I was in the King’s military for many years. Managed to get out, finally. Got myself a home and a family. I don’t want to go back to those days. Stationed overseas for months at a time. I like the life I’ve got now. This war encroaching upon us… it’s a terrible thing.”
Pickett’s wife came in, serving up a gealas roast, mixed vegetables (including taffets) and thick gravy. The group ate happily, sharing rich conversation. Pickett talked at length about the war, and noted his respect for the King for not instigating a conscription.

“So,” Pickett said to Edward as he ate. “Did you visit Wystyrn? Did you buy his wares?”
“I’ve met him,” Edward said with a half-smile. “I didn’t buy.”
Pickett smiled. “What did you think of him?”
“I did not like the man,” Edward said flatly.
“Wise man. He’s got an attitude, that one.”
“He does.”
When the meat was done with, Pickett’s served up a creamy dessert, and provided a bottle of wine when Zoltan’s was empty.

When he finished his meal, Pickett pushed his chair back from the table and said; “Anyone care to join me for a smoke?”
“I’d very much like to join you for a smoke, ser,” Kazdan answered.
“Sure,” Zoltan said. “Why not?”
“Fine,” Edward said.
Pickett told his wife to put the children to bed and led the three men into the back yard. The gealas were shifting about listlessly in their pen, illuminated by a couple of lanterns hanging from iron brackets on the house. Pickett planted one heavy boot on the fence, pulled out a pouch and rolled four cigarettes, three of which he handed to Kazdan, Zoltan and Edward. He lit the cigarettes with a stubby, foul-smelling match, then looked wistfully out over his farm.
“It’s a good life here,” he muttered.
Zoltan asked how business was, and Pickett explained that he sold meat and milk to both locals and travellers. He mentioned that turrons from Raukath sometimes visited Quarnse, which seemed to interest Zoltan.

Edward then asked Pickett if he knew anything of Galian Sial.
“Of course, I’ve seen the poster,” Pickett mused, “but I can’t say I know where he is. If I did, I would have claimed the reward for myself.” The rancher chuckled, and Zoltan laughed along with him.
After a moment, Edward quietly asked if Pickett recognised the name Sexton.
“Sexton?” Pickett mumbled. “Sexton. Now that you mention it, it does ring a bell. A family, or a group of people at least… I think the last name was Sexton… passed through Quarnse… must have been round about three years ago.”
“Where did they go?” Zoltan inquired.
“They headed in the direction of Fort Pelamence. I don’t know what their destination was.”
“Good enough,” Edward said earnestly. “We’re heading in a similar direction.
“It would have been just before The Sapphire started offering women,” Pickett muttered, “so it would have been around three years ago.”
“How long has The Sapphire been there?” asked Zoltan.
“Maybe ten years,” Pickett said, “but it was just an inn until Angele started taking in girls that didn’t really have anywhere else to go. She always offers them the bar before they take up other services. She’s a good girl.” Pickett tossed his cigarette into the trough before him. “I think I’m gonna retire. I’ll show you to the guest rooms, if you like.”
“Thank you kindly,” Zoltan replied.
Picket led the group back into the house and up onto the third floor. There, they were shown into four spacious, well furnished rooms.

The next morning, Pickett’s wife prepared a hearty breakfast of oats.
“Will you be staying another night,” asked Pickett, “or will you be heading off?”
“Thank you very kindly for the offer,” Zoltan said, “but I think we’d best be on our way.”
“Of course,” Pickett said. “Where are you headed, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Fort Pelamence,” Zoltan replied.
“Well, if you ever find your way down here again, swing by.”
“I’m sure we will,” Edward said with a smile.
“And make sure you avoid that fool Wystyrn.”

The party walked down Quarnse’s main thoroughfare towards The Sapphire. The sun was already beating down mercilessly, and Edward soon felt the need to take off his coat. Lilith also removed her cloak, but kept the hood of her tunic up.
After collecting Alyaa, the party consulted Edward’s map, and decided to head south to Raukath, and then onto the Fort. It was a long way around, but the most direct route took them through Faerdaen forest, also known as the Forest of Man-Eating Flowers, an idea Zoltan was not keen on.
The party headed out of Quarnse, and down the long, largely straight road to Raukath. Bare rock became grass, and trees began to sprout up along the edge of the road.

After six hours or so of walking, Kazdan and Lilith spied the River Wethank up ahead. The road crossed the river on a narrow bridge, and beyond that were the magnificent buildings of Raukath.
A party of three turrons, all dressed in the dark red doublets of the Dabhiz Association, were crossing the bridge towards the party. Each wore a heavy-looking backpack.
Lilith gestured to Zoltan, and said; “It’s others like you.”
One of the turrons had scruffy brown hair and a moustache. The second was white-haired, while the third was blonde and even shorter than the rest.
“Hullo,” Zoltan called out in turron.
“Good afternoon,” returned the brown haired fellow.
“Fine day,” Zoltan said.
“It is,” said the brunette. “Not a good day for mining. Too hot, working in this weather.”
“Fine for travelling and trading.”
“Absolutely,” laughed the white-haired man. “I’m right there with you. We’re just headed up to Quarnse to see if we can do a bit of trade.”
“We’re likewise. Opposite direction.”

“Heading to Raukath, eh?” said the brunette turron.
“Yes,” replied Zoltan.
“What is it you’re looking to trade?”
“Whatever there might be.”
“Been in town recently?” piped up the blonde.
“Afraid not,” Zoltan said. “Not for a while.”
“Was Mairz the community leader when you were here last?”
“I take it you’ve not heard what’s been going on with him, then?”
“His daughter’s been kidnapped, and he’s offering a rather substantial reward. I wondered if that was the… trade… you were interested in.”

Anul!” hissed the brunette, giving the short turron a shove. “That’s enough. Let the people go about their business.”
“I’m just telling the man!” Anul countered. “He’s going into town, he deserved to have full disclosure.”
“Thank you very much for your consideration,” said an amused Zoltan.
“It would be worth seeing Mairz,” offered the white-haired gent. “I see that you’ve got some rather heavily-armoured and heavily armed companions. They’ll always serve you well in something of this nature.
“Yes,” Zoltan agreed. “Absolutely.”
“It is a very large reward he’s offering,” Anul said with a sly grin.

When the three turrons went on their way, Zoltan hastily explained the situation to his companions.
“There’s a big reward,” he emphasized. “Let’s look into it.”
“Hell yeah!” Alyaa exclaimed.
The party quickly crossed the bridge and headed into the bustling town. The place was swarming with turrons, with only a few humans moving through the crowded streets.
“Jeez,” Alyaa grumbled as the party moved through the throng. “I’m afraid I’m gonna step in someone.”
Edward noticed a couple of display boards as he walked, both of them bearing wanted posters for Galian Sial. Zoltan picked his way over to one of the boards and tore down a copy of the poster.
As he re-joined the group, Zoltan mentioned that the Dabhiz Association was based near the centre of town, and that was where the party headed.

After a short while, the group began to notice signposts bearing a red symbol of crossing lines and circles which Zoltan identified as the mark of the Dabhiz Association, and moments later found themselves in a spacious plaza. In the centre of the square was a huge green marquee. From each corner of the pavilion hung an engraving of the Association’s logo.
Outside the tent was a tall turron wearing light armour over the Association’s quilted red doublet. One side of the turron’s face was a ruin of scars, and his right eye was milky white and blind. He stood straight, his arms folded, and when the group approached, he regarded them coolly.
“Hello,” said Zoltan in turron.
“Business?” the scarred turron asked.
“We’re looking to inquire about the kidnapping,” Zoltan answered.
“Wait here,” instructed the taller man, who then disappeared into the pavilion.
The party waited for a moment, before a regal-looking turron with a white ponytail and a heavy golden chain stepped out, the armoured man by his side.
“You have news of my daughter?” asked Mairz Scortan, looking hopefully about the party.
“Not news, I’m afraid,” Zoltan said regretfully, “but we’re looking for more information. We might be able to help you out in this matter.”
“Please,” Scortan said, gesturing to the marquee. “Come inside.”

Inside the pavilion were several turrons in red doublets. Maps and tapestries hung from the walls, and in the middle of the marquee was a large table, where the party were seated.
“So, what did you want to know?” Scortan asked as the armoured turron brought him a cup of root tea.
“Everything,” Zoltan said. “Everything you know that might help us in recovering your lost daughter, ser.”
Scortan rubbed both hands over his face and sighed deeply. “Three days ago, I was here working on business. Kemrin was working on her stall, selling. Bandits came through the town, took several townsfolk including her. Some of the more… colourful rumours I’ve heard I can only hope aren’t true. Cannibalism and the like.”
Lilith seemed to tense up at this. Zoltan glanced at the darkling, then back at Scortan. “Any idea where these bandits came from?”
“I’ve no idea. I believe they came from the west. I know they headed east, but… I’ve had scouts out looking. Nothing conclusive.”

“Were the bandits human mostly?”
“Human, yes. They were led by twins, I do believe. Hulking, ginger beasts.”
Kazdan mentioned that he had heard of men matching the description on his travels, Feith and Atoth Indala, who were said to be violent and merciless. He, too, had heard talk of cannibalism.
Scortan paled at this. “Do you know… where they would be? Do you know where they’re based?”
“I’m not entirely sure,” Kazdan admitted.
“If you have any information that can help, or even if you could look for her, that would, of course, be greatly appreciated. She’s… she’s my world.”
“We can’t promise,” Zoltan said, “but we’ll scour every corner of the province. We’ll do what we can to keep our eyes and ears out for everything.”
“I greatly appreciate that. Of course, I will offer a reward if you bring her back.”
“That’s… most generous of you.”

The scarred man, who Mairz called Serban, led the group out of the tent and resumed his vigil.
Before the party left, he said; “You’d better not have been lying. The man loves his daughter, and if anything should happen to her, or if she’s dead already… I dread to think what it would do to him.”
“Well, hopefully, we’ll bring her back,” Zoltan said.
Serban studied the party for a moment, then sighed. “I can tell you mean it. If I were you, I’d go and visit Hartak Vale, the alchemist. He’ll probably be able to offer some improvement to your weapons and armour, if you’re really going to go after these people.”
“Sounds good,” Zoltan said with a nod.

The group headed over to a small, deep purple pavilion, also bearing the mark of the Dabhiz Association. Inside, they found a balding turron with a pinched face and large gobbles, crouched over a table and furiously working a mortar and pestle.
As the group entered, the alchemist looked up with a sly smile and asked; “How can I help?”
“This magic staff,” Kazdan said, holding out the item in question, “and this spell pouch of mine. How much would you buy them for?”
Zoltan glowered at Kazdan, but Vale snatched the staff with a greedy grin.
“Exquisite!” he gasped. “Where did you find this?”
“You’ll find certain things,” Kazdan said carefully, “if you know where to look.”
The alchemist pulled off his goggles with a snort. “Don’t bullshit me. I’m not the law. Where did you get it.”
“Castle Baphette,” Kazdan admitted.
“Could this be… an heirloom of the royal family?”

Vale quickly dropped the staff into an open chest behind him and tossed a weighty bag of coin at Kazdan.
“How much is in this, ser?” the assassin asked. But the alchemist had gone back to grinding, and either did not hear or ignored Kazdan’s question. Zoltan gave the bag a quick feel and whispered that it probably contained around 2,000 wairs. Kazdan grinned and slipped the bag into his pack.
“Did you come with any more items of that nature?” Vale asked distractedly.
“I’m afraid not,” Zoltan admitted.
“Well,” Vale said, looking up with a grin. “I still appreciate what you brought me.”
“Could you upgrade anything I have here?” Kazdan queried. “My sabre? This armour?”
“Serban send you over?”
“Yes,” Kazdan said.
“You’re here to find Kemrin?”

“That’s good,” Vale said. “That’s good. Mairz has just not been the same since she was taken. What I will say is head out immediately after the bandits. Any weapons you can leave behind I will improve. When you come back, with or without her, I’ll give you them back. You bring her back, it’ll be free of charge. How’s that sound?”
“We can’t go out without weapons,” Zoltan said.
“Of course not,” Vale snorted. “I’ll offer you replacement weapons from my stock.”
The party handed over what weapons they could spare, and Vale handed them substitutes of slightly poorer quality and upkeep.
“I’m gonna have fun here,” Vale said, rubbing his hands together. “Now go with all haste, and I wish you the best of luck on your journey.”
“Have you heard any information?” Zoltan asked. “Any rumours? Any other people come to you and said where they were headed?”
“Yes, yes,” Vale said impatiently. “People have come, people have come wanting that reward.”
“Where have they gone?”
“They head east, generally, along the coast. I do believe that’s the path the bandits took. I, myself, don’t know. Just bring her back.”



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