Lilith pushed open the door before her and peered into the room beyond…
The darkling saw a spacious bedroom, which, unlike every other room in Kendraghora Abbey, was immaculately clean and free of dust, showing no signs of degradation or dilapidation. A tall wooden wardrobe, varnished to a fine shine, stood against the far wall, and a short dresser sat just by the door.
Lilith pushed the door open a little more and stepped around it. Directly in front of her was a long table surrounded by six chairs. In each of these places was what appeared to be a crystal wine glass, and sitting in the centre of the table was a decanter of red wine. In one of the places was seated a handsome man in a white suit. Beyond the table was a fireplace, two wardrobes, an alcove and a fine four-poster bed.
“No need to creep around,” said the man in a friendly voice. “Please, come in.”
Uncertainly, Lilith stepped towards the table, gesturing to the rest of the party. Kazdan followed the darkling.
“Hello, my friend,” said the white-suited man as Kazdan stepped inside. “Please, the rest of you, do come in.” Zoltan, Edward and Alyaa stepped into the room. “Have a seat, if you wish. Or stand.”
Kazdan, Edward and Zoltan took seats at the table, while Alyaa stood with her arms folded.
“Would any of you care for a drink?” the man asked.
“A drink of what?” Zoltan asked suspiciously.
“It’s not usually my drink of choice,” Kazdan said, eyeing the decanter, “but I’ll give it a try.”
Smiling, the man removed the decanter’s silver stopper and sniffed the liquid within. He smiled, then poured Kazdan a glass.
“Anyone else?” the man offered. When no one replied, the man said; “Very well,” and raised his glass to Kazdan, before drinking from his own glass.
“What brings you to Kendraghora Abbey?” the man asked.
“Fortune,” Zoltan said after a long pause. “The fickle fingers of fate and what have you.”
“I’m afraid I don’t think you’ll find much in the way of fortune here,” the handsome man said, smiling. “I think everything of value was stripped, taken or destroyed a long, long time ago.”
“Oh, I have a knack for finding value in everything,” Zoltan said with a lopsided grin.
“Well, by all means, look around the place. Just don’t hold out too much hope.”
“And what about you? What brings you here?”
“I live here.”
“Why here in particular?”
“I was… drawn to this place. It may sound strange to you, but there was just something compelling about this place, and I just felt the need to come here.”
“And was this fine wine also drawn here by some mysterious force?”
“I’m not really sure how things work here, my friend. You obviously came up the staircase, so you saw its strange dimensions.”
“It’s a very strange place,” the man went on. “Sometimes, doors lead to one room one day and another the next. Sometimes there are more doors. Sometimes things are here and other times they are not. I feel that one day, it may be an entirely different year to another. The state of disrepair in this place changes. Yet here I remain. There is something that tells me I should stay here.”
Kazdan finished the last of his wine, and with a gracious smile, the man poured some more.
“Keep it coming,” Kazdan said gratefully.
“I’m afraid I don’t have much to offer in the way of food,” the man said sorrowfully. “But if you would like, I have a few bits and pieces that I could put together for you.”
“Oh, that’s alright,” Zoltan said quickly. “Don’t trouble yourself.”
“Well,” said the man, “it certainly is very nice to have company. It’s been a while since anyone came around.”
“When was the last time anyone came around?” Kazdan queried. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
The man ran a hand through his silky chestnut hair. “It’s really hard for me to say. As I mentioned, time is somewhat obscure here, and nonlinear. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it has been at least a year, but it could be a matter of weeks or it could be a decade.”
“You say that the doors and the rooms here change all the time?” Zoltan asked. “How did you happen across this room? What if you left and wanted to come back, and it had gone?”
“I would find somewhere else,” the man said forlornly. “This abbey is always presenting new and interesting places to explore.”
“What if you need the bathroom urgently?”
The man turned away, seemingly uncomfortable with Zoltan’s question. “That is… something that you handle as it comes up, I suppose.”
“When was the last time you went outside?” Edward asked.
The man turned to Edward with a smile. “Again, it’s hard to judge. I do believe it was only a couple of days ago. But the other thing about this place is that when you look out of the window, it’s not always the sky you see.”
“What else have you seen outside?”
“What else have I seen? I have seen visions, I have seen great and terrible things. Sometimes the window looks into another room, sometimes the window is not there at all.”
At this, Kazdan and Lilith headed to the windows either side of the fireplace. Kazdan peered out of the left-hand window, seeing the sky, the tips of the black hills and the grasslands beyond. Lilith saw herself.
Shrugging, Kazdan sat back at the table, pouring himself another drink. Edward headed over to the right-hand window, seeing the view he expected to see. Looking somewhat disturbed, Lilith moved to the other window, seeing only the landscape outside the abbey.
“The rooms you’ve seen,” Zoltan asked of the white-suited man, “are they all empty and in a state of disrepair?”
“It varies from time to time,” the man replied. “Largely, yes. They appear as you would expect them to appear in this building which has been abandoned for so many years. They’re stripped of all of worth. Paper and other such things are in an appropriate state of decomposition. Dust and dead animals and all the other things you would think to see. But from time to time, the room will appear almost as if the family were still living here.”
“Have you seen any people? Any creatures?”
“Yes, I have seen figures. But… I have never managed to approach or speak to any of them.”
“What is your name?”
“I am called Kane.”
Edward felt a stirring of unease at the name, which sounded awfully familiar, but he could not quite place it.
“What did you do,” queried Kazdan, “before you were here?”
Kane seemed to think deeply. “I can’t say I truly remember. It feels almost as if I were born and lived here all my life.”
“You haven’t seen any useless-looking little red balls lying around, have you?” Edward asked.
The man narrowed his eyes at Edward. “What do you mean?”
“Spheres. Made of glass.”
“No. Not something I can say I have seen here.”
“How did you know we were coming?” Kazdan asked.
“It’s one of the effects of this building, I think. Sometimes, I get a sense that someone else is here. This is the first time in recent memory when that sense has actually proven true.”
“Anything else you can sense right now?”
Kane considered this for a moment. “I sense… something. Something of power.” The brunette glanced around the room, suddenly seeming nervous. “Who are you? Why are you here, really?”
Zoltan glanced over at Edward, who made a small hand gesture. Kazdan, who observed this, nodded gently.
Zoltan turned to Kane, and said; “We’re looking for a particular magic item which we believe may have been here at some point.”
“And what made you think that?” queried Kane.
“We were drawn to the place,” Zoltan answered.
Kane smirked. “Well, I can obviously understand that urge. But I’ve never found anything of any magical significance, at least that I know of.”
“Well,” said Zoltan, brushing down the front of his tunic. “I suppose we’ll just go and have a poke around. See if we can find anything.”
“By all means,” said Kane, waving a hand towards the door. “Please, do return, if you wish. It is so nice to have company after so long.”
As the party banded together in preparation to leave, Lilith cast another glance out of the window. This time, she saw only sky, as if they were in a tower much higher than they should be.
The party stepped out into the hallway, with Alyaa holding the door to the room ajar. Edward produced the Orb, which still pointed to the room which Kane was in. Sighing, Zoltan stepped back into the room and continued to quiz the man on the nature of the abbey. Kazdan and Edward conversed quietly in the corridor for a moment, before Edward reluctantly returned to the bedroom and showed the Orb to Kane.
The man looked at the Orb with a mixture of awe and nervousness. Edward asked; “Have you ever seen anything that looks like this?”
“Never in my life,” breathed Kane.
“You see, somewhat unnerved by it,” Zoltan observed.
“No,” Kane replied weakly. “No.”
Edward took a step towards Kane, and the image grew slightly more vivid. Kane recoiled slightly in his chair. No longer smiling, Kane looked from one member of the party to another.
After observing the Orb for a moment, Lilith began to creep towards the bed in the corner of the room. Kane glared at her and snapped; “Where are you going?” Lilith gestured over to the bed. “No, I’m sorry.”
“Could you step over there?” Zoltan asked politely.
“No,” Kane replied firmly. “Why would I do that?” Edward again moved the Orb towards Kane, who shied back further. “Stop that. I don’t like that thing. Put it away.”
“I will… literally be two seconds,” Edward said lamely.
“No,” Kane said. “Please. I’m not very comfortable with this, and I think I’m going to have to ask you to leave.
“What’s with the sudden change of attitude?” asked Zoltan.
“I don’t like that thing,” Kane muttered. “I’m not sure how magical artefacts are going to work in a place like this. It could be very dangerous. I’m perfectly happy here, I don’t want anything to jeopardise that. Please, please leave.”
“Okay, we’ll leave. But this magical Orb of ours happens to point to the thing we’re after, and it’s currently pointing at your bed.”
“There’s nothing in my bed!”
“You won’t mind if we take a very quick look, then?”
“I do,” snapped Kane, becoming increasingly agitated. “Please, I am asking politely. Please just leave.”
“Please,” Zoltan said softly, “you’ve been very nice to us and we really, really need to have a look at that bed.”
“No,” Kane said. “I’m sorry, this is just not going to happen. Now please leave.”
“It will only take a minute or so, and then we will be out of your hair.”
“Leave!” Kane bellowed.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Zoltan sighed. “I’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this. I hope my companions aren‘t too rough on you.”
Lilith grabbed at Kane, seizing his arms and holding them tightly. The man in the white suit struggled, but to no avail.
“Edward!” Kazdan exclaimed. “Look in the man’s bed and let’s get out of here!”
Zoltan hurried over to the bed and tore the bed clothes off, letting out a triumphant cry. Edward pulled a clear glass orb from the bed and held it up. No matter how hard he concentrated, however, he could see no image within it.
“What’s that, then?” Zoltan said to Kane.
“Well, what of it?” asked the man, no longer trying to wrest away from Lilith. “It’s a decoration.”
“It’s possibly what we’ve been after,” Zoltan insisted. “Why were you so uneasy about us looking for that?”
“It’s my bed!” Kane hissed. “My privacy! If you want to take that thing, then take it. If that’s what you came for, take it and please leave.”
“Then we will,” Kazdan said. “Good day to you, ser.”
Edward continued to feel uneasy, noting that the green Orb had not become inert, unlike the other Orbs in the presence of their brethren.
“You found what you came for,” Kane was saying. “Take it and go. Now. I regret inviting you in. Please, just leave.”
“Alright, then,” Zoltan muttered. “I think we got what we came here for. Let’s leave the poor man in peace.”
The turron muttered something to Alyaa, who grinned. The group began to file out, and as Alyaa walked past the table, she snatched up the mostly empty decanter.
“What are you doing!?” Kane cried. “Are you just going to steal all my possessions when I’ve done absolutely nothing to you?”
“Yes,” Alyaa snapped.
“Just get out,” the brunette man said sullenly.
Zoltan was the last out of the room, and as he stepped into the corridor outside, the heavy wooden door slammed closed.
Alyaa began to inspect the decanter, and was alarmed to see that the dregs of wine in the bottom of the jug seemed darker and slightly thicker. The woman sniffed, noting a slightly coppery smell which was horribly familiar.
“Blood,” she whispered.
“Wait a minute…” Kazdan said, horrified.
“I knew he was suspicious!” Zoltan shouted. “Alyaa, is he still in there?”
Alyaa pressed her ear against the door, but could hear nothing from the other side. “Move down the hallway.”
The party shuffled away from the door, and Alyaa pushed against it, finding it locked. Lilith stepped up, and after a moment, was able to open the door. Alyaa flung it open and dodged to one side as Kane cried out in surprise. Before anyone could react, the door thumped closed again.
The party elected to check the rest of the rooms on the hallway, but found only bedrooms in various states of disrepair. Edward continued to hold out the Orb of Gredi, which continued to indicate the room in which the party had found Kane.
After pouring a drop of blood on the clear glass sphere did nothing, the party entered Kane’s room once more. Alyaa noticed that the decanter once again seemed to contain traces of fine red wine as she stepped into the room.
“Please, leave me alone!” Kane yelled, nervously brandishing a fire poker. “Have you not done enough!? I don‘t want to hurt you, but I will!”
“Calm down,” Zoltan said. “We’re not going to hurt you, hopefully.”
“You’ll excuse me if I’m a little cynical about that,” Kane said coldly.
“We took your wine outside and it turned into blood,” Zoltan explained, “and then the ball that was pointing to that ball was pointing to your room and not pointing to that ball.”
“I told you this place changes things,” Kane sighed. “It’s strange here. Please. I’ve done nothing to you. Why do you want to hurt me?”
“We’re looking for the Orb-”
“I don’t have it!”
“Help us find it, then.”
“What do you want me to do!?”
“Step out into the hall,” Alyaa said dangerously.
Kane looked at Alyaa wearily for a moment. “No. If I leave this room, it may be gone.”
“It’s alright,” said Zoltan. “We’ll hold the door for you.”
“No, that’s not how it works!” exclaimed Kane. “I simply will not leave this room.”
“We left the room and came back,” Edward pointed out.
“This room is clean,” Kane said, “it is safe. There’s food and drink. Why would I leave it?”
“What food?” Zoltan questioned. “What drink? Where did it come from?”
“I don’t know,” Kane murmured. “It’s just here sometimes.”
“You must know, if you don’t leave the room.”
“It’s just there, in the drawers sometimes, when I wake up. There will be bread, cheese, wine, milk. Sometimes the fire will ignite with no apparent cause. Sometimes there will be candles, other times there won’t be. It is the nature of this place. I have told you this. I don’t know what else I can do, what I call tell you. Everything I know I have told you.”
“I think you should leave this place,” Zoltan said earnestly. “It’s not quite right.”
“Yes,” Kane said irritably. “And I wish I could.”
“How about we escort you out?” Kazdan offered. “We’ll make sure you’re safe.”
“No. I don’t want to leave. I’m happy here. Why would I leave?”
“Because you’re terribly lonely?” suggested Zoltan.
“If this is the state of people outside of this place, then I really don’t think I want to leave.”
As Kane spoke, Lilith moved to the chest of drawers near to the door. The moment her hand touched the handle of the drawer, Kane roared inhumanly and dove towards her. Suddenly, something clicked in Edward’s head, and a memory came flooding back; that Entat had named the Guardian of the Orb of Spirilidon Kane. As he realised this, the room around him seemed to change. The gleaming metal surfaces grew dark and rusty. The walls seemed to sprout dust and cobwebs, and the wooden surfaces bowed and crumbled.
Kane, too, changed. Gone was the charming man in the white suit, replaced by a repellent, shrunken, twisted creature with grey skin and great yellowed fangs.
“Guys!” Edward yelled. “It’s an illusion!”
“What!?” Zoltan cried.
“That is not a guy!” Edward hollered.
At this, Zoltan and Lilith saw the real Kane, just as the monster raked at Lilith with horrible, sharp claws. Kazdan leaped to Lilith’s defence, hacking at Kane with two swords. As he did, he saw for the first time the grotesque grey creature.
Alyaa also saw through Kane’s glamour, and drove forth with her axe. Thick black blood oozed from several wounds in the monster’s body. Zoltan tossed one of the wine glasses from the table at Kane, but it missed, shattering against the wall.
Lilith recoiled from the creature, slashing blindly at it with her daggers. Kane took a step back, baring his jagged fangs, only for Alyaa to plant her axe into his back. The creature shrieked, tar-like blood spewing from his mouth, and collapsed in a heap.
When everyone had recovered from the fight, Edward again consulted the Orb. It glowed brightest when pointed directly towards the drawer Lilith had moved to open. Noting this, Lilith pulled the rotted drawer from the chest, finding it empty. Confused, Edward approached the chest of drawers and began to knock on it. No hollow areas were evident, so he and Lilith pulled the unit away from the wall.
The wall behind it was discoloured and damp, and smelled musty and unpleasant. Zoltan searched the door, and after a moment’s exploration, found a hinge. The turron pulled the hinge and a small door opened, revealing a crimson Orb within.
“Here you go,” Zoltan sighed, handing the Orb to Edward. “You owe me for that.”
The Orb of Gredi had become inert, and Edward saw the faintest glimmer of an image in the centre of the Orb of Spirilidon as he held it northwest.
The party quickly searched the rest of the upper floor, finding bedrooms in various states of disrepair and one bathroom, which Zoltan made use of. Kazdan also noticed a fine portrait of Pelher Kendraghora in the hallway, which Alyaa cut from its frame, rolled up and slipped it into her backpack. They then headed down the stairs, which descended one floor with no coloured windows in evidence.
As the group reached the corridor in which they entered, Lilith heard what she thought was a faint moaning from behind the stairs. The darkling followed the sound, and when Kazdan saw her inspecting the stairs, he noticed a door beneath the steps.
Kazdan tried the door, and found it jammed. Lilith gave the assassin an unsure glance, and studied the door, eventually slipping her dagger into the edge of the doorway and easing it open. Kazdan and Lilith cautiously crept through the door, descending a straight, narrow staircase into a damp, draughty, cramped cellar which reeked of dust, mould and human waste.
Chained to one slick stone wall was an emaciated young man. His brown hair was shabby and long, and he had several bloody bite marks on his neck and shoulders. Lilith approached the moaning man, noting how pale he was. An unpleasant smell was coming off him in waves.
As Lilith looked him over, his eyes flickered unconsciously, and he continued to make low moaning noises in his throat. Edward joined her, finding more bite marks on the inside of the man’s thighs. Lilith attempted to pour water down the young man’s throat, but he simply coughed, spraying Lilith with cool liquid.
Kazdan and Alyaa struggled to pull the chains from the wall, causing the man’s arms to flop bonelessly at his sides. Lilith wrapped her cloak around the man, and as she did, he leaned towards her, his mouth dropping open. A gust of foul breath escaped, and Lilith noticed that the man’s tongue was gone. Lilith scooped the man up, finding him disturbingly light and bony, and headed out of the door.
As the party headed for the door leading out of the abbey, Kazdan peered into the last room on the right. As soon as he opened the door, he heard the hollow flutter of wings, and saw dozens of tiny red pinpricks glaring out of him. Grimacing, he slammed the door closed, but not before four of large black bats flapped out, scratching and biting at him.
The group exited, surprised to find the sun sinking into the sky, and vast swirls of stars beginning to twinkle in the evening gloom. After travelling a short distance away from the abbey, the group set up camp. Zoltan constructed a crude shelter, where Lilith lay the injured young man.
As the group took breakfast the next morning, both Lilith and Zoltan noticed that Edward seemed somewhat out of sorts.
“What’s up, Edward?” Zoltan asked as he fried a couple of strips of lampique meat over the fire. “You seem ill at ease.”
“I’ll be fine,” Edward said quietly as he folded his bedroll. “Nothing to worry about.”
“That implies that you’re not fine at the moment,” Zoltan pointed out. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m alright,” Edward insisted.
Looking perplexed, Lilith gently touched Edward’s forehead. The former policeman smiled bemusedly.
Kazdan, meanwhile, stepped over to the shelter where the young man lay.
“Morning,” he ventured. The prone figure did not reply, nor move at all. Kazdan called for the aid of the party, and when Edward checked the man over, he found no pulse.
Zoltan led the party in a brief burial, and then they hastily dismantled their camp. The way down the Ghotenda was much steeper than the ascent of two days ago. The party had to carefully hop from one rocky outcrop to the next, occasionally hooking a rope to an opportune stalagmite. Several times, Alyaa or Lilith had to help Zoltan down particularly difficult inclines.
As they neared the base of the mountains, Edward noticed a black-clad figure some ways up the cliff face, also seemingly descending the black hills. He alerted the group to this, but when they looked, the figure had disappeared. Grimacing, Alyaa began to heave her way back up the mountain, but there were no signs of life.
Mere minutes later, the party reached solid ground. Wasting no time, they hurried through the barren, rocky land surrounding the Ghotenda, which soon gave way to lush grassland.
After a couple of hours’ brisk walk, as the party travelled past copses of trees and the occasional patch of farmland, Lilith noticed a small, sandy-furred animal following a short way behind the group. She halted, and the group stopped with her, noticing the creature for the first time. As they stopped walking, so too did the animal, looking on inquisitively.
Though Kazdan seemed unsure about the creature, which most of the party recognised as an iceate, the group decided to press on. A short time later, however it was still following at a distance. Kazdan took a step forward and tossed a pinch of sakelime towards the creature. It flinched away for a moment, then cautiously approached the morsel, sniffed it, then took it between its paws and began to nibble at it.
“Scram!” Alyaa yelled, though the iceate did little more than stare at her. “Go on! Get!”
When the creature showed no signs of leaving, Zoltan fired a crossbow bolt at it. Edward yelled out, but the quarrel missed its target anyway. Nonetheless, the creature bolted into the nearby trees.
Another hour’s travel brought the party to the great Bridge of Karthune, and enormous white structure over the huge, churning Charbaine River. Lilith and Alyaa headed down to the banks of the river to wash their cloak and decanter respectively, while Edward, Zoltan and Kazdan headed towards the bridge. On their side of the bridge was a notice board, where a handsome man in military garb and a white cloak was attaching a wanted poster bearing the likeness of Galian Sial.
When the soldier turned, he noticed the party, and offered a surprised smile. “Oh. Hello.”
“Hello,” Zoltan returned.
There was a moment of awkward silence, before the soldier asked; “Can I help you, gentlemen?”
“Just passing over the bridge,” Zoltan replied. “I see you’re putting up a poster. Have you just recently come around these parts?”
“No,” the man replied. “I’m heading back to the capital from Fort Pelamence. I was there investigating an encampment of Fyrsobarthe soldiers who were in the Ghotenda.”
“All dead, were they?” Zoltan inquired with a smirk.
“No,” said the man, looking somewhat perplexed. “They were alive. I think the reports had been slightly exaggerated. The young man, Dolac, who had reported it, I don’t think he went up to the encampment. I think he was telling his Commander a little white lie. I should have reported it, but I was fond of the boy, so I kept it to myself.”
The military man gestured to the wanted poster. “I have a bit of a personal investment in this. Galian Sial was my friend, and I’d like to see him apprehended to find out what happened. I just want to hear him explain.”
“I see,” Zoltan mused. “What exactly are the crimes he’s been charged with?”
“Theft,” the man said glumly. “Murder. Unlicensed alchemy.”
“Can you give us any more specifics? Something not everyone else knows?”
“He was a friend of mine, as I said. He did some alchemy work for the military, unlicensed, but we looked past that because he was helping us with our weapons, our armour, and such. He did this in exchange for resources and a place to work, which we gave him. The arrangement was good, he was a pleasant man. We became friends.
“Then, three years ago, he disappeared. It was very strange, very mysterious. He left all of his worldly possessions, all of his alchemy equipment in his laboratory. During the night, he was there. The next morning, he was gone. I’m not sure where he disappeared to or how long he was gone. Then, reports started coming in that he had stolen and that he had killed. I couldn’t believe it. I said ‘it can’t be Galian, that’s just not the man I knew.’ He was a little eccentric, and he was embittered towards Ventenism, but murder and theft just wasn’t like him. But, given the eye witness reports and the things that we know now, it’s undeniably him.”
“A grim tale,” Zoltan murmured as the soldier lapsed into silence.
“It’s a terrible state of affairs,” the man agreed. I just don’t know what could have happened to the man to cause him to choose this course of action.”
“What was he working on before he left?”
“The same thing he’d always been doing; improving our arms and armour. Nothing unusual at all. It just happened overnight. I can’t imagine what would have happened to cause such a radical change in personality. Do you have any information? I really would like to see him apprehended and… dealt with fairly. I’m sure there must be some explanation.”
When no one offered any information, the soldier asked if the party were headed onto the capital.
“Maybe,” Zoltan said, “at some point. Travelling. Trading.”
“Well,” the man said with a small smile. “If you do have any information about Galian, if you find anything, please do report it to the military. It’s of utmost importance that we find him.”
“Don’t worry,” Edward said gravely. “I want to find him too.”
The soldier looked at Edward somewhat incredulously. “And why is that?”
“Back where I’m from,” Edward explained, “I’m a protector of peace, and an upholder of the law.”
“And that is us, my friend,” the armoured man said proudly. “We have a common goal. But if you do find him, please treat him fairly. Take him to the military for questioning. I understand there are people who want him dead, because of the crimes he’s committed. But we need to know why this has happened. I think it’s very important that we find out what happened to him.”
“We plan to take him alive,” Edward reassured the man.
At this juncture, Alyaa and Lilith returned. Lilith’s cloak was strapped to the bottom of her bag, brown water dripping from it. The soldier turned to the ladies and bowed slightly.
“Marshall Streathann Dieszeus, at your service.”
Alyaa appraised the man coolly, then showed the now clean decanter to Zoltan. “Good as new, boss.”
“Anyway,” Marshall Streathann said unsurely. “I must be off. I’m distributing these posters just hoping that someone will have some information.”
“Where are you headed to?” Zoltan inquired.
“I believe I’ll head up to Belotesquah next.”
“We happen to be going in the same direction,” Edward said. “Mind if we tag along?”
“That would be pleasant,” the Marshall said. “Yes.”
Alyaa did not look impressed.
He party, along with Streathann, made their way over the bridge, a journey which took at least thirty minutes, then along the Nazakhet Road headed north.
As the day turned to late afternoon, the group approached the great Crossroads where the four great roads of Yokurgin intersected. Sitting at the crossroads beside a large, black iron pot, was what appeared to be a wizened old woman. Standing behind her was a hulking, lightly-armoured figure who, as the group got closer, was obviously a berserker.
Zoltan leaned in to Streathann and said; “Do you recognise that pair?”
“I think they may have been at The Crossroads when I last passed,” the Marshall replied.
“Did they say anything to you?” Edward asked.
“I didn’t really stop to speak to them,” Marshall Streathann said.
The party approached the party, and as they did, the old woman looked up with milky, blind eyes.
“Travellers,” she said in a voice that was little more than a strained whisper. Her lined face broke out in a sunny smile.
“Good evening,” Zoltan returned.
“Hello,” the old woman said. “Would you care for some soup?”
“I would love some soup, thank you,” Streathann said, stepping forward with a polite smile. “Pumpkin soup, is it?”
“Yes,” the old woman replied. The berserker handed Streathann a wooden bowl. “That will be fifty betos, please.”
Streathann fished out a couple of coins from a small leathern pouch and handed them to the berserker, before sipping at his soup. Edward noticed that the woman seemed to be staring at him, despite her clouded eyes.
“Madame Grause?” the berserker asked. “What is it?”
“This one… is different,” the old woman croaked, pointing at Edward with one gnarled finger.
Alyaa instinctively drew her axe, and the berserker stepped forward with a snarl. Marshall Streathann quickly seized the axe.
“What are you doing!?” he exclaimed.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” Alyaa hissed.
“I’m a man of the military,” Streathann said patiently. “This woman is innocent.”
“I don’t know if that one’s innocent,” Alyaa said, nodding to the berserker. “Back the fuck off.”
Eyes widening, Streathann’s free hand went to his sword hilt. Zoltan hastily stepped forward, hands outstretched.
“Okay, okay!” he exclaimed. “Calm down!”
“Alyaa!” Kazdan cried.
Streathann glared at Zoltan, and snapped; “You should rein in your dog.”
He took a step back, shoving Alyaa’s axe away. Teeth clenched, Alyaa lurched towards Streathann, but Kazdan managed to push her back. Alyaa turned on Kazdan, who held up two empty hands.
“Calm down!” he reiterated.
“Get off me, you prick!” Alyaa shrieked. “I’m gonna teach him some fucking manners!”
“Maybe you should learn some manners,” Kazdan shot back.
Alyaa turned back towards the Marshall.
“Stop this nonsense, Alyaa!” Zoltan commander. “You’re not attacking an officer of the law!”
“Then make him fucking apologise!” she growled.
“I’m really sorry,” Zoltan whispered to Streathann.
The Marshall handed the now empty soup bowl back to the old lady, and said; “I think this is where our association ends. Good day.” With that, he turned and continued up the Nazakhet Road.
“Let’s calm down, everyone,” Edward said evenly. “What’s done is done. Let’s just forget it. Regain our composure. We can continue being civilised people.”
Alyaa ignored Edward completely, screaming after the Marshall; “Don’t walk away from me, you bastard!” Streathann did not turn, his white cloak dragging along the road.
“Give it up,” sighed Zoltan. “Come on. You’ve been called worse.”
“Alright,” Alyaa snarled, lowering her axe. “Alright.”
Everyone seemed to relax. Alyaa brushed down the front of her breastplate, and punched Kazdan in the nose.
Edward turned to Madame Grause and her companion, and said; “I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s alright,” replied the big man, grinning. “This is the most entertainment I’ve had in a long time.”
“What did you mean by ‘he’s different?’” Kazdan asked of the old woman, one hand on his nose.
Madame Grause looked up at Kazdan. “He… feels… different. There’s something about you… traveller.” Edward prickled at this. Traveller was what Brown had called him in the Ventenist temple at Shedhmi. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Madame Grause of Grause Forest. This is my protector, Oldun Drakkanus. On your way to Belotesquah.”
“Yes,” Edward replied.
“It wasn’t a question,” Madame Grause said with a knowing smile. “I come here daily to sell my soup. Travellers are always coming down these roads, the Nazakhet from Belotesquah, the Everfoarthe from Keydon. I sell them my soup to keep them warm on their travels.”
“May I have some soup?” Zoltan asked.
“Of course, young Zoltan,” Madame Grause replied kindly.
The berserker handed Zoltan a bowl of steaming soup, and Lilith also took a bowl. As they ate, Madame Grause continued to stare blindly at Edward.
“She’d be interesting to fight,” Oldun said with a smile, glancing over at Alyaa, who had stalked away from The Crossroads.
“Trust me, friend,” Zoltan said wearily. “You don’t want to go there.”
“It certainly would be interesting,” Oldun continued.
“Yes,” Zoltan muttered. “Interesting.”
“Four now, is it?” Grause suddenly asked of Edward.
“Four what?” Edward asked. Madame Grause smiled.
“You seem to be reasonably knowledgeable,” Kazdan said uncertainly. “I picked up this sword. It catches on fire, somehow, but I can’t figure out how to do it. I don’t suppose you’d know how?”
“I would,” Madame Grause said.
“How much would I have to pay you to teach me?”
“5,715 wairs. 50 betos.”
Kazdan looked taken aback. “How about if I trade these two books of magic?”
“This is powerful magic. Can’t just give it away.”
Kazdan frowned and turned away from the old, blind woman.
When Lilith and Zoltan were finished with their bowls, Oldun took them away.
“If you’re coming back this way,” he said, “stop by. Get some more soup. Get into another fight.”
“We’ll see how it goes,” Zoltan sighed. Oldun laughed loudly. “We’d… best be going now.”
“I have one last question,” Edward said. “Who’s this stranger who’s been following us?”
“Not a stranger,” Madame Grause replied softly. “He is known to one of you.”
Everyone looked around suspiciously, but Madame Grause said no more. Kazdan studied the old woman for a moment. “What do you know of Galian Sial?”
“I’m giving away an awful lot of information for nothing,” Grause said with a smile. “This will be the last. He was given a task, and in doing so lost his mind. Farewell, travellers.”
As the party went to go, Lilith handed the old woman a handful of coins. Grause took them, smiled up at Lilith and whispered to her in ethereal. Lilith moved back, looking somewhat perturbed.
The party continued up the north road, setting up camp shortly after nightfall. The next day, they travelled almost continuously, stopping only so Lilith could purchase a padded doublet from an elderly travelling merchant.
They reached Belotesquah by dusk. It was a small yet bustling port, and as the group approached, they were welcomed by the sound of a tinny tolling bell. As the party made their way into the town proper, a short man clad in fine black clothing stepped out of the shadows, a lopsided smile on his face.
“Lilith,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”