Toren was sitting behind his desk, seemingly much calmer than when the group had departed.
“We’ve taken care of your little… pest problem,” Kazdan said with icy courtesy. “Now it’s time for you to keep up your end of the bargain.”
“Yes, I saw that you’d taken care of the tunks,” Toren replied. “I thank you kindly.”
“And about that payment?” inquired Edward.
“Yes?” Toren said. “Well, if I recall, we never actually settled on a figure.”
“You said 10,000,” Edward said quickly. “We said yes.”
“Yes,” Toren said with a sly half smile, “and if you could just show me the paperwork, I’ll gladly hand it over.”
Zoltan scowled. “I see how it is. Come on, let’s go get him some… paperwork.”
The turron led the group back out of the office and into the street, where the corpses of the three tunks still lay.
“Alright,” Zoltan muttered. “Everybody grab a leg. Let’s show him this paperwork.”
Behr stalked over to the fallen giants and seized one by the foot.
“If you’re gonna have a pop at the cunt,” he said with a grimace, “let me have one as well.”
Between them, the party heaved the tunk into the mayor’s building, earning some strange looks from the people within. With some difficulty, they manoeuvred the beast up the stairs and into Toren’s office, where they tossed it onto his desk with a thump.
“Here’s your paperwork,” grunted Zoltan.
“Quite impressive,” Toren sighed, looking down at the tunk with a frown. “I don’t really see what this is supposed to prove.”
“It proves… what do you think we can do to you?” Alyaa snapped.
“And what do you think will happen to you if you murder a government official?” Toren asked calmly.
“I imagine a couple of weeks running around and they’ll forget about us,” sneered Alyaa.
“I don’t think you quite grasp how important I am.”
“Really?” Kazdan said. “If you’re that important, why didn’t they send anyone to help you with these? Are you sure you’re not just some governor in some arse end province no one gives a shit about?”
“I think you’re overestimating just how important you are,” added Zoltan.
Toren’s face was beginning to turn red, his flabby jaw clenched firmly. “I think you’re overestimating just how diplomatic you are, my friend.”
“I think you’re underestimating just how dangerous we are,” Zoltan retorted.
“Cut the shit, Toren!” Behr yelled suddenly. “I heard you promise ‘em money. Pay up, you stingy cunt.”
“That’s right” Zoltan exclaimed. “We’ve got witnesses.”
Toren did not seem moved. Without warning, Lilith tossed a throwing star into the corpse of the tunk. Toren jerked wildly in his chair, and when Lilith readied another star, held his hands up defensively.
“Alright,” he said breathlessly. “Alright. If I give you money, will you please leave me alone?”
“That depends entirely on if the amount of money you give us is commensurate to the effort we put into helping you with your little problem,” Zoltan said.
“1,000 wairs each. That’s all I can spare.”
“The original price was 10,000,” growled Kazdan.
“I’d say that’s a far more agreeable sum,” Zoltan agreed. “60,000 or you’ve got no deal.”
“I never said 10,000 each,” Toren blurted, starting to seem flustered. “10,000 between you.” Lilith took a step closer to the desk, and the mayor of Paskau shrunk back. “Okay. How does 3,000 each sound?” Alyaa stepped up next to Lilith, one hand going to the hilt of her axe. “Fine, fine, fine! 4,000 each. That’s 24,000 wairs. That’s an astronomical sum of money.”
“I don’t want to see any more violence today,” Edward said softly. “Just give us the sum we asked for and we’ll leave.”
Toren’s face was bright red, beads of sweat clinging to his forehead. “I don’t… 10,000 each? That’s not what I agreed. I said 10,000 between you! I’ve doubled that offer! I’ve said 4,000 each! That’s a fine sum of money. That will keep you in armour, it will keep you in food and drink, and places to stay. It will keep you in women, or men, if that’s your thing. That is an absolutely reasonable amount of money, and I’ll hear no more on the subject. No more!”
“Oh, it will keep us in pleasantries,” Zoltan said casually. “But it won’t keep unfortunate rumours from spreading around the town and the surrounding provinces how you’re wont to go back on your deal. How you’re wont to not care about the safety of your workers. Other such nasty things that would not be conducive to a mayor.”
“Do you believe my standing in this town is affected by popularity?” Toren spat. “I didn’t get this position because I was a nice person. I got this position because I can stimulate the economy appropriately. What’s good for the economy is not giving sellswords like you 10,000 wairs each. How are the people going to feel about that when they’re starving out there in the street?”
“At least they’re not dead,” Kazdan pointed out.
“Yes,” Toren sighed, slumping in his chair. “You’ve done us a fine service, and we’re all grateful for it. I suppose that would be worth 5,000 wairs each. I will not go any further, and if you continue to press the matter I will call my guards.”
“Alright, then,” Zoltan sighed, clearly unimpressed.
“Magnificent,” said Toren, seeming to regain some of his composure. “Bear with me.”
The mayor stood up and left via a narrow door behind his desk. As soon as the door closed, Lilith nimbly hopped over to it, pressing her ear against the wood. She heard faint footsteps moving away, and when she tried the handle, the door was locked.
“He’s not coming back, is he?” Alyaa groaned.
“Maybe we should just wait,” Zoltan said.
“He’s just tried to stiff us!” Kazdan exclaimed.
“He’s left us alone in his office,” Zoltan clarified, looking around at his colleagues.
Lilith nodded to Zoltan, and moved over to the desk. As she tried the drawers, which were also locked, Kazdan and Alyaa began to search the shelves, finding little of interest.
At that moment, the door opened, and Toren stepped back into the office, holding several burlap bags. Flanking him were four heavily armed guards.
“What’s going on here?” Toren asked, his face an odd mix of amusement and irritation. “You’re going through my desk? You’re invading the privacy of a government official?”
“No,” Kazdan said quickly. “We saw a rat coming along here.”
“I do not believe that this was part of the deal that we just made,” Toren said, ignoring Kazdan.
“Just give us the money,” Zoltan insisted.
“I’m not sure thieves should be given money,” sneered Toren. “In fact, I think what should happen to thieves is they should be thrown in jail.”
“My colleague was just retrieving her property,” Zoltan said, nodding at Lilith, who began prising the throwing star from the body of the tunk on the desk.
“Okay, that’s very well. And what of your other two colleagues? I suppose they were just retrieving their items as well?”
“Do you want us to take this away after we’re done or shall we just leave it there?”
“Frankly, I have men who can take it away. As I understand it, refuse disposal was also not a part of our deal. Now, I’ve caught you stealing from me and you’ve threatened me. You still think I should pay you?”
Toren tossed one of the bags he was carrying onto the desk, where it landed with a metallic clunk.
“There’s 5,000,” the portly man hissed. “Share it amongst yourselves.”
Without another word, Toren turned and left by the same door. His guards remained, positioning themselves either side of the door and eyeing the party in a fashion that was almost challenging. Scowling deeply, Zoltan grabbed the bag of coin from the desk, and the party reluctantly left the office.
As the party descended the stairs, Behr said; “Listen. I don’t want his dirty money. I didn’t fight those things for the cash. I fought ‘em for the town. Them things have been hurtin’ people and destroyin’ property for as long as I can remember. So, you divvy it up.”
“Where does he live?” Kazdan queried.
“In this building,” Behr replied.
“Do you know of any secret passages?” the assassin asked. “I might be paying him a late night visit to discuss some more stuff.”
“To be honest,” Behr replied, “I don’t really spend much time with him, as you can imagine. ‘Cause any time spent in that cunt’s company means he’s one step closer to a broken nose. Come on. Let’s go to The Sleeping Giant, get a drink. We’ll discuss this matter.”
Behr led the party out of the building and down Paskau’s main street towards an inn whose sign proclaimed it The Sleeping Giant. Within, they found a middle-aged woman with curly brown hair, who smiled warmly as the party entered.
“Hello, Behr,” the woman said. “New friends?”
“Yeah,” Behr said, with a nod. “These brave people defeated the tunks that were attacking.”
The brunette’s eyes widened. “Oh, that’s… Wow. I’m really impressed. All the soldiers and fighters that we have in this town, no one’s dared stand up to them before.”
“Obviously weak talent in some cases, then,” Kazdan observed.
“Please,” the barmaid said. “Drinks on the house. What can I get everyone?”
Kazdan eagerly ordered a local beer, while Zoltan asked for a pint of ale. Lilith pointed to a bottle of Hadong cider, Edward had his customary water and Alyaa began to reel off a long, complex list of drinks. Behr took a large tankard of ale and led party to table in corner.
As the party sat down, Behr muttered; “I’m really sorry about this. I don’t… what a twat. I don’t know how to deal with someone like that. I prefer people to be up front and honest. If I feel something, I say it, and that’s the way it is. Then you know. There’s none of this sneakin’ around.”
“What would it take for a man to be mayor in this town,” Kazdan asked, “and have you ever considered it?”
Behr laughed loudly, foamy beer dripping from his nose. After at least a minute, the miner managed to compose himself.
“I don’t think I’d make the best mayor, lad. To be honest.”
“You can’t be any worse than Toren.”
“All I know is swingin’ a hammer and diggin’ up ore. I’m no politician. I’m too honest for it! Here’s the thing. As much of a dickhead as he is, he’s got friends in high places. He’s got more money than anyone in the country. And, for some reason, the bastard keeps getting elected. I don’t know if people think he’s a cunt, but people are earnin’ now. There’s jobs. There’s things to be done in the town. Before he came along… I don’t know. There must be something to be done, but I’m afraid I’m fresh out of ideas. Short of burnin’ his house down, I dunno.”
“I can get on board with that,” Alyaa said with a savage grin.
“I think that’s a bit far,” chided Zoltan.
“Alright, fine,” muttered Kazdan. “Let’s sneak into his room tonight, hold a dagger to his throat and make him piss himself.”
“If you want to do that, then fine,” Zoltan sighed. “I don’t quite see how that will get anything done.”
“Have you got any ideas, Zoltan?” queried Behr.
“When’s the next election?” Zoltan asked.
“Well, to be honest, we don’t have any real schedule. We have an election when people demand it.”
“Well then. How many people do you reckon you can get to demand an election?”
Behr smiled. “I think I can have a word with a few people. If you wanna stay here for the night, I’ll meet you back here in the morning and we’ll see what we can do.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Kazdan said.
Behr finished his beer and bid the group good evening. A short time later, the landlady, who identified herself as Thailain Esson brought dinner over.
“The trouble is,” Zoltan said as he began to tuck into his dinner, “we now need someone honest to get into office.”
“What about you, boss?” Alyaa asked through a mouthful of gravy-soaked potatoes.
“I’m not a politician,” Zoltan said. “I’m a merchant.”
“Behr,” Kazdan suggested.
“Behr’s not a politician,” Zoltan insisted. “He’s a miner.”
“He’s better than this other cunt,” Kazdan grunted, angrily cutting at the stringy tann meat on his plate.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean he’d be a good mayor, by any measure.”
After dinner, Thailain brought over keys, and said that the party were more than welcome to stay the night free of charge.
Behr arrived the next morning as the party were finishing their breakfast.
“Mornin’, all,” the miner said.
“Good morning,” Kazdan returned.
“Do you feel any better for sleeping on it?” asked Behr.
“No,” Zoltan said instantly.
“No, neither do I. I had a word with a few of the townsfolk last night.”
“What’s the consensus?”
“Why don’t you see for yourself?”
Behr led the party outside, where around sixty people were standing. The group recognised Seeley Cartheisen and Gared, who had taken their horses the day before.
“I assume you’ve told them about how we saved all their lives and got stiffed on the payment?” Kazdan asked.
“Oh, yes,” Behr replied with a smirk.
“I can’t believe what Marl did to you,” Seeley said. “I always knew he was a man with no scruples and no morals, but to have you come here and save the entire town, and then to treat you like that is just disgusting.”
“I’ve got the people,” Behr said. “What’s the plan?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Zoltan muttered. “Let’s say we do manage to force him out of power. What then?”
“That’s up to the people to decide,” Kazdan insisted.
After a moment, Gared stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Well, I’ve been working with the man for years now. Managing his finances. I’ve seen the way he works. I could give it a go?”
“Good man!” Zoltan exclaimed, snapping his fingers in Gared’s direction. “You’re the new mayor.”
“Does anybody have any objections to this man being your candidate?” Kazdan asked.
The answer was a resounding no.
The group marched towards Toren’s office, yet as they neared it, everyone saw the troop of armed guards ringing the building. Zoltan called a halt some ways down the street.
“Are there any secret passages,” Kazdan asked, “or any other ways in besides the front door?”
“I know of a way,” Gared said. “Follow me.”
Gared led the party to a large wooden building with a vast glass front. Emblazoned on the sizeable windows were the words “FIRST BANK OF PASKAU.”
“Most of you should probably wait out here, I think,” the turron said.
“Aye, stay out here,” said Behr. “Make sure you make yourselves seen and heard.”
Seeley nodded, and began to clap his hands together. After a moment, Thailain joined in. Then, the whole crowd were clapping, some sixty people in all. The guards surrounding Toren’s building looked on anxiously.
The party headed into the bank, a spacious building lined with huge darkwood pillars. At the other end of the building was a large metal door, in the centre of which was a wheel. Gared seized the wheel and turned it, before laboriously dragging the door open. Within was a vault containing paintings, statues and trinkets, but very little coin.
Gared dragged a patterned rug from the middle of the floor, revealing a half-rotted wooden trap door. The turron pulled open the hatch, and began to descend a wooden ladder into the pitch black tunnel below. As the party followed, they found themselves in a corridor carved straight out of the earth. Alyaa and Zoltan produced lanterns, and slowly, the group made their way down the tunnel. After a few minutes’ walk, they reached a second ladder.
“That leads to a room just outside his office,” said Gared. “Perhaps one of you should go up first.”
Kazdan nodded and agilely headed up the ladder, followed by Lilith. The assassin found himself in a small, pitch black room. With her keen darkling eyes, Lilith could see a number of empty shelves. Kazdan headed back to fetch the others, while Lilith snuck through the door into a short, completely dark corridor.
The next door was locked, and Lilith had to spend a couple of minutes unlocking it. Finally, she pushed it open, finding herself in what appeared to be a store room-come-living quarters. Again, the room was mostly empty, but this one was vaguely illuminated by a small amount of pale light coming in from the frame and keyhole in the door opposite the one Lilith used to enter. Lilith found this door locked too, and after a few moments, managed to ease it open.
Peeking through door, she saw Toren’s office. Four guards stood about the place, and she noticed that the room was much more bare than the day before, emptied of paintings and some of the furnishings. The tunk had also disappeared from the mayor’s desk.
Lilith headed back into the small corridor, where the rest of the party were shuffling along. Lilith reported what she had seen to Zoltan.
“The mayor may have deposed himself,” the merchant said with a grin.
“This is interesting,” said Gared. “He’s been here a lot of years and he’s annoyed a lot of people, but he’s never felt the need to flee before. I think things are going to become very interesting here in Paskau over the next couple of months.”
“Perhaps one of the guards killed him,” Kazdan suggested, “and we’ve just misinterpreted.”
Gared shook his head. “No, I don’t think that would be the case, this is his own personal guard. Strange that they should still be here when he has flown.”
“How many guards does he have?” Zoltan queried.
“It depends who he pays for each particular week. The most I think he’s ever had under him at one time was some 200 back when there was an uprising six or seven years ago.”
“Do you know where he might have gone?” Alyaa asked. “Are there any other buildings he lives in?”
“I wouldn’t expect he’d be anywhere in this town,” Gared said, “given what Behr told me about last night.”
“Well,” Zoltan said with a smile. “Problem solved.”
“Now Marl’s gone,” Gared mused, “the townsfolk will see him for the coward he really is. In his wake, they’ll be desperate to elect someone. I’ve got the backing of some sixty people, I’ve got the experience. I think things are about to become a bit more fair in Paskau.”
Gared led the party back to the bank and out into the street. Seeley and a dozen others remained, but the rest of the townsfolk had dispersed. Gared explained the situation to those left.
“I think we can swing this,” Seeley said excitedly. “He’s signed his own death warrant, really, by running away.”
“He may have signed it,” Behr said, “but I’m the one who wants to act it out.”
“Get in line,” said Alyaa gruffly.
“If we find him,” Kazdan smirked, “we’ll send what’s left back to you.”
“If you do,” Behr replied, “make sure you give ‘im a stab for me as well.”
“I’m sure my companions will give him an ample stabbing for everyone,” Zoltan said.
“Well, that gladdens the heart, that does. There’s nothing more I’d like to see than that dickhead bleeding to death in a ditch. Preferably penniless.”
Behr bid the party farewell, and Seeley led them to his stall. As thanks for saving the town, he gave Kazdan a sack of throwing stars free of charge, and sold him a pair of leather gauntlets for the discount price of 30 wairs. To Alyaa, Lilith and Kazdan, he sold mark three healing potions for 20 wairs apiece. He also gave Edward and Zoltan free bundles of quarrels.
“We’ll always remember you in this town for the heroes you’ve been,” the merchant said, “and always remember me for the kindly merchant you came across in your hour of need. If you see any of my brothers, be sure to tell them how successful I’ve been.”
“We will do,” Zoltan promised with a smile.
As the party moved away from Seeley’s stall, Gared approached, leading the horses.
“I take it you’ll be leaving us,” the turron said, “but thank you very much for what you did here. Next time you come by, hopefully there’ll be an entirely new regime. I’m thinking of making Behr the head of something.”
As The party readied their horses, Alyaa and Zoltan heard singing nearby. The turron’s face fell immediately.
“Oh no,” he whispered. “Oh no! Let’s get out of here, quickly!”
As Zoltan swung his way into the saddle, he realised that the song was The Ballad of Rhaelis and Iala, a traditional song sung in both ethereal and common which tells the story of a love between a human and a garland.
After a moment, everyone spied the source of the sound. Danil Lothson was standing just down the street, strumming his hertite and singing prettily. As he turned, he seemed to spy the party. The song faltered and after a second, he bolted down a narrow side street.
The party mounted up, and Zoltan noticed that Lilith seemed somewhat melancholy. After consulting the Orb, the party rode northeast out of town.
After a four hour journey, with a brief rest to feed and tend to horses, the group reached Raukath. Kazdan pulled his cloak about himself, glancing around nervously as the party trotted through the immaculate streets.
As they neared the centre of town, Zoltan broke off from the group and headed to the Dabhiz Association’s pavilion, where he was greeted by Serban. Zoltan briefly explained the situation in Paskau.
“You may want to look at improving trade relations with the town,” said the merchant. “It’s under new management.”
“That’s very interesting,” Serban muttered. “I never thought that Marl would retire his office.”
“Public opinion went against him,” Zoltan explained.
“Yes. I can believe that.”
“We have… outstanding business with him. If you hear of him around these parts, we’d appreciate it if you could somehow get word to us.”
“Where are you heading on to?”
“We’ll probably be around here for a couple of days.”
“I’ll send a missive.”
“Thank you kindly.”
The party rode out of Raukath, the hooves of their horses thundering on the surface of the road. Alyaa ranted at Lilith as they travelled, and the darkling at least seemed to listen closely.
After a short while, Kazdan suddenly called a nervous halt. As the party reined in their horses, Kazdan alerted the group to a tall, wiry garland with a short crop of leaves on his head. The garland was pointing a bow at the party.
“What are you doing here?” the archer demanded.
“Calm down, there, friend,” Zoltan returned in ethereal. “We’re just travellers. We’re just passing by. No need for hostilities.”
“So you say,” the garland replied in the same language, “but do you speak for the shader?”
Zoltan glanced uneasily at Lilith, who seemed very tense. “Yes. Don’t worry, she’s leaving. We’re leaving. Just heading on down the road.”
After a moment, the garland lowered his bow with a sigh. “Sorry, I… I’ve had experiences on the road with humans before. Soldiers and the like. Didn’t mean any offence.”
“We’re not all of us human,” Zoltan pointed out.
“You’re riding in the right direction, anyway,” the garland said in common. “So, on you go.”
“Be careful with that bow,” Kazdan said, tugging at his horse’s reins.
“Be careful with your tongue, as well,” Lilith hissed in ethereal.
The archer narrowed his eyes at Lilith. “We don’t all judge, but your race has never been kind to ours.”
“I’ve no quarrel with garlands,” Lilith said, “and I never have.”
“So you say, but I wonder how warm a reception you’d get in Glomewood.”
“I had a fine reception in Glomewood, thank you.”
The garland seemed taken aback. “When… did you go to Glomewood?”
“About a week ago,” said Zoltan. “Just passing through.”
“This is the truth?” the garland questioned.
“Absolutely,” said Zoltan.
“So, who rules there?”
“The Arkrai Menwyn Vanil.”
“Fairly common knowledge, I suppose. Obviously, you would have met his son, then?”
“No, “Lilith said. “We met his daughter. Have you been to Glomewood?”
“You really did go there,” the garland said wonderingly. “And… you were welcomed?”
“As welcome as they would make any darkling,” Lilith murmured.
“That’s… very strange,” the archer said. “I’m here on reconnaissance for the Arkrai himself. To keep an eye on the soldiers from the fort, ensure no one’s encroaching on The Tendechagh, and now you say he’s just letting armed… people through?”
“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think he was happy about me being there. But I received no hostility from him.”
“I think I’ll return to Glomewood at once.”
The garland swiftly glanced around, then darted into the trees, disappearing from sight.
“A queer fellow,” Zoltan sighed. “Let’s move on.”
As the party pressed on, Edward asked about what happened. Zoltan briefly explained, stating that the darklings are believed to have descended from the garlands, by union with Yokurgin’s ghosts. This has led to a mistrust between the two races, with the garlands seeing darklings as something of a bastard offshoot.
The group reached the port of Nasquah by the evening. Stopping outside The Falling Star Inn, the party tethered horses and entered the building. The establishment was even more crowded than the last time they had stopped there. Kruth was standing behind the bar, laughing with a blonde turron woman. When he spied Kazdan, Kruth pointed at the assassin with a grin.
“Whiskey!” he yelled. “That’s my man!”
As Kazdan approached the bar, Kruth shoved a shot of whiskey into his hand and demanded 2 wairs. Bewildered, Kazdan paid up.
“I’ll join in a whiskey,” Alyaa said. “Or several.”
“Two wairs, my fine lady,” Kruth said, laughing.
“You seem quite happy today,” Kazdan said, swallowing his drink.
“Oh, yes,” Kruth said. “Well, you know. Since you dealt with those… bastards, everything’s good here. Everyone’s in a good mood.”
“Well, good,” Zoltan said wearily. “I’m glad.”
“Everyone’s drinking,” Kruth exclaimed.
“Good for you.”
“It is very good for me! Ha ha ha!”
“Can we get a drink on commission? You know, improving trade and all that.”
“Ha ha ha ha no.”
“I’ll have a water.”
“I told you to tell the man to get some balls, I didn’t tell you to give him yours. But here you go. Water. Maybe you’ll get onto something stronger later in the night.”
“Maybe. Depends who’s paying for it. Ha ha ha!”
Kruth looked at Zoltan, stony faced. Lilith purchased a cider and moved off, sitting at a table and drinking alone.
“What’s up with the pale-faced bitch?” asked Alyaa.
Kazdan also moved away from the party, approaching a ginger haired woman who was leaning heavily against the bar, her hair hanging in her face.
“Buy you a drink?” the blonde man asked.
“Sure thing!” slurred the woman, looking up at Kazdan with unfocused eyes. “I’ll have a ghostwater.”
“Barkeep!” Kazdan demanded. “Two of those. In fact, no. One. I’ll have a whiskey.”
Kruth handed the drinks over with a grin.
“Hey,” the woman shouted, wrapping an arm around Kazdan’s waist. “Come here!”
The redhead downer her drink, swayed on her feet, and promptly vomited all over Kazdan’s chest. The assassin glared down at her, and the woman began to weep.
“Gods,” she yelled. “I’m so sorry!”
The woman fled, crying loudly. Kruth laughed from behind the bar. Kazdan stalked over to where Zoltan, Alyaa and Edward were sitting, a scowl on his face. “One word and I will gut you.”
Alyaa laughed raucously.
After a few more drinks, Zoltan wandered over to the bar and asked if the party would be able to stay for the night.
“No rooms at the inn, I’m afraid,” said Kruth.
“Any rooms anywhere in town?” Zoltan asked.
“You could go and stay at The Storm House. Ha ha ha! It’s a nice place!”
“Anywhere with any nice rooms?”
“The rooms there are beautiful. They’re quite expensive, I imagine. There’s wall hangings and flowers and they’re well lit and big windows right on the sea front. It’s great! You’ll love it! Ha ha.”
Though Zoltan remained cynical, the party left The Falling Star, stopping at the town water pump so Kazdan can clean himself off. They then headed down to the sea front, where they found The Storm House, a huge building with many windows and a large sign bearing its name. A tall, slender man with long black hair and a gentleman with short, scruffy purple hair and chin beard stood outside the open door, talking.
Within the party found a spacious lobby with a floor of white tile and may while pillars twisting up to the high painted ceiling. A handsome man with periwinkle blue hair sat on a white stone bench in the centre of the floor. As they looked around, a huge man with blonde hair tied into a long braid and a mighty beard decorated with golden charms approached.
“Welcome to The Storm House!” he said in an enthusiastic, booming voice. “How can I help you?”
“We need rooms for the night,” Zoltan replied. “What are your rates?”
“Rates?” the man asked. “Very reasonable rates. 20 wairs a room. That’s if it’s just a room you require, of course.”
“Oh,” Kazdan mumbled. “It’s one of these places.”
“Yes,” said the big man. “We offer company if that’s your fancy.”
“A room will be fine,” Kazdan returned.
“Strange of you to come here if that’s not what you’re after,” the proprietor said.
“We were told this was the only place that had any rooms left,” Zoltan said cagily.
“I see,” the big blonde man muttered.
“Can you advise us otherwise?”
“I could advise you to stay here. 20 wairs for a beautiful room, breakfast in the morning. Zevon, come here!” A short man with auburn hair spilling across his shoulders walked over and stood next to the big man. “Are you sure I can’t tempt you?”
“Just a room, please,” said Edward.
“Fine,” the innkeeper said, seeming a little disappointed. “20 wairs apiece, please.”
Zoltan and Alyaa elected to stay elsewhere, and promptly left The Storm House. Kazdan, meanwhile, handed over a couple of coins.
“Zevon,” the big man said. “Show our friend to his room.”
“Come on,” said Zevon, putting an arm around Kazdan’s waist and leading him upstairs.
“What about you, my dear?” the proprietor asked of Edward.
“I’m staying here,” said the former policeman.
“20 wairs, please.”
“Go with Zevon.”
The big man turned to Lilith. “Will you be staying here?”
After a moment, Lilith hesitantly said; “How much for… man?”
“Which man?” the proprietor said slowly, gesturing. “See man?”
Lilith pointed to the black-haired man, who had stepped into the door. The big blonde man smiled.
“Excellent choice. Nym will be 150 wairs for the night.” Lilith handed the man a small pouch of coin. “Nym, my dear.”
Edward and Kazdan exchanged surprised looks as the raven-haired gentleman approached Lilith.
“Please,” said Zevon, “let’s leave them to their privacy.”
The pair nodded and headed up the stairs as Nym led Lilith to a ground floor bedroom.
The next morning, the party met on the sea front. The waves were crashing against the bay, sending up freezing sprays. The sky was grey, threatening rain. Zoltan and Alyaa did not seem in high spirits, and Alyaa kept scratching her arms and sides.
The party made their way to Cartheisen’s Goods, where Kahl Cartheisen greeted them warmly.
“Ah, I remember you!” said he. “The mood’s been significantly improved in the town since the Indala twins haven’t come back.”
“That’s because they’re dead,” Zoltan grunted.
“That would explain it,” Kahl said with a smile. “Quite worrying if they came back afterwards.”
“You might be surprised, the things we’ve seen,” said Kazdan.
Kahl looked at Kazdan anxiously. “Yes. Well, anyway, what can I do for you?”
The party began their transactions, with Kazdan trading in his old sabre and 150 wairs for a new sabre. Zoltan and Lilith also exchanged their old weapons for new ones, and Alyaa did the same with her vambraces.
“We met Seeley in Paskau,” Zoltan said as he strapped his new crossbow to his back. “He’s doing rather well.”
Kahl smiled widely. “That’s gratifying to hear! Seeley’s the youngest. We all looked out for him. Me, my brothers and my father, while he was alive. It’s good that he’s doing well for himself. I always wondered how he’d do in Paskau. I know it’s a mining town, so… that’s good to hear.”
“I think he might be doing even better from now on,” Zoltan said.
“It’s under new management,” Alyaa added with a sly grin.
“Gods bless him,” Kahl said fondly.
The party headed out of Nasquah on the wide, black Sarsehn Road. It took only half an hour or so for the party to reach the large, imposing Fort Pelamence. The group dismounted as they approached the doors to the fort. Outside were a young soldier with long dark hair and an older man, chubby, with curly brown hair and a black cloak.
“Hile,” offered the younger soldier.
“Hello,” Zoltan replied.
“Can I help you?” asked the soldier.
“We’re looking for this man,” Edward said, producing the wanted poster for Galian Sial.
The chubby soldier chuckled. “You’re not the first ones to come here asking about him. He’s… well, a dangerous man. We know of at least four people he’s killed. We suspect many more. He’s been practicing alchemy without a license for the longest time. I assume, of course, you want to know about the reward?”
“Yes, please,” said Zoltan.
“Not really,” insisted Edward.
As they spoke, Zoltan heard a strange sound, almost like whistling wind. He looked around, but saw nothing which could be causing the sound.
“If you are going to go after him,” the young soldier was saying, “you should be aware that he’s a very dangerous man. We’re not quite sure where he is. We know that he was based in Shedhmi for a while, and we do believe he headed up into the north of the country, but we’re not exactly sure where.”
Kazdan and Lilith then heard the whistling sound. The soldiers also seemed to hear it, exchanging panicked looks.
“Everybody inside, now!” yelled the older man.
The two soldiers ducked into the fort, and the party followed suit, mere seconds before an enormous, jagged boulder crashed down, sending up sprays of dirt and debris.
“Wehrthar’s maw!” the younger soldier moaned. “They stopped for so long! Why are they starting again!?”
“I don’t know,” replied the older man. “I don’t know! Alert the Commander!”
At this, a gruff voice yelled from a staircase which wound up the wall of the fort; “As if I need to be told!”
“Why does this always happen to us?” Zoltan muttered.
As the party gathered themselves, a squat, balding man with a purple cloak stormed down the stairs, his face a twisted mask of irritation.”
“You two!” he growled. “Stop shitting your pants and tell me what is going on here!”
“Commander!” the young soldier wheezed. “They’ve started launching rocks again.”
“I thought we’d seen an end to this,” the Commander sighed, before seeming to see the party for the first time. “Who the bloody hell are you?”
“We only just got here, and we almost got squished!” Kazdan exclaimed. “You mind me asking what’s going on out there?”
“Why are people firing rocks at you!?” Zoltan added.
“We’re the military!” the Commander snapped. “They’re the military of an opposing country! This is kind of how it’s done, son.”
“Why did they have to wait until we were here?” Zoltan sighed.
“Well, I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t like the looks of you.”
“Entirely understandable,” Kazdan said.
“Bunch of Fyrsobarthe soldiers stationed up at the base of the Ghotenda,” explained the balding man. “They’ve been there for about two months. Flingin’ them fucking rocks at us! What are we supposed to do?”
Another rock thumped down outside, making the black-haired soldier quail in fear. The Commander glared at the young man.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking,” Kazdan said, “but what exactly are you at war over? Money? Territory? Resources?”
“The gods alone know!” the Commander said, his voice heavy with exasperation. “Come on, man, don’t you know your history? So, are you gonna be staying in my fort, or are you pressing on? Going away? Now?”
“Depends on how long they usually fling boulders at you for,” Zoltan said flatly.
“It can last anywhere between… Well, they can fling one boulder at us and leave it, or they can send them coming for days on end.”
“Where do they get all these boulders!?”
“They’re at the base of a mountain range. Quite a bit of debris, rocks lying around…”
“I see. But there will only be a limited supply of boulders that are actually suitable for throwing, so that implies that they’re having to stop and carve them out in between chucking them.”
“You’d assume so, yes.”
“Yes, I would assume so.”
“You know,” the Commander said, “the few scouts that have come back have said they see dozens, tens of dozens of soldiers and trebuchets. Many trebuchets. In between shitting their pants, this is what they tell us.”
“I see,” Zoltan grunted. “Well, let’s wait for them to use up all their boulders and leave.”
“Could you not build trebuchets of your own and shoot some back?” Kazdan queried.
“Yes, we’ve tried,” the Commander said. “And they’ve been shattered. They seem to be… better shots than us, much as it shames me to admit it. I’ve been left with a bunch of namby pamby boys and tired old men here. Where are you headed, anyway? We don’t get many visitors here. Civilians, at least. I see you’ve got that blasted wanted poster. I suppose that’s why you’re here? Looking for a reward? Well, look what’s happened now! That’s what greed gets you, son. If I were you, I’d just head back to wherever you came from, wait it out. This war can’t go on forever.”
While the Commander ranted, Edward made to move off, but the purple cloaked man stopped and glared at the former policeman.
“Where are you going?” he demanded
“Just to… do a quick…” Edward started.
“In my fort!?” yelled the Commander.
“I won’t be long,” Edward said.
“No,” the Commander spat. “You’re not going anywhere in my fort.”
Irritated, Edward reached into his bag and pulled out the Orb, which was practically glowing with vivid, red image. The Commander looked at the globe, stunned.
“That’s… not what I think it is.”
“It’s not!” Alyaa cried.
“Where in the name of all the gods did you get that?” the Commander breathed.
“Castle Baphette,” Edward answered truthfully.
“This is… unbelievable,” the Commander said, suddenly seeming out of breath. “Is that the only one you have?”
“It might be,” Edward said defensively.
The Commander slumped onto a bench which was bracketed into the wall. “Listen, son. You cannot let those fall into enemy hands.”
“I don’t plan to.”
“You’ve got to stay away from the Ghotenda.”
“That was our plan.”
“Let me advise you something, okay? Get to the capital with all haste. Can you do that?”
“We can if you can get us out of this mess.”
“Stay here the night. Our armourer will take your armour, he’ll reinforce it as best he can. Then just go out in the morning and try to get past this fucking shower that these bastards are throwing at us. Go. Get to the capital just as fast as you can. Take those before the King.”
“Could you tell us a bit more about what these are?” Kazdan asked. “I’m a bit curious myself.”
“Wehrthar’s maw,” swore the Commander. “I don’t know. They’re magic, I know that much. They’re supposedly the most powerful magical items in all existence, and more importantly, they’re ours! What are they called? They’re called the seven Orbs of Yokurgin! They’re ours! We can use them against them, don’t you see? This could turn the tide of the war. I thought they were just a myth, but there’s one right here in my fort! Yorek, Dolac, are you seeing this?” The two soldiers did not reply, seeming awestruck by the Orb. The Commander turned to the party. “Yes. Give me your armour.”
Kazdan, Zoltan and Edward handed over the parts of their armour that they were willing to spare, and after a moment, Lilith reluctantly joined them. Alyaa flatly refused.
“Roth!” yelled the Commander.
An older man with tangled grey hair and a thick beard approached, looking as though he had just woken up. “What?”
“Fix this armour up for me, alright? These people are important. They’ve got a mission from me. They’re heading out there, and I want them well protected.”
“Alright,” mumbled the smith. “I’ll see to this. I’m going to need a night.”
“That’s alright,” the Commander said. “They’re staying here.”
“Okay,” Roth mumbled.
As the grey-haired man disappeared with the group’s armour, another boulder crashed down, this time further away. Lilith elected to fetch in the horses, but as she left the fort, she saw that one had obviously fallen and died. Gathering the rest, one horse bolted, but Lilith managed to catch it and lead it back to the fort.
The Commander, who introduced himself as Hob Bosskins, invited the party to eat with him, and all but Alyaa accepted. Hob led the party to his solar, where they dined on stale bread, weak soup and salt meat. Hob grumbled about the war, the soldiers keeping him and his men pinned down at the fort, and how his men wouldn’t stop shitting their pants.
As the group left the Commander’s solar, the chubby soldier who Hob had identified as Yorek approached. “Can I have a word?”
“Of course,” said Zoltan.
“Well,” the man said shyly. “I just wondered… what’s going on out there? What’s it like? It’s been so long since I left this fort I feel out of touch.”
“Where do we start?” Kazdan said with a wry smile. “There’s spider bears, there’s gigantic ginger twin cannibals, there’s some little cunt in the countryside that owes us money.”
“Don’t forget the undead,” Zoltan said.
Kazdan nodded. “And we’re currently following his shiny ball to catch that alchemist cunt. So yes, it’s pretty interesting out there.”
Yorek looked absolutely flabbergasted. “And is there… still… people trading?”
“People, turrons, garlands,” said Kazdan. “You name it, they’re out there.”
“I’m… going to go and lie down, now,” Yorek said slowly.
Commander Hob led party to the barracks, where the party had a section cordoned off. Several soldiers were sleeping in the simple beds, and a couple stirred as the party passed.
At 5 o’clock the next morning, Commander Hob rang a bell, waking those sleeping. Lilith and Alyaa, who had not slept very well at all, seemed especially irritated.
“You five, come with me,” Hob said, jabbing a finger at the party. “You lot, I want you up, dressed and ready to go in ten minutes.”
The party gathered themselves and followed Hob to the fort’s small armoury.
“Roth,” the Commander said, “what have you got for me?”
Roth offered the party back their armour, sturdily reinforced with iron bands, studs and boiled leather. Hob then led the group to the entrance of Fort Pelamence.
“Now, as I say,” he said, “get to the capital just as soon as you can. This is exciting! If I could ask you to deliver this to the King.” The Commander handed Edward a tiny scroll. “To the King, only. Not his advisor, not his court, him. And if I could ask you not to look at it. It is a very private, very important missive. Keep it secret, deliver it to the King. I would be eternally grateful.”
“Anything else we can do for you?” Kazdan asked, a little sharply.
“If you hand that to the King and you show him those Orbs, I’ll have done my job,” Hob said, “and I’ll be happy with that. Good luck out there.”
“I’m a little worried about what he said,” Kazdan mused as the party walked away from the fort. “Using the Orbs as a weapon. It sounds like they want to use them as some sort of weapon of mass destruction. Maybe we should read that document. I know it isn’t right, but what if he’s saying take this from them? They could then use it to slaughter a lot of people.”
“Not really an option,” Edward said softly.
“You’re not going to give him the Orbs, then?” Kazdan asked eagerly.
“I see what Kazdan’s saying,” said Zoltan. “If you present them to the King, then there’s a strong likelihood that the King’s not going to let you keep hold of them.”
“We’ll think of something,” Edward whispered.
“Perhaps you could hand over the two inert ones,” Kazdan suggested.
“No,” Edward said immediately.
“We’re not giving him any of them,” insisted Alyaa.
The group headed up the road on horseback. As the rode, Edward consulted the Orb, which now showed the image of what appeared to be flowing blood.
Within an hour, Zoltan, Alyaa and Edward began to see the makings of a camp. Fyrsobarthe flags and small fortifications dotted the landscape as they near the foothills of the Ghotenda. The party elected to skirt around edge of camp, and head east. As they rode, however, the signs of enemy occupation were ever present.
Finally, the group saw a single trebuchet with three soldiers sitting about it. Next to the trebuchet was a pile of black rubble, clearly hewn from the black hills surrounding it. Off to one side was a dark red tent. As the group watched, two of the soldiers loaded a huge rock into the trebuchet.
“Haul!” cried one of the soldiers, before the boulder was launched towards the fort. Without skipping a beat, the soldier by the trebuchet began winching its arm back.
The group tied their horses, then quietly and slowly approached the trio of soldiers. As they crept forward, Kazdan broke off from the group and headed for the tent. When he reached it, he peeked inside, seeing it full of arms, armour and other miscellaneous supplies. The tent also contained one collapsible bed. Lying on the bed a very tall man in black full plate, complete with a horned helmet.
Swallowing heavily, Kazdan stepped silently into the tent, drawing his sabre. After a moment’s hesitation, he slashed out at the armoured man’s throat. The blade of his sabre simply skittered off of the man’s gorget, and as Kazdan watched, horrified, the man sat up.
“What are you doing here?” the man asked in hoarse common.
“Here to stop you from using that trebuchet,” Kazdan croaked.
The man seemed to regard Kazdan for a moment. “You don’t wear the military garb of Yokurgin. Are you so cowardly that you must come in here in disguise and try to assassinate me while I sleep?”
“I’m not really with Yokurgin,” Kazdan said, taking a wary step back. “I’m something of a free agent, just interested in passing by without getting a boulder on the head.”
“So why did you feel the need to try and assassinate me?” the man in black demanded.
“I got the impression you might be in charge around here and giving the order to fling the boulders.”
“Indeed I am. This is the way of war. You can’t be so naïve that you don’t understand that.”
“On the contrary. War is my business, ser.”
“So, once again, I ask what were you trying to achieve.”
With no good answer, Kazdan swung out desperately with his sabre, but again the blade could not penetrate the thick black armour.
“That’s the way of it, then?” the man sighed, removing his helm. Underneath was a man, probably in his forties, with lank black hair and a thick moustache. The man threw down his helmet and then drew a longsword. As Kazdan watched in horror, flames began to run down the blade of the sword.
Lilith snuck around behind the trebuchet, and swiftly grabbed the nearest soldier by his helmet. The soldier winching the arm of the trebuchet yelled and started towards Lilith, only for one of Zoltan’s quarrels to strike him under the arm. The man staggered but did not stop, swinging at Lilith with a rapier. Lilith ducked under the blow, just as Alyaa charged in, cutting into the soldier Lilith was holding with her great axe. Lilith was driven backwards by the force of the blow, and the soldier struggled free.
Kazdan suddenly staggered backwards out of the tent, grey smoke curling from his leather armour.
“Guys!” the assassin cried. “He’s got a fucking flaming sword!”
The moustached man swung again, but Kazdan managed to duck the blow, and lash out in retaliation. The sabre caught the man below the eye, and blood began to ooze down his cheek. Letting out a roar of anger, the man swung at Kazdan, who once again telegraphed the blow.
Edward, meanwhile, had crept over to the trebuchet. Putting one hand on the rough wooden arm, he spied a rope which seemed to connect to the counterweight, and violently pulled it loose. There was a loud clunk and the wooden arm slumped down. Edward smiled.
Alyaa hacked into the soldier before her, who swiftly retaliated with his rapier. Lilith stabbed the soldier nearest to her twice. As the man stumbled backwards, Edward levelled his crossbow at back of the soldier’s head.
“Stand down, please,” Edward said.
“Why are you doing this?” the soldier grunted. “What have you got to gain?”
“You killed my horse!” Alyaa roared.
Scowling, the soldier threw down his sword. “I yield.”
Edward kicked the sword away seconds before Alyaa cut down the soldier before her. A second soldier swung his blade at Alyaa, but missed. Alyaa hacked him down in turn.
Outside the tent, the black-clad Lieutenant cut into Kazdan heavily. The assassin scrambled back, swallowing a healing potion as he did. His armour now had two blackened slices in it. Nevertheless, he swung at the man again, and as he ducked away from a retaliatory blow, Lilith darted in and jabbed at the man.
“Ah,” said he. “Another.”
Zoltan moved and crouched behind the trebuchet as Alyaa slammed her axe into the man’s breastplate, denting it. As Alyaa ducked back, the Lieutenant cut into Kazdan, who fell to the ground with a choked groan. Zoltan fired at the Fyrsobarthian soldier, but missed. Lilith stabbed him again, and when he swung his flaming sword, the darkling nimbly hopped out of the way.
“You’re outnumbered!” Zoltan cried, firing another quarrel. “All your men are dead! Stand down!”
Heedless, the man unsuccessfully swung at Alyaa. Alyaa hit back, further damaging his armour.
The man dropped to one knee, jamming his sword into the ground and extinguishing it. He looked up at the two women standing over him, his eyes full of loathing. Her expression equally hateful, Lilith jabbed her dagger into the side of the man’s jaw, and Alyaa split his skull.
Kazdan dragged himself to his feet, his armour burned and buckled. Edward walked over to tend to his wounds as Zoltan searched the corpse of the enemy soldier, finding a purple healing potion on his person. Lilith searched the tent, turning up a set of pauldrons and boots that she recognised as magical boots of weightlessness in tent.
Brushing himself down, Kazdan walked over to the Lieutenant’s sword and pulled it out of the ground, studying the blade closely.
“You should just kill me,” said the surviving soldier. “You’ve killed all my friends. Killed my Lieutenant. Go on. Be done with it.”
When no one made a move to kill him, the made a break for it. Zoltan shot at the man, but the quarrel clattered on the rocks beyond. Lilith and Alyaa gave chase, and within moments, had caught up to him. Alyaa tackled the soldier to the ground, and between him, the women dragged him back. He struggled and spat and cursed until Alyaa hit him twice with the flat of her axe, knocking him unconscious.
After a brief consultation, Lilith threw soldier over the back of her horse and rode for the fort. The rest of the party rested while she is gone, and on her return a few hours later, began ascending the Ghotenda.
The Fyrsobarthian camp dissipated beyond the foothills, and after a while, the going became too hard for the horses. The party agreed turn them loose, though Zoltan was loath to do so.
Day turned to night as the party ascended the black hills. Finally, after three or four hours, Edward and Alyaa spied an imposing building which could only be Kendraghora Abbey up ahead. The party decided to camp outside the building, with Alyaa taking first watch and Lilith relieving her.
Early the next morning, the party gathered up camp and continued to traverse the hills towards the Abbey, which stood out starkly against the grey strip of morning on the horizon.
Another four hours brought the party to the Abbey, an enormous building of greystone so dark it was almost black. Directly ahead of the party were two enormous doors adorned with black iron rings. Above the door were stone gargoyles, unlike any creature any of the party knew.
“Kendraghora Abbey,” Zoltan intoned. “Built by Pelher Kendraghora, but the last of that family died more than twenty years ago. It may or may not be abandoned.”
Lilith opened one of the doors quietly and peered inside, seeing a long hallway lined with portraits. Three doors led off to either side, and the corridor ended in a flight of stairs winding upward.
As Zoltan joined Lilith to look inside, he felt small hard fragments of stone hitting him. Letting out a cry, he jumped backwards just as one of the gargoyles, now a furry, living creature, flew down, shaking off dust and broken chips of stone. The other gargoyle, now also inexplicably alive, went for Alyaa, its claws skittering off her breastplate. Alyaa cut into the gargoyle, hewing off one of its legs and opening a bloody wound in its side. Kazdan then swing out his sabre, cutting the creature in half.
The remaining gargoyle, which seemed somewhat disorientated, took a swipe at Lilith, but missed. Lilith stabbed into it, and Zoltan clubbed it with his mace. Growling low in its throat, the wounded creature crawled along the ground, scratching at Zoltan.
“Kill it!” the turron shrieked. “Kill it!”
The gargoyle bit Zoltan, and the turron cried out, when suddenly, a throwing star took the creature in the flank, and it fell to the floor, dead.
The party hurried into the Abbey and slammed the doors behind them, Zoltan clutching his wounded arm. Edward held out the Orb, and determined that the image seemed brightest when pointed towards the second door on the left.
Lilith snuck into the room, finding a sizeable sitting room complete with an impressive grandfather clock. The whole room was dusty and dilapidated, the furniture ragged and the walls stained and peeling. Lilith looked at clock, which had stopped at 16 minutes past seventeen.
The rest of the party followed, with Kazdan finding a bag of coin and a fine fumin dagger, which he gave to Lilith. Edward noticed the image growing brighter towards corner of the room, but found nothing of note.
The room next door turned out to be a store room loaded with aged papers, books and clothes. The dry stench of mouldy paper and moth-eaten clothes hung in the air, and most of the books badly mildewed with their pages falling out. Nonetheless, Kazdan found a couple of intact books on magic, and Zoltan discovered a book on trade routes and one on general trade. Amongst the detritus, Lilith also found a dusty vial of purple liquid. The Orb once again indicated the corner towards the sitting room. However, when Edward lifted the Orb, he noticed image grow marginally brighter.
The party headed back into the corridor and up the stairs. At first, nothing was amiss, however Lilith, who was at the head of the group, soon noticed that the staircase was much more long and winding than it should have been. The rest of the party soon noticed this, and found the effect quite dizzying.
The party found themselves in what appeared to be a cylindrical turret, which the staircase wove around. Staggered up the walls were seven circular windows, blue at the bottom, then green, red, yellow, orange, purple and finally jet black. Lilith peered out of this last, seeing the sky beyond.
Finally the staircase ended at a door. Lilith opened the door and found herself in another corridor, almost identical to the one below. The Orb continued to point to the middle left door.
Unsure of the whole situation, Lilith opened the second door on the right, finding a much degraded bedroom. The bedclothes were rotted and on the dressing table were a dusty pair of broken spectacles.
Frowning, Lilith moved back into the corridor, and after looking around the party, silently opened the second door on the left.