Chapter 1 - Storm Clouds Gathering
The arrow striking Quillion's saddle caused him to snap his head back from where he had kept it close to his horse's body. These bloody bandits had finally garnered some skill with their bows. The minimal profile he created when he kept low to his horse saved him from many arrows in the back, but at the rate the group behind him gained, that scant protection would not last him long. Even now, his black-maned horse began to tire and soon one of the bandit's arrows would bury itself in its muscled hide and bring both of them down.
The Half-Elf's mind raced frantically as he searched for a way out of the situation. He had proficiency with a bow, as did anyone who lived in the Elven lands of Frenyndale for long, but his quiver ran low on arrows and shooting backwards on a moving horse certainly decreased the odds of hitting anyone. His sword breaker would be of no use either, unless the bandits decided, in their kindness, to ride up to striking range without placing a few arrows into his back.
The possibility of using weapons eliminated, Quillion mentally reviewed his list of offensive and defensive magical spells, hoping to find at least one with the power to delay his pursuers. His many years spent in the lands of Frenyndale taught him not only weapon and survival skills, but skills in the ways of magic from some of the most powerful mages in the land. Even in his youth, Quillion had felt his lust for challenge stirring, and as such, he scorned many of the more passive, knowledge-seeking spells taught by his elders in favor of more offensive and defensive minded ones. His repertoire had expanded greatly over the many years since, but unfortunately, no spell in his arsenal could aid him much while on horseback pursued by eight bandits intent on killing him.
He kept his slightly slanted eyes roving, searching for something in the barren countryside in which he rode to use as a shelter or a distraction. Unfortunately, the scrub plains between the Jungon Desert and Ravenwood offered little in the way of cover. The slightly rolling fields of thigh-high grass and scrub brush offered only an extensive view of everything around. Ordinarily Quillion reveled in the majesty that nature offered in a place such as this, but now it only served to irritate him in its uselessness.
As his hope began to flag, his acute sense of smell picked up a cool, clean scent on the light northwesterly breeze, definitely unusual in this hot Autumn. The scent placed an impression of running water in Quillion's head. He cursed silently as another arrow whizzed by his head, breaking his recognition, and bent his thoughts towards what river lay ahead. Only the southern fork of the Snake River lay close enough to smell in this arid country.
He felt a light prick on his shoulder and turned to notice an arrow sticking out of the leather armor protecting him. If the bloody bandits got any closer one of those arrows would skewer him like a rabbit on a spit. He crouched even closer to his horse's body, silently willing the beast to run faster. The knowledge that the river lay ahead gave him an idea.
A couple of tension filled minutes later, Quillion could see the glint of sunlight off the water in front of him and he formalized his plan. He directed his horse to take a slightly angled approach to the walls of the slight canyon that contained the river itself. As he closed on the edge, he took a breath to steady himself and drew his long hunting knife. The horse began to instinctively slow as the edge drew near, but Quillion kicked him hard in the flanks to continue his charge. The horse surged forward, trusting his master's commands implicitly. That trust made Quillion regret what he was about to do even more.
As they drew within a stride or two of the edge, Quillion took the reins in his hand and jerked them down hard to the left, forcing his horse's head down and causing both horse and rider to fall towards the ground. Due to their momentum, however, the ground no longer existed where it normally should and they both sailed over the edge of the cliff, out into open sky. The only thing passing through Quillion's mind was the hope that the normal sandy surface of the sloping cliff walls had not changed in the years since he last traveled the river and collected a deposit of rocks where he would land.
The flash of the ground he managed to see before rolling over his horse showed his fears to be unfounded, however. The horse struck the ground first, as Quillion had intended by rolling his weight towards the sky side of the fall. He could hear the beast’s breath leave his body in a loud whoosh of air, and he dug in his heels, fighting to keep him and his horse from sliding further down the face of the embankment. They stopped quickly, due to the soft sand of the ground, and Quillion’s horse attempted to right itself. However, before it could recover enough to stand, Quillion plunged his hunting knife deeply into the creature’s neck. The horse began to struggle, but the force of the impact coupled with Quillion's tight hold on its head made its exertions feeble at best. The Half-Elf held on grimly as the breathing of the noble beast faded into a last gurgle. The animal definitely deserved a better death, but in these dark days in Mer, almost everyone did.
The sorrow over the loss of his animal did not last, however, as the first of the bandits barreled over the edge of the cliff. Apparently, the man intended on mimicking Quillion's maneuver, but without forethought, he quickly lost control of himself and his mount. Quillion flattened himself as tightly as he could against the body of his own mount, which now served as the shield he planned on. The bandit and his horse slammed into Quillion's makeshift shield and caromed over the top, narrowly missing Quillion's head and continued down the slope of the canyon wall. Quillion watched them until they came to an unmoving rest almost twenty strides away and then directed his focus back to the bank above. That bandit below him posed no threat to him anymore, with his neck bent at that unnatural angle. Above, out of sight, lie the true threats: the remaining bandits.
Quillion felt around with his hand, searching for his bow and quiver of arrows while keeping his eyes locked on the bank overhead. When he found his bow, he cursed softly to himself upon feeling the jagged edge signifying the broken end of the dependable weapon, snapped under the impact of his horse slamming into the ground. With the option of weapons again removed, he mentally reviewed his list of offensive spells once more, searching for one to remove the threat of the bandits as quickly as possible and make good his escape before his own exhaustion prevented it. He could already feel the flagging in his limbs signifying its arrival. His years of studying the magical arts and surviving situations such as this one had given him a powerful sense of how to use his range of spells to his best advantage.
With his choice firmly in mind, Quillion quietly and quickly gathered his essential goods from the saddlebags that remained uncrushed and waited for the bandits to show themselves. He prepared as much as possible for the bandits' arrival by whispering the words to gather the ambient magical energies around to shape his spell. Of course, by doing this he gambled that the bandits would show themselves over the ledge above. He quieted his breathing to allow himself full use of his hearing and held his hands prepared to unleash the spell he had selected.
Long minutes passed without any indication of the bandits' location. Quillion strained his hearing and vision to their peaks, searching for the first forewarning of the grubby-clothed bandits' approach. He attempted to relax and wait for the first sign to launch into action, but his body felt coiled like a smith's spring, ready to launch and requiring full pressure to hold in check.
The tension in his body had built up to the point where he almost lost his spell preparation when two bandits' heads peered over the ledge. Their eyes widened when they saw the Half-Elf lying in wait, shielded behind the body of his horse. Before they had an opportunity to back away from the edge, however, Quillion unleashed his Force Knives. Arcing his fingers out in a fan, Quillion uttered the final word to complete the spell and thin, shining, blades of air darted from his hands towards the bandits, striking them in their faces.
The bandits each let loose a high-pitched wail and recoiled from the edge, their squeals still echoing over the edge and through the canyon. Quillion smiled grimly and prepared himself to make good his escape while the rest of the bandits dealt with their injured comrades. At least he hoped the bandits cared enough to remove their companions and inspect their injuries before committing the same mistake their comrades did. The Half-Elf stood slowly and cautiously before turning to move down the slope towards the banks of the Snake River.
He managed to take two steps before he realized his error. His instinct screamed at him to take cover and he dived back towards the body of his horse in time to dodge an arrow that flashed through the space occupied by his body moments before. He cursed himself as a fool for failing to notice that the two injured bandits had not stopped screaming nor had they moved further from the bank. Now he knew why two of them looked over the edge instead of one, because they were the only two up there. The others had taken up flanking positions on him.
The fact they employed military tactics and managed to keep silent from his sharp hearing proved these bandits had abilities or training out of the ordinary. Any common rogues would abandon the chase long before reaching the stage where Quillion and these bandits found themselves now. That definitely changed the plan of action Quillion wanted to take. These bandits, no, these warriors, would fill him full of arrowheads before he managed three steps towards the river.
He began to survey his surroundings, trying to find something to use to his advantage. The river would make nice cover if he could manage to reach it, but it loomed too far away to help just yet. The scruffy grass between him and the river thinned out after a few strides and would not provide him the same cover that his attackers enjoyed currently. He could not drag his horse along with him to protect himself from the deadly rain of arrows, either. The ledge overhead beckoned to him with the promise of high ground to attack or escape from his enemies, but the path to get there looked more fraught with peril than the one to the river. It appeared as if the surroundings afforded him no assistance. Again his eyes roamed back to the ledge, as if drawn there by their promise of freedom, then an idea occurred to him. The ledge! Of course!
He cast his mind about frantically, searching for the words to the spell he wanted. He could remember certain sections of the spell, but its beginning eluded him. Fearfully, his eyes began to dart around the grass, waiting for the attack he knew was coming. He would not remember in time, he had to find another way. He realized suddenly the dangerous turn his thoughts had taken. Panic killed more soldiers than any arrow or blade. He must remember his training. He must remember what his teachers instructed him to do so long ago.
He took a deep breath to steady his mind and went through his usual mantra that forced him to concentrate. If the attack came, he would deal with it then, but he had a job to do now. His mind sifted through the familiar patterns he continually trained it to follow until he remembered the phrasing and manipulations required for the Thunderclap. He opened his eyes, locking them onto his target, and whispered the words to gather the magical energy that seethed in the world around him. His hands shaped it, forcing it into the pattern necessary to execute the sonic force wave he required.
With a relaxed smile and a shout, Quillion threw his arms forward into a loud clap and the Thunderclap launched from his body, draining him of a bit more energy, and slammed into the ledge overhead and to the right of his position. The sound itself should have deafened the Half-Elf, due to his proximity, but the protection afforded him by the spell prevented it. Unfortunately, the same protection did not prevent the echo bouncing back from the ledge from slamming into him with only slightly diluted force.
The power of the sonic wave threw Quillion backward to the ground farther down the slope. The pounding in his head coupled with the ringing in his ears remained his only focus for a few moments while he gathered his senses. Slowly, his vision returned, though his hearing remained dubious, and he raised his head from where he lay on his hands and knees, half expecting to see a troop of warriors standing before him.
What he saw, though, deviated from his expectations greatly. The entire ledge where he had aimed the Thunderclap now contained a break in its line, almost as if some giant had come along and scooped a section out of it with an enormous hand. The earth that had previously comprised its makeup now lay strewn below down the slope of the riverbank. Through the dust still permeating the air, Quillion could see no signs of the warriors that had plagued him.
A quick glance in the other direction gave him no indication of warriors lurking on that side, either. He felt certain were still nearby, though, and he would not give them an opportunity to recover and strike him from behind. Hopefully the power of the first wave of the Thunderclap did them damage that had not affected him.
He stood up shakily, casting one last forlorn glance at his mount and shambled down the slope, taking care at each step on the now unstable ground. As he drew within a few strides of the riverbank, he noticed one of the warriors lying on his side with his back towards Quillion. The Half-Elf watched the form closely for a few moments, attempting to use his keen eyesight to determine whether any life stirred within the crumpled mass of reddish-brown clothes. The effects of the Thunderclap's backlash still imposed themselves on him, though, so he gave up, relying instead on his ability to move silently to sneak closer. He did not want to waste any more time staring at a body that might be dead when plenty of other live bodies lay not far away ready to do him serious harm.
He approached the form on the ground cautiously, drawing his bone-handled dagger from its hidden sheath under his tunic. If this person so much as rolled or twitched, he would have a knife buried in the base of his skull. When Quillion drew within mere hands of the body, he noticed an area around the man's back where the baggy, dirty overcloth had fallen loose. Quillion's eyes narrowed in speculation. Underneath the rusty-brown cloth, the man wore black scale-mailed armor, still polished despite its filthy covering.
Quillion's thoughts darted like a trapped mouse. The scale mail armor meant this person was Czak Myar, the elite group of soldiers from the dark country of Mirdas Morgal. Only the followers of the foul God Braquast lived in that country which encompassed the whole of the black D'Akimar Isle, lying to the north of Mer. These highly trained shock troops of the undying Lord Sortinst loved to pierce into the heart of the continent of Mer like a poison-tipped spear and then withdraw before the countries therein could rally any retaliation against them. Many people had lost their lives to this band of terrorists, including the people in the village of Wirend, where Quillion first encountered the Czak Myar.
If the bloody soldiers had pursued him from the ashes of Wirend, then they must know of his purpose. They would not stop him from his goal, he could not allow that, but the complications grew a thousandfold with their intervention. He must get to Two Sands to his meeting with his friends even faster now. If the Czak Myar knew of his quest, or even a tenth part of it, then Sortinst almost certainly knew as well. The possibility of that sent shivers down the Half-Elf's spine.
Almost in mirror to Quillion's movement, the soldier on the ground gave a slight shiver and turned his head towards the Half-Elf. Quillion snapped his head down towards the man and locked eyes with him. A man could hardly be a fair term for this soldier, who barely seemed to have reached his sixteenth year. The soldier's eyes, though, held the hate that only an adult could truly feel, and his mouth opened as if to scream for help.
The scream never broke the sound of the gurgling waters of the Snake River, though, as Quillion smoothly slid the tip of his dagger into the man's throat, silencing forever the soldier's voice. The hate in the young man's eyes changed quickly to surprise, then despair that slid away like the running water nearby. Quillion lowered the man's head down gently from where he had caught it, lest the helmet clanking against a rock draw attention his way. The poor soldier had more than likely been stolen from his house as an infant and raised in the unfriendly terrain of the Klast Mountains in Mirdas Morgal, trained to kill as quickly and with as little remorse as breathing. Quillion could think of no worse way for a child to grow up.
The sound of armor clinking and a muffled groan from far up the slope behind him caused Quillion to stop his reminiscing and move toward the river itself. As he waded into the swift-flowing current, Quillion smiled to himself. He could easily swim across the wide river with only his light soft leather armor and a few saddlebags to carry, but the Czak Myar, weighted down with their metal armor, would not have such luck. Now, he only faced a long walk to Two Sands to meet up with his companions, pursued by a pack of vicious Mirdas Morgal soldiers in this unseasonable heat. This holiday season certainly has started in a bad way.
Malaryn walked down the streets of Two Sands, watching the worried looks on the people's faces as they went about their daily business. The holiday season was starting in a really bad way. The Feast of Winds lay only a few days away, but the people of Two Sands rightfully felt the pressure to simply live superseded their normal holiday cheer. The sun had mercilessly pounded down on the land for more than a month now and the weather gave little sign that the arid weather would break.
This Autumn, normally the rainy season in Two Sands, the countryside would be lucky to see even a single dew drop in the morning. Children grumbled to themselves as they trudged their way, buckets in hands, to the rapidly drying creek at the edge of the forest to bring back wash water for the day. The city guards posted along the creek side ensured no one wasted any of the precious fluid. Personal bathing had become a rare occurrence in the city due to the water shortage, though most of the population did not necessarily view that as a loss. Malaryn did not enjoy the lack of wash water, but he accepted the concession to the drought as a necessary one.
There existed one unanimously sanctioned use for the dwindling water supply, however, one that Malaryn agreed to enthusiastically: the brewing of ale for the pubs. The less water the city had available for mundane use, the more the local townsmen craved a drink of the ale it supplied. The pubs in the city filled up at night with men seeking to drown away their concerns about the weather and the smell of their own unwashed bodies. Malaryn wagered, though, that the city's romantic angle, famous the around the world as one of the liveliest in existence, suffered tremendously from the lack of bathing water. Malaryn caught a whiff of himself as he walked down the street towards the inner city and sighed. He would not have minded a bath himself.
Despite his smell, Malaryn smiled as he walked along the edge of the inner city, listening to the echoes of hammers ringing throughout the trees as blacksmiths pounded metal into their desired shapes. Here, in the part of the city the locals termed "The Steel Quarter", the smell of burning coals permeated the air as the fires of the stone-built forges raged on. The few stone buildings in Two Sands resided in this section of the city, along with the Religious Quarter, for Sendat Margen Goyden, the leader of Two Sands, allowed only smithies and churches to build with stone walls. Churches, primarily, for the feeling of solidity, and smithies because of the amount of fire required in heating a forge.
Of all the trades in Two Sands suffering through the drought, the smithing trade suffered the least. The demand grew higher and higher for smiths with the ability to forge armor and weapons for the growing trouble in the north. Fighting had broken out in the country of Windsong, and although war did not grip the country yet, the threat of it increased the desire for reliable armaments. The smiths in Hogun Wrath and Haven, along with the other cities to the north, overtaxed themselves to meet the constant demand for armor repair and replacement. The mastersmiths in Two Sands looked to increase their own business by hiring journeyman smiths to handle the spillover work the cities in the north sent their way. The old axiom of where there is war, there is work ran its way through Malaryn's mind.
Those very same journeymen traveled from city to city, applying themselves to the business of preparing for war, as did Malaryn. A journeyman smith himself and a former resident of Two Sands, Malaryn had only just walked into town after a long journey from Splinterfist and now searched for a forge needing capable hands to work in. After looking only a matter of hours, he found such a place, a smithy that looked to not have had apprentices or journeymen for a long while, if the state of disrepair on the inside gave any indication.
Malaryn surveyed the interior of the forge from the doorway, taking care not to enter unless he felt certain of doing business there, for that rule of business etiquette he lived by as well. A good smith always kept his shop as clean and orderly as possible, otherwise the likelihood of losing or breaking tools, wasting time searching for supplies, and injuring oneself increased dramatically. The smithy where Malaryn stood did not follow that rule for it looked like an inn at the end of a night when the bard had whipped the crowd into a drunken frenzy. Chunks of metal lay strewn about the hard brick floor, black carbon waste had built up along the doors to the forge hearth, and tools lay around haphazardly, disregarded or forgotten.
The large, clean-shaven mastersmith pounding a glowing red, rail-thin piece of metal at a large anvil spared a quick look at Malaryn standing in the doorway, never breaking the rhythm of his hammering. He noticed Malaryn's expression at surveying the shop's interior.
"Ye apparently are lookin' f'r work and dinna like a filthy shop. Ye think ye can clean this place up?" he asked with a low, tired voice.
"I can," responded Malaryn, his own voice a low rumbling bass, "but I need to find out the terms first."
The smith just grunted and gave a half-smile, saying, "Ye know bloody well I'm lookin' f'r someone who knows their way 'round a shop. I give an honest day's pay f'r an honest day's work. There's nary a shortage of coin in this city f'r a good day's work."
Malaryn grinned at the mastersmith's surliness. The man knew the state of his shop did not serve him well and did not like it. All the better for Malaryn, for he did not wish to work for a man who contented himself to working in an environment such as this without reservations. He nodded his head in acceptance of the mastersmith's offer and walked into the shop, removing the cleanest leather apron from a peg on the wall just inside the door. He tied the apron around his girth and twisted slightly, ensuring that he had a good range of movement. Most aprons such as these constricted him when he worked, although he loathed not wearing them for fear of hot metal slag catching his clothing on fire.
Luckily, this apron fit the measurements of the mastersmith himself, whose girth encompassed much more territory than Malaryn's. Malaryn had grown accustomed to being the largest person in a room at a time, but this big mastersmith, Leryl, if the sign over the forge named him right, made Malaryn feel positively small. Leryl's large hands held the hammer in his hand, a ten pound hammer, as if it weighed less than a feather. The mastersmith wore his shaggy mane tied back into a tail with a leather band to keep it clear of his work.
Malaryn watched for a moment more, ensuring the mastersmith did not require any immediate assistance, and then leaned over and grabbed a set of iron tongs, intent on organizing the tools. He gathered all of the tools lying loose on the floor that Leryl did not appear to be using. He took them to a shelf on the back wall with a large pegboard along its width. He placed the tools in the positions set up for each one. It did not have the best organization in Malaryn's opinion, but he knew better than to rearrange another smith's forge.
Once the tools resided in their proper places, Malaryn busied himself cleaning up the scrap bits of metal and sweeping the black carbon soot from the floor. Many times during his tasks, he could see Leryl glancing at him from under his brows. The big mastersmith did not stop his work at all as he watched Malaryn, but he did keep a close eye on him. Sometimes Malaryn could see the man give a slow smile before going back to his work.
With the shop cleaned, Malaryn moved over and manned the bellows that fanned the flame of the forge where the mastersmith heated his metal for shaping. As he grabbed the long wooden handles and began his even rhythm, Malaryn watched the mastersmith's work closely. Leryl had a long stock of metal held in his heavy tongs, hammering it flat and folding one edge over again before reheating it and hammering again. A sword for sure, Malaryn recognized, for the careful attention to detail of the shaping and the folding of the metal made for the utmost strength while not loosing flexibility. Malaryn smiled under the sheen of sweat running across his face at the knowledge that Leryl apparently knew his trade. Then the big mastersmith inserted the metal back in the forge and Malaryn turned his attention back to the work at hand.
Five hours later saw Malaryn standing in the doorway of the forge, leaning up against the doorframe and wiping his sweaty brow. The soft leather pouch clinking in his hand held the wages the mastersmith had given him for his day's work, as intense a day's work as he had done in a long while. After accepting Malaryn's help with the bellows, Leryl had given Malaryn a few simple orders to complete, horseshoes, spikes, and the like. No smith worth his anvil allowed an unproven journeyman to handle complicated orders such as armor and weapons, and Malaryn did not blame Leryl for doing the same, even though Malaryn had extensive experience with such items.
Malaryn hefted the pouch in his hand again, feeling its weight thump back in his palm. Leryl had given him quite a nice bit of compensation for his day of work, a very nice bit. The thought of all the money in his hand lent him a familiar urge to spend some of it in the common room of an inn, perhaps The Sinner's Cove. He shook his head briefly in denial. No, The Sinner's Cove would wait, for he would go there soon enough. When last he stepped foot into the inn, its reputation as one of the nicest inns in the city was well founded, though their notorious shortage of serving wenches always held them back. Yes, his meeting with the rest of the companions there would come soon enough. For now, he had a moment or two to relax and reflect.
Malaryn enjoyed the slight breeze wafting through the open door as it cooled the slick sweat on his shirtless, muscled frame. He even felt it caress his brown tresses as they curled over his ears. Good, maybe they would dry out before the meeting so he did not look such a hoodlum. The breeze only blew near the edge of the forest, where Leryl's forge stood, as did all the forges in Two Sands. Deeper in the forest, the breeze slacked tremendously, and one could not enjoy a cooling draft such as he felt now. Of course, it only seemed cool by comparison to the previous temperature of the forge. The long-extinguished fire no longer flamed the forge to superheated temperatures, but even so, Malaryn normally took a while to cool down from working the hammer and bellows.
The big smith took a deep breath, enjoying another gust of air, and let his brown eyes look about the city. His vision shifted through the layer of buildings sitting on the ground as well as the interlacing of buildings high in the trees. Though they remained hidden from his sight, Malaryn knew of the buildings that hid themselves under the ground as well. His mind drifted back as he watched, back to the days when he scampered through the three levels of the city as a kid. Dwarves and Halflings primarily populated the City Below, not because of a fondness for subterranean living, for certain, but due to a lack of trust in the wooden structures above ground. If one mentioned to a member of either race the possibility of living in the structures built in the trees high above the earth, they would typically receive a shudder and a grumbled oath as a response.
Malaryn did not blame them, either. In his opinion, only the truly crazy types lived in The City Above, people such as Elves, Fairies, and such. The big smith never dreamed of judging their views as bad or otherwise, but no one would catch Malaryn Coldhawk living forty strides above the ground in a house that swayed every time the wind blew. A nice place to visit, for certain, but the fall to get back down worried him too much to stay for long.
Though he knew not that much time had passed since he had swung through the branches of those trees without a care in the world, that time of fun did not last long. Only a few years later he committed the immortal sin that had branded him forever to the citizens here. The incident stuck with him for seasons, and still haunted him to this day, though he had changed a great deal since those dark times. Surely less people lived in Two Sands who could still recognize him from that time and remember him. No, he contented himself with walking through the world as plain old Malaryn now, with a past that only a few could still recall.
He took a look around him at the falling shadows of the forest and the twinkling of lights from the dwellings in The City Above. He needed to hurry and gather his armor and weapons if he wanted to reach the inn on time to meet Quillion and the others. The message the former leader of the companions sent to him stated for everyone to gather shortly after dark at The Sinner's Cove. Malaryn gave a large sigh and shouldered his pack, gathering his possessions for the walk. The Sinner's Cove. He really wished they would change the name of that place.
Blacksmithing did not hold the exclusive title as a trade that flourished under a threat of war, for many trades had a claim to that particular title. The oracles and self-proclaimed seers of the land gathered themselves in the threatened countryside like vultures to a fresh carcass. They knew when to ply their trade and who to ply it upon.
People always wanted to know their future, and that desire intensified tenfold when they feared the predictions foretold more bad tidings than good. That also meant they paid tenfold more to hear these gloomy foretellings of lost money, lost property, lost loved ones, or sometimes lost life. A good soothsayer always asked for their payment up front, for people had a tendency not to pay if they found out their future held death for them on the following day.
Some of these prophets were strictly charlatans who found out what they could about a person through observation or well-placed questions, and then delivered to them only vague fortunes with barely enough fact to allow belief. They always allowed themselves a way out of a bargain on an unfulfilled fortune by placing the fault for its failure on the customer, informing them that they had not fulfilled some obscure portion of their destiny and thereby shouldered the blame.
In the city, though, doing the work of their Gods and lending credibility to the oracle trade in general, lived the true prophets of the land, the non-charlatans of the business. These prophets, the true clerics of the countryside, had the gift bestowed upon them by their Gods to see into the limited future, not always a clear sight, but always true. Their job strictly lay in the delivering of their vision to their customer and allowing them to interpret the vision. They generally charged more, but the guaranteed accuracy of the fortune assuaged the price.
Aramari, one of these true clerics of the gods and the former High Priestess of the Goddess Meyasha, laughed out loud at the latest report in the notice before her, distributed by the gossip monger in this part of the city. Apparently the Sendat of the city had fallen prey to one of the false oracles and now held the entire trade to task for it. A patrol now roamed Two Sands, searching out who they deemed to be a false prophet and arresting them on some pathetic charge. Apparently, Sendat Goyden did not enjoy investing all his money in a failed tavern in the Religious Quarter.
Luckily, Aramari had no need to worry about prophet hunting patrols, for she had solid credentials backing her. She had spent many years as the head of the church of Meyasha in Two Sands long ago, but she gave up the post when her travels with the companions called her away from the city too often. Since her return several seasons ago, she had sold her limited divine vision to the people of Two Sands from this shop, though she worried of drying up from the boredom. She still involved herself with the church, however, and that fact protected her from the prying eyes of the patrol. Unfortunately, the church allowed her involvement only up to a point before reminding her of the fact she had given up the mantle of High Priestess and should take up a lighter hobby such as knitting or the like. The whole business proved bloody well frustrating for the priestess.
A figure dressed in black robes walked into the front door of Aramari's shop, interrupting her reverie. Aramari squinted her eyes at the figure, attempting to discern its origin. Only a friar or a mage had the courage to walk around in black robes with the patrols searching the streets.
"Missstressss Julessss?" inquired the figure. Its hissing voice immediately branded it as a Lizardman, or more correctly, a Lizardwoman, if Aramari's ears did not fail her. Aramari had called herself Mistress Jules since her return to Two Sands, for a name change usually kept away people who dearly loved to collect on old grudges. The name served as well as any other.
"Yes, milady?" she replied. "Do you need your fortune read?"
"Nay, but there isss sssomething that thou can'ssst do for me," answered the Lizardwoman. Aramari could just see under the hood of the woman's cloak. She saw the glint in the slitted eyes that stared warily back at her, and the fear contained within. Many people in the world would never see that fear. They only would see the scaly skin and the yellow coloring of the eyes and assume this lovely creature intended to kill them, or some other such nonsense. Superstition, prejudice, and fear kept the population of the world unaware of the true nobility of the Lizardfolk. Violent only when provoked, they lived in peace as one of the gentlest races on Mer, though their reclusiveness only fed more horrible stories of them.
"What might that be, child?" Aramari asked.
The Lizardwoman paused to carefully take a look out the window before answering. "I have heard that thou would'st be meeting again with the companionsssss this night. I would asssketh thou to give this to the one known as Quillion."
The Lizardwoman carefully held out a cloth-wrapped object not much larger than Aramari's fist. The Priestess carefully reached out and took it from her hands, placing it on the desk before her.
"What is it? If I might ask," she carefully inquired. She watched the Lizardwoman closely for any signs of something amiss.
The Lizardwoman looked at her carefully from the folds of her hood before answering. "It isss sssomething that we can hold on to no longer. Sssomething that criesss out to be used more than sssafeguarded, lest thousandsss of livesss be lost. I've carried it for as long as I can, now it needsss to... needsss t...." The Lizardwoman raised her hand with its talon-tipped fingers to her head as if she felt dizzy. Her head then dropped as she swooned and collapsed on the hardwood floor of the shop, narrowly missing banging her head on the desk.
Responding more instinctively than consciously, Aramari leaped over the table and knelt beside the fallen Lizardwoman. To her surprise, she saw a pool of blood on the floor where the Lizardwoman had stood previously. The priestess of Meyasha unsheathed her belt knife and sliced open the robes covering the Lizardwoman from view. Almost immediately, she noticed a wound in the woman's chest, slightly below and to the right of her throat.
Following her training in the healing arts, Aramari gently, but quickly rolled the woman to her side and inspected her back. The area just above the Lizardwoman's shoulder blade contained the sister to the wound in the front. I appeared as if someone had shot the woman with an arrow from behind with such force that it penetrated through her body. The woman must have then pulled the arrow out of her body through the front, despite the incredible pain it must have caused. Yet another tribute to the bravery of her kind. Meyasha must have smiled upon her for her to make it this far without collapsing.
Wasting no more time, Aramari quickly whispered the keys to a prayer for a Healing to allow her to focus the might of her Goddess through her body and repair the Lizardwoman's shattered frame. As she made contact to the power, her blood warmed and she felt the familiar glow from her Goddess's presence. The healing power of Meyasha began to flow through Aramari into the Lizardwoman and the priestess waited for the usual sharp intake of breath signaling the patient's acceptance of the Healing. It did not happen. The Lizardwoman gave no response to the force that flowed into her.
Quickly Aramari studied the flows of power to ensure they arranged themselves into the Healing pattern, but to her surprise, the energy simply pooled in the body and slowly dispersed. Abandoning the spell, Aramari checked the Lizardwoman for the usual signs of life, hoping that she would find one, but she did not. She had wasted too much time before the Healing. The priestess of Meyasha pounded the floor in impotent fury. The power of a Resurrection lay beyond her limited abilities yet, and because of that, this noble Lizardwoman gave her life to bring Aramari the cloth-covered object.
Aramari took a moment to compose herself before pulling the bell rope that rang in the sitting room. She could not appear distraught in front of her assistant. Promptly the door opened and Weth, her shop assistant, peeked his head into the room. The young dwarf appeared to be out of breath, as his normally sallow face now flushed red as he panted heavily and ran his eager eyes over the scene before him, taking in the body on the floor and his mistress kneeling beside it.
"Weth, be a good lad and summon the Death Monks to come and pick up the body," she commanded. "Inform them that time is of the essence, for I won't be here long"
The young dwarf nodded his head, his clean-shaven jowls jiggling with the motion, and quickly disappeared back through the door, forgetting in his haste to close it after himself. Aramari needed to speak with the lad about his overflowing eagerness to please. She could even now hear his footsteps echoing from the sitting room and then down the cobblestone street outside. Hopefully he would return with the Death Monks soon so that they could take care of removing the body from her premises and inter it, for a price, of course.
Aramari covered the courageous Lizardwoman's body with her cloak and rose unsteadily, straightening her own snowy white robes. She moved to walk around the desk, her eyes on the object the woman had died in bring to her attention. As she looked at the small, cloth-covered object, Aramari pondered the timing of the whole situation, the fact that this object fell into her hands on the very same night the companions planned on gathering again after so many years. How had the Lizardwoman known of the companions' scheduled meeting this night? Aramari felt certain the other companions would never tell a soul about the meeting at The Sinner's Cove, so the mystery of the woman's knowledge deepened further. Could it have anything to do with why Quillion never mentioned the reason behind this night's gathering?
Finally, her curiosity gaining the better of her caution, Aramari reached for the object on her desk. What made this thing so important that a woman lost her life in delivering it? She picked it up carefully from the desk, though her apprehension now began to grow at the thought of the thing. It did not weigh much, probably about the same as a piece of lead of equal size, roughly the diameter of her fist. She carefully unwrapped the cloth from around the object and a light emanating from it suddenly lit up the dusk-darkened room. Aramari's eyes grew wide as she stared at the object, heedless of the intense light it gave out. Goddess! Surely it could not be.
She slowly became aware of a sharp pain in her palms where the object rested. She gave a sharp intake of breath at the sensation and tried to drop the object to the floor, but to her dazed astonishment, she could not release the thing. Panic began to set in as the pain began to spread from her hands to the rest of her body, enveloping her in a hot bed of needles. She began to grow dizzy and felt a sensation of falling, as if she had stepped off the roof to her shop. She could feel the blackness start to fill her mind and she knew, somewhere in her active mind, that unconsciousness stretched out its hand to claim her.
Just as she could feel the icy grip of the dark closing around her mind, a warm light filled Aramari with a soft flow. She rejoiced in the familiar touch of Meyasha as her Goddess came to her aid. The warmth and light drove the darkness away and allowed her to clear her head of its confusing influence. As soon as she felt capable of sustaining herself under her own power, Aramari felt the light of Meyasha leave her.
The priestess of Meyasha looked around the room and surprisingly found herself prone on the floor with the object still held in her hand, its light now muted compared to its earlier brilliance. She stood and quickly re-wrapped the object before it could spread its influence to her again, setting it back on her desk. She whispered a prayer of thanks to Meyasha and looked about the room, searching for her traveling possessions.
She retrieved her array of pouches from her bundle of travel goods and stuffed the object from the desk into one of the larger ones. She hoped the leather sides of the pouch would protect her from the object's dark magic. She removed a scrap of parchment from her writing desk and jotted down some instructions for Weth to run the shop in her absence. Not that the lad had any talent in divining fortunes, but the day-to-day chores still needed doing, and he could handle those just fine. She trusted the young dwarf could decipher her looping scrawl and she tacked the note to the front of the desk where she knew Weth could find it. She had no time for anything more if she wanted to leave before the Death Monks' arrival. She had no patience now for the inane questions the followers of Nightrene usually asked. Weth could handle them.
The light from outside the window now came primarily from the street lamps burning nearby instead of from the sunlight. It drew near the time for the companions to meet at The Sinner's Cove. The priestess arranged her travel possessions to their old places on her body. Much time had passed since she last wore these items in such a fashion. She did not plan on staying long at the tavern, but she knew from past experience, that where the companions became involved, one needed to prepare for everything.
As she opened the door to the front of her shop and walked into the street, she felt the pouch holding the object bump against her hip. Her imagination must be playing tricks on her, for the pouch felt suddenly very heavy. Hopefully one of the companions could tell her what the bloody thing was. She turned on her heel and walked briskly up the street that led across the city to the tavern where the companions waited. She had more reason now than ever to attend this particular meeting. This seemed a bad way to start the holiday season.