Fruit of the Fallen

The Red Throne
A Cold Trial

Part 5 of Marwyn and The Golden Hand

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The Deneith Blademarks
A Fractious Nation

Part 4 of Marwyn and The Golden Hand

Volaar Draal, A Few Weeks Earlier
The temperature in the caverns was near sweltering. Despite the cooler temperatures of spring nobly holding out against the rapidly approaching summer above ground, the air in the subterranean caves was heated by the presence of several dozen forges, and thousands of goblins. In the largest of the pockets carved out of the Seawall Mountains, the warriors of the Kech Volaar, or the Word Bearers, trained under the watchful eye of their elder Dhakaani masters. Elsewhere, those not sparring took watch on the fortress’ outer walls, which looked out over Darguun’s so-called capital. Rhukaan Draal, sat impassively by the Ghaal River. The spiraling tower-fortress where the Lhesh Haruuc, effective leader of Darguun, made his home, loomed over all who travelled in Darguun. Its presence was only just tolerated by the kingdoms of the other races, its existence an example of Khorvaire’s unwillingness to fight tooth and nail for land that wasn’t there’s.
Those inside of Volaar Draal however, dreamed of a different nation, where the empire of their ancestors, the Dhakaani, would return to its old glory. They more than any knew of the power and prestige once wielded by the race which now occupies none but the lowest tiers of society. The keep itself was a safeguard of records going back to before the first daelkyr invasion, kept secure throughout the ages by the sole effort of the Word Bearers against many attackers. Through these legends the mythos of noble goblinkind was kept alive. Perhaps it was this enlightened approach to honoring their history that allowed the Kech Volaar to be one of the most moderate Dhakaani clans, which hoped that diplomacy and respect could match war and bloodshed in the task of rebuilding.

But even the most tolerant of outlooks still has that which it abhors. One such case was on display in Volaar Draal’s main mustering ground, where, besides the regular training, a hobgoblin by the name of Jorduna was awaiting court martial. She’d arrived at the citadel, alone, two days ago. Her status as an outcast granted her the according treatment, having been stripped of all her possessions and imprisoned.
But that had been expected, and the rogue calmly waits for the beginning of the proceedings while ignoring the sweltering temperature. Wearing little but prisoner’s rags has few advantages, but they are far superior to armor in heat. The guards flanking her were disciplined enough to shrug it off as well, but Jorduna could see that they were both getting uncomfortable.
Distracting herself from both the environment and her circumstances, the hobgoblin chose to watch the drilling soldiers. She could remember a time when it had been her in that armor, preparing to fight for Kech Volaar and the Dhaakani legacy. It was soon found that she excelled in areas outside the purview of a normal foot soldier, however, and that was when her life had gotten interesting.

But then Jorduna’s train of thought was broken. Fortunately for her guards’ constitution, the arbiter had arrived. He was clothed in ceremonial armor that did little to offer protection, rather it was the laws which bound all Kech Volaar that served as his defense. Through the gaps in the metal, where bare skin broke through, an impressive number of tattoos drawn in the Dhakaani tradition bespoke nearly a lifetime of fighting for the good of the Dhakaani. For the first time in years, Jorduna felt echoes of pain where similar tattoos had been removed from her hide. They’d been replaced by a solitary one, inscribed at the base of her skull, which she’d kept carefully hidden ever since. It wasn’t a token of prior accomplishments, it marked her for death.
And death it was facing her, as the formal rites of the court were performed in their native language. Alongside the incantations beat the rhythm of the drilling drums, matching the cadence with which they were spoken. This was by intent, as those assembled weren’t just there to train, they were there to bear witness. Indeed, as the last of the formal proceedings was completed, the soldiers drilling were called to a stop, and turn towards the arbiter.

Speaking now directly to Jorduna, the Arbiter declares in the goblin tongue, “To the one known as Jorduna, you are charged with breaking the oath of exile sworn six years past. It was our mercy which allowed the abatement of punishment for the crime of murder. Your return to the Dhakaani rebukes the clemency once afforded, and now condemns you to suffer for your crimes. Have you anything to say in your defense?”
The rogue’s heart sinks. During her imprisonment she had informally petitioned against this hearing, citing the word of the Gatekeepers. Apparently, the opinion of the druidic sect had less weight than Jorduna had thought, and not only had a trial been scheduled, it seemed the verdict had already been decided upon. She’d feared this outcome, but her path was chosen. Now, the hobgoblin was left with but one resort. “Amalorkar,” she replies simply, keeping her tone respectful despite her distress.
The arbiter nods solemnly, anticipating the response. “The Kech Volaar are willing to submit to an Amalorkar in order to find true justice. But know that there are none here that will call you sister, that you will face this trial alone. So warned, will you still submit to the judgment of the gods?”
“I will!” Jorduna says loudly enough for her voice to carry across the cavern.
“Then it is decided. Amalorkar!”
“Amalorkar!” all assembled echo the cry of the arbiter, tapping the blunt ends of their weapons on the ground to punctuate it. “Amalorkar! Amalorkar!” the chant repeats, and continues, as space is cleared, and the trial is prepared.

Sterngate, Present Day
It was three days after Marwyn met with Caravor that their Deneith escort arrived in Sterngate. Over that time, Valaina d’Jorasco had arrived, completing the delegation. The bard had gotten to know all of them to some extent, though he was obviously familiar with some more than others. Worth mentioning first was Tora. He’d spent some more time with her, though after his misunderstanding Marwyn tried to keep a greater distance from the halfling. That the delegation met in secret three or four times a day helped somewhat.
Caravor, the only other Jorascan he’d spoken to, was likewise busy preparing for their journey into Darguun. After their initial conversation, Marwyn didn’t have much more than passing remarks with the man.
Desmie d’Lyrandar, from Thrane, established quickly that she wanted little to do with Marwyn. In addition to her mark she held the powers of a cleric of the Silver Flame, and was old enough to harbor some animosity of the Last War. The cleric appeared to force camaraderie around Tora, probably due to their shared bloodline, but made no such pretense around the bard.
The Zilargo representative, Eli, was somewhat of a different case. Almost as much an outcast in the delegation as Marwyn, due to his lower status and apparent token presence in the delegation, the young halfling soon learned that commiserating with Marwyn was a good way to pass the time. Their status among the group was not the only thing they shared, as to Marwyn’s surprise, he learned Eli was arcanically talented. Zilargo’s reputation in magical talents seemed to have rubbed off on the halfling, sparking an interest which would lead to the discovery of natural talents. While he didn’t go so far as to reveal the mark of the Traveler on his back, Marwyn did have a few pleasant conversations with the man on the nature and capabilities of arcane magic.
Avarne, the Jorasco representative from Sharne, was an elderly halfling, one Marwyn didn’t have much chance to talk with. It wasn’t the overtly hostile distance that Desmie interposed, it was more that Avarne rarely left his room of the Ghallandan enclave. The man was frail, and certainly didn’t look like one to undergo a cross-kingdom journey into what was only nominally not a war zone. The bard wondered if Avarne was using some of his talent every day to keep his weak frame in good health. Talent was the one thing the Jorascan seemed to have in ample supply, and Caravor did not jest on the size of Brelish halfling’s mark. It was truly expansive, so much so that it poked out of the old man’s clothing in several locations, seemingly centered on his left hip. This much was gleaned from their initial chance meeting in the hall, which Avarne quickly excused himself from. Marwyn hadn’t seen the halfling since, though he didn’t make any special effort to do so.
And finally, there was Valaina. She arrived the day after Caravor and the rest did, travel worn and harried. Marwyn quickly discovered that the woman viewed the whole delegation as a massive inconvenience, and there was implication that her role in it was some form of punishment, in response to an equally inscrutable crime. The constant storm that seemed to rage in the halfling’s mind made what may have been a cheery personality into an abrasive one. Having recently resurfaced from his own fugue, the bard avoided Valaina when it was polite to do so, and did his best to tolerate her presence when it wasn’t.

With these companions, and the excellent hospitality of Ghallandan enclave, the three days passed rather quickly for Marwyn. It was almost mournfully that the bard left the enclave, following Caravor receiving word that the Deneith guards were waiting for them beyond the eastern gate. The gate was noticeably more massive than the western one that led to the adjoining town, staffed with far more guard and reinforced with far more iron. On one of the upper ramparts, Marwyn could swear he saw Marvellio ir’Wynarn watching them leave, but the figure was too distant for him to be sure. What the bard was sure of, was that he’d be glad to be free of the lingering sense of unease that had followed him around ever since he’d met the royal.

It would be suicidal to open the main gate, of course, as it would normally require two hours, and a nearby army to defend it while it closed again. That’s why several postern gates had been built into the wall, which could be barred or otherwise made unpassable in event of an attack. It was through one placed at ground level that the Jorasco delegation officially passed from Breland to Darguun.

Standing on the other side were twelve heavily armed warriors, all human, several openly bearing dragonmarks. Their gear reminded Marwyn of Vargard somewhat, heavy armor, a shield, and a longsword, but the bard knew that these men were of a different sort.
In addition to the dozen warriors, there was a large fortified carriage being pulled by four horses. It looked more like a lightning rail car than a proper carriage honestly, the only real difference being the massive wheels that supported the weight of the car on soft ground. From an open door, Marwyn could tell that there were several iron bars that could be dropped on the inside, this was clearly a vehicle meant to shelter the delegation.

One of the Deneith warriors removes himself from his pack to greet the approaching figures. Most of his skin was covered in a winding dragonmark the same way as Avarne’s. “I am Captain Lugvar d’Deneith. I was expecting six passengers, not seven,” he says bluntly, in an accent similar to Caravor’s, and pointing out Marwyn, “He is clearly not of House Jorasco.”
Caravor moves to speak with the man, no one else feeling they had the station to. “I am Caravor d’Jorasco, leader of the delegation. I believe the agreement our organizations had was somewhat fluid in terms of our numbers.”
“Yes. Of House Jorasco delegates. He is not of your House, and is outside the terms of our arrangements,” Lugvar counters stolidly.
“The man has been invaluable in safeguarding one of our number already!”
“And now it is our responsibility to protect you,” Lugvar responds, crossing his arms, “That boy has no place in Darguun as it is. Go back to Breland. Believe me, I am doing you a favor.”
“Am I to understand you will not move from Sterngate so long as Marwyn accompanies us?” Caravor asks.
“I won’t ask my men to protect one more than they have to. It will be a difficult journey as it is.”

The halfling sighs, and turns to Marwyn. “This is where we must part ways, I’m afraid.”
“What!?” Marwyn exclaims.
“I will send word of this development, and inform the House you are due the payment you made initially. I apologize that you could not complete your journey.”
“Like hell! I’m going,” the bard protests, “Even if it isn’t with you.”
“You would not make it to Rhukaan Draal,” the Deneith man argues, “Your corpse would be thrown by the roadside in less than a day. Even if the Sovereigns favored you, the denizens of that place would tear you apart without the protection of our enclave. What could be that important?”
“My friends,” Marwyn answers, “And if I can’t go as part of the delegation, then I’ll go as one of the guard.
Lugvar laughs genuinely, and there were a few chuckles from the other Deneith guards who had been following the debate. “You? You’re not a blademark. There is even less place for you among us than the delegation.”
“He was a mercenary,” Tora speaks up, feeling compelled to at least try and come to the bard’s assistance, “And from what I see you lack a good bowman.”

The Deneith blademark raises an eyebrow at Tora, surprised at the level of resistance his demand had met. Caravor’s insistence he could pass off as the halfling’s due diligence towards whatever he felt Marwyn was owed, but this new Jorascan vouching for the bard suggested their words were at least partially true. And now that the warrior gave Marwyn more than a passing glance, he couldn’t ignore several magical auras surrounding the bard’s gear.

Lugvar thinks for a moment, and then charges at Marwyn with his longsword drawn. In a single pass he takes a swipe at the bard’s neck, completely ignoring the cries of alarm coming from the Jorascans, his fellows, and the soldiers posted at Sterngate. Caught off guard as he was, the blademark had some distance to cover, giving Marwyn enough time to jump out of the way. He waited for a moment for the follow up, knowing he wouldn’t have time to get away from that, but it never came. Lugvar had opening sheathed his weapon in plain sight of the Sterngate guard, showing an end to hostilities.

The move came at equal surprise to both Jorasco and Deneith members on the ground, who took a little more time to realize there wasn’t a fight. Ignoring the indignant grievances of Caravor, Lugvar walks over to the prone bard and offers a hand. “Not the best way to handle a charge, but good enough. I underestimated you.”
“What the hell?” Marwyn asks hoarsely, rejecting the hand and standing up himself.
“That was a test,” Lugvar explains, “The sword would have never reached its target, but now I know you won’t catch an arrow to the chest the moment out of Marguul Pass. He’ll come with us, but the carriage is for the delegates only,” he adds, addressing Caravor. For the halfling’s part, he thought of continuing to protest, but realizes that despite the near attempt at murder, everyone was technically getting what they wanted.
“O..of course,” Caravor answers, accepting the terms of the deal and leading the rest into the iron carriage. One of the blademarks follows, and closes the door and a loud clatter. Almost immediately two of the other blademarks mount on the lead horses, and starts moving the convoy. The horses, bred to carry heavy weights, still strained somewhat against the bulk of the metal, making only a steady walking pace. The rest of the blademarks fell behind the carriage, while Lugvar pulled Marwyn aside.

“Let’s get things clear,” the Captain says, “You’re here only because it’s more trouble than it’s worth to leave behind. If we’re attacked, my men will prioritize the delegates first, their brothers and sisters in arms second, and then you. If you fall behind, you are left behind. Understood?”
“Yeah,” Marwyn nods, “Just don’t do that again.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Lugvar says with another laugh, “I won’t. It’s everyone and everything else in this godsdamned place I’m worried about.”

Despite the blademark captain’s reservations, the convoy made it out of Marguul Pass without too much incident, though it took a few hours. This was mostly due to the low amount of traffic than ran through the place, and anyone who assaulted them would ideally face reinforcements from Sterngate.
Marwyn marched alongside the blademarks as they did the carriage. He had at first wondered why they hadn’t brought more horses, until he realized they would have merely necessitated more supplies. The carriage held enough externally to support everyone, even including Marwyn, and the pace was slow enough that the bard could easily match it the entire day.
At the end of pass, Marwyn was beginning to feel as though Lugvar’s initial reluctance at his tagging along had solely been to avoid outsiders, considering the lack of resistance they met. The Captain’s words soon put those thoughts into question, however.

“Alright men!” Captain Lugvar shouts, presumably loud enough to be heard inside the carriage, “We are now entering yellowskin territory. It’s three days march to Gathering Stone and we are getting the delegates there safely. Keep a watch and be sure to cover all the angles, I don’t want surprises. Under no circumstances is the carriage to be opened during travel, is that understood?”
“Yessir!” came a muffled voice from with the carriage, the blademark inside acknowledging the order.
“Last bit of business,” Lugvar adds, “Marwyn, was it? I want you to tell me about the attacks.”
“What?” the bard asks, not expecting the question.
“It wasn’t worth asking until I was really sure you were coming,” Lugvar explains, lowering his voice so that only the nearest blademarks could hear them, “But you’ve made it through Marguul, no turning back now. Let’s hear it.”

“Uh…” Marwyn stalls for a moment, collecting his thoughts, “I don’t know much. They had people on the rail who took it over, followed it up with riders approaching our car. I learned later that one of the delegates was a fraud and dealt with it.”
“Know who they were working for, if they’ll hit again?” The question wasn’t asked in the challenging tone Varguul had used with the bard earlier. Oddly enough there was a hint of respect in it, and Marwyn briefly wondered what exactly it was about him that made people underestimate him so much, and whether he should try and fix it.
“No,” Marwyn shakes his head, to both questions, “The imposter wasn’t carrying anything on him, and the mercenaries were wearing plain leather armor.”
“Deniables,” Lugvar spits, treating the word as a curse, “Gives mercenaries everywhere bad names. Heard a couple dozen were lost on that train.”
“Yeah,” Marwyn confirms.
“Damn. If they’re willing to do that, who knows what they’ll do here. ‘t’s why I brought along the Cage,” he gestures to the carriage, “Slow as hell but impenetrable so long as we’ve got control of it. No snatch and grabs on my watch.” With that, the Captain walks away from Marwyn, doffing his shield momentarily and stretching the arm. The sight impressed Marwyn, more so when he saw every blademark bearing their shield, as he realized the Captain intended to wear it the entire march.

Meanwhile
In the cliffs above Marguul Pass, a solitary figure watches the convoy go by. They curse softly at the sight of the vehicle encasing the delegation, and after they pass, they raise a sending stone. “Boss, the Blademarks brought out the box.”
“Damn it, and you’re sure our inside man is dead?!” a voice replies
“Counted six delegates entering, the half-elf stayed outside. Probably should have given him a stone too.”
“Too risky, especially so seeing how he was found out. We can’t attack that head on.”
“How are we supposed to stop them from reaching the target site?”
There was a laugh, and the voice replies, “We get someone else to do it for us.”

A Few Hours Later
The plains of Darguun were, at first, not much different than the ones on the other side of the Seawall Mountains. Somewhat more arid terrain than the fields of Breland, yet still far capable of supporting crops. But it soon became clear that little was being grown in the goblin nation.
Rather, it bore still the scars of the Last War which had only just healed in the other kingdoms. Swathes of land with little more than grass suggested fire had ravaged them recently, and the plains overall seemed tossed about, subjected to the marching of countless armies.

Those they encountered travelling on the road proved just as ugly as the land. The first was a mounted patrol, that didn’t even try and disguise their bows which pointed at the blademarks. They passed on quickly, however, once Lugvar takes out a piece of folded cloth and shows it to one of them. Several other groups were encountered in similar fashion, some mounted, some not. They were either turned away by the sight of Lugvar’s cloth, or by a show of force from the Deneith guard. Marwyn took each group to be guard or mercenary based on this, as it was impossible to distinguish otherwise.

The worst, however, were the groups of mounted goblinoids, leading several others on foot. Those walking were often nursing many different wounds, and pleaded for aid when they caught sight of the House Deneith blademarks. These unfortunates were ignored by the blademarks, and by Marwyn after Lugvar stopped him the first time. Slaves were a part of the landscape, the man had explained, a regrettable but necessary part of the peace that allowed for some semblance of civilization to exist here. It was after that when Marwyn was glad the armored carriage did not have windows, if only to spare those inside from the moral quandary.
He was quickly provided with another reason to be grateful for such, when a volley of arrows struck the caravan. There was little warning, one moment Marwyn was walking next to the blademarks, and the next he was grasping at the cut on his arm from where he had been grazed. He was the only one injured this way, as the blademark’s preparation paid off. Their shields were up the moment they sensed something off, causing most of the volley to clatter off the iron.

The bard was ready by the time the second volley was in the air, which was around the time Lugvar shouted, “Ambush!” Thinking quickly, Marwyn ran to the carriage, using it to shelter from the barrage. It wasn’t perfect cover, fire was coming from both sides. It was enough, though, giving the bard enough time to take out his bow.
He readied an arrow, but realized there was no obvious target when he looked out. On his side were five blademarks, Lugvar not among them, but no signs of their assailants who continued to pour arrows on their location. The ambush location was chosen well, as the road sloped upwards on either side. Wherever the archers were, they were shielded from sight.

“Push out! Two stay!” Lugvar’s order comes from the other side of the carriage. On his side, Marwyn sees a blademark move to cover the doorway, while the other four move ahead slowly. Those assaulting the small rise had moved together to lock their shields, allowing Marwyn to follow behind them with little risk of being shot. He was still wounded by an arrow arced above the shields, but it was a nice gesture.
When they crested the ridge about a dozen goblins came into view, wearing the same nondescript blend of rags and armor that all other goblins had in Darguun. They were on foot as well, and began a fighting retreat as soon as they saw the blademarks. This infuriates the warriors, who aren’t able to close the distance and protect themselves from the archer fire.
They had kept chase for a few hundred feet, Marwyn able to tag some of the retreating goblins, when it occurred to one of the blademarks that the goblins’ manner was too provoking. They could have easily escaped, but were staying just close enough to keep the chase going. With panic coming from the sudden realization, the man shouts, “Fall back! To the delegation!”

Turning on his heels himself, Marwyn sees that the blademark had assessed the situation correctly. The goblins were decoys, meant to draw away as many defenders as possible. The real fight was at the carriage, where conjured flames made it obvious some form of assault was under way. The archers made them pay for every step backward as they continued to pour arrows on them, seemingly running out as the bard makes it back to the ridge.
When the carriage comes into view, it’s surrounded by a wall of fire. Surprisingly, the horses pulling the delegation seemed calm, conditioned to the fire raging in front of them. Supporting this was the fact that the magic seems to be emanating from the armored cart itself.
Also surrounding the delegation were mercenaries, engaged with Lugvar’s group of blademarks. Marwyn’s heart sinks when he recognizes their plain garb, they were the same people that had attacked the rail. While most were keeping the defenders busy, one was waving a wand back and forth at the wall of flame.
“That one!” Marwyn shouts to the four blademarks around him, “He’s trying to disenchant…” But he doesn’t finish his sentence, the warriors had taken stock of the situation and come to the same conclusion. The bard’s initial shot, along with the charge of the four blademarks, was enough to throw the caster off their game. The wall of fire surrounding the delegation was holding, and the rest of the blademarks had rejoined the battle. Whatever the mercenaries had planned failed, and this was obvious to their leader.

“Fall back!” one of the mercenaries yells, as each of the cloaked figures turn and run towards horses tethered dozens of feet away. The blademarks give chase, but aren’t able to catch the more mobile assailants. Marwyn’s bow, however, had no such restrictions, and was aimed by a hatred that still burned under the surface.
The arrow struck the leader’s horse, just as the others were picking up into a gallop. The downed man screams with fury, before seeing that he wouldn’t get away from the approaching warriors. He draws a longsword, momentarily points straight at Marwyn, and then cuts his own throat.

“Holy shit,” Lugvar comments, when the adrenaline had died down. He pokes the dead mercenary with his foot, confirming the death. “Are we clear?”
“Yes sir!” one of the blademarks shouts, looking across the plains from one of the ridges, “Goblins have run off too.”
“Marwyn, get over here!” Lugvar shouts to the bard, who was sticking by the carriage. Motivated by the shout, the half-elf sprints over to where the blademark was standing over the corpse. Lugvar had just taken off the mask, and asks, “Know him?”
“No, but he was at the rail. They all were,” Marwyn shakes his head, trying not to look at the deep, self-inflicted gash that was still oozing blood. The man’s face was pale, human, and bore several scars. Other than that it was fairly plain, and evoked no recognition in the bard. “Do you?”
“I’m not the one he pointed a sword at,” Lugvar counters, and turns to one of his men, “Search him, but I doubt you’ll find anything. I need to check on the delegation.”

He and Marwyn walk back to the stalled carriage, still wreathed in flame. Speaking over the roar, Lugvar cries, “Azure banner! We’re clear, open her up!” At his signal, the wall of fire dies down. The blademark assigned to personally guard the delegation exits first, followed by Caravor.
“What happened?” the halfling asks, gesturing for the rest of the House Jorasco travelers to stay inside.
“Attack. They tried to draw us out and grab you before we got back. Underestimated our defenses.”
“Is everyone alright?” Caravor asks, noticing that both Lugvar and Marwyn had several lacerations, “If you are hurt, we should assist you.”
“No,” the blademark replies, “None of mine are critically injured. Time is a greater concern.”

“Is everyone in there ok?” Marwyn asks, as Lugvar moves to talk with the man who searched the mercenary.
“Yes. A little shaken, especially Tora,” the halfling grimaces, “This incident, whoever is after us are brazen.”
“They’re desperate,” Marwyn muses, “They have to be, and I think we just got their leader.”
“That’s good news. I’m… sorry you couldn’t join us in there.”
“It’s fine,” Marwyn waves him off, “It’s better that I’m out here anyways. You think I could talk to Tora for a moment?”

His question was cut off, however, by Lugvar returning. “Get back in the Cage, we’re moving out,” he orders the blademark standing by the door, and then says to Caravor, “You need to get back in there.”
“These attacks, what if there are more?”
“Then we’ll send them packing again. You’ll be safe once we reach the Gathering Stone.”
“One should hope.” Caravor follows the other blademark back inside the carriage, and the door is closed behind him.

Marwyn soured a little, robbed of his chance to talk with Tora again. It hadn’t even been a week since the lightning rail attack, and though the victory today further emboldened him, he was worried what it might do to the Jorascan. He was the one actively fighting, she was the one stuck in what Lugvar was calling ‘the Cage’. At the very least there must be climate-controlling enchantments inside, there was no way anyone could survive in there otherwise. It was well past noon, but the heat was still stifling.

The procession begins once more, and between worrying about Tora, he did notice several blademarks moving farer out to better scout the horizon. Lugvar’s orders, no doubt. Despite first impressions, Marwyn could feel his admiration of the man growing. That he reminded the bard of Vargard was only half of it, the blademark’s determination was tempered with a quick wit. The captain had undoubtedly realized the goblin’s ruse for what it really was several minutes before Marwyn had, in order to get back to the carriage when he did. Maybe he’d never even fallen for it.

He soon found himself close to the focus of his wandering thoughts, and another struck him. “Find anything on the mercenary?”
“Deniable,” Lugvar corrects him, “They aren’t real mercenaries. They’re the kind that murder innocents as easily as they sharpen their sword afterwards. No, I didn’t,” he answers finally, “Common sword, common armor, nothing that could be traced by one of our mages. No way to tell if it was really their leader either.”
“It sounded like it was,” Marwyn counters.
“We’re talking about deniables who are so meticulous as to avoid wearing a belt. I wouldn’t put it past them to have a subordinate pass themselves off as the real thing.” Lugvar shrugs, and says as he moves away, “Guess we’ll find out if they attack again.”

That Night
At nightfall, the blademarks began setting up camp. There wasn’t any searching for a proper campsite, they simply turned the carriage off the road, walked another ten minutes, and began taking torches out from the underside of the Cage. To be fair to the Deneith guards, the surrounding terrain was fairly uniform in its suitability as campground. They were just lucky there weren’t any nearby corpses strewn by the side of the road.

The horses were unharnessed and tethered close by, while the rest of the blademarks set up tents. One wasn’t provided for Marwyn, and after being rebuffed, he wondered why he’d thought they’d have an extra one. They didn’t even have any for the delegates, apparently the Cage had bunks inside. He didn’t want to know, but there was someone he wanted to speak with in there.
“Tora?” he asks, knocking on one of the heavy iron doors.
“The delegates stay inside,” one of the blademarks, the one Marwyn recognized as the man who’d ridden with them today, warns.
“Doesn’t mean I can’t talk to one through the doorway,” the bard reasons, to which the blademark waves him off disinterestedly.

“Marwyn?” a voice asks from inside the door, muffled by its width, “They told us not to leave.”
“Just want to talk,” the bard replies gently. There was a clang as the lock disengages, and the door swings out a little. Tora was standing behind it, dwarfed by the gate that was large even for Marwyn. He had trouble reading her emotions, as she wasn’t presenting any. Just a calm face that could either be transparent, or desperately hiding renewed fear.
“I’m glad you were able to come with us,” she says, keeping a hand against door in order to keep it from shutting. She betrays a flash of anger as the halfling pushes it outwards a little, and then hold it back again with a fist, “I know they’re just protecting us, but from inside here I just feel blind.”
“It’s only two more days, Tora,” Marwyn replies, “And after all you’ve been through I’m sure they’ll use teleportation for the way back.”
“If we go back…” Tora begins, and immediately covers her mouth with a hand, “I, I shouldn’t have…”
“What is it?” Marwyn asks, remembering a similar reaction earlier in Sterngate. He was starting to get an idea of what this trip might be for Tora, and he wasn’t liking it.
“I can’t tell you Marwyn, especially not with them right behind me. I can’t.”
“Are you in danger?”
“No, not from them,” Tora says hurriedly, “I’m fine, really. I’ll just be glad when this is all over.”
“Me too,” Marwyn replies.

He pauses for a moment, not wanting the conversation to end but needing to find a new topic. Eventually, he does, “How are the others?”
“Fine. Worried about the attack today, but holding up,” Tora shrugs, “Valaina’s still complaining at every opportunity, but Desmie’s cooled off.”
“She’s welcome to come out here if she gets too cold,” the bard mutters, still somewhat antagonized by his memories of the Thranish cleric.
“Not like they would let her,” she answers half-seriously, nodding to the blademarks, “All that one did all day was stare out on the horizon, at least until the attack.”
“True. The Captain’s ok, at least.”
“The one who tried to stop you from coming?” Tora asks, looking over to where Lugvar stood with some bemusement.
“I think he was trying to save me,” Marwyn explains, “But since then he’s been… impartial I guess. So long as I don’t get in his way.”
“Yeah. Look, I should get some rest,” she says, turning to look behind her. Tora tried to hide it, but Marwyn guessed she was listening to someone else. He didn’t feel like pressing the issue, though.
“Sure. Talk to you later,” he says, stepping back as she closes the door.

The Next Day
Marwyn woke up to the sound of the iron carriage moving. Apparently no one had bothered to wake him, and had gotten as far as hitching the horses and getting into formation before the noise had done it for them. He scrambled to get his things together, cursing when his mental commands went unanswered. His ritual had expired when he had rested, and there was neither time nor privacy to do it now.

He had to sprint to make up the distance after finally packing all his things. The trials of yesterday taught him not to protest, however. Lugvar had been clear from the beginning about the ground rules, he’d just not expected the exact amount of apathy being afforded him now.

The morning walk went about as well as yesterday’s had, barring the ambush. Of particular note was the tower that became visible on the horizon just after noon, red against the blue of the sky. From its position and his general knowledge of their travel plans, he guessed this was Rhukaan Draal. The road directly ahead, however, was still barren.

Time passed slowly as they trudged along, though light cloud cover did help to cool the air somewhat. Over the day Marwyn resolved to just keep to himself. He wasn’t here to make friends, and as much as he had begun to respect Lugvar, the man had left him to sleep in the dirt. His actual friends were either locked inside the metal box, or else miles away. Unreachable, all the same.

This wasn’t to say he spent the day completely isolated. The other blademarks were there, they just weren’t too talkative either. There was also the frequent encounters with goblinkind, settled similarly as they had yesterday. Those that asked for the banner seemed more common now, and the bard was beginning to guess which upcoming group would be a patrol. He didn’t have anything more than instinct, but it was right more times than not.

They eventually settled down once more, choosing a random spot by the side of the main road. This time there were a few other camps within sight, though far enough away to not be a threat. The past day setting Marwyn into somewhat of a daze, lost in his own thoughts, he decided merely to rest immediately. No one was leaving him behind tomorrow.

Later that Night, Elsewhere
The men were camped far from the road, and lit no fires. Instead they rested fitfully, next to their sheathed swords and doffed armor. Only a few remained awake, including one known only to those assembled as Daniel.
“No more tricks, we hit them hard and take control of the Box,” he says, to two others, “Blademarks or no, we’ve got four men to their one. And no amount of magic is stopping us this time.”
One of the others, grasping a staff in their right hand, argues, “That’ll be the first thing they’ll expect. They’ll see us coming. It’ll be bloody.”
“It will be what it will be,” Daniel counters, “We’ve had two shots at this, first to grab a hostage, and then a play for the whole thing. They only tactic we haven’t used is frontal assault, and now is the time for desperate measures.”
“’Daniel’,” the third man, a fairly nondescript elf dressed in finer clothes than either of his companions, “Do be careful. The consequences of a third failure will be even more drastic. Had your brother survived I might have had him killed now as an example, but I fear as it is you can’t spare the men for an equivalent demonstration.”
“Listen you bastard,” the first man rebukes, “We get the Jorascans, we get paid, and then we’re done with you and your damned employers. You lay a hand on any of my men and I’ll gut you myself.”
“Don’t act so righteous,” the elf laughs, impassive at Daniel’s fury, “Anyone who cared so much about a person could never do what you did on that train. And understand,” the elf continues, pulling Daniel’s jerkin forward with sudden strength, “I am cut from the same cloth. This is your last chance.”
“We’ll get it done,” Daniel replies, somewhat hoarsely, and he straightened out his shirt, “Just have our payment ready.”
“Don’t worry Daniel,” the elf smiles, “You’ll get your due reward, no matter what happens.”

The Next Morning
Despite his early resting, Marwyn found himself again waking up to the sound of the convoy moving. He’d gotten too used to sleeping in at the Ghallandan enclave for his own good. The absence of Jarvis for a second day in a row did nothing more than drive that point home.
Fortunately, the extra weight he had to bear was offset by continually decreasing temperatures, as the clouds from yesterday persisted. It was almost beginning to feel like spring, especially due to the winds that picked up a few hours after they had started moving. He could tell the other blademarks were enjoying the changing climate as well, though they remained outwardly stern towards their surroundings.
He could guess why they were on high alert. The pace they’d been moving at could easily be matched by less burdened travelers, in fact they had been passed from behind several times by patrols. If the goblins could do it, then surely whoever was hunting them could as well. With the Gathering Stone less than a day away, there was only one opportunity left to assault them. As it turned out, they wouldn’t have to wait long for their suspicions to be proven true.

The fortress of Gathering Stone had just come into sight, when large group of approaching travelers stopped a few hundred feet away from them. By the make of their uniforms there wasn’t any doubt as to who they were, the ‘deniables’ as Lugvar had called them. There had to be at least 40 of them assembled, without horse, but bearing weapons all the same.
“Halt!” Lugvar called out, while pulling out his longsword, “We’re in for it now. Mackel, get out here!”

At the blademark’s prompting, one of the doors to the Cage opens, and the ride-along blademark steps out. “What about the delegates Sir?”
“Tell them to bar the doors and not to open them for any reason,” Lugvar orders, and then sees one of those ahead walking forward with a white flag, “Gods, they want to parley. Engage the moment you see any tricks.” He begins to walk forward, which gets a reaction from the one walking forward.
“No! Send the bard, unless you want us to attack right now!” the man shouts.
Lugvar looks incredulously at Marwyn, and then back to the approaching man. “What!?”
“You heard me!” the man replies, stopping exactly halfway between the two groups.

“I’ll not make you go,” Lugvar says quietly, “You aren’t part of this convoy, which means you owe us nothing.”
“Do I even have to tell you where to shove it?” Marwyn replies brazenly, feeling righteous indignation even as his back continued to ache from his pack. The bard walks forward, carefully stringing his bow as he does so. As he gets closer, he realizes that he recognizes the man they sent to talk. It was the man who had called himself Daniel, the one they had joined at Starilaskur.

Marwyn stops a couple dozen feet out, feeling he was close enough not to shout. “What do you want?”
“Think that’s obvious,” Daniel says back, with barely-restrained anger, “Tell the blademarks to leave the Box there for us, and get the fuck out of our way. Or, if they’re feeling helpful, they can gut the Jorascans themselves.”
Noticing the man was armed only with a sword, Marwyn momentarily pondered having Jarvis steal the sword before Daniel could react, and cursed when he remembered. “Why the hell would they do that?”
“Because we’ve got more than enough to overwhelm them,” the man replies matter-of-factly, “But I’ll let you in on a little secret. Just because you won’t survive today.”
“What?”
“The man we left behind was my brother. I’ll let you die screaming for that.”
“You’ll try,” Marwyn replies, unimpressed by the bluster, but at the same time looking nervously at the men behind Daniel. Not all of them were armed with longswords, there were clearly both archers and mages among them. Against a ranged force composed solely of himself, the bard could feel the attacker’s odds growing better by the moment.
“Oh, I haven’t even begun to try,” Daniel seethes, “They have ten minutes to turn over you and the delegates, or else we take them.” With that, he turns as leaves.

“Can I assume they want the delegates?” Lugvar asks rhetorically when Marwyn returns.
“Yeah. They gave us ten minutes.”
“Can you still see the one you met with?”
“Yeah?” Marwyn says, not sure where this was going.
“There’s no way in hell we’re giving them the delegates. Time to show these pretenders what a real warrior is like,” Lugvar says, and points to the enemy group, “Be prepared for an assault men, and whatever happens, protect the delegation. Marwyn, I want you to give him your best shot.”
“You want me to do what?”
“Tell him exactly where to stick his offer,” Lugvar replies grimly.

Marwyn readies his bow, an act not lost on those observing the blademarks. They weren’t able to react in time, however, as he sends the arrow across the Darguun plains, charged with magic. It strikes Daniel slightly off-center, though at that range it barely penetrated the armor. The shot did what it was meant to, however, and with a shout the mercenaries began to descend on the blademarks.
The bard quickly got behind the front line, as Lugvar ordered him to, “Aim for the legs, try and stop as many as you can before they’re on us!” The bard nodded, and adjusted his aim.

As he reached for his sixth arrow, two of the previous five having accomplished their goal, he sensed someone behind him. Turning abruptly, he finds himself face to face with Tora, the rest of the delegation not far behind. Lugvar notices them too.
“What are you doing!? Get back in there!” he cries, with the attackers less than a hundred feet away.
“We’re helping, and if you want us to go back, you’ll have to fight us too!” Caravor shouts, while pulling out a crossbow he must have concealed somewhere, “That place is no defense if you are all dead.”
“Fine! Just stay behind…” Lugvar begins, but is cut off by one of his men shouting, “Fireball!”

Indeed, there was not just one, but several fireballs that began to arc towards the blademarks as the mercenary mages got into range. The sheer number suggested that several mages had cast it multiple times. As everyone scrambled to take cover, it soon became clear that they were aimed slightly past the blademarks, at those behind them. They must have spotted the delegation. “Get to cover!” Lugvar shouts pointlessly, as the magical orbs of fire bombarded the Jorascan delegation. The combined blast was such that even Marwyn was caught.

As the air surrounding him was quickly heated to several hundred degrees, Marwyn could just barely hear one word before he passed out from the agony of being burned alive. “Heal!”
The bard awakens seconds later to see the ground around him cleared of any vegetation, though he himself was seemingly unharmed. The halflings were likewise sprawled across the ground, picking themselves up, all but elderly Avarne, who stood firm. To Marwyn’s disbelief, he could see the dragonmark covering the halfling’s body writhe and twist across Avarne’s skin, giving a strong impression of a dragon in flight. “Commander,” the halfling spoke, with a purpose Marwyn wouldn’t have attributed to him before, “We can handle ourselves.”
“By the gods…” Lugvar exclaims, having just seen seven come out of an equal number of fireballs completely unscathed. This minor distraction was soon put out of his, and his men’s, mind as their assailants close to melee. The mercenaries had been momentarily stunned by the display as well, but it did nothing but redouble their efforts to get at the Jorascans.

The mercenaries crashed against the blademark’s shield wall, and soon worked their way to the flanks. As they did so, most of the blademarks seemed to cover themselves in some sort of shimmering field, whose origin Marwyn pegged as dragonmark magic. He had little time to figure out exactly what was happening, however, as the mercenaries were beginning to surround them. Tora and Desmie joined in the melee, the latter heading to the front line with a mace and shield, while the former stayed closer to the back line with a longsword Marwyn could have sworn she didn’t have before. Caravor joined Marwyn in picking off any swordsmen that threatened them with arrows. The rest of the Jorascans seemed focused on providing healing when necessary, or combat spells when not.
Between all of them, it was enough to keep the battle lines even. However, the front of their formation was suffering for it. As the battle drew on, the mercenaries’ ranged support wizened up, and began focusing their efforts on a single target. It apparently reduced their magical artillery to cantrips, but the glowing energy fields surrounding whichever target they focused began to evaporate.

Whereas before each blademark easily held their own against two or three attackers, those whose defenses were brought down began faltering. The Jorascans helped where they could, but their healing was not limitless. The first Deneith guard fell, though it had taken the lives of a dozen mercenaries to do this.

Screaming with fury, Lugvar calls out, “I’m going up, get ready!” The shout was nearly unintelligible to Marwyn, but he could sense the blademark drawing heavily on his dragonmark. Like Avarne’s had after the fireballs, it began to shift around the man’s skin. To the bard’s surprise, though the mark itself looked different stationary, the dragon now in flight across Lugvar’s skin looked exactly like Avarne’s.

This was not lost on the mercenaries, who redoubled their efforts to bring down the blademark captain. Their efforts were in vain, however, as his defensive field remained up. As the spell reaches completion, the heavy winds that had been blowing throughout the day suddenly coalesced around the blademark, lifting him into the air whilst he still battered away at those in front of him.
At the same time, every other living blademark, as well as Desmie once she realized what was going on, stepped backwards. The line was tightened, sealing the hole Lugvar left behind when he remained in the center of the battle. It was almost comical, the way the man began to fight. Lifted by the wind, Lugvar became a dervish, lashing out against anyone close enough. He’d picked up another blade from somewhere, and was tearing through every mercenary he could reach.

Even so, the assault continued, forcing Desmie back to the rest of her group, while two more blademarks fell. With the melee becoming less crowded due to the dead, Marwyn saw Daniel at the front lines, hacking away at the blademarks with a greatsword. He seemed to have been spared major injury, so much so that the bard suspected the man had just entered the melee.
The blademark Captain rushed back to the frontline as more of his soldiers became casualties, but he was too late to stop Daniel from personally running another through the chest.

Forced to almost constantly retreat from the pressure of the mercenaries, the front line of blademarks was soon only 30 feet from the iron carriage when the fourth fell. Granted, the mercenaries were now only half their original strength, but the stress of the fighting had dropped nearly all of the blademark’s shields. Lugvar’s was the only one still remaining, probably due to the fact that any arrow shot at him was deflected by the winds surrounding him. The captain now focused his effort entirely on Daniel, pulling him away from the frontline and into what looked more to be a duel. Lugvar had the capability of flight on his side, but Daniel’s greatsword far outreached whatever the blademark had.

Marwyn and the Jorascans were, at this point, almost entirely spent magically. Down to only his most basic arcane archery, the bard started to realize how desperate the situation was. He’d thought by the amount of mercenaries that had fallen they would eventually turn the tide, but there were simply too many. The line was holding, for now, and there weren’t enough left to try and flank around the sides. But now he was level with the horses that were pulling the Cage. If they were pushed much further back, they’d have to abandon it.

The delegation had other plans, apparently. “Everyone else get inside! Eli, wait for my signal,” Avarne commands. Most of the Jorascans had been injured to some extent, Desmie most of all, and their ability to fight was largely exhausted. The order was largely ignored by most of the fighers engaged in combat, however, but those mercenaries that did notice assumed the delegates were beginning to flee. This emboldened them, causing the line to push faster backwards. As most of the surviving mercenaries were swordsmen, this left Daniel and Lugvar to duel alone. From what he could see through the melee, Marwyn could tell they were about evenly matched.

Two more blademarks fell by the time Eli managed to close the door, the five remaining to defend the delegation making a last stand against the twelve or so mercenaries. The horses had wisely moved as far as their harness would allow, taking them out of immediate danger. However, the line had just about reached the cage.
It was at this point that Marwyn reached for his crossbows, his quiver running dry on arrows. The belt of bolts also had to be taken from his pack, he certainly hadn’t anticipated needing it, and it was in the process of doing so that he almost missed what happened next. The blademarks took another collective step backwards to tighten their defenses, and the moment they did so, Avarne shouted, “Now!”

The bard sensed it before it happened, the rush of arcane magic spilling forth from the Cage in all directions. He panicked at first, thinking it was coming from a yet-unseen enemy spellcaster. Given the radius, it was certainly more powerful than anything Eli could manage. But the moment the spell’s energy stopped a certain distance from the Cage, Marwyn realized exactly why Avarne had waited.
Flames erupted from the ground, encasing the mercenaries in an inferno while leaving the blademarks just outside of its reach. The men trapped inside the blaze screamed, and tried to retreat before they burned alive. Lugvar, however, was quick enough to appraise the situation. Taking a moment to rise out of Daniel’s reach, he channeled some of the swirling winds around him to form a miniature cyclone behind those fleeing, pushing them back into the flame. Those that managed to get around its edges soon expired from the flames that lingered on their flesh.
“Turn it off!” Avarne shouts, and the enchantment died down shortly afterwards. The surviving blademarks adjusted to the fading brightness of the fire wall, and noticed that Daniel was now alone in his melee with Lugvar. With a collective cry of “Charge!” they rushed the leader, surrounding him. Marwyn barely had time to get a shot off before the blademarks finished him off, affording no mercy.
Lugvar lifted himself higher into the air, takes a close look in every direction, and then shouts down, “Clear! Check for survivors!”

By some miracle, two of the blademarks that had fallen survived their wounds, and were stabilized with the help of the delegation and Marwyn. The other four, unfortunately, had long passed from grievous injuries. Any mercenaries that were found alive were executed on the spot, to which no one protested.
Lugvar, meanwhile, had recovered his shield from the battlefield, and approaches Avarne after the delegation had finished working on his men. “Will they make it?”
Surprised at the question, the halfling takes a moment to respond. After a moment of thought, he nods, saying, “Reaching our destination tonight will help. But why ask me?”
“Don’t bullshit me, I saw you in the fight,” Lugvar challenges, pointing at Caravor, “He’s nothing but the face of the delegation. You’re the mastermind.”

Caravor begins to sputter a denial, but Avarne looks him in the eyes with a slight shake of his head. “There is little point in denying your words.”
“Why hide your identity?”
“Precaution, given the recent attacks.”
“I thought Caravor was the leader because he was from the main enclave,” Marwyn points out, he too shocked at the revelation. Though in hindsight, Avarne’s reluctance to be in public at Sterngate was beginning to make more sense.
“A falsehood. He is certainly experienced, but it is I who will argue for our cause,” Avarne answers, “For your purposes, Captain, you need know little more. Your wounded and dead should rest in that, I believe we have proven our battle prowess.”
Lugvar looks to the Cage, and nods. “Fine by me, seeing as I doubt we’ll be troubled again. Should best get a move on before a patrol finds us here. Men, let’s get ready to move.”

The rest of the day was spent slowly marching towards the Gathering Stone fortress, which loomed ever larger in the horizon. Eventually, it became dark enough for the blademark captain to use a torch to signal those on the walls. Marwyn couldn’t tell what he said, but it was with relief that he saw horses in the distance being ridden by humans a little while after. The riders dismounted their horses and greeted the Captain, taking a short report of what had occurred, and then offering to take the delegation back by horse. Marwyn was offered to ride with one of the blademarks as well, and while the horse’s movements upset his battle sores somewhat, it was better than walking. As they crossed the front gate of the Gathering Stone, the bard fervently hoped that whoever had been chasing the delegation was dead and gone. He hoped that they would make it to Rhukaan Draal safely, and most importantly, that he could begin trying to find his friends.

Continued in Part 5, The Red Throne – A Cold Trial

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The Jorascan Delegation
A Remedial Course

Part 3 of Marwyn and The Golden Hand

The Next Day
The fortification Sterngate was bathed in the morning glow, sunlight being the only thing welcome to break through the Seawall Mountains. The events of yesterday had put the castle on high alert, though for the first time in some years, the threat was from the west. A train had rolled in during late afternoon, carrying far too many corpses along with its cargo. All House Orien guards had been slain, along with about a dozen passengers. Survivors claimed the men who boarded had been after passengers on board, from House Jorasco, though no one could say who boarded or if they grabbed their targets.
Brelish authorities acted, and acted quickly, to suppress the incident, though they were only partially successful. Across the Five Kingdoms and beyond the story eventually broke that it had been a robbery, though no suspects were suggested. Rumors and speculation had twisted the story, regressing towards the mean of an easier explanation. House Orien, for their part, promised to immediately double guards on board the rails, until the threat could be assessed in greater detail.

For Marwyn, however, the news was devastating. His companions bore the guilt as well, but he was the one would had stopped them from surrendering. In his first act of accepting responsibility over a situation, he’d gotten over a score killed. Not even Mevalyn could find the words to comfort him, despite her best efforts. But the worst part was realizing that, if he was thrust back into such a situation, he would do it the same way. In his grief-stricken mind, he attributed it solely to cowardice.
Felix and Tora had gone down to the station in order to bless the bodies, something their mark was apparently capable of. But the bard couldn’t stomach it, worried what seeing those bodies might drive him to do. Instead, he remained in the Ghallandan enclave, and drowned his sorrows.

He’d expected the bar to be like all others, a standard such as that hadn’t changed in all his travels. He was wrong, however. House Ghallandan’s reputation wasn’t built upon setting the standard, it was famed for surpassing it. The stools were comfortable and actually had backings built into them, food was ordered from a menu instead of announced by the cook, and the bartender informed him that any drink was available. Any drink.

Had any of that mattered Marwyn might have resolved never to leave the comfort of the enclave. Instead, he awoke sometime in the afternoon, having been carried gently to his bed after he’d blacked out.
“Trying to kill yourself?” a voice asks him, identity vague due to his fuzzy senses. The voice was merely a grating, the person a silhouette against the sunlight coming in from the window.
“No,” Marwyn grunts, rubbing his eyes. “Tora?” he asks, vision coming into focus.
“Yes,” she answers.
“How long have you…”
“I just walked in,” Tora replies, an odd tone in her voice. It sounded almost as if she was sleepwalking, how distant her speech was. “And revived you. According to the doorman you’d imbibed enough to knock a dwarf flat on his face.”
“Maybe,” the bard answers, moving his fingers up towards his temples. As he’d lamented several times, magic did nothing for a hangover.

“I thought you were accustomed to this, people dying,” Tora states, still with that far away demeanor, “I thought I was accustomed to it. I’d hoped that at least one of us knew we did the right thing. Had hoped.”
“What do you want to me say?” Marwyn challenges softly, “’It’s not your fault?’ I already did.”
“Then why does it feel like it was?!” Tora shouts, breaking out of her trance, “Felix and I saw the people who died for us. Why should they have taken our place?”
“How should I know?!” the bard fires back, “I’m just a bard, I’m not a hero. It was you, or them, and I…” he stops, suddenly.
“And you what?”
Marwyn huffs air for a few moments, himself looking for what he was about to say. Eventually, he finds something to say, “I look out for my friends, and damn anyone who tries to kill them!”
“You damned 26 people yesterday when you let us escape,” Tora says, her voice breaking, “How can I live with that if you can’t?”
“How the hell should I know?” Marwyn responds bitterly. He watches Tora storm away, saying nothing to stop her, only mumbling to himself, “I’m not a hero.” The bard throws himself back onto his bed, and tries as hard as he could to slip back into unconsciousness.

The Next Day
Marwyn was awoken several hours past dawn by his sending stone. Lesani. He didn’t want to talk to Lesani.

But she wanted to talk with him, apparently. The stone continued to chime long enough to fully rouse Marwyn, ruining any chance that he could go back to sleep. As he did so, he bitterly noticed that it had begun to rain. “What?” he groggily asks.
“Marwyn, you sound as though you just woke up,” Lesani replies.
“Yes.”
“I heard about the people on the rail, Marwyn,” Lesani says carefully, “Did, did you know any of them?”
“No. That just makes it worse,” the bard answers, “It’s all my fault Les.”
“You cannot say that Marwyn,” Lesani protests, “The train was robbed, you just escaped before…”
“Who the hell said it was a robbery, Les?” Marwyn’s voice goes to full volume, his hand gripping the stone with grievous strength, “’Cause that’s sure as hell not what they were there for.”
“What?”
“They wanted Tora, Les, and I told her to run,” he explains, “She was going to give herself up, and I told her not to, and now they’re dead and she hates me.”
“If what you said is true, then the medic is alive because of you,” Lesani reasons, trying to talk Marwyn down.
“That’s why she hates me!” Marwyn cries, holding his head in his other hand, “She was willing to trade her life, and I made her live with the guilt instead.”

“You should be proud of your actions,” Lesani says simply, knocking Marwyn off guard.
“Proud? I got people killed Les,” Marwyn counters.
“You were alone on that train, none of us were there. Yes, Marwyn,” Lesani concedes, “You were responsible. For saving the Jorascans and are perhaps partially to blame for the deaths on board. You cannot know for sure if the mercenaries would have let them live had Tora surrendered. But that is not the important thing.”
“What is?” Marwyn asks.
“That you acted,” Lesani clarifies, stressing the last word. “Most in your position would have frozen. More foolish people might have died resisting, but you found a way out. Do not dishonor the future you could have, or the memories of those lost, by drowning in regret.”
“What am I supposed to do Les?”
“Find Jorduna,” Lesani answers firmly, “Make this worthwhile.”
“What about Tora?” Marwyn asks, remembering how he had left things.
“Her emotions are not your concern,” the warlock replies, “And her conscience is something only she can come to peace with. Time is the only thing that will reveal if Tora is capable of doing so.”
“O..ok,” Marwyn says, standing up, “Thanks for that. Out here I just… I needed something that felt normal.”

“As glad as I am to provide moral support, that was not the initial intent of my call,” Lesani responds, businesslike, “It was to provide you with information.”
“What is it Les?” Marwyn asks, hoping for good news.
“Some of the delegates are arriving today,” Lesani replies, “Including the leader. A Proctor Kaellen reached out to me to forward you the news, along with his thanks for safeguarding his ward.”
“Do they know if anyone else was attacked?”
“It does not look like it. Everyone should arrive safely within the next few days.”

“That’s good news Les,” Marwyn says with a relieved sigh, “I should tell them.”
“Them?” Lesani asks, with a confused tone, “Who else is with you?”
“Felix, we met him on the rails,” Marwyn explains, internally cursing himself “I just remembered you didn’t know about him. He’s from the Eldeen Reaches, probably from one of the smaller enclaves…”
“Marwyn,” Lesani interrupts, speaking quickly, “There is no delegate from the Eldeen Reaches.”
“But…” Marwyn says, before coming to a terrible realization. He bolts out of his room, saying “I’ll have to talk with you later!”

He runs to Tora’s room, but finds only her belongings. A search of Felix’s room, however, reveals nothing at all of the halfling. It’s in a sprint that he runs to the enclave’s foyer, and with a rush that he asks the doorman, “Where did the Jorascans go?”
“What?” the Ghallandan envoy asks, not fully catching the question, “Is there something I can help you with, Sir?”
“Where is Tora d’Jorasco?” Marwyn asks, “She’s in danger!”
“She, she went for a ride,” the doorman answers shakily, “With her other companion. Not sure why in this weather, but it was but a few minutes ago…” but Marwyn was already running out onto the streets, now soaked by the rainstorm, and into an alley.

“Sylvia!” Marwyn shouts, as he nears the stable, “Slyvia, I need a horse!”
“Marwyn?” the halfling’s voice comes from within the stable, “Your friends just left. Please, you’re startling the horses.”
“Sylvia, I need your fastest horse,” the bard responds, somewhat breathless from his sprint, “Felix, isn’t who, he says is his.”
“Marwyn, I heard the stories, and some of the shouting,” Slyvia respond sympathetically, “You should go back and rest. Drinking that much, you might still be…”
“Slyvia,” Marwyn says, “You told me a Ghallandan never turns down someone who truly needs aid. Look in my eyes, am I drunk?”

The halfling peers into Marwyn’s face for a moment, and then comes to a decision. “Stern, I want you to ready Marvo’s horse.”
“What?” another halfling, the one that had met Marwyn when he first got to Sterngate, asked.
“You heard me, get to it,” Slyvia orders, and turns to Marwyn, “By the Gods try not to lose this horse. They were heading for the west gate. I don’t know where they were going after that.”
“That’s my problem,” Marwyn says, accepting the reigns of a larger than normal horse and struggling to get on. Once on the saddle, however, he kicks the horse into canter and jolts out of the stable.
“Gods’ speed!” Slyvia shouts after him.

The guards try to stop him as he gallops through the streets and to the castle gate at breakneck pace, but they couldn’t catch him. The horse was simply too fast, much too fast for a mundane horse, and smart enough to dodge pedestrians. Marwyn briefly speculated that it was magical in some way, but his focus wasn’t on that. As he blazed past the gate, he was desperately trying to find any trace of Tora’s path, or failing that, her on the horizon. But fate was against him, the downpour reduced visibility horrendously, and washed away any tracks.

“Les!” he shouts into his sending stone, struggling to withdraw it while maintaining the horse’s speed, “Send Tora!”
“Marwyn, what is going on?” the elf asks.
“There’s no time, use sending on Tora and ask her where she is!” Marwyn yells, “You heard her voice two days ago!”
“I did not. Marwyn, I need a physical description…”
“Brown hair,” Marwyn rattles off quickly, “Brown eyes, a little close together, and a short nose. Dragonmark on her left hand, and she’s probably in one of those yellow tunics. Tell her not to trust Felix, and get her to tell me where she is!”
“Alright, standby,” Lesani answers, and breaks the connection. Marwyn, meanwhile, brings the horse to a halt. For all he knew, he was heading in the wrong direction.

“Marwyn, head north,” Lesani replies through the sending stone, after what seemed an eternity, “They are revisiting the site of the attack. So-called Felix hasn’t made a move yet, but now that she knows…”
“Talk with you later Les,” Marwyn hangs up, bringing the horse back up to a sprint. He had a heading.

He briefly worried about the horse tripping in the mud from the rain, but it was well trained. Eventually, he saw two riders in the far distance, also running at full tilt. He was gaining, though. As he got closer, one of the horses stumbles and falls, but he pays it no mind. It was obvious as he passed it that someone had shot it with a crossbow, in an attempt to split his attention. Felix had Tora, and he was armed.
So was Marwyn, just not how the halfling anticipated. After closing to about a hundred feet, and having dodged several backwards-aimed crossbow bolts, the bard issues a mental command.

Felix’s saddle slips off his horse suddenly, the straps securing it to the horse being undone. Both halflings fall off, landing roughly in the mud. Marwyn’s landing is slightly more controlled, allowing him to drive his elbow into the treacherous Jorascan. “It was you,” he seethes, blocking off the halfling’s air with his arm, “You fucking traitor, you told the mercs which train we were on.”

Felix tries to gasp something, but was unable to draw the breath to do so. Instead, Marwyn continues his rant, “Is that why you tried to have me arrested, to get Tora all to yourself. Huh?” he accentuates the last word with a punch, “You put those deaths on our hands, that was you!”

The bard hyperventilates for a few seconds, completely overcome by rage. He presses harder against the halfling’s throat, saying, “I told her earlier that I protect my friends, and damn anyone who tries to hurt them. You’re going to need her help when I’m done with you, you’re going to have to beg her to heal you just so that you don’t die on the way back to your execution…”
“Marwyn, stop!” Tora pleads, she having recovered from a blow to her head to find Marwyn kneeling over Felix. “He’s dead.”
“He’s not going to be until I’m through with him,” Marwyn cries, but realizes the medic was right. He’d practically broken the neck of the man, completely underestimating the strength of a halfling’s windpipe. He rolls off the body in sudden disgust, panting as the adrenaline wore off.

“Are… are you ok?” he asks Tora unsteadily, trying not to look towards Felix. The rain was still pouring, but both were already covered in mud.
“How did you know?” Tora asks, clearly shaken.
“Les. Kaellen got in contact with her to say the delegates would be arriving shortly. I mentioned Felix and…” he sighs, “She said they didn’t know who the hell he was.”
“I can’t believe this,” the medic says, “This morning he mentioned going out on the ride so casually. I thought, if I could go back to where they died I might find… something,” tears start streaming down her face, lost amidst the rain drops, “But then your friend, she t…told me I was in danger and he looked at me and h…he knew somehow.”
“Stop, Tora,” Marwyn says gently, recognizing the symptoms of shock, “It’s over. He’s gone.” The bard, unable to think of anything else to do, holds Tora in his arms and lets her weep.

An Hour Later
Tora began to recover gradually, running out of tears and pulling herself together. “I need to call Les,” he says softly, when he lets go of Tora. He withdraws the sending stone and wipes the mud off of it, then activating it.

“Marwyn! What happened?”
“I got her, she’s ok,” Marwyn replies to Lesani’s immediate question, “Felix… he’s dead.”
“Ok,” Lesani responds evenly, “Where are you?”
“Still on the plains. Tora, she needed a moment…”
“So long as you are safe,” Lesani replies. There was a pause, and then, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Yeah,” Marwyn says.
“How did you know I could cast sending?” Lesani asks, “I have never used it while in your presence. It was only recently added to my repertoire, in fact.”
“Les,” the bard answers, “It was a guess. I figured you’d do anything to try and find Var and the others, including sending. You never told me you tried though.”
“I did hire a wizard,” Lesani admits, “But the sendings were blocked. To all of them. I learned the spell to try myself, but to no avail. I did not want to tell you because…”
“It doesn’t matter Les,” Marwyn replies, shaking his head and laughing slightly, “I don’t get to question your motives today.”

There was another pause, and at first Marwyn thought the line was cut. “Les?”
“Still here,” she replies softly. “What do you need?”
“Just to hear your voice,” the bard replies.
“Is, is that her?” Tora asks hesitantly. Marwyn nods, to which she replies, “Can I talk to her?”
“’Course,” Marwyn says, offering it to her.

“Ms. Lesani?” Tora speaks into the stone, voice quivering slightly.
“I am,” the elf responds genially, “Are you ok, Ms. Tora?
“Thanks to you and Marwyn,” she says gratefully, and looks Marwyn directly in the eye, “You’re heroes, both of you.”
“That is kind of you to say,” Lesani replies. “Ms. Tora, are you able to travel?”
“I think so.”
“You should get back to Sterngate,” the warlock advises, loud enough for Marwyn to hear, “As fast as you can.”
“Yes,” Tora sighs, “Right away.”
She hands the stone back to Marwyn, who says, “I’m cutting the line now Les. I’ll tell you when I make it back.”
“Understood,” Lesani answers back. As Marwyn stows his stone, she does too, and storms out of The Crowned Leper with every intention to skin Ner Omidan alive.

Fairhaven
The elf made her way once more to Wynarn University, though she was under no illusion that Ner was in his office. She’d also resolved to play this more carefully this time, no violence until the gnome was actually in sight.

But as it turns out, Omidan was one step ahead of her. One of the university guard stopped her, and informed her that Professor Omidan was waiting in his office for her. Lesani cautiously walked her way towards the aforementioned room, noticing that there was at least one guard watching her movements at all times.

Ner looked up from his desk when he entered with mock surprise, “Lesani. Back so soon?”
The elf closes the door and activates its wards, before saying, “Tell me everything.”
“What?” Ner asks, illusory astonishment beginning to bleed through to reality, “Why would I be foolish enough to do that?”
“Because I am tired of doing your damn job for you!” Lesani explodes, slamming one of her hands against the gnome’s desk and continuing, “All the while putting my friends in danger!”
“There was another attack?” Ner surmises coldly, not showing any fear at the warlock’s bravado.
“Someone put a mole into the delegation,” she corrects, “How is it that I came to know of this before you?”

Ner sighs, and makes a hand gesture. The cloaked agents nearby stand down, having raised their weapons when Lesani charged in. “You didn’t. Lesani, this knowledge could make you a target.”
“I do not care.”
“Leave us,” Ner says suddenly, staring into empty space. His office door opens and closes seemingly on its own, but neither he nor Lesani were impressed. “Did the mole survive?”
“No,” Lesani says menacingly.
“Damnation,” Ner curses, rubbing one of his temples, “That was…” The gnome stops, and takes a breath, “That wasn’t your fault. I concede, Lesani, you deserve the truth. If only because your continued ignorance is more danger to this kingdom than your life is worth.”
“The mole was yours?” she asks incredulously.
“No,” Ner answers, “But I knew of him. I had a man in Fort Light check on them, he spotted a plus one that wasn’t supposed to be there. I’d assumed whoever it was had taken off during the attack, since you didn’t mention them, but if they had remained…”
“What does it matter?” Lesani asks, “They know about me now, Marwyn asked for my assistance in the presence of the traitor.”

“Which is why I can be honest with you now, totally,” Ner replies, “Because you’re going to be confined to Fairhold.”
“What?”
“You can’t be connected to us, Lesani. Your past work with us is likely known to them, and the help you just gave Marwyn? That just confirms in their minds that you have the resources of someone at your disposal. I’m not talking about a prison cell, but to the rest of the world it will appear you have vanished.”
“Assuming I allow that to happen,” Lesani counters, “Marwyn is due to contact me presently. What do I tell him?”
“Certainly not the truth, gods no,” Ner shakes his head, thinking for a moment. “Your sending stone connections were experiencing some troubles earlier, yes?” he asks.
“You know that, but why…” Lesani begins, but then understanding dawns on her, “Do not dare…”

Lesani is too late, however, to stop the spell cast by Ner Omidan. The spell, designed to attack enchantments and other magics, quickly disintegrates the spell connecting Lesani’s stone to Marwyn’s. The elf attempts to shield it, but the damage had been done.
“You bastard!” the elf cries, calling upon her own magic.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Ner warns, “Or else it may have to be a prison cell. I did that to protect you, Lesani.”
“Give me a reason.”
“I promised you the truth,” Ner says calmly, “We can either have a calm chat here, before my next class, or you are dragged away in chains. Please, do not force me to do the latter.”
As much as she wished to loose her most devastating spell upon the grim gnome before her, the warlock recognized checkmate when she saw it. She relents, and takes a seat.

“For what it’s worth, Lesani,” Ner says mournfully, “I’m sure if our roles were reversed I’d be sitting in that chair with the same defeated look on my face. Extreme loyalty is a trait we both share, just to different masters.”
“I will need to send Marwyn,” Lesani replies.
“Why?”
“The stones were reenchanted with the same spell I gave Marwyn,” she answers, “If he believes it to be faulty, his first act will likely be to try and initiate further contact with me in order to acquire better scrolls.”
“Good point,” Ner nods, gesturing for her to do so. Lesani seems to speak to herself for a few minutes, and then looks back up.
“It is done,” Lesani reports, “Marwyn is truly on his own now. You promised the truth, the whole truth. Who is The Golden Hand?”
Ner leans back in his seat, thinking for a moment. Eventually, he begins, “What do you know of the Aurum?”

Sterngate
Marwyn was riding back to the castle, he and Tora sharing a horse. They were taking a slower pace, both because he didn’t want to tire his horse, and because they were towing the one Felix had ridden behind them. In the distance, they could see a lightning rail pulling into the Sterngate station, hopefully with all on board far safer than the one that had arrived two days ago.

Suddenly heard Lesani’s voice in his head. “Marwyn, I disconnected our stones. Scrolls I gave create unique connection which previous one disrupts. Cannot reestablish until your return. Will be fine. Be safe.”
“What?” Marwyn cries aloud, startling Tora and wasting his first word. “Les…” he pauses, trying not to speak anymore in order to better use his remaining 23 words. He finished his response with, “Ok. We’re fine. Almost at Sterngate. Send me if others contact you. Will try and contact you if in trouble. Thank you Les,” and then the magic fades.
“What was that?” Tora asks.
“A sending,” Marwyn replies, guiding the horse onto the main road into Sterngate. They were minutes from the front gate, “Les had to deactivate our sending stones. Probably won’t hear from her for a while.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Something to do with the scrolls she gave me for my friends,” Marwyn shrugs.

He stops both their horses when he sees far more guard at the castle’s gate than had been there when he left.
They see him to, and shout, “Halt!”
“That’s not good.”
“What did you do?” Tora says.
“I was in a hurry earlier,” he answers, deciding the best course of action was to dismount. “Come on.” Tora dismounts as well, and takes the reigns of the smaller horse.

“You!” one of the guard, a sergeant by the looks of it, shouts when he recognizes Marwyn, “You’re under arrest for reckless horsemanship while intoxicated!”
“I can explain,” Marwyn protests, as they draw closer.
“That’s what they all say,” the sergeant answers, and looks at the horses behind the bard, “Hey, you! Get off the horse.”
“That’s, uh…” Marwyn tries to stop the sergeant, but some of the men behind him level pikes at the bard.
The guard sergeant reaches for the halfling on the horse, but hastily retracts his hand when he gets a good look at Felix. “Good gods,” he curses, stepping backwards, “Arrest them both on the charge of murder!”
“He was trying to kidnap me!” Tora pleas, “He’s the one responsible for the attack on the rail! Marwyn saved me.”
“Hands behind your back!” the sergeant orders impassively, ignoring her, “We’ll sort this out at Sterngate.”
“The horses,” Marwyn says, submitting to the arrest, “Get them back to the Ghallandan enclave.”
“They stay with us for now,” the sergeant decides. He takes a look at the two mounts, and chokes slightly when he gives the larger one a careful glance. “Ok, Gomer, take that one back to the enclave,” he commands of one of his subordinates, handing the reigns to the man, “But everything else is coming with us!”

Sterngate Prison
The guard had dropped them off in separate, but adjacent cells. They looked surprisingly disused, but then Marwyn guessed that a fort comprised mostly of military personnel rarely had need to jail law breakers. As it was, they were the only people there, not counting a bored guard posted by the stairs up.

“We’ll be out of here soon,” Tora says aloud, “Once the other members of the delegation arrive.”
“Probably,” Marwyn shrugs, “Just can’t believe I’m in a prison cell again.”
“You’ve been arrested for murder before?” Tora asks incredulously.
“What? No,” Marwyn shakes his head, “Treason. It’… it’s a long story. Tora, you seem… better.”
The medic exhales, and answers, “Yeah. I guess I am. Felix, I guess, I guess it’s just easier now that there’s someone easy to blame.”
“I still can’t believe he did, honestly,” Marwyn says, “He had your mark, why would he betray you?”
“I don’t know,” Tora says, throwing her hands up in the air and briefly drawing the attention of the guard. “I don’t know anything about this damn delegation. Why did Kaellen send me?”
“Experience,” Marwyn guesses, looking at her, “You said you’ve never been out of Fairhaven before. Probably has big plans for you when you get back.”
“I doubt he imagined this,” Tora groans.

“Hey,” she says, after a pause, “That’s twice now you’ve saved me,
“Don’t mention it,” the bard says graciously, “I’ve owed my life to others before. I couldn’t just abandon you when others didn’t abandon me.”
“Long story?” she asks, anticipating the phrase.
“Yeah,” Marwyn nods.
“What a coincidence,” a new voice from down the hall shouts in an authoritative tone, “I happen to like stories. I heard you had one.”

The half-elf who walked down the row of cells was wearing a Brelish military uniform, one of the command team of Sterngate surely. His rank was indistinguishable, no markings of any kind on the suit, though based on the deference of the men who flanked him he was high ranking. They placed a chair opposite of Marwyn and Tora’s cells, and stepped back as the commander took a seat.

“I am Marvellio ir’Wynarn, leader of Sterngate,” the man claims, immediately inspiring fear into both of the prisoners. This was serious. “Normally I’d allow my men to keep murder suspects here for a few days, interrogate them a little, but…” he pauses, “It is my understanding you are tied not only to the attack on the rails several days ago, but also to the theft of my horse. So, you have my attention.”

“Y…your horse?” Marwyn asks, not even knowing what else to say.
“Yes,” Marvellio replies pointedly, “My magebred warhorse taken from the stables this morning. I assume that was you, since you were found with it.”
“I didn’t steal it, I…” Marwyn pauses, not wanting to implicate Slyvia, “Borrowed it. It was an emergency!”
“You borrowed it?” the commander asks sardonically.
“Yes!” Marwyn says, “I brought the horse back didn’t I?”
“Along with a body,” Marvellio counters, “Which is the crux of the matter. You’ve been rather silent over there,” he addresses Tora, “What’s a House Jorasco healer doing, riding with the man who slayed one of your own?”
“He was not one of us,” Tora bites back, “That halfling claimed to be Felix d’Jorasco, but I’m certain that wasn’t his real name.”
“But you killed him? One of you did?” the commander responds, pressing.

“I did,” Marwyn confesses, “And I know what happened on the rails two days ago, just, just let me explain.”
“You are confessing to the murder of Felix d’Jorasco?” Marvellio asks, eyebrow raised.
“He had to!” Tora interrupts, “That man was trying to kidnap me, like he did on the lightning rails!”
“Well that is an interesting claim,” the commander rebuffs, “Seeing as several of the guard claim you three entered Sterngate shortly after the disaster, all alive and well.”
“Just let us explain, please,” Marwyn pleads.
“Well, like I said,” Marvellio replies, “I like a good story.”

The commander listens mostly passively as Marwyn and Tora tell their respective sides of the story. Most of it Marwyn knew, but Tora made some interesting revelations. The visit to the victims of the rail, for example, wasn’t to ‘bless the bodies’ as Felix had claimed. It had, in fact, been done entirely on his suggestion. In hindsight, Tora wondered if it was a ploy meant to strike at her emotions, to prime her to agree to leave the city.
The officer did interrupt on several occasions, to clarify that Felix had boarded in Passage, to verify Marwyn’s description of the attackers from the rail, and other such matters. Eventually they get to the discovery of Felix’s true intentions, and the resulting death of the halfling. Marvellio mulls over what he had been told with a flask of something, standing away from the cells. His men seemed to be in discussion with him, several entering and exiting via the stairs.

Eventually, he returns to the chair, and takes a seat. There weren’t any more words, however, he just stared at the two and waited for a response.
Tora was the first to break the silence. “Are you letting us go?”
“Perhaps,” he responds enigmatically. “I’ve received word that others from the delegation have arrived. They were expecting you, Tora d’Jorasco, but not your friend here.”
“But they told you Felix was an imposter, right?” Marwyn asks hopefully.
“It seems that way,” Marvellio agrees, “They certainly had no idea who the hell he was.”
“So why hold us?”
“You,” the commander points at Marwyn, “You are as much an unknown as Felix, or whatever his name was. And since your friend’s sending stone so conveniently went silent, we can’t verify your story.”
“Yes you can,” Tora objects, “You have my word!”
“Your word goes as far back as Fairhaven,” Marvellio concedes, “But you can’t speak to his intentions. Felix deceived you, this man might have as well.”
“Look at the scrolls I had with me,” Marwyn says, “Why would I have them if I was lying?”

The commander nods, and answers, “A fair point. We did so, in fact. They support your story. Release them,” he commands, and stands up.
“That’s it?” Marwyn asks incredulously, “If you knew about the scrolls then why put us through this?”
“Because now I know the whole truth,” Marvellio answers, “And you stole my horse. Enjoy the rest of your stay in my fortress.”

Ghallandan Enclave
Tora and Marwyn make it back to the Ghallandan enclave more or less intact. After being released by the fort’s commander, their things had been returned, and several of the guard led them out of the keep proper. The small town built alongside it was relatively quiet, due both to the somewhat late hours and few people in the streets.

The same Ghallandan doorman Marwyn had hurriedly talked with that morning stands at attention when they near the door. “So pleased to see you in good health, Mistress Jorasco,” he greets Tora politely, “Several others belonging to your house have requested you meet them in the third floor meeting hall.”
“I’ll be right there, thanks,” Tora responds, a relieved smile on her face, “It’s good to hear they made it.”
“What about me?” Marwyn questions, noticing the invitation was extended only to Tora.
“Yes, regrettably Sir the meeting is official House Jorasco business. We have even emptied the hall of our employees in accordance with their wishes,” the doorman informs, “I was asked to tell you that one Caravor d’Jorasco will be requesting your presence afterwards. Will you require anything in the interim, perhaps a drink?” he asks, somewhat hesitantly.
“No, not tonight,” Marwyn declines, “Go, Tora. I’ll catch up with you later.”

Marwyn returns to his room to find it as he had left it this morning, with most of his things still thrown around. Wearily, he places the unstrung bow by the door, and collapses on the bed. Without looking, he slides the ring on his finger.
“Mev, it happened again,” Marwyn reports immediately after the connection forms, “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
“What happened?” the Cyrian replies just as quickly, all too familiar with what had occurred on the rails.
“Felix was a traitor. He tried to kidnap Tora and I killed him.”
“Is she safe?”
“Yeah,” Marwyn says thankfully, “Yeah she’s fine. She’s with the rest of the delegation now, they got here today.”
“This journey is sounding more dangerous than either of us anticipated,” Mevalyn notes. “But, you seem… better, Marwyn.”

There was a pause as Marwyn inventoried himself. He hadn’t fully realized it until now, but she was right. The crushing guilt he had felt since hearing the news of the rail attack’s deadly conclusion was gone. Not totally, perhaps he’d always carrying some of it with him. But now he felt less like drinking himself into a coma. “Guess I am,” he says calmly, “Taking out Felix… it almost feels like I was getting revenge. I guess I was, in a way.”
“Marwyn,” Mevalyn replies, with a serious tone, “That’s a dangerous road. Take it from someone who’s travelled it.”
“He deserved to die Mev,” Marwyn argues, not understanding the pushback, “He got 26 people killed. But… I didn’t mean to do it either,” he admits with some remorse.
“Do you want to tell me how it happened?”
“No,” Marwyn shakes his head, recoiling at the memory one prompted, “No you’re right, Mev. I don’t regret hurting him, but… I shouldn’t have lost control.”
“Do you know why he was after Tora?”
“No,” Marwyn repeats, “I’m hoping the delegation might. I’m due to talk with one of them soon.”
“You should go, then,” Mevalyn advises, “We can talk more later.”
“Mev, how are things over there?”
“No changes,” she sighs, “We’re counting on whoever Casitrus is sending. They’re getting here in a week or so.”
“I hope they’ll help you find answers.”
“As do I. Talk with you later?”
“Of course,” Marwyn replies, and then takes off the ring.

There was a knock on his door a few minutes later, and a polite voice through it tells him, “Sir? A Caravor d’Jorasco is asking you to meet him in the first floor bar. Shall I tell him you will be arriving shortly?”
“Yeah,” the bard confirms, sitting up. He pauses for a moment by the door, debating with himself. A few moments later, Marwyn comes to a decision. His bow stave and pack float over to him, his possessions having been packed while he was on the bed. If something else happened to the delegation, he wanted to be ready at a moment’s notice.

This readiness was not lost on the halfling sitting in the Ghallandan bar, though they did not comment on it when Marwyn entered the room. Instead, he simply waves over to the half-elf.
Marwyn notices the beckoning, and makes his way over to the table. There were several trays of food laid out in the center, seemingly in preparation for his arrival. This wasn’t how the bard imagined the meeting, and the Jorascan certainly didn’t live up to his expectations either.
The halfling he assumed was Caravor was old. Not elderly, but clearly past his prime. The Jorascan’s face was rough and weathered, and to the bard’s surprise there was a long scar running from under the chin to behind the right ear. The fault ran straight through the center of the halfling’s dragonmark, which itself covered most of the man’s face. His first thought was why that hadn’t gotten healed long ago.

“You are Marwyn Verdani, yes?” the halfling asks, in an accent Marwyn couldn’t place. He’d certainly heard it before, but he couldn’t remember where.
“I am.”
The halfling stands, and extends a hand upwards, “I am Caravor d’Jorasco. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The handshake confirmed Marwyn’s first impression. Rough hands, the man had been trained for battle, and the face suggested he’d seen plenty of it. “Please, sit. Eat whatever seems appetizing,” Caravor invites, gesturing at the table while himself taking a seat. “I wanted to thank you personally for your actions regarding Tora d’Jorasco.”
“I look out for my friends,” Marwyn replies, and then samples some of the food closer to him. The intense, yet pleasurable flavor made him regret sticking to just alcohol yesterday.

Caravor himself does the same, allowing for a few minutes of indulgence before he continues the conversation. “It is good that think of her as a friend, for House Jorasco certainly now sees you as one. Tell me, do you still intend to cross the Seawall Mountains?”
“Yes,” Marwyn replies, after swallowing his latest bite, “I still have to find who I’m looking for.”
Caravor nods knowingly, and says, “Tora told me about your mission. I hope you do not mind that I asked her, but I felt it necessary to be informed before meeting with you.”
“So you’re still going, despite the attacks?”
“Indeed,” the halfling confirms, “You may find it interesting to know that our Aundair representative was the only one targeted. You wouldn’t happen to know why?”
“Not a clue,” Marwyn shrugs, “Just glad I was there.”
“As am I. You may be wondering why you are talking to me, instead of another.”
“You’re the leader of the delegation?” Marwyn guesses.

Caravor laughs for a moment, and says, “Perceptive. I like that. Yes, I am the emissary from Vedykar. Do you know of it?”
“No,” the bard replies, the name having no meaning to him.
“It is a city in Karrnath, home to House Jorasco’s headquarters,” Caravor explains, and abruptly, Marwyn realizes why the accent sounded foreign. Karrnath was the kingdom farthest to the east, and now that Cyre was gone, the only of the Four Kingdoms not to share a direct border with Aundair. It was also the intended destination of the Thranish rail prototype, before Marwyn and his friends had sent most of it into the river. “A grand place where many ills are cured. We’ve even begun researching ways to counteract the effects of exposure to the Mournlands.”
“What?” Marwyn asks, jarred by the reference to those wastelands.
“You are confused, that is understandable. Most would wish to ignore that place, but it is House Jorasco’s duty to find treatment for anything that ails Khorvaire. There’s even one who claims we have the power to heal the land itself, but,” he smiles, “I am getting away from the matter at hand.”
“Which is?”

“If you are going to be travelling with our delegation, you should be familiar with it, at least,” Caravor clarifies, withdrawing a small notebook and referencing from it, “Darguun is a dangerous place, understand. If you had not done what you had for Tora, I might question your readiness to go to such a place. As it is, the delegation requires assistance from House Deneith. We are currently awaiting their escort, which will lead us safely to their enclave in the territory’s capital. There, will we do our business. What you do, from there, is yours.”
“What about the other delegates?” Marwyn questions, “Just so I don’t run into anymore Felix’s and be caught unaware.”
Caravor gives him an approving glance, and flips to another page. “Each of the remaining Galifarian Kingdoms has sent a delegate. In addition, the state of Zilargo, and the Talenta Plains are sending delegates as well. The former, because of their shared border with Darguun, and the latter to ensure that each of our major enclaves has a representative. I am, of course, our representative from Karrnath, and you are familiar with Aundair’s.”
“Of course,” Marwyn offers, while accepting a drink from a servant. He’d long ago figured out Caravor intended to do most of the talking.

“From Thrane, there is Desmie d’Lyrandar, who specializes in curse removal. Her mark covers her chest, though I do not suggest trying to verify this,” Caravor says with another smile, “Breland, more specifically Sharn, sends Avarne d’Lyrandar. He is one of the most naturally gifted of their enclave. A surprise that they would willingly part with him, as the man is one of few in that city that can raise the dead.”
Marwyn lowers his drink at that, and looks straight into Caravor’s face, “Your marks can do that?”
“Raising the dead is not that different from curing a wound,” the halfling answers nonchalantly, “Though it is a talent restricted to the more powerful marks. As it is, half of Avarne’s body is covered by his mark. Someone would be foolish to try impersonating him. The delegate from Zilargo, however, is the most inexperienced of us, and goes by the name of Eli d’Lyrandar. Not much to say on him.” Caravor pauses to take a drink himself, throat becoming dry.

“And the last one?” Marwyn asks, noticing that one was left out.
The Jorascan holds up a finger as he finishes the drink, and gives a satisfied sigh. “Arriving tomorrow from Gatherhold will be Valaina d’Lyrandar, tardy due to the length of her journey. With Cyre as it is, travel from the Talenta Plains is… difficult, to say the least. But she sent word yesterday that her trip had gone uninterrupted. By what I have heard she is simply a healer, chosen because she could be spared.”
“So we’re leaving when the House Denieth soldiers get here?” Marwyn clarifies.
“Yes, yes. It should be in two or three days. After the attack you and Tora suffered I advanced our timetable.” Caravor grabs the last piece of a dish containing some kind of brown spice, and sighs, “Despite my hopes that we would be able to enjoy the comforts of Zolanberg for a little while. That is all I had to say. If you want, I believe Tora wanted to talk with you as well,” Caravor adds, giving the bard the same smirk that he had when mentioning Desmie, “You shouldn’t keep her waiting.”
“No, uh, of course not,” Marwyn answers, suddenly nervous. He hid it well, however, and returned Caravor’s smile before lifting himself up from the table. He’d hoped to avoid a situation like this, but as he thought back to the moment on the Brelish plains, after he had taken down Felix… he couldn’t deny what he was feeling now. He wasn’t even sure what to do, if Caravor was leading him on, if he should even feel awkward about this at all.

It was with great apprehension that he knocked on Tora’s door, but to no answer. As he tries again, he hears her voice from the adjacent room, “I’m over here!” Confused, Marwyn walks over to what was Felix’s room, to find Tora standing in the center. “It’s odd,” she says, “I thought I might find something he left. But there’s nothing.”
“You didn’t notice him taking all his things this morning?” Marwyn asks, taking great care to keep his tone level.
“He didn’t,” Tora responds, “I just didn’t realized he’d never brought that much to begin with. That should have been the first red flag, right after him trying to get you arrested, of course.”
“You couldn’t have known. But listen, I talked with Caravor. We’re getting an escort for the rest of the trip, you’ll be safe.”
“I know,” Tora says, “He told us everything during the meeting, including why we were here.”
“Really?” Marwyn asks, mental struggle momentarily forgotten in his curiosity, “What is it?”
“I can’t,” she says, looking away from Marwyn, “It’s so secretive Caravor subjected us to a truth spell just to verify our identities.”
“Oh,” the bard replies, retreating from the topic.

“Caravor said you… wanted to talk with me?” Marwyn asks hesitantly.
“In my room, I just got,” she searches for the word, “Sidetracked,” she finishes, gesturing at Felix’s former room.
“Sure,” Marwyn answers, feeling his heartbeat quicken. He followed the medic into her room, the halfling closing the door behind them.

“I… wanted to ask you a personal question,” Tora says, “I shouldn’t have noticed, but…”
“What is it?”
“Your ring,” Tora says, “I noticed it among the possessions the soldiers returned. I assumed it was a wedding band, but you don’t wear it.”
“My ring,” Marwyn repeats, a mixture of disappointment and relief washing over him. And then guilt, for the former. “Yes, I have a wife. I don’t wear it often because it’s somewhat valuable.”
“Do you miss her? I mean, you’re going to be away from Fairhaven for a while.”
“Yeah,” the bard nods, “But we both travel. It’s something we’ve gotten used to.”
“I worried about that when I was training for the Medic’s Guild,” she confides, “What I’d do if I married and then went to war. It was the one thing that comforted me when I was reassigned to Fairhaven, and now…”
“What?”
“Nothing,” Tora says quickly, “Forget about it. Thank you for answering my question, and for everything else you’ve done. I’ll see you in the morning?”
“Yeah, of course Tora,” Marwyn assures, going for the door, “See you in the morning.”

He left, returning to his room. Returning once more to his bed, he placed his ring in the palm of his hand, looking at it intently. The near miss with Tora had rattled him, made him rethink everything that the band of gold was meant to represent. What he knew now, was that the moment Tora had made herself clear in her intentions, he’d momentarily returned to the same low that he had started at today. He couldn’t understand why, exactly, but he realized what he had to do. The understanding he had with Mevalyn was something he could condone, but not take advantage of, not if he wanted to live with himself.
He remembered his wife was expecting them to speak again tonight. Glancing at the ring again, he made a silent promise to himself, before putting it on once more.

Continued in Part 4, The Deneith Blademarks – A Fractious Nation

View
Rail to Zolanberg
On the Mark

Part 2 of Marwyn and The Golden Hand

Three Days Later
The start of summer brought sweltering weather to Fairhaven, making the journey to the rail yards more of an ordeal than Marwyn would have thought. It wasn’t helping that he and Medic Tora were leaving in the hottest part of the day, though the train schedule was impervious to the possible risks of heat stroke. Though considering he was travelling with a House Jorascan medic, Marwyn thinks, there may be little risk of lasting harm. As it was, he trudged along the streets warm enough to simmer an egg.
The past few days had been uneventful, though Marwyn thinks of them all the same. He’d received no word from Mevalyn, so he assumed she was still travelling. The ring assured him she wasn’t in danger (so long as he was on the same plane, that is), and he wasn’t too keen on linking their minds at the moment. He was still struggling to find a way to handle his current predicament, despite Mevalyn’s suggestions.

Speaking of which, his travelling companion began talking as they walked down Fairhaven’s eastern road, voice barely audible over the crowd, “Do you know if the lightning rail cars are cooled?” Tora asks, wiping some sweat off her brow, “I certainly hope they are.”
“You’ve never been on a lightning rail?” Marwyn asks, leaning over slightly to compensate for their difference in height.
“Never left the city,” Tora answers, shrugging. Her pack was obviously digging into her shoulders, but had refused House Jorasco’s offer of sending an orderly to carry it for her. Marwyn had thought to offer Jarvis’ services, until he remembered that she wasn’t aware of him. Yet, thought the bard, as he certainly intended to mention it at some point. “I can’t say Darguun was the first place I thought I was going to.”
“What was?”
“Cyre, or another battlefront,” the medic answers simply, casting a pall over the conversation.

It wasn’t until they had almost reached the city gate that Marwyn brought up the courage to ask, “But why the frontlines?”
“What? Oh,” Tora says, realizing the bard was continuing their other discussion. “It’s what I trained for initially, battlefield medicine. I suppose the Mourning saved me from putting any of that to use,” Tora says thoughtfully, “Instead I was told the Last War was finally ending, and that I would be serving under Proctor Kaellen.”
“Papers,” one of the gate guards orders evenly, interrupting the conversation. Marwyn and Tora hand over the aforementioned documents, Marwyn’s worn and frayed, Tora’s newly printed. The constitution of the card makes little difference to the guard, however, as they barely glance at them before waving the two through. There were a lot of people moving through the gate, and everyone had to be subjected to at least cursory inspection.

“So you can handle a weapon?” Marwyn asks, as they move towards the main station, “Or, at least, you could?”
Tora gives a short nod, and answers, “’Preventative medicine’, as our instructors jokingly referred to that part of our training. I doubt I’m as good as you must be, but I can at least handle a weapon.”
“I’ve fought a few battles, some you probably wouldn’t believe,” Marwyn brags, while at the same time helping Tora up onto the platform.
“Sounds like your stories have faced rejection before,” Tora observes. She then looks ahead at the railcar, which was in the process of being loaded with passengers. “You never answered my first question, you know.”
“What?
“Are these cars cooled?” Tora asks again, stepping forward to join the queue to enter.
“By the gods I hope they are,” Marwyn answers, stepping in line behind her.

As it happens, the rail cars did not carry any enchantment to modify the interior temperature. While this initially disheartened both, the roof did block the sun, and the breeze from the travelling train dispelled the rest of their discomfort.
Equally fortunate, House Jorasco had issued Tora a merchant class ticket, having Marwyn purchase one of the same. While the seats weren’t as luxurious as the sleeper cabins he had used with Professor Langhorn, and required them to sleep in taverns along the way, they afforded a modicum of privacy. Such was it that Marwyn and the medic found themselves sitting on opposite benches.

The bard quickly grows bored with looking at the fast-moving scenery. This was his second such journey in weeks… no, Marwyn reminds himself, technically months. He was still adjusting to the time lost from his metaplanar excursions. Losing almost an entire season will do that to a person.
Tora, though, was seemingly fascinated. Simply speaking, riding a lightning rail was one of the fastest experiences one could hope to have. The trains were faster than even airships, and legend tells of a time when a brash, young silver dragon tried and failed to race one. Most find it impossible, at first, to not be entranced by the sheer sensation of speed. The halfing was no different. She was actually using the satchel carrying her tunics to boost herself up enough to fully glance out.

Not wanting to distract Tora from her reverie, Marwyn instead looks around the interior of the cabin. He’d experienced the worst of lightning rail travel, rows of benches in which the poorest travelers were packed, and the best, the sleeper cabins near the front of the train. But the merchant-class seating was more his style, and he quickly felt comfortable sitting on the padded bench. The seating was broken up into sets of two benches, facing each other, with enough space for two or three people on each one. The arrangement allowed for greater intimacy among travelers, without the crowding of the cabins further back. Tora and he shared one set by themselves, there being just enough passengers to occupy each set of benches without causing strangers to be seated together.
It was also somewhat a relief for Marwyn to think that they wouldn’t be spending the nights on a rail car. The trip to Sharn had been nice, but sleeping above restrained elementals is far less preferable than sleeping above a rowdy tavern, elegance of the rail beds aside. It wasn’t as bad during the day, but at night, when Marwyn’s arcane senses opened themselves whilst he dreamed, the proximity of the enraged magical spirits wore on his psyche. He wondered if those less attuned to the arcane felt that effect, and about the notion that there were downsides of being magically trained.

His wandering gaze was diverted from the other passengers to a flash of yellow that poked out from under Tora. He realized it was one of her tunics, which was being pressed out of its satchel by the medic’s continued use of it as a seat. The sight causes a question to resurface, one that had only occurred to his subconscious before. Realizing it had been a good amount of time since they had left the station, Marwyn decides to finally break the silence.

“Tora?” he says hesistantly.
“Yes?” the halfing answers, startled. It was clear her mind had been elsewhere. Seeing that her clothes were in danger of spilling out, she quickly hops off of them and stows any that had slipped out. “Sorry about that,” she apologizes, “I was just admiring the view.”
“I actually had a question,” Marwyn says, after she had finished, “I was wondering about those tunics.”
The medic gives him an odd look, not expecting the question, “I hope you aren’t looking to get one yourself.”
“No, no,” Marwyn says, not sure how she’d drawn that conclusion, “I just saw that, back at the healing hall, there were other colors…”
“Oh,” Tora sighs. She turns, and looks out the window once more, now eye-level with the bottom bar without her boost. After about a minute, Marwyn coughs to get her attention again. “Sorry,” she apologizes again, somewhat embarrassed, “That question just… Nevermind.”
“If you can’t tell me I won’t press,” Marwyn replies, surprised at the resistance.
“No, it’s fine. My mind was just elsewhere,” Tora explains, “The color of the tunic designates both station and role within the House. Yellow designates general healer, the most common of those who bear the mark.”
“I thought you were a medic,” the bard points out, “Kaellen called you that.”
Tora shrugs, and answers, “I was going to be, but the end of the Last War changed priorities somewhat. I was never officially introduced into the Medic’s Guild, though I still merit the honorific.”
“What about red and green?”
“I imagine you saw Kaellen wearing green,” Tora guesses, “Proctors wear it. They’re higher up the totem pole, per se, and usually have at least one specialization. Kaellen’s was surgery. It’s…”

Marwyn coughs again at the memory. Tora gives him another look, to which he says hoarsely, “I think he was using it when I met him.”
Tora’s look changes to sympathetic, and she continues, “It can seem ghastly at first, but in some cases it is necessary. Red, on the other hand,” she says, changing topics, “Comprises our orderlies, who handle clerical work and initial triage. They’re either descendants of the House that don’t bear the mark, or those with the weakest variant who hope to improve their skills.”
“How does that work, your marks I mean?” Marwyn questions, glancing again at Tora’s marked hand, “When I was heading to meet you I remember feeling several auras that felt… odd.”
“I imagine it is similar to your arcane talents, which are just as foreign to me,” Tora answers blithely, “I understand the technical act of arcane magic, of course, using a focus to channel your arcane strength. In my case, the focus and source of the strength are one and the same.”
“And you’re just… born with it?”
“Not necessary, it can spontaneously manifest, but only in those with the blood of the House,” Tora explains. Her right hand had subconsciously gravitated towards the other during the conversation, and she was now running a thumb over the ridges absentmindedly. When the conversation stalls, she looks down and hurriedly separates her hands once aware of what they had been doing.

“I think it’s my turn,” Tora says, “Tell me, do you normally have that servant follow you around?”
“Wha… you can see it?” Marwyn says, looking to the space which Jarvis occupied, to his left.
“I was trained for combat,” Tora reminds, “Which includes using all of my senses. I’ve been with you long enough to notice.” She gives him a wry smile, taking pleasure in the fact that she’d gotten one over the bard.
Marwyn leans closer to the medic and lowers his voice, saying, “I usually keep him around all day…”
“Him?” Tora interrupts, with a curious tone.
“Uh, yeah,” Marwyn replies sheepishly, “I kept it around so much I named it, just because,” he shrugs.
“Really, what did you name it?
“Jarvis.”
“Sounds fitting,” Tora says, “Still, I imagine that must get expensive, using that ritual daily.”
“Sort of,” Marwyn answers evasively. They were nearing dangerous territory. As pleasant as Tora was, he wasn’t willing to share the details of his own mark. That would bring up too many uncomfortable questions, and it as admittedly nice to keep Tora believing that he was fabulously wealthy. It’s not too far from the truth, he justifies to himself, as a pang of built resounds through him. He decides to simply say, “It isn’t too bad, and the convenience certainly outweighs the cost.”
“Hm,” Tora grunts, accepting the lie. Seemingly satisfied, she returns to window gazing. They were coming up on Passage, and Lake Galifar was coming into view.

Passage
The stop in Passage took around an hour, with passengers and cargo being transferred in and out of the rail. There was time to purchase fresh food, though Marwyn was inclined to stay on board. The city always brought back bad memories, and he’d done the same on the way to Sharn. Tora was under no such compulsion, and left her luggage with Marwyn.
That task proved more cumbersome than he might have imagined, as he was assaulted by no less than three different people because of them before Tora returned. The first was one of the stewards informing him that he couldn’t keep excess luggage on the seats. That elf was actually the easiest to deal with, as Marwyn informed him that the bags belonged to his Jorascan travelling companion. That he himself wasn’t a halfling was all the evidence needed to convince the man.
The second was a noblewoman and her retinue, who demanded the use of Marwyn’s set of benches. Out of all the rest on the train, only two had one inhabitant, and the other was occupied by an equally stuffy merchant. Not wanting to cause trouble, though after some initial resistance, Marwyn decided to move to said other set of benches, to the dismay of the merchant. Marwyn told him exactly where to lodge his complaints.
But the third was by far the most troublesome. Just as he had gotten settled into his new seat, a halfling flanked by two guardsmen accused him of being a thief. Apparently, the accuser was another member of the Jorascan delegation, from the Eldeen Reaches. Having boarded the train in Passage, the healer was utterly dismayed to see official House Jorascan supplies under the possession of some bard, and felt obligated to notify the guard as to the theft.

The merchant across from him backed off, not wanting to be involved. Which was fine, Marwyn completely understood the man’s self-interest. What really got to him was the smug look shot at him by the noblewoman. And so Tora returned to the lightning rail to see both of the guardsmen restraining Marwyn as he protested the charge of larceny. Also there was a woman running around screaming, being chased by a rat that had been plucked out of a nearby ditch, but that was of little consequence.

“What is going on here?” Tora shouts, over those of the guards and the screams of the noblewoman.
“Guard business, move along,” one of them says on reflex, not really paying attention. The other was currently using her nightstick to keep the bard down.
“Ah, you must have been searching for your things,” the other halfling, who had been paying attention, says. “I am Felix d’Jorasco,” he says, extending a hand.
“You are arresting my friend,” Tora responds coldly, rebuffing the advance, “I would rather you not.”
“Friend? But he…” Felix begins, glancing at Marwyn and seeing the relief on the bard’s face.
“Lady, you’re saying this guy had permission to have your stuff?” the guard not restraining Marwyn asks, backing off slightly.
“To guard it, yes,” Tora answers pointedly.
“Oh,” the guardswoman with the nightstick says, “Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Mmph,” Marwyn grunts, face still pressed against the floor. The guardswoman stands, releasing the pressure.
“No ‘ard feelings,” the guardsman says, as he and his partner go to deal with the frenzied noblewoman. The rat had gone missing a few moments ago, though that did little to calm her nerves.

“I am terribly sorry,” the halfling called Felix apologizes, “I had assumed the belongings were to another heading to Darguun, one who was also travelling alone. It didn’t occur to me that you would have a companion.”
“It was an understandable mistake,” Tora says, now shaking the other’s hand. “Marwyn, are you ok?”
“Uh huh,” Marwyn grunts, nursing a bruise from one of the nightsticks. The merchant, who had remained passive the whole time, graciously moved over to give him room to sit.
“That should be healed,” Felix points out, “And there should be no other but I to do so, for causing the trouble in the first place.” He reaches out a hand, and Marwyn senses another one of the strange auras surround Felix as the halfling channeled his mark. The aura seemed to be focused around one of the man’s legs, which was covered by his pants. “I do hope you can forgive me.”
“Yeah, we’re good,” Marwyn says, feeling an immediate release from the bruising.
“I wasn’t aware the Reaches were sending a representative,” Tora says questioningly, looking closely at Felix, “Or that our House had much in the way of organization there.”
“Not as much as Aundair, though certainly enough to send someone to Darguun,” Felix counters, “There are plenty sons and daughters of Jorsaco that live in the Towering Woods.”
“Are you taking the rail to Zolanberg as well?” Tora asks, taking the remaining window seat in the set of benches, “Because if so, you might as well join us.”
“Certainly!” Felix exclaims. Marwyn, next to the merchant, notices the man grumble slightly. This was lost on the two halflings.

The rail left Passage shortly after, the sun only a few hours from the horizon. The next stop was Ghalt, where the group planned to rest for the night. Well, three of them did, the merchant had taken up Tora’s hobby of wordlessly glancing out of the window.
The conversation quickly turned to a comparison of Tora and Felix’s upbringings, which Marwyn mostly tuned out. Both had grown up after the Eldeen Reaches had split from Aundair, and were apparently interested in how the schism had affected House Jorasco practices. To the bard, it was all somewhat boring. Instead, he focused his efforts on a squeaky bolt he had found next to the noblewoman’s bench. Honestly, at this point he should stop terrorizing the woman, but he couldn’t shake the slightly vindictive joy that he got when no one in her retinue could find the root cause of the issue.

The travel to Ghalt continued in this way until they arrived at the relatively small station. Surprisingly, it seemed that only Marwyn and his two companions were getting off, the rest were staying on the rail until at least Marketplace. The bard worried for a moment what would happen when the woman realized that the noise had stopped when he left, until he commanded Jarvis to loosen the bolt so that the movement of the rail would do the work for him.

That Night
To Marwyn’s surprise, House Jorasco had a standing agreement with The Middle Lantern. Mabel recognized him instantly, and seemed relieved that he was without his previous companions. Thinking back, the bard believed Jorduna was the root of this emotion. Each were able to rent their own rooms, this being a down season for Ghalt. Once he had settled down, and locked the door, Marwyn pulled out his ring.
“Mev?” he asks, when the enchantment is activated.
“One moment,” her voice comes through, and the connection is broken.

After a few minutes of anxious waiting, it resumes. “Apologies, my love.”
“What’s wrong?” Marwyn asks, wondering about the delay.
“I was in conversation with Casitrus,” Mevalyn answers, “I found it hard to juggle two mental conversations at once, and the first really couldn’t wait.”
“You got in contact with him?” Marwyn mentally exclaims, “That’s great!”
“Yes,” Mevalyn responds, though the voice was reserved. There was a sigh, and she continues, “But the search goes poorly in Flamekeep. No word on the slave ships, though it’s not as if we can be open about our intentions. Oirli…” she pauses.
“What?”
“I’m worried about him, Marwyn,” Mevalyn admits, “With every passing day there’s less chance of finding Sayge.”
“But you’ve got New Cyre’s help now, right?” Marwyn asks tentatively.
“Casitrus is sending whatever help he can, but they have their own problems,” Mevalyn says, “And whatever help does arrive will do so by rail. It’ll be weeks…”
“You’ll find him Mev,” Marwyn reassures, “Even if I have to storm Flamekeep to help you do it.”
“That’s sweet of you to say, but we both know what’ll happen,” Mevalyn counters. “Speaking of you travelling far, far away from Thrane, how’s the trip?”
“Oh,” Marwyn says, “We’re stopped in Ghalt. Trip was nice, I was only nearly arrested once.”
“What?” Mevalyn asks.
“Simple misunderstanding, everything worked out,” Marwyn replies, “Though we’ve got another Jorascan with us now. Goes by Felix.”
“Where’d he come from?” Mevalyn asks, interested.
“Hopped on the train in Passage, apparently he was sent from the Eldeen Reaches.”
“Well, as long as he doesn’t try to force you to save the world, he sounds fine,” she banters.
“Ha. Not likely,” Marwyn replies, glad for the sign of mirth in Mevalyn. Normally she was good-spirited, but Mevalyn had her moments of depression. Having your homeland destroyed does that to a person. And on top of that was Sayge’s disappearance, and the mess she had gotten into before with the Cyrian radicals… Mevalyn had a lot of reasons to feel sadness. He just thanked the gods she hadn’t gone with them to Thrane.

“How’s Jarvis?” she asks, as Marwyn became lost in thought.
“Still here, still incorporeal,” Marwyn answers, glancing over to where the force servant was hovering, “He says he misses you.”
“Well tell him that I miss him too,” Mevalyn says, the thought of laughter accompanying the sentiment, “And that I have to go. Oirli will want to know what Casitrus told me.”
“Stay safe Mev,” Marwyn says.
“You too,” Mevalyn replies, “I’m serious, try not to get arrested again.”
“Hey, that was one time,” he protests, “And that was your fault.”
“Never going to let that go are you?”
“Never,” Marwyn replies warmly, ending the connection.

The Next Day
Marwyn was awoken an hour before dawn, as he had requested the previous night. After making sure the other companions were moving, he prepared himself for the coming day of travel. By Tora’s estimate, by hopping on an earlier rail they should make it to Starilaskur only an hour after nightfall, and cut a day off their travel time. Felix was up for the idea of getting to Zolanberg a day early, and Marwyn saw no reason to object.
Another boon of the early departure time was minimal passengers on board, at least in the merchant class seats. The only downside to the day was that they would be passing through Thrane.

Honestly it wasn’t even that long a stretch through the country, or, at least, that’s what Marwyn told himself. It was a point of soreness among some Aundairians that their lightning rail ran through Fort Light, a Thranish keep, before reaching Breland. Not as bad as, say, the continued immoral occupation of Thaliost, but having all rail cargo thoroughly inspected by an only nominally peaceful kingdom ruffled some feathers in Fairhold. The last time he took this line, he had been in the sleeper cars, and the Thranish didn’t bother with inspecting those. But merchant class was fair game.
Marwyn was sure he’d be fine though. If Thrane was looking for anyone, it’d surely be Vargard or Rakh. He, travelling with two Jorascan envoys, wouldn’t raise any suspicions. Probably.

But it would be a few hour before then, and there was breakfast to be had. Mabel had been gracious enough to prod the cook into giving them some eggs and bacon early, and they had begun consuming them on the rail.
Having exhausted conversation with Tora yesterday, Felix turns his interest to Marwyn. “So tell me,” he begins, while wiping his hands with a handkerchief, “How does an ordinary bard get roped into travelling to Darguun?”
“Huh?” Marwyn asks, food in his mouth. After rapidly swallowing, he says, “Got business there. Didn’t want to go alone.”
“There’s more to it than that, surely,” Felix protests, looking at Tora for anything else. She shakes her head, though, and the halfling’s gaze turns back to Marwyn.
“I lost contact with my friends there,” Marwyn explains, “I’m going to try and find them.”
“Oh,” Felix says, suddenly quiet. Tora gives him a look, which apparently he knew the meaning of. “You know what kind of place Darguun is, right?” he says hesitantly.
“Yeah,” Marwyn says matter of factly.
“And you… losing contact with them I mean…” Felix tries to get the words out.
“They can handle themselves,” Marwyn shrugs, “And it helps that one’s a hobgoblin.”
“Oh, yes that would,” Felix comments, growing more and more uncomfortable with the line of conversation.

“So how about one of those stories?” Tora asks, breaking the silence, “You must have plently.”
“Oh, yeah,” the bard replies, glad for the change of topic, “Let me think…” he says, pausing to consider what he should say, if anything. Obviously any job with the Royal Eyes was forfeit, and the hunt for Blue Cloak bordered on too fantastical to believe. Same goes for his most recent work, but there was one that struck a good balance. “Well,” he says, deciding, “It was the beginning of last winter, in Sharn. There was this excavation team that…

Fort Light
The retelling had taken up so much of Marwyn’s attention that he forgot about the upcoming Thranish encampment. This was good in the sense that it had taken his mind off it, but bad in the sense that, when the rail stopped and inspections were announced, his heart quickened with fear. But he’d settled into the window seat, and was surrounded by the halflings. He’d just have to keep his head down…
“Why’d you stop?” Felix asks, breaking the bard’s silence. Marwyn had just finished describing the mad necromancer that had taken root inside Morgrave University’s digsite, when the announcement had gone out.
“Inspections,” Marwyn grunts, glancing out the window and noticing several guards walking towards the train. Further down the road which led from the station, was a moderately sized castle. Carts were being loaded with supplies, which were being brightly illuminated by light coming from the keep. The infamous array of mirrors inside the fort was a major tactical asset, one which many battles had been fought over during the Last War. Now, it was being used to help expedite shipping.

But that wasn’t Marwyn’s main concern. To the boarding guardsmen’s credit, they weren’t nearly as menacing as he made them out to be. The inspections were as routine as those done at the gates of any city, and were hardly probing. Those who he would encounter if arrested, however, were far more worthy of the bard’s terror. Marwyn had already faced an interrogator from his own homeland, he’d rather not add another kingdom to that list.
“I’m sure it won’t take too long,” Tora sighs, leaning back and digging through her pack for her identification papers, “Not that I’ve had much experience with Thranish soldiers.”
“I imagine they’re much the same as others,” Felix shrugs, “More adherents to the Silver Flame, certainly.” The halfling turns when he hears one of the train car doors open, and several people board. The first few were new passengers, though the last three were men bearing armor accented by the visage of Thrane, and the Silver Flame.

“Healing services are available if any are in need,” the one at the front cries, “Though I see that may not be necessary.” The half-elf tips his iron cap at Tora, her mark obvious to the man’s eyes. Marwyn tries to shrink into his seat, incredibly uncomfortable with focus on the person to his left. The guard continues, “Should have you moving again shortly, just need to check for identification.”

The three begin moving down the center aisle, stopping for perhaps half a minute at each set of benches. Marwyn’s was situated at the opposite end that they had entered from, but the extra distance did little to calm his nerves. He was sweating profusely by the time the three reached him.

The one who had addressed Tora took up their ID’s, allowing his two companions to take the other set. He handed the halfling’s identification back almost immediately, but Marwyn’s heart nearly stopped when the man looked at his more closely. “What’s your destination, sir?” the guard asks, looking Marwyn directly in the eyes.
“Is there a problem?” Tora asks, when Marwyn doesn’t speak for several moments.
“Just answer the question, sir,” the guard instructs, staring down the bard.
“I’m with them,” Marwyn says gruffly, indicating the two Jorascans, “Why?”
“Problem Sir?” one of the other guards asks, noticing he had stopped.
“Maybe, I’ll handle it,” the first guard orders, waving them on to the next car. He then turns back to Marwyn, “You seem nervous.”
“Who wouldn’t be?” the bard deflects, trying as hard as he could to not betray his true feelings.
The guard pauses for a moment, taking one more glance at Marwyn’s papers. After what seemed like an eternity, the half-elf says, “Just a random check. You should get some new documents, by the way,” the guard advises, handing back the parchment, “Looks like these have been to hell and back.”
“S..sure,” Marwyn stutters, watching with disbelief as the guard moves to join the other two. He doesn’t fully unclench until the train was again under way, and it was then that he notices the note written over the official document.

‘Doria still has friends abroad,’ it read, in miniscule writing, ‘Your identity is secure, but don’t get cocky.’ Apparently reacting to his recognition, the scrawl faded. Magic of some sort, but Marwyn had been so focused on not getting caught he hadn’t even noticed a spell.
“That was unpleasant,” Felix remarks, noticing the shocked look on Marwyn’s face and misinterpreting it, “Any idea why he was so interested in you?”
“No,” Marwyn lies.
“They probably have to do that once every car,” Tora speculates, “He might have wanted to question me initially, until he saw how terrible your papers looked.”
“They’re not that bad,” Marwyn protests, stowing them carefully into his satchel, “Just… well used.”
“Why would he have wanted to ‘randomly question’ you Tora?” Felix asks.
The medic laughs, and teases, “If you couldn’t figure that out then I’m not sure I should tell you.”
Felix sighs. “I’m not omniscient,” he complains, “And I won’t chase the answer like a weasel.”
“Alright Felix, whatever you say,” Tora relents. “Marwyn, why don’t you continue with that story of yours? We still have a ways to go.”
“Sure,” Marwyn nods, glad for the opportunity to take his mind off of something else. “So, as I was saying,” he begins, “This guy had apparently been camped down there for about a week, creating undead…”

Later that Day, Starilaskur
Marwyn finished the story somewhere past Hatheril, and after the train switched to the East/West track. He’d altered the story’s ending somewhat, failing to mention their later exploration of the catacombs, and instead claimed they had moved on afterwards.
The rest of the day’s journey was spent idly talking, Marwyn mostly answering questions on the companions he used to travel with. The two halflings were interested in who Marwyn was crossing the continent for, and the bard liked reminiscing about the adventures of last year. It seemed like so long ago now, but not even a full year had gone by since he’d first joined up with Vargard.

And now he were back at Starilaskur, where he had landed after his very first teleportation. After their second encounter with Redmont, and just before he had met Mevalyn. He hadn’t stayed in the village long, certainly not long enough to remember the tavern. Like all rooms reserved for rail travelers, it was spartan in design. A bed, a nightstand, and a door was all there was to it. Fortunately they had arrived late, and the resulting exhaustion removed any hesitation the bard had about the room.

The Next Morning
If all went well, this would be their last day of travel by rail. There was only one stop, in Sterngate, before they would reach Zolanberg. Over breakfast, Marwyn asked if Tora or Felix knew if the other delegates would be there already. Unfortunately, they were unaware. The leader of the delegation was aware of all the others, but they knew neither their identity nor when they would arrive.

The rail was more crowded this time, and while the three were able to find seating together, they had a companion. A gruff man who called himself Daniel. He was mostly covered by his clothing, plain leather armor with a cowl. The presence of the man cast somewhat of a pall over the group. Unlike the merchant they had travelled with to Ghalt, there was something passively sinister about ‘Daniel’ which stifled conversation.
Tora mainly spent the journey with her favorite hobby, window gazing. Felix read from a book he was carrying. The title was in dwarvish, for some reason, as was the rest of the text, which precluded Marwyn from reading over his shoulder. So the bard instead just decided to rest his eyes, leaning his head against the glass. The vibrations from the moving train were oddly comforting, and after the initial hesitation that the window would break, he allowed them to lull him to sleep.

A Few Hours Later
“Marwyn, wake up,” a voice called to him urgently, rousing him from his sleep. Jolting to a start, the bard sees Tora prodding him. “Something’s wrong with the train.”
“What is it?!” Marwyn sits up, looking around. The others in the cabin, Jorascans included, were looking nervous. “Where’s Daniel?” he asks, noticing the man was gone.
“He left a few minutes ago,” Tora whispers, “Right before the train stopped.” She was interrupted by several House Orien guards running through the hallway, towards the front of the train.
One stayed momentarily to shout, “Everything is fine, just a slight delay, we’ll be moving shortly,” before running to catch up.
“We’re an hour from Sterngate,” Felix continues, “And the train just stops? When has this ever happened?”
“I ride this line regularly,” a nearby merchant pitches in, “Never had this kinda delay before.”
A woman, who in a brief state of panic Marwyn mistook as the noblewoman he had terrorized two days prior, suggests, “Maybe there’s a rockslide on the tracks?”
“Not this far from tha’ mountains,” a dwarf from across the car corrects, “An’ these trains’ll plow straight through anythin’ other thanna large boulder.”
“Maybe…” another voice begins, but the trainwide announcement system kicks on. A voice, far different from the conductor, comes through.

“We have taken control of this lightning rail,” a gravelly voice, which Marwyn recognizes as belonging to the one who called himself Daniel, menaces, “The guard aboard have been subdued, and if you look to the west, you will see riders approaching the tracks. Do not panic,” the voice advises, as several in the car begin to do so, “For no lives have been lost, and none need to be. All we ask is one thing.” The last sentence was dragged out, with silence at the end meant to emphasize the following words, “That those belonging to House Jorasco exit the lighting rail. Control of the train will be restored to the conductor, and you will all be on your way. You have two minutes.”

The rest of the passengers look to the halflings at the back of the car, desperation visible in their faces. Acting almost on instinct, Marwyn had bow in hand before anyone could take a step. A cautious observer may have noticed that he had only needed to reach for an arrow, his bow had seemingly strung itself, and floated into his hand. But under the stress of the situation, all anyone noticed was that there was a longbow interposed between the two halflings and any attempt to throw them off the train. “Don’t even try,” the bard says.
“That bastard was scoping us out,” Felix says, he too recognizing the voice, “But why do they want us?”
“That’s not the question we should be asking ourselves,” Tora says softly, “What are we going to do?”
Marwyn glances at the combatants approaching the train on horseback, all clad in the same plain leather armor that Daniel had been wearing. By this point they had dismounted, and were heading straight for them.

“If you don’t leave, they’ll kill us!” One of the merchants pleads, though he doesn’t take a step farther towards Marwyn. As if on cue, Daniel makes another announcement.
“30 seconds now, or else they will board. I can’t guarantee what will happen to the other passengers when they do.”
“You’re not going to get away with this!” someone else in the crowd shouts upward, to little effect.
“Do you think they’ll hurt the other passengers?” Tora asks quickly, grabbing her things. Felix quickly does the same.
“What are you doing?” Marwyn yells, backing away from the crowd slightly as they head to the door.
“I’m not endangering their lives,” Tora says, “But I’m not going down easily. Marwyn, you stay. Tell the delegation about this. Felix, give yourself up if you can’t handle a fight.” Meanwhile, several of the assailants were nearing the car, approaching from both ends of the car. Whatever they were going to do, they needed to do it fast.
Experience aside, Marwyn found himself in both a moral and tactical quandary. He didn’t want to leave the halflings to dry, but what Tora suggested was, at least, an understandable course of action. No one could blame him really, and it’s not like they really had a way to defeat that many mercs or get away from…

“Do you trust me?” Marwyn asks, stowing his bow and moving towards the door opposite from the approaching mercenaries.
“What?” Tora asks.
“Do you trust me?” Marwyn repeats, opening the door. The mountains rose up in the background, but there was little else.
“Time’s up,” Daniel says, “Leave now, or suffer the consequences.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Tora sighs, and she moves to the opposite door. Felix, who had been following her, continues to do so.
“Tell them we headed out this way,” Marwyn tells the rest in the cabin, somewhat guiltily. His plan only took care of himself and the two Jorascans. His decision could very well mean the death of some of these people, though he hoped it wouldn’t, “You won’t be lying.”

The assault team breached the rail car from both ends, burly swordsmen leading the charge. “Where are they?!” one of them shouts to a hysteric noblewoman.
“They wen’ that way,” the dwarf answers, pointing at the open doorway leading east. The hijacker who had spoken grabs the dwarf, and holds a sword to his throat.
“They’d better,” he menaces, “Or it’ll be your head. Find them!” he shouts to the rest, while dragging the dwarf with him.

The group, 11 in total with the dwarf, exit the train car to find only empty space between the train and the far away mountains. “Where are they?” the leader asks again, holding the blade closer to the dwarf’s skin.
“They said they’d be here!” the dwarf protests desperately.
“Boss!” One of the others shouts, looking through the gap between the cars to the other side of the tracks, “The horses!”
The one holding the dwarf takes a look for himself, and sees the horses they’d brought scattering. The man he’d left with them was presumably dead, and it was obvious that three were being directed by three invisible riders. “They lied,” he says simply, and cuts the dwarf’s throat. “Driver,” he speaks into a stone, “They got away.”
“What? How?” a voice comes through the obvious sending stone.
“Your mistake. That guard was magically adept. We’ve lost our chance to grab them before Darguun.”
“Damn it. What are you orders?”
“Kill the guards, and anyone else up there who saw faces,” the leader orders coldly, “Leave any valuables. I don’t want to take anything that could be tracked.”
“Understood. What will you do?”
“Everyone in that car was dead the moment we boarded. After that, I’ll be running down our damned horses,” the leader curses, ending the connection. He grimly turns to the cabin Marwyn and company had occupied, and points to it, “Kill everyone in there.”

An Hour Later
The invisibility surrounding Tora, Felix, and Marwyn fades an hour away from the train, in that order. Marwyn had to recast it on himself after knocking out the guard around the horses. He wasn’t able to cast it again for some time, but that didn’t matter. No one had followed them.
“What the hell?” Felix asks.
“Spell doesn’t last forever,” Marwyn answers, words clipped by the exhaustion of riding a horse at full sprint. They’d been heading west the entire time, and should be somewhere north of Sterngate by now. “We should start heading south.”
“I still can’t believe this,” Tora says, as they turn theirs horses. The halflings were having some trouble managing the full-sized horses, but exigency created a decent reason to try. “Who were they?”
“Mercenaries, the bad kind,” Marwyn responds, “I saw their armor. Plain, no markings, and these horses are just rentals. Probably why they let us ride them.”
“Those people on the train…” Felix begins.
“If they were hurt, it’s on the people who did it,” Marwyn answers firmly, realizing he would have to be the voice of reason here. Tora was handling the situation ok, probably due to her training, but Felix was a mess, “Can’t blame yourself for self-preservation.”
“But I took an oath to save lives!” Felix continues, “I can’t just throw away an entire train’s worth to save myself!”
“You didn’t,” Marwyn reasons, “I did. Blame me.”
“Marwyn, you can’t take responsibility for all our actions,” Tora protests, “You’re not here as our guardian.”
“Doesn’t matter, it was my call,” Marwyn replies. Despite his external calm, internally he himself was struggling with the choice. With a shock he realized what he was doing, who he was imitating. So quickly had he taken on the mantle of Vargard.

“The other members of the delegation…” Felix ponders, “What about them?”
“Zilargo would surely be sending one,” Tora says, leaning forward slightly as she became more exhausted, “I doubt whoever they are would be able to get to them. How far are we from Sterngate?”
“You said we were an hour from Sterngate Felix?” Marwyn asks.
“Yes,” the halfling nods, though the motion was difficult to differentiate from the movement forced by the horse.
“We should make it by nightfall,” Marwyn guess, judging there were a few hours left in the day. He had no actual idea, but reasoned that it was a close guess.
“What if they’re waiting there for us?” Tora asks, “Or if there are more of them?”
“Uh… uh…” Marwyn freezes, and he brings his horse to a halt and dismounts. “I need to think.”
“But what if they find us now?” Felix says, fear still present in his voice.
“What do you want me to worry about, them finding us now or later?!” Marwyn snaps, tension finally getting to him, “Just… just give me a moment.”
“Ok,” Felix says, stepping back.

Marwyn digs out his stone, and calls the only other one it was connected to. “Les?” he asks. There wasn’t an answer at first, though the stone’s aura felt as if the connection had been made. “Les!”
“Marwyn, do not shout,” the elf chides him, “What is it?”
“The rail was attacked, I got myself and Tora out,” he says quickly, “We’re on horseback somewhere north of Sterngate, but we don’t know if they’re coming for us. Can you help?”
“What? Are you injured?”
“No… but I think they might have killed some on board. They were looking for them, Les.”
“That is horrible. I… hold on,” the elf says, “I will reconnect in ten minutes. Keep moving.”
“Got it Les,” Marwyn replies, “Please hurry.” The stone drops the connection, and Marwyn remounts the horse.

“That was Lesani?” Tora asks, as they pick up the pace again.
“Yeah,” Marwyn replies, “Only one I can still call. It’s a long shot.”
“What can she do? Isn’t she in Fairhaven?” Felix contests.
“Never underestimate the power of a friend of a friend,” Marwyn says ambiguously, not able to provide a concrete defense against the statement, “We just have to hope she has the right friends.”

“Marwyn!” Lesani’s voice comes through the stone about half an hour later, out of breath. The bard had started to become nervous, but felt interrupting whatever she was doing would only stall their help, “I am sorry for the delay! How far are you from Sterngate?”
“A few hours? I dunno?” Marwyn replies, looking around but not seeing anything but major topological features.
“Can you see a forested area to the west?” A masculine voice comes through.
“Les, who is that?”
“A friend from House Ghallanda,” she answers, “Answer the question.”
“Yeah,” Marwyn says, stopping to get a better look, “Looks like we just passed it.”
“Good. You are close,” the voice replies, “I am dispatching riders with fresh horses to your general location. Expect them within the hour, if you continue south. They will be carrying a banner of the House. Anyone would be foolish to attack them.”
“Thank you,” Marwyn cries, “We’ll keep a lookout for them.”
“Merely a service rendered,” the voice replies dismissively.
“Thanks Les, I’ll tell you when we get to Sterngate.”
“Be safe, Marwyn,” the elf says, and then advises, “They will be expecting payment. My relationship with the halfling you just spoke with is not the kind for trading favors.”
“Don’t care, as long as we get to Sterngate. You’re a lifesaver Les.”
“I know,” the elf replies, cutting the connection.

The two halflings were watching him expectantly. Felix draws enough courage to speak again, asking, “Are we ok?”
“Yeah,” Marwyn says, sighing with relief, “She came through.”
“Thank the gods,” Tora cries, “I imagined we might run into this sort of trouble in Darguun, but on the rail?”
“Let’s just focus on getting to the rest of the delegation,” Marwyn says, “Just follow me, and everything’ll be ok.”

Meanwhile, Fairhaven
“Where is he?” Lesani asks slowly, to a terrified receptionist. They’d just informed the elf that Professor Omidan was currently unavailable, but she could schedule an appointment if she…
“WHERE IS HE?” the elf shouts, loud enough for her voice to echo down the hall. At this point, several of the guard stationed at the university move to intervene.
“Ma’am, we’re going to have to ask you to calm down,” one of the beefier ones says, while another, bearing a wand, read the warlock’s aura and covertly relayed their findings to the speaker’s backup.
“Either take me to Ner Omidan, or I will take his office door apart,” Lesani replies. The guard sighs, and looks to the receptionist.
“Get clear,” he suggests, before readying a blunted sword, “Ma’am, you’re going to have to come with me.”
“Like hell.”

Unfortunately, despite her rage, Lesani wasn’t prepared to face the squad of guard trained to deal with indignant mages. Her first few spells were countered, while others beat her down. Fortunately, the guard were equipped with nonlethal weaponry, and were able to subdue the warlock without inflicting permanent injury.
As they were carrying her to the nearest guard station, a runner diverted them to one of the entrances to the city’s sewers. The ranking guard protested at first, when told to surrender the prisoner, but relented when shown palace credentials. Lesani was then brought, unconscious, to a small room. Her magic-suppressing shackles were removed, and eventually she was roused as a gnome entered the room.

“Very unwise, picking a fight with the city guard,” Ner chastises, “What on earth was so urgent you had to get yourself arrested to find me.”
“You bastard,” Lesani groans, feeling the sores from multiple bruises across her body.
“Lesani, I thought we had sorted out our differences,” the gnome replies, genuinely upset, “What’s gotten into you?”
“Whoever you are targeting knew about your plans,” Lesani accuses, stretching her legs and moving closer to Ner.
“Impossible,” Ner replies, “The only ones in Fairhaven who know of this plan are either in this room, or sitting in the damned Throne Room. And no one outside of Fairhaven knows of them, at least in full.”
“Then why was Marwyn’s train assaulted by mercenaries after House Jorasco delegates?”
“What!?” Ner cries, now standing as well, “When?”
“Just now,” Lesani replies with a cold satisfaction, having broken Ner’s smug arrogance. “Marwyn and his companion escaped, in case you care.”
“Of course I do,” Ner reassures, “But you said they were targeting the delegation? Not Marwyn?”
“Yes,” Lesani responds acidly, “If only to prove that there are more parties involved that have no interest in the wellbeing of my friend.”
“But this only proves the merits of the plan!” Ner shouts, “This proves my theory was right, that He would be targeting House Jorasco’s move. This is good news!”
“I do not call throwing Marwyn into mortal danger ‘good news’. In fact, I see no reason to not tell him now,” Lesani threatens.
Ner sighs, and takes on a slightly condescending tone, “If you were going to do that, you would have done so already. You know as well as I telling him now would only put him in more danger.”
“Then what do you suggest we do?!”
“I have a contingency plan in place,” Ner says, “That goes into effect once they reach the rest of the delegation. I swear to you, Lesani, I never thought they would be brazen enough to attack the lightning rail.”
“I have as much confidence in your contingencies as I do in this plan, Omidan,” Lesani says, “And I swear to you, if another one of my friends dies on your damned organization’s watch, you are going to wish I had killed you now.” Without letting Ner get another word in, she turns to leave.

Cursing furiously, Ner withdraws a slim sending stone. “Agent Rook, this is Highcastle. We need to make a change of plans…”

Brelish Plains, Sometime Later
The halflings had been forced to share a horse shortly after Lesani had gotten back to them, one of their three going lame. They’d also reduced their speed, trying not to spend the last of their mount’s energy before reaching Sterngate. All three were getting exhausted, but were keeping their eyes on the horizon for any movement.
The effort bears fruit as Tora, the only one not leading a horse, points out a flag in the distance. “Is that them?”
“Stop!” Marwyn shouts, bringing his horse to a halt. Felix doest the same, and both try and make out the flag. “If it isn’t them, we’ll have to make for the forest,” he says.
“That’s at least an hour away!” Felix protests.
“We’ve got a head start, and it’s the only cover around,” Marwyn replies, “Can you fight?”
“Not well,” Felix admits.
“Tora? You never told me exactly what you were trained with.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the halfling responds, “It’s them! Look!” The banner, being carried by the rider at the front of the formation, displayed a canine. Marwyn didn’t recognize it, but Tora clearly did.
“You’re sure?” the bard asks.
“It’s them,” Tora repeats, dismounting. “Can you… signal them or something?”
“Yeah, hold on,” Marwyn says, dismounting as well and preparing a spell. It was a minor feat, one of the lower-powered spells he’d picked up from Wynarn. Soon, four orbs of light appeared and lit the immediate area around them. In daylight they might have been missed at a distance, but near dusk, and they were obvious to the approaching riders. The banner changed direction, obscuring the symbol on it.
“Y..you’re sure it’s them?” Felix stutters slightly, his fear resurfacing slightly at their discovery, despite the fact that it was by potential allies.
“If it isn’t, they have a damn good copy of a House Ghallanda banner,” Tora refutes him, “And it’s not like they know what we’re looking for.”
“Good point,” Marwyn replies.

The riders, or rider, as was the case, bore down on them just as the sun was disappearing below the Brelish plains. It was another halfling, guiding three horses by herself. She gives a wave after making eye contact with Marwyn, which finally convinces the bard that he could unstring his bow. The woman was unarmed, and wearing only brightly colored clothes.
“Someone said you need to get to Sterngate,” she shouts, when within earshot, “I’m Sylvia, looks like you could use a fresh ride.”
“Yes,” Marwyn replies, helping Sylvia down from her horse. As he does so, he inadvertently notices the blue lines of a dragonmark on the back of her neck, which scrawled upwards and under her hair.
“Sorry I didn’t bring enough horses,” she says, taking a look at those arranged before her, “I was told to expect to of you.”
“Oh, my fault. Didn’t tell Les about Felix.”

“No matter, we should get moving,” Tora says, taking charge, “How far are we from Sterngate? We need to get there as soon as possible.”
“It’s an hour’s ride,” Slyvia’s responds, dropping the cordial tone she had been using so far, and taking on one more professional. “Take my horse as well, I will ease these back at a slower pace. Poor beasts seem to have been overworked.”
“Your banner,” Marwyn observes, moving to unhitch it from the horse’s saddle. Slyvia, however, stops him.
“No, keep it there,” the halfling advises, “No harm will come to you while under it. I believe you aren’t foolish enough to attempt to steal it?”
“No, no,” Marwyn replies, refusing the idea, “Not after all you’ve done.”
“Good,” Slyvia nods, and starts soothing one of the horses that they had been riding, “You should go.”
“What about your payment?” Marwyn asks, as the two Jorascans begin mounting up.
“House Ghallanda never forsakes those truly in need,” Slyvia simply replies, and shoos away further attempts at repayment. Defeated by the woman’s generosity, Marwyn mounts the horse carrying the banner, and turns the animal south.

Sterngate
The city of Sterngate was a hive of activity by the time Marwyn and company finally reach it, despite the late hours. The fortress itself had a limited permanent population, mostly soldiers guarding the Brelish-Darguun border and the pass that leads through it, but the nearby lightning rail created the need for a market to service travelers. House Ghallanda, of course, had a small enclave, which Slyvia had undoubtedly been dispatched from.

Something had disturbed the stationed soldiers, however. This was fine in Marwyn’s mind; after they had explained themselves to the first patrol they came across, any attempts on their lives would be met with Brelish steel. The soldiers couldn’t say why they were out patrolling, though the three’s collective hearts sank as they guessed the reason. The group continued in silence to the castle proper, not willing to talk about the recent development. At a certain point, the horses seemed to know where to go on their own, and Marwyn gratefully let the beast take the lead.

The steeds bring them to a stable, where another halfling was waiting. “Where’s Slyvia?” he asks, taking the horses as Marwyn, Tora, and Felix dismount.
“She’s bringing up the rear,” Marwyn answers, “Her suggestion, not mine.”
“Hmm,” the halfling grunts, “As you say. You two, you are of House Jorasco?” he asks of Felix and Tora. The question initially put the three on edge, given the actions of the last people to ask for Jorascans. Tora seemed to trust the Ghallandan, however.
“Yes, we are. Marwyn is our companion to Zolanberg,” she replies.
“Our House received word that a group of House Jorasco delegates would be travelling there,” he explains, “About an hour ago. We were asked to pass along a message: ‘Remain at Sterngate’.”
“Did they say why?” Felix asks.
“No,” the other answers, “But your House has paid for lodging in advance. The main entrance is out in the street, someone will direct you after that.”

“Do you know why the guard are out?” Marwyn asks, before they depart.
The Ghallandan sighs, and answers wearily, “An attack, nearby. It’s bad, I don’t know any more than that. Our enclave is safe, of course.”
“Gods,” Tora shudders, overwhelmed with emotion. Felix wasn’t far behind, and Marwyn himself couldn’t fight the rising feelings of guilt and regret.
“You should get some rest,” the Ghallandan says hurriedly, noticing their distress, “I apologize for causing you anguish, it is obvious your travels have been harsh.”
“It’s… it’s fine,” Marwyn croaks out, “Thanks for your help.”
“Glad to be of service,” the Ghallandan says, with a half-bow, before leading the horses into the stable.

“Your friend must have told House Jorasco about the attacks,” Tora speculates grimly, as they walked to the main street.
“Think they got to any of the other delegates?” Felix asks mournfully, “I mean, how would we know if they did?”
“We’ll know when the other delegates arrive here. If they arrive,” Tora adds grimly.
“But when they do, we’ll be here to see them. That’s all that matters,” Marwyn says resolutely.

Continued in Part 3, The Jorascan Delegation – A Remedial Course

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Old Friends, New Problems
Missed Connections

Part 1 of Marwyn and The Golden Hand

Three Months after the Tower of Fate, Fairhaven
Professor Ner Omidan was not having a good day. Returning from his half-year sabbatical was supposed to be a refreshing arrival to the city he had grown to love. Instead, unscheduled repairs on the rail lines had delayed him in a backwater town for a week. During that time a thief had rummaged through his things, and the gnome was forced to call for the guard when one of his traps took a hand off. And now, finally within the walls of the University of Wynarn, sun having fallen below the horizon hours ago, he finds a drunk sleeping on his floor.

“What the blazes are you doing in my office?!” Ner shouts at the intruder, whose head tilts upwards slightly at the sound.
“Whozere?” the man asks in a slurred voice, trying to stand.
As he does so, the half-elf turns to face Ner, who shouts again, “Marwyn!?”
“Why’re you yelling?” Marwyn asks, still not fully aware of who he was talking to.
“Why are you in my office?” Ner asks again keeping his volume high to the displeasure of the bard.
“Wus drinking some shtudents and hadda take a nap. It’s ok, Ner’s gone,” Marwyn explains, wondering why the short guy was bothering him.
“I’m right HERE you idiot!” Ner screams incredulously, and the anger in his voice finally rouses the bard’s faltering mind to the point where he could see straight, “GET OUT OF MY OFFICE!”
“Ner!” Marwyn exclaims, surprised, “What’re you doing here?”
“IT’S. MY. OFFICE! OUT! OUT! OUT!” the gnome shouts, using strength Marwyn wouldn’t have thought his wiry frame had to push the bard out. The door slams shut behind the half-elf, who stumbles off towards the closest bench.

Meanwhile, Ner noted with some relief that his office hadn’t been disrupted farther than the unwonted guest. In fact, given that his office had apparently remained unlocked over his absence, it was a pleasant surprise to find none of the wards guarding his more sensitive belongings had been tampered with. Activating the enchantment on his door, and deactivating one such ward, Ner withdraws a thin stone from an inconspicuous slat built into one of his bookcases. Speaking as quietly as possible, the gnome whispers to the stone, “Agent Rook, we need to talk about the Golden Hand.”

A Few Hours Later
Marwyn awakens when he falls off the bench, landing roughly on the university’s floor. No one had bothered him in his new resting place; it was a weekend, and students sleeping in odd places was a common sight at the University of Wynarn.
Not that Marwyn was a proper student of the University of Wynarn, there was no earthly way the bard could have pulled together enough focus to survive the rigorous course of classes required to graduate with any respectable degree. Instead, he’d asked a favor from Professor Gilmont, and started some remedial courses. Though he was capable of several impressive feats of magic, in the words of one of the professors, ‘your study of rudimentary bardic talents, and indeed basic magical aptitude itself, is extremely lacking for one of your skill.”
It surprised Marwyn what simple little spells he had neglected, though to be fair the bard hadn’t really had a proper education. It was in pursuit of a well-rounded spellbook that had eventually landed him in his current predicament. Making friends with some of the other students, who were close to his age, Marwyn had started staying later and later to join in some of the parties. Lesani had suggested that he not mention his co-ownership of The Crowned Leper, as their profit margin couldn’t survive the enormous application of ‘the friends and family discount’ which was likely to follow.

But the party was over now, and Marwyn’s aching back was asking for a return to his real bed. He briefly wondered why he wasn’t in Ner’s office, but mentally shrugged aside the question as he focused on something else. There was a small burst of arcane power, and Marwyn was soon heading back to The Crowned Leper. Curiously, every door he came across on his way seemed to open by itself, and a careful observer would note that the bard didn’t fully bear the weight of his pack.
When he staggers into The Crowned Leper, the elf sitting by the door looks at him with an annoyed glare, though not for the reason one would think. It was still early enough in the morning for no one else to be present, so Lesani was able to address the problem directly. “You are still using that spell Marwyn?”
“Yeah,” the bard nods roughly, laying down across several of the barstools and rubbing his forehead, “I really wish healing magic worked on hangovers.” He gingerly sits up to drink the glass of water that had been placed at the empty bar.
Lesani sighs, and continues, “Your immortal soul is no trifle Marwyn, regardless of what Winter might have said.”
“Jarvis is fine, Les,” Marwyn says defensively, wincing after sitting up too aggressively, “No one at the University said I needed to worry about it, even if they can’t understand it.”
“Jarvis?” Lesani asks incredulously, “You named it?”
“Maybe,” the bard answers hesitantly, “It’s just there all the time. I figured I couldn’t keep calling it ‘Unseen Servant’ in my head.”

There was a pause as Marwyn finished his drink, feeling somewhat better afterwards. “Still no news from the others?” he asks.
“No,” Lesani answers, “Unfortunately the enchantments on our sending stones were less durable than I was led to believe. I was unable to restore their connections, even to the one that was left in Blighspot.”
“I’m starting to learn sending, at least,” Marwyn says, “And I’m sure they’re fine.”
“Yes,” Lesani says, though her voice betrayed a little bit of doubt. It had been three weeks since her sending stone had become disconnected from the rest of her friends, and no word had come in from them since. What worried her more, though, was that attempts to send any of the three members failed. The warlock had kept that from Marwyn, and secretly dreaded the moment when he’d finish learning sending.

Switching back to the original topic, Lesani asks, “So no one at the University was able to replicate the spell either?”
“No,” Marwyn shakes his head, and regrets the motion moments later as it reawakens his headache, “No one could cast it. Anyone else tries and the spell fizzles. Must be whatever Winter showed me needed the mark.”
“Perhaps,” Lesani replies ambivalently, her reluctance regarding the spell once again rearing its head, “In which case it would be directly tied, in part, to the traveler’s magic. I still caution you against continual use, Marwyn.”
“I would, but it’s just so damn useful,” Marwyn replies, accepting another floating mug of water. Tiring of the conversation they’d had many times, he asks the warlock, “What’re you working on now?”
Looking up from her notebook, Lesani answers, “I am writing a note to myself as a reminder to visit Ner later today.”
“Ner? I thought he wasn’t in Aundair,” Marwyn says, confused.
“His lightning rail was scheduled to arrive today,” Lesani answers, “I imagine he has already returned to the university.”
“But…” Marwyn stops himself midsentence, a pale suddenly going over his face.
“What is wrong?” Lesani asks, fearing her doubts of his new spell were coming true.
The bard recovered just enough to mutter, “Ner’s going to kill me,” before bolting out of the tavern.

Fortunately, the gnome professor was rather understanding about the mishap of the prior night, especially when Marwyn went into more detail as to who else had been illicitly using his office. Ner turned the bard away with the sentiment that he was very busy, please don’t stop by again in the near future. Amending at the end that, yes, I would enjoy a visit from Ms. Windhailer, the gnome returned to his business.

Marwyn, on the other hand, was relieved that Ner was so understanding about the thoughts of a drunken half-elf at half past midnight. The bard cursed himself for drinking far too much, but in truth he had a good reason. Mevalyn was out of town.
The Cyrian had received word last month that one of her friends was in trouble. Sayge, one of the bowman that had been aside her the first time she and Marwyn had met, had gone missing. His brother, Oirli, turned up at The Crowned Leper with the story. At the time, Marwyn was dealing with the sending stone malfunction, and had wanted to stay with Les until that was sorted out. After assuring that the enchantment on their rings was far hardier than the extensions placed on his sending stone, Marwyn waved Mevalyn goodbye.
It wasn’t as if he was completely deprived of her presence, they still talked most nights. The search for Sayge had gone nowhere so far, and the fact that he had gone missing in Thrane was enough to dissuade Marwyn from joining her. Marwyn still wasn’t sure if Thrane knew he was a part of the team that had stolen their lightning rail prototype, but he wasn’t willing to find out.
So, when he wasn’t studying magic or at the archery range, he did what any bard who owned a bar would do. He drank. Not too much, usually, and the patrons or students, depending on the venue, were good company. But he still missed Mevalyn.

Awash in self-pity over his longing heart, Marwyn almost failed to dodge out of the way of the drunkard being tossed from The Crowned Leper’s entrance. It was a little early in the day for such measures, but apparently the patron had been making a spirited attempt at the current record. The bard stepped into the tavern as the rest of the taverngoers cheered, entertained by both the bouncer’s throw, and Marwyn’s nimble escape.
“Sorry Les,” Marwyn mumbles, finding the warlock at the same table she had been at when he’d left. Breakfast had replaced the journal, her sensitive writings not appropriate for the busy atmosphere. This was in spite of the fact that her table was otherwise empty, allowing Marwyn to stretch out a little.
“I take it that had to do with Ner’s return?” Lesani asks, eyebrow raised quizzically.
“Sort of,” Marwyn admits, “But I took care of it. He said he was expecting a visit.”
“As he should,” Lesani answers positively, “The last time I saw him we were hunting Blue Cloak. How things have changed.”

Marwyn’s fingers brush against his sending stone, and he sighs, “Yeah, they have. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a job. It’s been so long.” He glances back up to see Lesani staring at him with a pointed look, and curses when he realized he’d forgotten himself. He guiltily takes the floating mug of cheap beer and tries to ignore the oppressive silence of the barroom, which had started when the mug had begun its solitary flight. Conversation eventually breaks again, though Marwyn notes with increasing discomfort that the patrons seemed to have attributed the feat to the bartender. Yet another person to apologize to, he thinks.
“Your funds are not running low, are they?” Lesani asks, concerned.
“Nah,” Marwyn shakes his head, “Between what we make here and what Mev and I saved up, I’ll be good for a while. I’m just…” the bard pauses, trying to single out the emotion, “Bored, I guess. And I can’t get it out of my head that Mev probably needs my help but Thrane’s too dangerous.”
Lesani nods knowingly, mouth busy with her latest bite. Clearing her throat, she suggest, “You could take a vacation.”
“Vacation? Where?” Marwyn asks rhetorically, “It’s not like I’ve got somewhere in mind.”
“Darguun,” Lesani shrugs, and a flicker of understanding dances across Marwyn’s face.
“Oh, you mean… Yeah, I guess that’d be… But what about Mev?” he asks, pausing several times as his mind works through the idea, “Darguun’s pretty far away.”
“And dangerous, no doubt,” Lesani adds, “Preparation would be costly, to say the least, and I would not imagine you would prefer to venture out alone.”
“You wouldn’t come Les?” Marwyn asks.
“I have obligations remaining in the city,” Lesani answers evenly, “And someone should stay with the Leper.”
Marwyn sighs, and eventually mumbles, “Guess it was a nice thought anyways.”
Giving a dissuasive tsk, Lesani says, “I would not give up so easily. My network is not nearly as vast as Var’s, though perhaps I might turn up information about groups travelling to Dargunn. Perhaps one would not mind the addition of a bard.”
“Still leaves Mev,” Marwyn adds, “I’ll run it by her tonight.”
“Good luck,” Lesani says grimly.

That Night
“Darguun?” the voice in his head asks him incredulously, and Marwyn gives the mental equivalent of a nod, “What got it in your head to go down there?”
“Jor,” Marwyn answers simply, “And Cletus if he’s still with her, though I doubt it.”
“Ah,” Mevalyn replies, “You still haven’t heard from them. It sounds dangerous Marwyn, though admittedly we’ve both been through worse.”
“Speaking of which, how are you with Sayge?” Marwyn asks, twisting his ring with slight anxiety, “Last you said Oirli was asking around about pressgangs.”
The sound of Mevalyn sighing comes through, and the Cyrian replies, “He was. Got nowhere, but luckily I was keeping my ears open too. Found a traveler who mentioned seeing slave ships docked in Flamekeep, and after a little gold, he remembered seeing someone who looked like Oirli on board.”
“Wait you found him?” Marwyn asks suddenly, “That’s great!”
“Not necessarily,” Mevalyn replies pessimistically, “It seems Sayge has been captured by slavers. The worse part is that they’re bound for Karrnath.”
“I thought Thrane frowned on slavery,” Marwyn points out, “Why’re there ships in their capital carrying slaves?”
“It sounded like they passed themselves off as Karrnathi transport vessels, though anyone who looked close enough could see what they really were,” Mevalyn responds.
“Mev, that’s horrible,” Marwyn answers, worried frown crossing his face. “What’re you going to do?”
There was a humorless chuckle as Mevalyn said, “If I still had the Revenge I’d rescue Oirli and sink the bastards, but my pirating days are over. Casitrus has apparently gotten into a good position with New Cyre, I’m going to try and leverage that for some help.”
“I’ll be on the next train for Flamekeep,” Marwyn offers, “Mev, you need me.”
“I need you to stay alive, Marwyn,” the Cyrian fires back, “And you can’t be in Thrane. It’s too much of a risk, more than travelling to Darguun. If the trail does go to Karrnath then you can join us then, but not before.”

There’s a pause as both collect themselves. Unable to bear the silence further, Marwyn asks, “So you’re ok with me going to Darguun?”
“Of course. Just be careful, Marwyn,” Mevalyn replies, “I don’t want to have to come looking for you too.”
“’Course Mev,” Marwyn reassures, “Les is trying to find a group heading there that I could join, so I won’t be alone.”
There was an odd sensation, almost as if Marwyn was remembering a painful memory that wasn’t his, before Mevalyn asked, “What do you know of your friend’s location? Finding a hobgoblin in Darguun sounds a somewhat daunting task.”
“Last we heard, the Kech Volaar were deciding on if they were taking her back,” Marwyn replies softly, taking the oddity as Mevalyn recalling her first meeting with the rogue. “But that was a month ago. I’m just hoping to find someone who could point me in the right direction.”
“Seems like we’re both betting on long shots,” Mevalyn observes, in a somewhat distracted tone, “Oirli’s looking like he wants to talk. Let me know when you leave Fairhaven.”
“Will do,” Marwyn complies, “Love you Mev.”
“You too. Stay safe Marwyn,” the bard ends, cutting the connection. Marwyn jolts out of his trance, taking in his surroundings for the first time in a few minutes. His room at the Leper was modest compared to ones he had lived in before, yet luxurious by the standards of most. Owning the bar below the room also had its benefits, as it allowed for him to personalize the space more than if it was merely rented to him.
His eyes fell first on the gilded violin that belonged to Mevalyn. It’d been his wedding present to her, and the Cyrian wouldn’t dare think to bring it with her on the journey to Thrane for fear of it being stolen. The lute she had given him stood next to it, and in that moment Marwyn agreed with the sentiment. If he and Mevalyn couldn’t be together in this moment, then at least those two instruments could lay next to each other until they next met.

With a forlorn sigh, the bard begins to take stock of his belongings, and decide what else he should bring to Darguun.

The Next Day
Marwyn stumbles downstairs groggily. He’d kept himself awake for most of the night worrying, and his exhaustion was making itself known. Fortunately he’d long figured out how to make Jarvis carry his things without being too conspicuous, and the lack of weight on his back was welcome.
The bartender greets him as he finally makes it down the last step, “Les wants you to meet her by the healing halls,” he says. Marwyn was still somewhat unused to him referring to the warlock by their shorthand, but Lesani hadn’t seen fit to change the man’s habits, and so neither did Marwyn.
“Right, yeah,” Marwyn acknowledges, and then remembers the events of yesterday, “Sorry about that floating glass…”
The bartender waves the apology away, saying, “Forget about it. This place’s always had a bit of a reputation anyways.” The man goes back to polishing mugs, and the bard feels it best not to keep bothering him.
Marwyn simply gives a polite nod, and heads out.

While he walked, Marwyn pondered Lesani’s choice of meeting spot. He hadn’t even been aware of Fairhaven’s healing halls until a few weeks ago, when one of his friends at the university hadn’t been timely enough with his cast of feather fall. Thankfully there were others there who knew of its existence, and they led the group carrying the heavily injured student.
The halls were located somewhat close to the city center, and were practically filled with clerics and the like. Capable himself of mending minor wounds, and not having required dire care, Marwyn had gone blissfully unaware of their services until that moment. He’d noticed the first time through that all of its staff had a blue tattoo somewhere on their bodies, and that a version of it was emblazoned on the walls. When he’d asked someone out of curiosity which god the symbol represented, all he had gotten was a blank stare and the incentive not to repeat the question.

As he neared the place, Lesani flagged him down. She was standing slightly away from the entrance; a wise choice, as the large entrance was flowing with new patients. While the halls did take a small fee for general care, it was affordable enough for most in the city. This led to the halls being a veritable hive of activity, as various accidents, mishaps, and attempted murders created a mass of people seeking aid.
The warlock had been watching the procession until she picked Marwyn out of the crowd. “Marwyn!”
“Why’re we here Les?” Marwyn asks, pushing out of the crowd and towards her.
“Jorasco is sending out a delegation to Darguun in the immediate future,” Lesani begins to explain.
“So that’s the name, Jorasco,” Marwyn interrupts, “Are they one of the Sovereigns?”
The warlock pauses, and gives Marwyn a quizzical look. “What?” she asks simply.
“Jorasco. I wondered what that symbol was for,” Marwyn says, pointing to the glyph etched above the main door.
“That is the Mark of Healing, which belongs to House Jorasco,” Lesani explains incredulously, “How is it that you are unaware of this?”
“I dunno,” Marwyn shrugs, and tries to ignore the growing feeling of embarrassment, “Uh, Les, could you tell me what House Jorasco is?” he asks sheepishly.
“One of the dragonmarked houses,” Lesani says flatly. “Dragonmarks?” she asks, as Marwyn’s face bears another look of unfamiliarity, “You cannot be serious.”
“I think that was the thing Jor painted on me one time,” Marwyn replies, stretching back into his memory. “I grew up in a small town, I can’t know about everything!” he cries in self-defense.

Lesani sighs, and realizes this would be a long conversation. “Dragonmarks are symbols which grant powers to those they manifest on. They are passed on through bloodlines, which over the years have formed into houses around specific marks,” she explains patiently, “Jorasco formed around the Mark of Healing, which does what you might expect.”
“But that’s different from, uh, this,” Marwyn says, discreetly patting his shoulder.
An odd look crosses Lesani’s face for a moment, and it appears as though she was in deep thought. It passes quickly, before Marwyn could comment on it, and the elf answers, “Yes, though that mark is certainly more unique, it was the result of a ritual. The origin of dragonmarks are not known.”
“How many houses are there?” Marwyn asks, wondering how he could have missed this before.
“12, or 13, depending on who you ask,” Lesani answers, “But that issue is not worth getting into at this time, Marwyn. Let us focus on the reason we are here.”
“Delegation?” Marwyn says, remembering her words from the start of the conversation.
Lesani nods. “Apparently House Jorasco is interested in establishing a sanctuary within the capitol of Darguun, Rhukaan Draal. A controversial move certainly, given that the territory isn’t formerly recognized as a nation, though Jorasco has the advantage of the moral high ground. Politics aside, healing halls from each of the major kingdoms will be sending a representative.”
“Aren’t they concerned about safety?” Marwyn asks.
“Yes, which is why the delegation will be small, until it is decided if a healing hall is to be established or not,” Lesani says, “Apparently they have House Denieth’s blessing. Which makes me think this might be a cover for a deal between the two to provide Jorasco medics to the area to reinforce Denieth’s mercenaries already in the area. This could either suggest an attempt by Denieth to throw in behind a new successor, or perhaps even try and retake the region…”
“Woah, Les,” Marwyn holds up a hand, “What happened to ‘damn politics’?”
“My apologies,” Lesani says, catching her breath, “The implications of this are just intriguing.”
“I’m just surprised you know or care about that stuff,” Marwyn says, “It’s all over my head.”

Forcing herself to remain focused on the matters at hand, Lesani continues, “Thankfully you will not need to worry about the politics of the situation. Suffice it to say that House Jorasco is willing to attach a bard to their convoy, provided he pay his way.”
“How much?” Marwyn asked expectantly, tapping his coin purse reflexively. It’d been heavier of late, especially once the bard had converted the platinum coinage into gold. But that didn’t suddenly mean money wasn’t an object.
“I do not know,” Lesani answers, and to Marwyn’s confused look she says, “That is your business to attend to.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess it is,” Marwyn replies oddly. In the past such matters were handled by Vargard and Lesani, he simply just had to do what they said. It’s hard getting used to being my own man, Marwyn thinks.
“Be sure to stop by the Leper on your way out,” Lesani advises, “I had commissioned some scrolls that will reestablish our sending stone linkages, which should be finished shortly. Would not want the trip to be wasted.”
“Got it, thanks Les,” Marwyn says, briefly embracing the elf before working his way through the crowd.

Seeing the half-elf enter, one of the overworked clerks sighs, makes the wrong assumption, and says, “Cures for common diseases will run ya’ 10gp, see one of the red tunics.”
“What?” Marwyn asks, the direct statement tripping him up, “Why would I need that?”
“You…” the clerk starts, before realizing her mistake, “Oh, I thought, because you were a bard…” the clerk coughs awkwardly, and straightens up, “What can I help you with?”
“I’m here about the Darguun expedition,” Marwyn says warily, trying to edge away from the incoming patients.
“Oh. Oh!” the Jorascan cries, realizing the full extent of the error, “You’ll want Proctor Kaellen, second floor, green tunic. My apologies, sir.”
“Thanks,” Marwyn grunts, walking towards one of the stairs.

After a moderate amount of searching, he found Proctor Kaellen arm’s deep in a half-orc. The irony of the small doctor working on the large patient as lost on Marwyn as the bard recoiled, completely unprepared for the sight.
“Do you require my assistance?” the Jorascan asked, glancing up from his patient. Between deep breaths to avoid vomiting, Marwyn inadvertently noticed a dragonmark dancing across the halfing’s face. “Oh come now, it’s just a little blood,” Kaellen admonishes, while continuing to work on the half-orc. The halfling seemed to be digging around for something, though Marwyn wasn’t too keen on looking closely.
“I…” Marwyn wheezed, catching his breath, “I’m here about Darguun,” he manages to get out.
“Oh, of course,” Kaellen answers evenly, keeping his gaze fixed below. The doctor’s movements had become slighter, and more targeted. “If you can’t stomach this then you’ll have to wait a minute. Apologies, but her needs are greater.”
As Marwyn’s face was beginning to resemble Kaellen’s tunic, he retreats to the corridor and collapses. Another halfing stops when they see this, but Marwyn waves them off.

A few minutes later, after Marwyn had gotten his stomach back under control, Proctor Kaellen walks into the hallway. “I believe your name as Marvin, yes?” He asks, not making to move from the hallway. The Jorascans moving in the hallway simply flowed around him, as they had done with Marwyn.
“Marwyn,” the bard corrects, “What were you doing?”
Kaellen’s brow furrows in confusion as he answers, “Assisting a patient?”
“Your arm was in her,” Marwyn points out, “Why…” he stops himself as the memory brings on another wave of nausea.
“She is a railyard worker, a piece of metal sheared off a moving car and lodged itself in her,” Kaellen answered aloofly, speaking as if he was discussing the weather rather than a critical injury, “Had I not removed the metal before curing the damage it caused, the root of the issue would not have been corrected. I believe you are interested in accompanying my delegate to Darguun?”

The question catches Marwyn off guard, it having arrived without warning. He stares at Kaellen for a few moments before answering, “Y..yeah.”
“You’re not impaired, are you?” Kaellen asks abruptly, “I was told you were an experienced fighter.”
“What? No, I’m not,” Marwyn answers indignantly. When met only with an excruciatingly patient glance from Kaellen, he clarifies, “I can fight! That just… threw me off. I mean you were practically holding her guts.”
“Hmm,” Kaellen grunts, “Why someone so unaccustomed to such procedures wants to join this delegation is beyond me. Though ultimately it matters little, as long as she signs off. You are aware of the relevant fees involved?”
“No,” Marwyn shakes his head, “I was told there would be travel costs, but I was expecting to be told what they were. I’m not too concerned about it,” Marwyn taps his money purse again, “I can pay.”
Kaellen sighs, and says, “Well regardless of first impressions, Tora has the final say. She’s the one going, after all.”
“Why’d I meet with you then?” Marwyn asks.
“Because I’m her bloody mentor, and I’ll be damned to send her off with some charlatan,” Kaellen menaces, betraying the first sign of emotion since Marwyn had been talking with him, though he then relented, “But if your gear is any indication of quality, then you can at least handle yourself in a fight. What’s your business in Darguun?”
Briefly wondering whether to trust Kaellen, Marwyn decides that he didn’t want to anger the halfing who was accustomed to digging around people’s guts. “Trying to find some friends, our sending stones cut out and we lost touch.”
“Interesting,” Kaellen says, taking a closer look at Marwyn, “If that’s true then I may have underestimated you.” He nods approvingly, “Medic Tora’s on the fourth floor, preparing herself for the journey. The relevant fees total somewhere around 300, I’m not too familiar with the specifics. Now, if you excuse me,” Kaellen says, as sounds of pained screams echo through the halls, “I believe my services are required elsewhere.” The halfling departs without another word.

Marwyn climbs two more flights of stairs, passing what appears to be a long-term recovery ward, and reaching a set of personal dwellings. The bard wondered for a moment why people would choose to live right above sick people, until he saw a halfling in a hastily-donned yellow tunic pass him and head for the stairs.
Fortunately, the inhabitant’s names were emblazoned on the doorways of each apartment, and it didn’t take long for Marwyn to find Tora d’Jorasco, medic. The halfing was packing a bag when she noticed Marwyn crossing in front of her threshold. “What are you doing here? Patient wards are one level lower.”
“Here to see you,” Marwyn answers directly, resolving to be more focused after the last trainwreck of a conversation, “For the Darguun expedition.”
“Yes, Kaellen said to expect you,” Tora says absentmindedly, more focused on packing. Marwyn noticed her dragonmark when she turned to grab a yellow tunic, it wrapped itself across the back of her left hand and continued up the arm. “How much do you know about this?”
The tone was conversational, miles away from the stiff tone of the medic’s supposed mentor, and Marwyn breathed a sigh of relief that this was the one he would be travelling with. “Not much, just that you’re meeting with several others before we get to Darguun,” Marwyn answers, “I’m just looking to get into the country with as little trouble as possible.”
“Well I’m glad you’re not the stuffy noble I imagined,” Tora says, “When I was told to expect a companion. Glad to meet you,” Tora stands, holding out the dragonmarked hand. Marwyn shakes it, and holds on for just a moment too long. Her mark felt… odd. Where the skin was raised, it gave the sensation of lizard skin, scales, which clashed against the soft texture of the halfling’s hand. He lets go once he realizes, and Tora gives him an understanding look. “Unaccustomed to them. Interesting.”
“If I’m honest,” Marwyn says, “I didn’t know they existed until today. I’ve seen them before,” he clarifies, to match Tora’s shocked look, “Just didn’t think to ask.”
“Hard to imagine, though I imagine I’m quite biased in that regard,” Tora says, returning to her clothes, “It’s been on my arm since I was 3. Grew up with it. Probably been around sick people more than my family, but I’m not complaining. What’s your story?”

Studying the halfling, Marwyn finally realizes Kaellen’s influence in the verbose medic. As talkative as she was, there was still a focused demeanor that followed her, as she finished every sentence with the folding of a dress, or stowage of some arcane medical instrument. “Name’s Marwyn Verdani. I grew up in a village called Wrendale, fled home to become a bard, and ended up with a group of mercenaries,” Marwyn replies, deciding on the short version, “Which broke up a few months ago. We had sending stones to keep in contact, but the connections broke recently. I’m trying to find them to fix that.”
“Mercenary? I wouldn’t have pegged you for a mercenary,” Tora observes, “At least the train ride won’t be boring. I’m sure we both have plenty of stories to keep each other entertained.”
“A few,” Marwyn smiles, “So we’re heading down on a rail?”
“Yes,” Tora nods, “Should be three or four days by direct line. We’ll be meeting the others at Zolanberg, before crossing into Darguun at Sterngate. From there we make for the capitol for an audience with the local government. Honestly I’m not too familiar with our mission after that, I’m just there to provide an Aundair presence and do what I’m told.”

“I can relate to that,” Marwyn replies, starting to feel an odd kinship with the medic, “So I’m aware there’s a fee…”
Tora nods, and replies, “I was told your travel fees would amount to 275 gold, including all travel and lodging costs to Rhukaan Draal. If that’s a problem…”
“It’s not,” Marwyn says, cutting her off and hastily withdrawing the gold, “Can I just give it to you?”
Tora eyes the outstretched gold with surprise, momentarily breaking from her packing. “Oh, you must have some really interesting stories.” She slips the gold into a pouch at her waist, and says, “We’re good! Meet me at the front of this building in three days’ time, an hour before noon. I’ll be wrapping up with any patients I still have in that time, though if you have any questions I might be able to spare a few minutes in the interim.”
“I’ll stop by if I think of anything,” Marwyn says, “Glad to be travelling with you.”
“As am I,” Tora nodded graciously, and then returned to her preparations. Sensing the conversation was at an end, Marwyn turned to leave.

Later That Night, The Crowned Leper
Marwyn twisted his ring, subtly activating its enchantment as he looked around his room. His nervous glance focused on Mevalyn’s lute. She was expecting to talk with him again tonight, though Marwyn wasn’t sure if he should. The thoughts he started a few minutes after he’d left the healing halls, and despite himself he couldn’t fully banish them. He was in the midst of battling one when his mind registered the presence of another. Mevalyn was with him again.

“Marwyn, any news?” the Cyrian asks wearily. Marwyn knew that tone well, she was exhausted.
“I’m leaving for Darguun in three days,” Marwyn says, and quickly asks, “You sound tired. How’s it on your end?”
Mevalyn’s mind gives the equivalent of an inquisitive look, and answers, “Travel mostly. We haven’t heard from Casitrus yet, though we shouldn’t for a little while more. But tell me about this journey of yours, Marwyn. You sound nervous.” There was a teasing ring to the words, travel sores not detracting from the Cyrian’s nature.
“It’s… it’s nothing,” Marwyn stumbles, trying to keep his mind from betraying him, “I’m going down with a House Jorasco medic, we’re meeting up with some others.”
“Oh, tell me about her,” Mevalyn teases, while Marwyn curses himself. A stray thought must have alerted Mevalyn to the source of his nervousness.
“She’s… interesting,” Marwyn says, trying to throw her off the scent, “Big, uh, dragonmark…”
“You like her,” Mevalyn accuses, but the thought wasn’t relayed how Marwyn was expecting. True, she had seen right through him, but he was getting the sensation of a knowing smile, rather than betrayal.
“Maybe,” Marwyn admits, then hurriedly adds, “But I would never…”
“Marwyn, it’s fine,” Mevalyn replies, laughing a little at his embarrassment, “I have no illusions as to our nature. We’re both young bards with plenty time left to explore the world before settling down.”
“Oh,” Marwyn says, not expecting that response. At worst, he had expected to declare them finished, though now he saw that would have been ridiculous. Still, what could have been a reprimand was instead implicit permission. “Wait, we?” Marwyn asks, picking up on exactly what Mevalyn had said.
“Of course, you didn’t expect that to be a one-way street, did you?” Mevalyn asks, half serious, half mischievous.
Marwyn shrugs physically, feeling of all things amused. “I didn’t expect it all Mev, though honestly I can’t say it’s an unwelcome surprise. But we’re still…”
“Forever and always,” Mevalyn answers, before Marwyn could finish, “Nothing will change that.”
“Forever and always,” Marwyn agrees, “I’ll talk with you once I leave Fairhaven.”
“As will I, if I hear from Casitrus,” Mevalyn says, “Good luck with finding your friends.”
“You too,” Marwyn says, ending the connection. What had been a nervous glance that was fixed on Mevalyn’s lute was now a curious one, as he pondered the future.

He was snapped out of his reverie by a slight cough, from someone who had slipped into the room unannounced. “Les!” he shouts, startled. The elf was watching him from a chair, having apparently slipped in unnoticed, “How long have you been there?”
“Some time,” Lesani says evenly, “You had that glazed-over expression. I felt it best to wait until you noticed me.” She closes her journal, which had been occupying her attention up until this moment, and looks at Marwyn, “How was the meeting?”
“It was… ok,” the bard replies, wincing internally as he remembers Kaellen, “I’m set to leave in three days.”
Lesani withdraws several scrolls from her pouch, and lays them on Marwyn’s desk. “As promised. You should be able to use them.”
“They’ll reconnect our stones?” Marwyn asks, grabbing one of the scrolls and reading it out of interest. The spiraling glyphs on the page were nearly incomprehensible to him, and the latent energy suggested it was a strong spell. Still, comprehension of a scroll wasn’t necessary required to cast it, and while Marwyn wasn’t too familiar with using scrolls, he thought he could manage it.
“Yes,” Lesani nods, “Though you will need to use both yours, and the target’s as part of the spell. Unfortunately you will also need to do so for each stone.”
“So I’ll have to find all of them,” Marwyn surmises, “Maybe Jor’ll know where Var and Cletus are. Or we could get lucky and they’ll make their way here.”
“We shall see,” Lesani says, standing to leave, “Though I certainly hope to get in touch with them soon.”
“I’ll find them Les,” Marwyn promises, taking the rest of the scrolls and stowing them carefully, “And I’ll keep in touch.”
“Good,” Lesani says, her back turned, “I would not want to lose you as well.”

Lesani kept walking once she reached the stairs, continuing past the barroom and onto the streets of Fairhaven. It was late at night, and most were already off the streets. Most that remained were either night watch, or those who looked to profit off of those who wandered down the wrong dark alley. To the former she gave a polite nod, and the latter were wise enough not to trouble her.
Continuing to the city’s center, she passes through the gates of the University of Wynarn. The courtyard was empty, save for a lone patrolling guard who paid the warlock no mind. The hallways she travelled were likewise deserted, up until she reached her destination. Ner was waiting for her, outside of his office. He silently ushers her into his office, and then activates its defenses.

“Did he take the bait?” Ner asks surreptitiously, nervously tapping his desk rhythmically.
Lesani looks away for a few moments, eyes downcast. “I still do not like this.”
“I didn’t ask if you liked the plan,” Ner says, “Only if you’ve followed it.”
“Yes, he is joining the Jorascan delegation,” Lesani answers firmly, “I have done my part. What about Var?”
Ner grimaces slightly, backing away from his desk and reaching for a slim leather pouch containing several documents. “As I told you,” Ner answers, reaching for a specific page, “We can act directly no longer on this matter. The Thranish disaster proved quite conclusively that, at the very least, there are traitors in the Eyes.” He places a page on the table, having withdrawn the right one. Most of it was text, but on the top left corner was the symbol of a fist, embossed in gold.
Lesani furiously reads the page one again, but finds nothing more than when she had first read it yesterday. “And you are certain this Golden Hand has Var?”
“No direct action does not mean no surveillance,” Ner answers, “He is with them, willing or not. And like it or not, Marwyn’s search for lost friends is the perfect coverup for a future operation.”
“As well as a perfect way for him to be killed,” Lesani adds, “If I thought less of you I would imagine this to be retribution for how he greeted you.”
Ner snarls, responding, “I am not that petty Ms. Windhailer. It’s not as if he is an unwilling participant, just an ignorant one. Time will tell if he will be a competent one.”
“We can only hope,” Lesani sighs, “He leaves in three days. I just do not understand how looking for Jor will help us find Var.”
“Trust me, Lesani,” the gnome says, “I remember our friendship still. If there was a better way, we would try it first. See that he makes it to the rail station on time.”
Lesani gives Ner a suspicious look, “I did not mention how Marwyn was travelling.”
Ner returns a worn smile, answering, “You didn’t need to.”

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Tower of Fate
Winter's End

Part 36 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

Blightspot Spire, One Hour to Midnight
Marwyn throws himself into the tower as the barrier surrounding it fades momentarily. He and the others pass into a large circular room, just as the spell reactivates. Lesani’s insight into the enchantment proved to be correct.
Throck was about to speak, when they saw what was before them. A pile of various debris had been piled in the center of the room, forming a makeshift barricade between them and the stairs upwards. Several humanoids wearing cultist robes were visible taking cover behind the barricade, and one screams as they enter, “They’ve breached the tower!” This was punctuated by the release of several readied attacks, which cut into the eight as they stood out in the open.

The barrage was mostly magical, a mixture of various arcane energies. There were a few arrows scattered among it, though, evidenced by the one that lodges itself in Marwyn’s arm. The bard winces as both magic and arrow assaults him, and he panics slightly when he realizes that he had already used most of his spells for that day. He was also unsure what the druids had left, especially considering they were now at half their original number.
These thoughts were pushed aside as he scrambled for any cover he could find. Said cover turned out to be Vargard, who brought his shield forward to block further attacks. From behind the warrior’s bulky frame, Marwyn sees Throck raise his staff. The ground surrounding the barricade starts to shake, causing some of those behind it to fall prone. More importantly, however, the shoddy construction of the fortifications betrayed its occupants, and some of the sections collapsed. This did little to take care of the dozen or so cultists, but it leveled the playing field somewhat.

The bard finds that his arm is still somewhat usable, and joins the rest of his team in a return volley. One of the opponents goes down to this, though this was mostly due to an unintentional focusing of fire on the most exposed cultist. The first part of the battle was mostly composed of this, both sides trading volleys while Marwyn and group moved closer to the barricade. The attackers took the worst of it, with only one shield between them. All this changed, however, when Vargard, Cletus, and Jorduna finally got within melee range.
The four, as Kansif had also pulled out his longsword, charged the barricade. All four were sporting wounds from the approach, though now they had the advantage. Vargard was the first to vault the barricade, and Marwyn watched as he cut down a cultist with a single stoke from the momentum of the charge. The bard, as well as the other three hanging back, were now unchallenged as they continued their ranged assault. With no one skilled enough to face their melee fighters, or free to engage their ranged fighters, the cultists were soon routed.

As the last one fell, Valdir took the chance to inform everyone of what he had sensed from the moment he’d entered the tower. “I can practically feel reality unravelling,” he reports, holding a hand over his glowing mark, “The seal’s gonna go soon.”
“Now may be a good time to explain our goal,” Throck says, while tending to wounds from the fight, “Our order has sustained more casualties than I anticipated, and there is little reason to hold back this information anymore.”
“Don’t you just have to do druid stuff at the top of the tower?” Jorduna asks, not liking the sound of Valdir’s statement.
“Not exactly,” Throck answers, “The seal was placed around a magical artifact known as the Moonpool. It’s origins aren’t known, but the aberrants once used its power to rend the barriers between planes. The cultists must have discovered how to use it.”
Lesani perks up at this, and says, “I have not heard mention of this. How long have you been aware of such an anomaly?”
“For quite some time,” Throck answers, “The secret of the Moonpool has been passed down through our order, one of the many sites which must not be reclaimed by the aberrants.”
“How’ll you fix the seal?” Vargard asks, having been fully restored by the druid’s ministartions.
“This,” the gatekeeper answers, retrieving a vial from somewhere on his person. It was small, barely containing a few drops of liquid, and glowed faintly in the low light of the tower, “Our lore claims this fluid can destroy the Moonpool. It too has been passed from gatekeeper to gatekeeper, until it was passed into my hands. Such a measure has not been deemed necessary, until now.”

The news was absorbed by Marwyn and his friends as their wounds were finished healing. When Throck grimly informs them that this was the last of his group’s healing magic, Jorduna asks, “Can’t one of you just go invisible and toss it in?”
“There will likely be competent spellcasters guarding the pool,” Throck answers, “And there is the prophecy to consider.”
“Damned prophecy says there should be six of us,” Jorduna contests, “You keep conveniently forgetting that part.”
Vargard sighs, and realizes he’d have to come to the druid’s aid here, “We can’t afford to lose any more of the druids, Jor. If for no other reason than we wouldn’t survive ourselves.”
“But you admit this is crazy? That we’re probably going to die anyways?” Jorduna presses the issue.
“Yes. Let’s keep moving,” Vargard says simply, walking towards the set of stairs.

The large antechamber that the group had entered into appeared once to have been a throne room. Or, at least, that was the consensus among the eight as they picked their way across the room. Some of the rubble definitely looked like it could have come from a large seat, though everything was too aged to tell for sure. What was certain was the location of the stairs up, opposite of the main doors and recessed slightly into the wall. As they began the climb, Marwyn noticed several perches extending back out into the main tower room, and gave silent thanks that none of the cultists had thought to use them. Perhaps they simply hadn’t expected the tower’s defenses to go down.
For what seemed the hundredth time that day, Marwyn called on Winter for aid, but his prayers went unanswered. Either things had to grow impossibly more desperate to merit his aid, or the spirit had deceived him. The bard struggled to tell which eventuality would be worse. His right hand instinctively reached for his ring, but he pulls it back after a moment of thought. He couldn’t trouble Mevalyn with this, not while there was still hope of survival. But if there wasn’t…

Marwyn shakes himself, driving the thoughts away. Creeping up the tower, the group had just passed above the initial chamber. From the occasional external archer’s slit Marwyn could see they had also climbed above most of the collapsed buildings of the castle. Seeing one of the moons in the distance, the bard reflexively tries Winter again. To no avail.

The group stops once they reach the top of the stairs. Ahead of them lie the ruins of an ancient aviary. Stalls were built into most of the outer ring of the tower, with three exceptions. Two were openings to flights of stairs, one occupied by Marwyn and allies, the other leading farther up. To their right, they also saw a large opening. The floor extended outwards, forming a landing pad. At first Marwyn wondered what kind of aberrant would have been kept here. Then he fervently rescinded his curiosity as the thought struck him that he may find out.
“Anyone see anything?” Vargard whispers, glancing out into the room ahead. The center was fairly clear and didn’t provide any cover to anyone trying to conceal themselves. The stalls, however, were still mostly standing, and were large enough to hide something really nasty.
Valdir points to the center of the room, and reports, “There. Dimensional boundaries are weak, something was summoned less than a day ago. Not an aberrant though.”
“How can you tell?” Lesani asks, curiosity getting the better of her regardless of the present circumstances.
“They don’t usually come from Khyber,” Valdir reasons, “If I had to guess Master Throck, this is where that flying demon came from. By the looks of it, the madmen were only able to summon one before…” the initiate stops, face growing pale. Gazing upwards in horror, the half-orc’s eyes continue rolling back as the druid faints.

Throck was able to catch his unconscious subordinate before they hit the ground, but he was unable to prevent the tip of Valdir’s scabbard from scraping against the stone floor. There was a breathless moment as everyone waited to see if anything had heard it. Then the screeching started.

Something big flew in through the landing pad, settling in the center of the room and roaring defiantly at the invaders. Marwyn recoiled from the sight, the beast before him was horrendous. It appeared a terrible combination of man and boar, held impossibly aloft by two small wings. That in and of itself was enough to force the bard to fight against retching, but the demon’s body was also covered in several writhing symbiotes as well. The black appendages reminded Marwyn of the trials he had faced previously that day, only deepening his fear.

Almost absentmindedly, the demon tore off one of the symbiotes, then roars again as it bares its claws. “Nalfeshnee!” Lesani yells, rapidly attempting to relay combat advice, “Deadly melee, with a fear aura close range!”
“Our goal is too close!” Throck cries over her, and casts a spell on his staff, “Adept, we shall draw its ire. The chosen ones must survive!”
The other druid nods grimly, drawing his longsword. He shouts, “I’m with you, Master!” The two charge forwards, intercepting the Nalfeshnee’s charge before any of The Split Falchion had time to react. The gap was small, however, as Vargard and Jorduna both follow into melee. The druids occupied the demon’s front, allowing the latter to strike at the exposed creature’s back.
The hastily formed formation would have been effective, if the foe had merely accepted the punishment. However, the nalfeshnee would not be taken down so easily. It snarls in anger as Jorduna’s daggers bury themselves into its back. With a brief buildup of arcane power, the demon’s flesh glows brightly with a horrid light. All save Throck are turned back by a sudden, intense fear, fleeing from the beast.

Or, at least, the try to. As he turns, Kansif’s foot gets snagged by one of the flailing symbiotes, exposing him to the full wrath of the nalfeshnee. With a cruel snap of its neck, it tears a good chunk of the druid’s neck out. Throck screams in anger as he sees his ally fall, and redoubles his efforts to slay the demon.
All this had taken place before Marwyn had even withdrawn his bow. Shocked as he was by the swift execution of Kansif, he had been far enough away to avoid the demon’s fear affect. Cletus and Lesani were likewise able to continue the fight, though Valdir remained motionless on the ground next to them. The initiate’s health was the least of their concerns, however, as the nalfeshnee turns its claws to Throck.
The three opened fire with their arsenal, which was literal fire in the case of Lesani. All three attacks land, the demon was definitely not concerned with avoiding them at the moment. The warlock curses to herself when she sees the effect of the volley, however. Only Marwyn’s arrows had fully penetrated the nalfeshnee’s hide. Cletus’ stopped halfway through, and part of Lesani’s spell was diverted before taking full effect. “It is resistant to our attacks!” Lesani cries, “You must use magical weaponry!”
Vargard rallies himself, barely catching the end of the warlock’s statement as he turns around. He pauses briefly to observe Kansif’s corpse, then charges back to the nalfeshnee. Jorduna wasn’t able to muster as much mental strength, though fortunately her flight ended in one of the stalls, rather than either set of stairs.

Without the rogue, however, the team only had few weapons able to properly damage the nalfeshnee. Throck and Vargard, who had switched to his shield, were both doing their part, as was Marwyn from afar. Unfortunately, neither Cletus nor Lesani were able to breach the magical protection which guarded the demon. Grunting in incomprehensible fury, at least to those who did not understand dwarvish, Cletus withdraws his two shorts swords and closes to melee range.
Another burst of light from the nalfeshnee sends him running back, gripped by its fear effect, though it was at this point Jorduna rejoined the melee. The demon was dealing terrible damage all this time, however, using both sets of claws and fangs to lash out at anyone too close. The symbiotes played a lesser roll, but Kansif stood testament to their full potential, making each attempt to strike the beast a potentially lethal mistake.
Most of the demon’s punishment was focused on Throck, who had the gall to first challenge it. As Marwyn reached for one of his last few arrows, he sees the gatekeeper finally fold under the oppressive strikes of the nalfeshnee.
Vargard moves quickly to stand over the gatekeeper, denying a finishing blow, though he too was hurting. “Les!” he cries, as he, Jorduna, and Cletus bombard it with blades, “Now would be a good time for a banish spell!”
“I can not!” Lesani protests, tossing another low powered spell in an attempt to do some damage, “I tried to warn you, but I am at present limited to one attempt each day.”
“How the hell do we kill this thing?” Vargard shouts back, noticing that the demon, while it had acquired several good wounds of its own, acted as if it did not feel anything.

Marwyn, now fully out of arrows, wonders the same thing. As he ponders whether he should join the melee with his rapier, he notices Lesani had refrained from casting another spell. Looking to her, Marwyn notices that the elf had instead spent the last few seconds studying the nalfeshnee intently. Coming to a conclusion, she shouts back, “Rip out the symbiotes!”
“What?!” Vargard asks, confused.
“Just do it!” Lesani shouts, and turns to Marwyn, “Can you muster an Arrow of Ill Omen?”

Reaching within himself to judge the remaining arcane power, Marwyn slowly nods. “But I don’t have an arrow.”
“Yes you do!” Lesani cries, and hastily withdraws one from the quiver Valdir was carrying. Marwyn had forgotten that, in their flight from the armory, Eivald had granted his bow to the initiate. The projectile was of slightly different make than he was used to, but it would do.
The three in melee, meanwhile, had shifted their focus to taking out the nalfeshnee’s symbiotes. Granted, the dwindling number of grabbing tentacles had made the melee slightly easier, and the removal of each seemed to cause the demon great pain. However, each attacker was now one or two strikes away from falling.
“It’s gotta be now Les!” Vargard shouts desperately, feeling the weight of his armor start forcing him down.
Lesani, realizing that she could wait no longer, whispers to Marwyn, “Now,” and then more loudly shouts, “Var, aim for the neck!”

Marwyn looses his arrow, charging it with the last of his arcane talent. Striking the demon, the enchantment on the projectile worked its magic. Reality warped ever so slightly to the spell’s whim, subtly manipulating Vargard’s desperate two-handed strike. The blade was guided from its previous path, ending in a glancing blow off the demon’s back, and to the nape of the nalfeshnee’s neck. The demon’s eyes go wide in surprise, and these same eyes stare back at Vargard when the head lands on the floor.

“Kansif! Master Throck!” a shout breaks through the silence that followed the nalfeshnee’s death. Valdir has risen, and was greeted with the sight of both druids lying in pools of blood. The half-orc barrels past the weakened mercenaries. Seeing that Kansif was beyond help, the druid instead turns to Throck. “Help me!” he cries to the rest, as the druid frantically pours what little power he had left into stabilizing the gatekeeper.
As Marwyn helps the druid rouse Throck, the others bandage their wounds. Spell reserves were at a minimum, forcing those who had fought in melee to carry on without curative spells.

Regaining consciousness, Throck weakly asks, “Is it finished?”
“That thing is dead,” Marwyn says.
“No, the seal. Is it restored?” Throck clarifies, trying to stand and opening one of his wounds in the process.
“We couldn’t leave you behind Master,” Valdir protests, “You have to seal the rift.”
“I cannot go on,” Throck says grimly, “You must finish our task initiate. Take this.” The gatekeeper holds out the small vial of fluid he had shown the party earlier.
“But..”
“They can’t finish this without you, now go! Go!” he shouts to the rest.
“This is bullshit,” Jorduna complains, “There’s no way we can fight like this. What if there’s another one up there?”
“We’re finishing this Jor. That’s an order,” Vargard says gruffly, fighting through the pain from his wounds as he stands. The hobgoblin comes as close as she ever had to countermanding Vargard, but she sees little point in protesting. It wasn’t as if she could do much else, after all.
With their stealth likely ruined by the melee, the six instead take off at a sprint up the far stairs.

Top Floor, Minutes to Midnight
Several other doorways entice the group as they ascend, but Valdir waves them away each time. They were heading for the top floor, and couldn’t spare any delay. When they finally make it to the last doorway, they are greeted by a room strewn with bodies.
Cultists lay across the room, some slain by what look like sword cuts, others by magic. More importantly, in the center of the domed room was a small, silver pool. It practically radiated arcane magic, and Marwyn noticed that Valdir’s mark was glowing so brightly as to be incandescent. Seeing their goal in sight, with little visible resistance, the druid hastily withdraws the vial Throck had given him. Before anyone else can stop him, he winds up, and tosses it in the pool.

Everyone stares at the druid in disbelief, before waiting for the potion to take effect. The silence is broken by twisted laughter, and weapons are drawn as one of the black robes rises. The figure wasn’t a normal cultist, however. It was as if someone had replaced a man’s head with a squid, and what skin showed was a deep blue. “Oh please, come in. I was just finished a small… snack,” it says in common, and Marwyn notices a strange fluid dripping from the creature’s mouth, “Though I caution against coming too close. Some of you look rather spent from fighting my pet, I imagine I could kill you with one stroke.” Lightning crackles from the aberrant’s hands, to emphasize this point.
“Did it work?” Vargard asks Valdir quietly, during the monologue.
“No…” Valdir says, staring in horror at the pool, “It didn’t…”
“I hope that you have more in reserve than whatever that was,” the aberrant continues, “Otherwise I’d be a little disappointed. After all, you’ve torn through this castle just to get here. Surely you weren’t betting it all on that.”
“Valdir, what’s going on?” Vargard shouts.
“It’s… a mind flayer,” the druid responds weakly, “And it’s opening a hole to… Xoriat.”
“Indeed,” the aberrant nods, “I believe you caught sight of it earlier, or else your kind find me more repulsive than I thought. They certainly didn’t,” it says, kicking one of the cultists, “Though that was probably due to the fact that I was offering them unlimited power and all that. Fools that they were, they even started the ritual for me. Now all I have to do is finish what they started.”

The situation was precarious. The druid’s solution had failed miserably, and there was no possible way they could take down the mind flayer without losing a few people at least. Seeing what it had did to the room full of competent summoners, it was doubtful any would survive. The only hope, their last hope, was the prophecy.
“Prophecy?” the mind flayer asks aloud. It had been watching the group’s internal dilemma with interest, and far more closely than any had imagined. Seizing on another errant thought through its eldritch powers, it laughs. “That boy is going to stop me? How can he do that, when he obeys me?”
“I don’t,” Marwyn starts, but then is suddenly overwhelmed by an indomitable mental assault. The bard loses all control of his body, and finds himself moving towards the mind flayer against his will. Vargard tries to stop the bard, but a crack of lighting forces him to shy away out of self-preservation.
Eyeing Lesani, the mind flayer threatens, “The next one won’t miss. No tricks, warlock. And try to keep an open mind, you may find serving the daelkyr to be a rewarding experience.”
“Never,” Lesani cries, but is unable to act. She was more knowledgeable of mind flayers than the others, and understood that the one before her really could end her weakened friends with but a thought. To say nothing of the control it currently extended over Marwyn.
Speaking of which, it was surreal how calm the bard looked as he walked further and further away from his friends. Jorduna’s cries of, “Dammit Kid wake up, you’re going to get us all killed,” were completely ignored. As far as anyone could tell, the mind flayer’s control over the bard was total.

This wasn’t entirely true, as Marwyn’s mind remained free to lament over the situation. The bard railed against the control, but every attempt to throw off the mind flayer resulted in a mental backlash that sent him reeling. With every failed attempt to free himself Marwyn grew less and less able to resist the spell, and he lost control entirely as he feet started dragging through the moon pool. Amidst the drama of the situation, none noticed when the dragonshard on Marwyn’s bow started glowing faintly.
“I can still sense the Gatekeeper below,” the mind flayer continues, “That is good. You bring me a child of Tharashk AND a full-fledged guardian of this plane to corrupt? Very thoughtful of you. I might even suggest to my masters that you retain some semblance of your original selves. Or, perhaps, I will grant you death. You are welcome to choose for yourselves if you wish,” it finishes, taunting the five still arrayed against him.
“Valdir, how much more time?” Vargard asks, watching helplessly as Marwyn takes position beside the mind flayer.
“The seal’s all but gone,” Valdir reports hopelessly.
“Yes, and soon the others will follow,” the aberrant continues its monologue, “The Daelkyr will reclaim what was once theirs, and all who serve them will reap the rewards.”

From beside the aberrant, mind dulled from the magical control over him, Marwyn hears a voice say, “Not if we act now.”
Winter?! Marwyn thinks, and then curses himself as he remembers the aberrant’s ability to read minds.
“Fear not, Marwyn. My presence, as well as your thoughts, are now shielded, as they were from the deva in Irian.”
“Then help me kill this bastard,” Marwyn pleads, still unable to control his own body.
“Unfortunately I am unable to overcome the spell currently gripping you, not in the time we have.”
“Then what’s the point? My friends do anything and they die, but at least they can act!” Marwyn screams internally, “And what the hell am I supposed to do? Even if I’m free, I can’t even cast anything. I’m spent!”
“Not totally,” Winter replies calmly, “You were chosen for several reasons, the most important being the mark you still bear. Bring to the front of your mind the impossible spell you cast once before.”
Marwyn was baffled by Winter’s words, until he thinks of the only thing Winter could mean. “Les said I shouldn’t cast that again,” he protests.
“Your spell is crude, hastily-fashioned,” Winter explains, “I will improve it, and through your mark possess that which you create. Follow my instructions, and we will win this day.”

Those outside of the mental conversation were completely unaware of its existence. To the mind flayer, and the five across from him, Marwyn was still standing there blankly. The aberrant was making another spirited pitch of the advantages of living in a daelkyr world, none of which enticed those assembled, when it stops suddenly.
“I warned you, Warlock,” the aberrant cries venomously, “Did you think I would not notice your servant? Death it is.” The mind flayer sends out a bolt of lightning aimed straight for Jorduna, whose unnatural ability to dodge such spells momentarily failed her. Death would have been certain, if not for Valdir, who threw himself in front of the bolt.
The druid’s lack of injuries allowed him to survive the spell, but it still knocked him unconscious. Nonplussed, the aberrant readies another one, and then looks on in shock as it stops midway between him and the mercenaries.

A pale blue figure was slowly fading into vision, with one of its hands outstretched to block the third lightning bolt. “What magic is this?” the mind flayer cries, loosing a variety of spells at the figure. Thinking quickly, Vargard and the others start to move forward, until an ethereal voice speaks to them.
“No! Stay back, you will only endanger yourselves,” it warns them.
After assurances from Lesani that the voice wasn’t conjured by the mind flayer, Vargard asks, “Then what the hell should we do?”
“Put your faith in the prophecy!” the voice responds.

Marwyn, meanwhile, was watching with amazement from the perspective of the ghostly figure. “How is this possible?” he thinks.
“Your mark is essentially a channel for the power of souls,” Winter replies, though now that he was absorbing the mind flayer’s spells, the explanation was distracted and rather hurried, “The intricacies of which are more complex than we have time to discuss. You must know only one thing, that when this foe is defeated, I will close the rift between planes.”
“How?” Marwyn asks, watching as the mind flayer tried and failed to make itself invisible.
“The rent that was torn into Siberys must be restored with the Great Dragon’s primal essence,” Winter explains, now directing the ghostly figure inexorably towards the mind flayer.
“The vial of liquid that Valdir tossed in!” Marwyn exclaims.
“No,” Winter says sadly, “That was but the failed attempts of the Gatekeepers to destroy the tear. If they had truly succeeded, then there would be no need for a seal. I am primal essence of the Great Dragon, and through me this plane will be safeguarded.”
The figure, which now had a hand around the throat of the mind flayer, paused for a moment as Marwyn objects, “You’re going to kill yourself?”
“That which is not truly alive, cannot truly die,” Winter says, closing the fist and breaking the mind flayer’s neck. With the death of the mind flayer, Marwyn’s control of his own body was restored. Unable to split his mind between the being Winter possessed, and his own body, Marwyn’s vision shifts to that of his own eyes.

He, along with everyone else, turns away as the figure emits a blinding light and heads back towards the pool in the center of the room. The light continues for what seems to be an eternity, and then finally fades. Where the pool had once been was now just a shallow depression in the stonework, and Valdir’s dragonmark had faded to the point where it appeared just to be a tattoo.
“What the hell was that?” Jorduna was the first to break the silence, walking over where the moon pool once was and waving a hand through the space, “Did we win?”
Everyone looks expectantly to Marwyn, who was too stunned to answer. Eventually, Vargard thinks to rouse the druid. The initiates breathing was somewhat shallow, and there were nasty burns where the bolt had hit him, but the half-orc was alive. When he first awakes it is with a terror, screaming, “My sight, it is…” but then takes full stock of the situation. Breathlessly, he exclaims, “The seal is gone!”
“What!?” Jorduna cries, grabbing her daggers back out of their scabbards.
“No, the seal is gone!” Valdir repeats unhelpfully, in an odd mirthful tone. Seeing his companions confusion, he explains, “The seal is gone for there is nothing for it to seal! The planar weakening… it’s been reversed! The daelkyr can never return!”
“At least through this location,” Lesani grimly reminds, though her remark was ignored as Jorduna decked Valdir.

The rogue laughed even as Vargard restrained her, and the warrior asked, “Why the hell’d you do that Jor?!”
“We’re free!” Jorduna exclaims, “That damned geas thing is gone!” Realizing this, and that Jorduna probably wouldn’t assault the druid again, he releases the hobgoblin. Indeed, the rogue helps the druid back onto his feet.
“Sorry, had to know,” Jorduna apologizes, and pokes one of the druid’s burns, “And hey, looks like I owe you one.”
“I’d settle for no one punching me again,” Valdir says weakly, “And as much as I enjoy our newfound friendship, I do suggest we return quickly to Master Throck.”
“Friend…” Jorduna says blankly, suddenly stuck between rage, and incredulous mirth. She decides on the latter, and her laughter at a joke no one else quite understood put everyone slightly on edge as they descended.

Throck sighs with relief when he sees all six return to where he lay. While he was still injured, he had recovered enough to stand. “It is done,” he says, “I felt the land rejoice as it was made whole once more. Was the potion effective?”
“No,” Lesani answers first, “The rift was sealed by the entity named ‘Winter’ in the prophecy. It appeared to possess an unseen servant generated by Marwyn, and used that form to act. How this was accomplished is beyond me, however.”
Throck shakes his head and says, “That matters not. Will one of you try Talia, I have hopes that she made it out of this damned place.”
Vargard connects to Lesani’s sending stone, and the voice of the adept comes through. “Master Throck?”
“I’m here, Adept,” the gatekeeper answers, “I must inform you of the loss of Eivald and Kansif. Our goal, however, was accomplished through their sacrifices.”
“This is bittersweet news Master,” Talia responds, “I am concealed some ways away from Blightspot. Will you be departing soon?”
“Yes. I believe we will be joining our friends on their way to Greenheart. This news necessitates a personal report.”
“Understood Master,” Talia responds.

“Exactly how are we getting down?” Vargard asks, taking the stone back, “Or did that barrier go down with the moonpool?”
“I imagine it hasn’t,” Throck denies, “Though transportation out of this place will prove easier than our arrival. The skies are clear,” the druid points out, indicating the night sky through the landing pad, “I have enough strength to carry us down.”
“What’d mean when you said you were coming with us to Greenheart?” Jorduna asks, “Why the hell are we going there?”
“You are free to go where you please, of course,” Throck reassures, “Though I recommend staying with us as far as Greenheart. Unless you want to walk across the entirety of the Shadow Marches.”
“We’ll keep with you for now,” Vargard confirms, “Just focus on the bright side Jor.”
“What, trudging through the swamp, or going back to the place where we were cursed for the second time?” the hobgoblin asks rhetorically.
“Neither,” Vargard answers, “I’m talking about us getting paid.”

Two Weeks Later, Fairhaven
There wasn’t much of note in The Split Falchion’s second journey through the Shadow Marches. Some aberrants did assault them, but after the first night’s rest, the group was able to return to full strength. Throck had mournfully noted that, while the rift had been completely fixed, there would inevitably be some of the foul kind that would escape attempts to purge them.
Upon returning to the sunken keep, the group was met by a mage who had teleported in the day before. From there, they returned to Greenheart, and were immediately taken into the protection of House Windhailer. The surviving gatekeeper druids bid them goodbye then, as it was unlikely they would meet again. A report had to be made to ‘Grandmaster Oalian’, and their time would then likely be taken up with hunting those remaining aberrants that had broken through. As for the mercenaries, the words of Jorduna perfectly summarized the group’s general opinion of the Eldeen Reaches’ capital. They wanted to ‘get paid and get the hell out before they were dragged into any more doomsday plots.’
Unfortunately, this would not be as easy as anticipated. It wasn’t that the druids were trying to back out of their end of the deal, it was that they were unable to secure their payment. The group would need to visit a moderately-sized lending house, and the trade-averse Greenheart was lacking one. This sort of issue piqued the mercenaries interests, as ‘not having enough money to pay you right now’ is somewhat a good sign. The druids were reserved on the exact amount they would be paid, but assured them it would be more than enough. In deference to Marwyn’s wish to see Mevalyn as soon as possible, Vargard had chosen for their marker to be fulfilled in Fairhaven.

So, two weeks after the Spring Solstice, The Split Falchion finds themselves in Bixby’s Monetary Exchange. The desk clerk straightened right up after being told what their business was, and directed them to a private room. There, another of the exchanges officials, and two very large bodyguards, waited for them. A small pouch lay on the table in front of them, too small in the mercenaries’ opinions.
“Ah yes, The Split Falchion, was it?” the official asks.
“Yes,” Vargard confirms, taking the seat opposite the official, “We’re here to get paid.”
“Of course. Do you have the ruby?” the official questions expectantly. Vargard glances at Jorduna, who hesitantly withdraws the astral ruby. It’d been with her for the best part of a month, and even for a fair exchange, she was loathe to lose it.

The official does a number of examinations on the ruby, some mundane, and some magical. Eventually he comes to a decision, and nods graciously. “All is in order. Our establishment has taken its 5% transaction fee, fulfilled by the buyer,” he adds hastily, when Vargard shoots him a glare, “And the rest shall be remitted to you. You may inspect the payment, and then depart at your leisure.” The official stands, and, flanked by his bodyguards, leaves the room. All that was left was the small pouch, the only reward the five would get for saving the world.

Vargard gently picks up the pouch, and loosens the drawstring. Upon seeing the contents, he cries, “By the Sovereigns,” and carefully upends the bag. Exactly 100 coins tumble out of the leather, though it was not their number which impressed the warrior. Every single one was made from platinum.
“We’re rich,” Jorduna says softly, “We’re rich!”
“I had no idea astral rubies were this valuable,” Lesani says in a shocked tone, arcanically scanning the coins for any sign of forgery. They were genuine.

Marwyn was handed twenty of the coins by a bemused Vargard, and the bard stared at them in wonder. The coinage dwarfed what he had earned from his entire time with the mercenaries. Indeed, they probably dwarfed what a common citizen of Aundair would earn in his lifetime. Perhaps not enough to set him up for life, especially considering his wife, but enough so that he wouldn’t have to put his life on the line for years at least.
At that, Marwyn comes to a realization. He’d nearly died several times, and had died on one occasion, in the procurement of this fortune. Now, presented with the opportunity to abandon the mercenary’s lifestyle, the bard found himself questioning if he had only ever been in it for the money. This questions were pushed aside as Cletus says, “’ow ‘bout we all put in onna these for a night o’ drinkin’?”
“I don’t know, we probably shouldn’t repeat First Tower,” Vargard says. An idea strikes him, and he then says, “I have a better idea.”

The Crowned Leper
The bartender and owner of The Crowned Leper had owned the establishment for a fair few decades. He’d known the members of The Split Falchion for as long as they’d been a part of the group. Hell, it all started in his tavern. That dwarf and Vargard, trading war stories and finding out they were both competent enough for someone to pay for their skills. There wasn’t much they could do that would surprise him anymore, but the offer to buy his establishment was definitely something.
The bartender raised an incredulous eye at the few platinum coins held out to him, mumbled something about the divines, and went to ‘fetch some paperwork’. An hour later, all five members of The Split Falchion were equal owners of The Crowned Leper. They would of course retain the staff, but Vargard mentioned that they would need someone to manage the day-to-day business. This was said while the warrior stared directly at the now former owner of The Crowned Leper, and the man was handed another coin as first year’s salary.
The man’s upcoming question as to what the hell this was accomplishing was answered when Cletus asked for the key to the liquor storeroom.

The Next Day
Everyone woke up the next morning with a raging headache. While last night’s partying hadn’t been quite the one First Tower had been, the celebration was certainly noteworthy enough to be recorded in the city’s histories. Even Cletus was hungover, though this was because he had put a considerable dent in the tavern’s hard stock.
The event was doubly joyous for Marwyn, as Mevalyn had made it to Fairhaven sometime during the afternoon. The bard could still smell the saltwater off her clothes, but she deflected any questions by pulling out the ‘loot’ she had gained from her trip. She was only slightly disappointed when Marwyn showed her his coin purse.
He was now gathered around one of the surviving tables in the barroom, along with the other members of The Split Falchion. The rest of the bar was empty, as last night’s cavorting had required the tavern’s manager to close temporarily for repairs. Mevalyn was making arrangements to move what she had stored with The Mired Harper down to The Crowned Leper, as well as tracking down those few items that the bartender had already pawned when she had disappeared unexpectedly.

Something was off, though. Jorduna was sitting back from the table, radiating nervousness. No one else seemed to know what was going on, so eventually Vargard was forced to ask, “Jor, what is it?”
“Var…” she starts hesitantly, “I’ve got something to get off my chest.”
Vargard takes a moment to take an obvious look around the empty room, before say, “Looks like it’s just us. What’s up?”
“I’m leaving the Falchion,” Jorduna says quickly, “I’m not taking a break, I don’t need some time, I’m leaving.”
With surprise all around, Cletus is the first to react. “’m too,” he says, face downward. “Thought ‘bout it. Not a cow’rd, but dyin’ once is enough. Got ‘nough ta satisfy me.”
As Marwyn looks on in horror, Vargard thinks for a moment, and nods. “We have come too close to the edge on too many occasions,” the warrior says, “It might just be time for a career change.”
“But,” Marwyn sputters, “What if there are more jobs?”
“Someone else’ll do ‘em,” Vargard shrugs, “Most of the ones we did were coming from the Royal Eyes anyways, and that door’s firmly closed. Les, what do you think?”
“I would enjoy a more permanent vacation, certainly,” Lesani says, after some moments thought, “I would not be opposed to remaining in town, though suspending our mercenary unit does seem the practical solution.”

“So… what do I do?” Marwyn asks, looking between his four friends.
“It may be worthwhile to visit the university, Marwyn,” Lesani says, “Increase your magical aptitude. I imagine you will find life without constant threat to be an improvement. It is not as if we will disappear from your lives.”
“Uh, about that,” Jorduna speaks up, “Cletus and I are leaving the city altogether.”
“Together?” Vargard asks, eyebrow raised.
“Yeah,” Jorduna nods, “At least at first. Might try for Darguun, see if any fences can be mended. A gatekeeper vouching for me could make the difference.”
“When did you set that up?” Vargard wonders.
Jorduna shrugs and answers, “You weren’t with me the entire time through those swamps.”
“There’s good ‘untin’ down there,” Cletus adds to the conversation, “Nice change o’ pace. Got tha’ stones, at least.”
“What about you, Var? What will you do?” Lesani asks.
“I might take a leave of absence from Fairhaven as well,” Vargard says, thinking deeply. He was secretly glad that Jorduna had brought up breaking up their group, as he would’ve suggested it eventually. Hidden away in his chest pocket was a small letter that had been lying next to him this morning. It contained only five words: ‘We need to meet, Son,’ along with a signature. A signature Vargard recognized, and believed impossible to forge. “Family business,” he simply says to his friends.
“Are we in agreement?” Lesani asks the group in general, “We all sever from The Split Falchion?”
“Yes,” Vargard says.
“Yeah,” Jorduna replies.
Cletus merely nods, bringing the initiative to Marwyn. What he said wouldn’t matter, the majority had decided. All that was left was to see if he would accept it.

Coming to a decision, Marwyn smiles wistfully. “Sure. It’s been an adventure though.”
“Indeed,” Vargard says warmly, “One I doubt I’ll ever forget.” The warrior then looks to the five’s empty glasses, and banters, “Guh, the service here is terrible. I’ve half a mind to speak with the owner. I think they’re in the storeroom, anyone else want to check?” There was general agreement, and the five went on the last adventure they’d ever have together.
Epilogue
Sage, as she was known to those rare few to encounter her, looks up from a book in surprise as a dragonshard glows faintly on her table. “Winter? No… it can’t be.”
“Indeed,” a voice issues forth from the shard weakly, “For I am not named Winter.”
“You cold bastard, how’d you do it?” Sage cries good-naturedly, “I thought you gave yourself up to seal the rift.”
“As is the case with discussing matters of the planes in this tongue, the matter is complicated,” Winter replies, “My power is certainly gone. Yet, it appears part of me still persists.”
“Well, you’re just in time for some fresh insight into the prophecy,” Sage answers, turning back to her book, “If you’re still interested after your near death experience.”
“My ceasing to exist could not properly be called death, for I am more akin to a specter than one who is alive already,” Winter pedantically corrects her.
“Always focused on the little trifles, Winter. Sometimes you just have to let it go,” Sage chides the dragonshard.
“Were it not for your incessant need for the prophecy to rhyme, Sage, they could have been saved some amount of trouble,” Winter contests, “’Friends to the last’?”
Sage sighs, and admits “’Friends in the end’, it just didn’t sound right. But that’s the problem with you people, always picking at the little things. If I’d changed that, they would’ve just fought over some other little quibbling matter. Why the fuss, it all worked out in the end?”
“Some of them did perish,” Winter reminds her.
“Many more will in the time to come,” Sage says, suddenly casting a dark tone over the conversation, “And many have already.”

The dragonshard is silent at this, finally unable to find fault in Sage’s words. Shifting topics, it asks, “Your new prophecy, does it have anything to do with the Son?”
“Partially,” Sage says, unsure of herself, “Though it appears he will be granted only a limited role. To be honest, I’m not sure that young lad would enjoy taking part in what’s to come. This is a dark prophecy.”
“Many are,” Winter says, “Though there always seems to be light in every darkness.”
Sage perks up at this, and reaches for a quill, “Light in the darkness,” she muses, “Thank you, Winter. I was trying to think of how to say that.”
“Something I should know?” Winter asks, when Sage becomes lost in her writing.
“Oh, you’ll just have to see it play out for now Winter,” Sage says, taking care to conceal the writing from the dragonshard, “I often wonder if I am a seer or a storyteller. I guess it just depends on how you look at it.”
“Is there a point to this Sage? Speaking with you is rather taxing now, given my recent activities.”
“What kind of storyteller gives away the ending before the story’s even begun?” Sage asks rhetorically, and says, “You should focus on getting back to… whatever passes for a state of health for you. Come back when darkness and madness align, that’s when the show’ll really start.”
“Sage, you are being intentionally obtuse,” Winter protests, but senses he will get little else from the witch, “Though I will attempt to solve your riddle.”
“You better Winter,” Sage says in parting, “This is shaping up to be a story for the ages.”

The End

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Assault on Blightspot
Storm of the Century

Part 35 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

The Shadow Marches
While Jorduna angrily sharpened her knives away from the rest of the group, Throck led the rest through records of the first siege of Blightspot. This attack was of course much greater in scale, occurring during the Daelkyr War. Siege engines would hardly play into this attack.
Unfortunately, said records had been passed down through both generations and language barriers. The full schematics of the castle, referenced many times throughout the text, had been lost. The map of the outer wall, however, was included, and served as the initial topic of the discussion.

“Time will have certainly degraded the stonework,” Throck explains, pulling out the map, “Though our other option is attempting to scout for a new location.”
“I’m not in favor of splitting our group again,” Vargard argues, to which Throck agrees.
“We’ll be avoiding large bodies of water from now on,” Throck continues, “Though once this is over we will still need to cleanse the surrounding lands of any remaining greater aberrants. We will handle that end, of course,” Throck adds, after all in The Split Falchion give him an incredulous look. “Now, we have two options as to how we are entering Blightspot,” the druid says, referencing two points on the map. “The closest one is a postern gate that should lead to a hidden part of the castle. Aberrants may appear anywhere, but it is my opinion that those hallways will be a safer route. The second is a main gate which was destroyed during the initial siege, which leads into the courtyard.”
“What’s the problem with the postern?” Vargard asks, not seeing the downside.
Throck sighs, and answers, “It’s closed. Only opens from the inside too. I am able to fly two people into the castle. With your bard’s invisibility spell, infiltration could be possible. We three would then open the gate, scouting our path through as we make our way to it.”

“Didn’t we just agree that we weren’t splitting the party?” Vargard asks.
“Thus the main gate,” Throck replies inexorably. “The courtyard will no doubt have a greater number of aberrations. It will be a tough fight, though our enemy would also be more exposed. Further, it is a shorter route to the central keep.”
“Can’t you all just fly us to the central tower?” Marwyn asks, thinking he had seized upon the easy solution.
Eivald was the one to answer, his voice still somewhat shaky from the trauma he had endured, “Druidic shifting is n…not as potent as arcane shifting. At l…least not until you are as powerful as G…gatekeeper Throck. Not even I can fly yet.”
“And even invisible, there is always a chance for detection,” Throck takes over, “We have no idea what we could face in Blightspot, and there are ways to disenchant invisibility. Another reason to stray from the postern gate,” Throck says aside, “I could manage to take everyone, but it would require multiple trips.”
“So, the main gate,” Vargard says conversationally, “If I judge that map correctly, we will have to circle the castle before reaching it.”
“Indeed,” Throck nods, “Though from the looks of your cloaks, I would say you aren’t entirely unaccustomed to stealth. My people have slightly alternative means, but the trip should be less dangerous than flying over the parapets.”

“So what do we do once we get there?” Jorduna asks, entering the conversation aggressively. “Just charge in? Or do we send in scouts first so they can get mind controlled again? How the hell are we supposed to assault a damned castle with just the ten of us?”
“Combat in the courtyard is not inevitable,” Throck answers calmly, “We are not entirely certain of the layout. Means of slipping past undetected may avail themselves.”
“Aboleths will not be present in Blightspot, Jor,” Lesani adds confidently, “Their physical forms require constant immersion in water. Based on elevation, there will be little standing water. That does not preclude any other aberrants capable of spellcraft, though none we should face should have the power to puppeteer minds.”

Unable to face the dual assault with any coherent counterargument, Jorduna returns with a huff to the spot where she had been sharpening her knives. Muttered curses were barely audible, and most were directed at the druids.
After everyone had turned away from the rogue, conversation resumed. “It goes without saying that conversation will be… difficult while we approach the main gate.”
“I can imagine why,” Vargard says, “Doubt I’ll be able to keep track of you, though I imagine Les will have that covered.”
“Correct,” Lesani offers.
“Then it is settled,” Throck says, “We will approach the castle today, and evaluate our options one we make it to the main gate. The possibility that there are better entrances does exist, and we would do well to be wary of them.”
“Are your druids ready to leave?” Vargard asks.
“About as ready as yours, I imagine.”

Several Hours Later
The approach to the main gate was about the easiest task accomplished by the group since the first few hours of travelling through the swamp. The druids all adopted various natural forms to evade suspicion, and the mercenaries were skilled enough to move without being detected. After a certain point the amount of vegetation dropped off, to the point where the land was void of vegetation a few hundred feet from the castle walls. The fact that they kept a healthy distance from the castle walls largely negated this lack of cover.
The group did not, however, spot any opening into the castle on the way in. The first disappointment came when Throck spotted the postern gate. After briefly shifting back into orc form, he confirmed that it was still secured. From there, it was just stretches of obsidian black wall, practically unbroken as it rose from the swamp.
There were some evidence of ancient damage, likely caused by the siege which took the castle. Marwyn noticed that the increased proximity to the walls likewise affected the latent sensation of fear. These weren’t walls that had been constructed, rather they appeared to have been dragged up from the earth in one solid mass. Sharp protrusions dotted the surface at random intervals, for no other purpose than to harass any would-be climbers. Distant crenellations lined the top of the walls, and the bard could barely make out the remains of an ancient iron pot that filled one such battlement. He tried not to think about what had filled the vessel when there were still those defending the castle.

The main gate itself was massive, at least 50 feet wide and doubly as tall. The old rusted gate was still down, though a large breach in the center ruined any defensive value it once gave. The edges of the rent still glowed faintly with traces of arcane magic.
Beyond the gate was a wide road, the buildings pressed back to make the other side of the gate very exposed. In the distance it appeared to narrow as it led to keep. Random debris lined the street, and those buildings that were visible exhibited the same ancient wounds that the castle walls had. Most buildings appeared to have collapsed, though further decay was limited by the absence of any invasive vegetation. Whatever was keeping the land from reclaiming this place was assuring it would stand for centuries to come.
Most interesting of the immediate area, however, were cart tracks pressed into the earth leading through the gate.

“Fresh”, Cletus remarks, glancing at them, “Cart’s pass’d many times.”
“Aberrants don’t use carts,” Throck replies, shifting back behind the cover of the gate, “Those must be from the cultists who have endangered us all. Can you tell how many passed through here?”
“No,” Cletus reports, “Just tha’ cart and two horses. Freshest tracks lead inwards.”
“Still here,” Throck exhales, thinking, “If we’re unlucky, they’ll have fortified themselves in with the seal’s enchantments once the aberrations started breaking through. Though that is not an immediate problem. The road looks clear of enemies, though that is no guarantee.”

Everyone takes a look down the main road at the mention of this, but detects no movement in the immediate area. Something was flying around the central spire, but it was too far to worry about at this moment.
Looking closer at the buildings, Marwyn feels the lingering dread intensify. The walls, made from the same strange material which the walls were constructed from, also bore the spikes that lined the castle walls. The key difference, was that bodies decorated some of the spikes. Skeletons from ancient victims hang from a few, though from others hung fresher corpses. Of particular note was one adorned in black, with a red symbol threaded onto the shoulders.

“I can’t be certain from this distance, but that appears to be a member of the Khyber cult,” Throck informs, “That confirms our suspicions.”
“What would be sticking bodies to the wall like that?” Marwyn asks, trying not to look at the garish display.
“Not something we would want to fight,” Throck answers enigmatically, “Most aberrations would simply consume or corrupt their victims. This is a display of power, and a warning, which speaks to intelligence. I am somewhat worried that it appears to be mimicking the actions of the aberrants which once held Blightspot.”
“I thought you said there wouldn’t be anything too powerful here,” Vargard asks, straining to keep his voice at a whisper.
Lesani intervenes on Throck’s behalf, saying, “Intelligence does not necessary suggest overwhelming power. I believe we should focus on scouting the road ahead, all this discussion is achieving is putting us at risk of discovery.”
Vargard accepts the warlock’s explanation, realizing it was futile to debate the point. No matter what lurked within Blightspot, their mission remained the same. “No sense in sending in scouts if we’ve taken this route to stay together,” he points out.
“Agreed,” Throck concludes, “I feel it would be best to stick close to one of the rows of buildings. Left or right?”
“Left,” Vargard chooses, “Shields’ll be facing any ambushers.”
“Good point,” Throck compliments.

As the ten began carefully making their way into the castle, Jorduna fades behind Marwyn. “Kid,” she whispers as quietly as possible, “Last chance to admit this was all made up.”
Marwyn sympathized with the rogue’s plea, but it didn’t change his answer, “I didn’t Jor. But would it really matter?”
“’d make me feel better when I gut these druids, one this is all over,” Jorduna replies, and Marwyn wasn’t sure whether or not she was serious. He crosses the city gate, hopeful that this would trigger Winter’s arrival. Nothing comes, however, and his dragonshard remains a dull blue.

The group started making its way towards the center of the city. The constant need for stealth was starting to wear on Marwyn, it was a completely different way of movement from just walking. The trauma wasn’t just physical, it was mental. Always on alert, always watching the ground for the quietest path, trying not to go so slowly as to fall behind.

The rubble that was one a city square provided cover from one side as they continued, and fortunately there was little chance of ambush from the twisted wreck. Over the first half hour they did encounter several mounds of roving flesh, covered in eyes and mouths, though they were either easily dispatched or avoided. It wasn’t until they passed the first major crossroad that they ran into something of note.

Adept Talia, who was leading the group, stopped suddenly as she peeks out behind the corner. The druids had remained in their bipedal forms once they had crossed into the castle, as their increased combat efficiency was worth the lower stealth capabilities. Her face was slightly pale as she reports to Throck, “Beholders. Almost half a dozen.”
“What?” Throck says, taking a look for himself. Everyone else readied weapons, either because they knew what they were about to fight, or because of the look on Talia’s face. “Adept, count the stalks,” he orders, stepping back into cover.

Talia takes another measured look, and gives an exasperated grunt afterwards. “Four.” Lesani and the rest of the druids stow their weapons, relief visible.
“Mind filling us in?” Vargard asks, as the rest of the mercenaries weren’t entirely sure what was going on.
“A flock of spectators is nearby. Far less powerful than a beholder, though still somewhat of a hazard,” Throck explains, “It was an understandable mistake by my adept. The only real difference is the number of eye stalks, and they are in close formation.”
“So let’s go around them,” Vargard argues.
“They are closing in on our position,” Talia reports, still angry with herself for the error, “It is quite simple. We ambush them, or they ambush us.”
“Eivald, nothing that will draw attention,” Throck advises, and then says to Vargard, “There is not much you will be able to do warrior, unfortunately. These beasts are capable of flight, though your blades may be useful to finish any that are brought down. Have the rest of your men prepare themselves.”
“We should coordinate attacks,” Vargard points out, “Bring down as many as possible with the first volley.”
“Of course, but decide quickly,” Throck shoots back, nervously glancing at the five approaching enemies, “My druids will target them separately, ideally we will have two on each.”
“Got it,” Vargard answers, and hurriedly echoes the suggestion to his men behind him.

The creatures suddenly rounded the corner, hell bent on reaching somewhere. As soon as they were in sight, the ten adventures loosed their prepared attacks on them. Vargard had borrowed a hand crossbow from Marwyn, letting him engage with the rest. The warrior wasn’t too familiar with the weapon, but it was better than nothing.
The creatures themselves were hideous, a single bulbous mass with several stacks radiating from the central mass. Each stalk ended in an eyeball, and one massive one was stuck in the center of each beast. The exact number of enemies was hard to pin down, they were all concentrated in one mass. The team had coordinated their attacks based on which appeared first, though the foe’s formation had thrown off this timing. That was both advantageous and disadvantageous.
Three of the orbs dropped immediately, folding under the combined firepower of the majority of the team. What remained, however, was terrifying.

“Beholder!” Lesani shouts, noticing that the majority of the eye stalks had remained with the floating mass. Two masses remained in the air, a spectator, and one other. The larger mass turns to the warlock, maw twisted into a gloating grin. The warlock curses for forgetting herself, as the shout had attracted several of the flesh mounds, bringing them into combat.
Vargard draws both his swords, running to deal with those enemies on the ground, while the rest prepare to face the floating orb. The main eye, still fixed upon Lesani, emits a nearly blinding glare. When Marwyn, who was standing next to the warlock, regains his vision, he realizes it wasn’t his physical sense that had been blinded. In a panic, he discovers that he is unable to sense anything magical, or draw on any arcane power.
“It’s tracking you with an anti-magic field!” Throck shouts from the other side of the beholder, as Lesani was still too disoriented to give tactical advice, “Anything under the gaze of the main eye is!”
Jorduna, also being stared down by the main eye, briefly wondered if the effect was nullifying the geas. Fortunately for the druids, however, the beholder clarified her priorities by firing a blast of light at Vargard. The warrior was able to duck out of the way of the jet black beam, but the sight focused the rage which had been building up in Jorduna for so long, much as crystal focuses sunlight.

“I don’t need magic!” She yells, running at the beholder. Launching deftly off of one of the flesh mounds, which was attempting to consume her leg the entire time, she flies towards the beholder. “I… have… knives!”
The bulbous aberrant attempts to retaliate with one of its eye stalks, then realizes it’s mistake in including Jorduna in its antimagic field. Two daggers land in its central mass, providing Jorduna a means with which to hold on. After brutally digging her boots into the flesh as well, the rogue frees an arm to continue her mad assault.

Impressive as the display was, the rest of the team was having bigger issues. Each stalk acted independently, able to harass most of others without distracting the beholder itself. There was still the spectator to consider as well, which was using its own feebler eye beams to assist the beholder. Marwyn and Lesani were struggling to do anything while under the gaze of the beholder. Moving was pointless, as it would only bring others into the gaze of the monstrosity. While safe from any of the eye beams, they were still under assault by the flesh mounds. Lesani had to carefully poke away at them with a dagger, while Marwyn was having more luck with his rapier.
The druids, meanwhile, were focused on avoiding the anti-magic field, and bringing down the two flying aberrations. Jorduna’s new position made it somewhat difficult for them to aim projectiles, though they managed. Working together, they bring down the spectator without too much trouble, though Adept Kansif pays the price when a red beam strikes him. The druid takes off in a panic towards the castle gate, barely able to avoid the flesh mounds on his way. In the next moment, Throck catches a ray straight to the temple, causing the druid to collapse into an enchanted sleep. With a final beam, the beholder lifts up Cletus, dangling him above a growing number of flesh mounds.

The dwarf had, up until this point, been solely focused on pouring as many arrows into the beholder as he could. Marwyn was impressed by the sheer rate of fire coming from the dwarf, he had somehow managed to almost double his speed since his demise. He’d also been trying to make for the area covered by the anti-magic zone, himself unharmed by it, though said flesh mounds had been blocking his path. Now, magically lifted in the air, he directed his fire straight down.

The beholder, meanwhile, was starting to feel some of the punishment that its foes were dealing. Jorduna was constantly whittling away at it, though she wasn’t able to strike with all of her might latched onto the creature. Seeing its last spectator fall, and still plenty of able foes, it makes the decision to retreat.
“Jor, jump off!” Vargard tries to yell, but the noise of the battle, which was drawing more and more flesh mounds towards the fray, drowns him out. He fumbles with his sending stone, but the rogue doesn’t notice hers signaling. She was wholly focused on striking out at the berserker. Those on the ground watch as the beholder hovers farther into the air, attempting to get out of range of the party’s attacks.

Eventually, Jorduna realizes that the volley accompanying her attacks had stopped. Looking down, she experiences a moment of vertigo when she gauges the distance between her and the ground to be more than a couple hundred feet. She was almost level with the top spire of the central tower, though she was much too busy to look closely at it. What’s worse, was that the beholder had stopped the effect of its main eye. She was now literally staring down the barrels of 10 magical lasers.
Deciding to take her chances with gravity, the rogue pushed off from the beholder. The rapid descent proved more than enough to dodge the rapid burst of beams from the beholder, but it would also prove fatal if nothing was done.

She was halfway to the ground when the giant eagle caught her in its talons, diving with the catch so as to slow the rogue’s fall more gently. Jorduna struggled initially, until she gathered that the talons were only gripping her, and not crushing her.

Throck gently lands, dropping the hobgoblin moments before. He had been rudely awoken from his sleep when one of the flesh mounds had attacked him, and quickly acted when he saw the beholder carrying Jorduna away. The rogue mutters a quick, “Thanks,” before going to check on her friends.
The rest of the team was more or less ok. They had broken the assault from the flesh mounds while Throck was retrieving Jorduna, the local area eventually running out of twisted flesh to throw at them. Everyone had taken some injuries, either from fighting off the flesh mounds, or from errant shots from the beholder. Cletus was especially roughed up after being dropped into a pit of teeth, but was recovering under Talia’s ministrations. Kansif had returned one he had recovered from his own trials, roughed up slightly from the return journey. With the immediate area safe, to a degree, the group took a quick rest.

“I’ve never fought so many gibbering mouthers before,” Kansif says conversationally, adrenaline still pumping, “And you, warrior, you’re pretty good with both those swords. Why even use the shield?”
“Gives me options,” Vargard grunts, and turns to the Gatekeeper “Throck, I thought you said there wasn’t anything more powerful than an aboleth. Forgive my ignorance, but that seemed more powerful than an aboleth.”
“Yes, you are correct,” Throck concedes, “It is my belief that several of the spectators had merged together to create that monstrosity. Another to add to the list once we are done here.”
“In a way, we are fortunate,” Lesani says, “Anything within the courtyard would have surely been drawn by the sounds of combat.”
“Funny way of looking at it Les,” Jorduna says. The hobgoblin had joined the group proper in its discussion, having ever so slightly warmed to the group for some reason. “I’d say we nearly got killed. Again.”
“Life of a mercenary, eh Jor?” Vargard points out.
“Not a mercenary if you aren’t getting paid,” the rogue retorts.
“What gave you that impression?” Throck asks simply.

“Wait, we’re getting paid?” Jorduna asks incredulously.
“Yes? I assumed…”
“Well, someone could have mentioned that literally any time,” Jorduna complains, “Would have taken some of the edge of this death sentence.”
“I thought that was made clear to you,” Throck tries to reason.
“Oh, you mean when they told us we’d die if we didn’t cooperate,” the rogue continues with her rant, “So it’s a ‘your life is your reward’ kinda thing?”
“Jor, why don’t you let the druid talk?” Vargard says, even though he secretly enjoyed someone letting the druids have it.
“I wasn’t aware you…” Throck begins, but then gets to the point, “Master Oalian knew you were attempting to sell an astral ruby. Such treasure if often difficult to find a trustworthy buyer for. When you return from this expedition, however, we will broker the sale. You will certainly fetch more than if you had merely tried selling it yourselves.”
“Who will the buyer be?” Vargard asks, “I’m not travelling all the way to Trolanport just to offload it at a slightly higher value.”
“You don’t understand,” Throck says, “We will give you the full sale value up front. Delivering the ruby to the buyer is our responsibility.”

“Master Throck, I believe we should focus on the task at hand,” Talia says politely, “The beholder may return if it can muster more allies. Or simply alert others to our presence, time is short.”
“Indeed,” Throck says, rising, “From the courtyard, the entrance to the central tower. There, to the top, where we unseat any remaining cultists and restore the dimensional seal. Follow me!”

Blightspot Central Courtyard
The group comes to a circular absence of rubble that is Castle Tantetril’s central courtyard. Between travelling and skirmishes, most of the day’s time had been taken up. There was perhaps an hour left in the day, leaving the unfortunate possibility that they would have to make camp at some point.
The courtyard was indeed empty, though slime trails suggested that it was once been inhabited by flesh mounds (or gibbering mouthers, as Kansif had called them). Had they not been drawn by the battle in the main street, this would have been the site of another battle. Yet, there was one other obstacle waiting for them.
At the opposite end of the courtyard was a moat, which surrounded the central tower. The moat itself was empty, water long since drained. The drawbridge was also lowered, but the entrance itself was wreathed in a purple energy field. Arcane, to Marwyn’s eye, as it blazed with magical energy.

“I was afraid of this,” Throck says, pulling out the siege notes once more, “The attackers noted a defensive enchantment on the keep. The cultists likely activated it once the aberrants invaded. They were able to bring it down by deactivating it from two locations within the city… simultaneously.”
“You aren’t saying what I think you’re saying,” Vargard challenges, “Do you even know where these locations are?”
“The sites are indicated… on the castle map,” Throck replies hesitantly, “Though from the rest of the text I can divine the general location. The devices reek arcane energy, once there someone of that persuasion should easily sense them.”
“Simultaneously,” Vargard repeats, seizing upon that word.
“Yes…” Throck admits, “In order to access the tower, we will need to lower that field.”

“Oh hell no,” Jorduna says, “Hell no. Just fly us up to a window, screw stealt… huh,” the rogue grunts, looking up and seeing something she had briefly glanced at early. “Guys? Look up.”
Everyone follows the rogue’s gaze, and sees something flying around the upper regions of the tower. It was different from the enemies they had fought before, however, in that those with keener eyes recognized it as a demon. It was too far to make out specific details, but it was no aberrant.
“I cannot attempt to fly us in with that patrolling,” Throck says. “The cultists likely summoned that for additional defense. They have a competent summoner among them, it seems. We are lucky it did not see us when you fell from the beholder.”
“Alright, fine. You take one, we’ll take the other,” Jorduna says, surreptitiously moving somewhere with overhead cover.
“Impossible,” Lesani cuts in, “Your geas will likely prevent our group from straying too far from a druid. Further, none of the Gatekeepers are apt at sensing out arcane anomalies. Finally, they have no sending stones. We could lend them one, but the other points stand. I would suggest myself and Marwyn go with separate groups.”
“What?” Marwyn says, jolted by the sound of his name. He’d been a little out of focus ever since the last battle, the flesh mounds that had attacked him had been gibbering nonsense the entire time. He’d still not entirely recovered from what had likely been an assault on his mind.
“You are the second best arcane detector among us,” Lesani explains, “It makes the most logical sense. Cletus and Jorduna should likewise remain in separate groups, to act as scouts if necessary.”
“Alright,” Marwyn says, trying to get his head back together while the rest assembled worked out their plan.

It was eventually decided upon that Throck and Vargard would head the separate groups. This was a natural decision and was accepted readily. Lesani and Cletus would accompany the warrior, while Jorduna and Marwyn would work under Throck. As for the druids, Talia and Valdir would go with Vargard, while Eivald and Kansif would remain under Throck. Distress signals and other matters were worked out, and then each group departed down opposite streets. Neither left down the road they had come from, which made both groups slightly nervous.

Vargard’s Group
Vargard had left through the eastern road, leading his group carefully towards their objective. He wasn’t sure exactly what they were looking for, but Lesani had assured him she would know when they found it. Throck had instructed him to head for the ‘eastern most gatehouse’. The arcane trigger was somewhere nearby.
“Kansif,” Lesani addresses the druid while they were walking, “How is the seal’s integrity?”
“Still weakening,” the man replies depressingly, “Now that we’re this close I can almost… feel the assault on our plane. Whoever is doing this is insane!”
“Perhaps,” the warlock says thoughtfully.

“Quiet!” Cletus hisses, motioning for everyone to stop. It takes a few more seconds Valdir and Kansif to follow suit, being unversed in the mercenary’s hand signs. “Mov’nt ahead.”
A figure wearing black robes stumbles around the corner, flailing wildly. The five taking cover behind some rubble expected to see pursuers, but none came. Vargard gives a skeptical glance at Lesani when the newcomer falls to the ground, still convulsing.
“Some form of confusion enchantment,” Lesani reports after studying the cultist for a minute or so, “Wearing off shortly.”
Talia stands up suddenly, saying, “Wait here.” She then quickly moves towards the sprawled cultist.
Surprised, Vargard is unable to catch the druid as she moves out into the street. Talia makes it to the writhing cultist without being detected, however, and Vargard lets out a sigh of relief when she makes it back to their position with a captive.

“What the hell was that?” Vargard asks, as Cletus gags the prisoner.
“Securing him without alerting others to our presence,” Talia answers nonchalantly, tying the cultist’s wrists.
“I meant charging off without letting any of us know.”
“It was my understanding that the nature of our alliance was of dual leadership. With Throck leading the other strike force, command of the druids defaults to me.”
“You couldn’t have given us a heads up?”
Talia shrugs, and answers, “This was faster.”

Vargard lets out an exasperated sigh, and asks Lesani, “How much longer will he be out of it?”
“Perhaps a minute,” Lesani answers, and then returns, “Wait, if Talia is leading the druids on this team, who do they believe is leading our two allies on the other?”
“From what I have seen of your two companions, one will sullenly follow in the background, while the other will follow Master Throck without question,” Talia answers, “Though obviously the Son is the nominal leader.”
“Gods,” Vargard curses, “No one ever let Jor know about this.”

Meanwhile, the cultist’s resistance against his bonds became more focused, and the muffled grunts seemed more intelligible than before. “We should see what he knows of the lock,” Talia points out, noticing this, “Who should interrogate him?”
“I imagine you would be best suited Adept,” Lesani answers, “Though I imagine it will not take more than death threats to loosen his tongue.”
Talia nods, and manifests primal energy in her hands as a show of force to the cultist. “I’ll manage.”

“I’m going to make this simple,” Talia says, pressing against the cultist’s chest with her foot, “Give us detailed directions to the arcane locks, and information on your allies, and I will leave your fate to the aberrants.”
“You have to take the gag out first…” Vargard whispers awkwardly, after a moment of silence.
Fortunately the cultist didn’t hear that, so Talia’s timing wasn’t ruined. “Choose wisely,” she says slowly, careful not to show any annoyance. She cuts the side of the gag, purposefully nicking the prisoner’s cheek as well. Her foot remained where it was.
After spitting out the rest of the cloth, the cultist looks at Talia wide-eyed, “You’re crazy! This place is swarming with those things!”
“Not my doing,” Talia responds, “Though I am perfectly willing to stop more from coming if you would be so kind as to cooperate.”
The man looks to the others, but finds no allies in the crowd behind Talia. Lesani was admittedly worried for the cultist’s health, but only because they wouldn’t be able to interrogate a man with a crushed trachea.

“You… you gotta get me out of the city!” the man cries, “Then I…I’ll tell you whatever you…”
“No,” Talia shakes her head, “You tell us everything now, and I don’t kill you.”
“B..but,” the man protests, and then feels the blood dripping from his chin.
Meanwhile, Vargard pulls out his sending stone. “Marwyn, put Throck on,” Vargard talks into the stone, “We’re about to get some intel he needs to hear.”

“Y,you’ll let me go, right?” the cultist asks feebly, wheezing slightly as the pressure on his chest increases slightly.
“Of course,” Talia nods.
The man struggles to draw breath, and then folds, “This ‘uge flying orb attacked us. Eyes everywhere. Got hit by one of them and things got kinda fuzzy.”
“Beholder,” the five adventurers say at once, with various amounts of trepidation.
“Right,” the cultist says, just glad that the pressure on his chest was waning, “I don’t know how to get there ‘cause of the whole… wait!” he cries as Talia brandishes her sword, “You can’t miss it. Only building I’ve seen still standing, and it’s pretty tall. Built into the walls. Dunno if anyone’s still alive or if…”
“What about the other lock?” Talia asks.
“Other… you mean the other camp?” the cultist says hurriedly, spurred on by a mean look from Talia, “No one’s heard from them since the nasties arrived. No one’s keen on going near there either. Dunno what’s there, I’ve just been…”
“He doesn’t know anything else,” Talia says dismissively, stepping off the cultist, “Off you go. Shoo.”
“Which way’s the… right,” the man says, backing away from Talia’s sword, “I just… thank you, I…” he runs off, looking around and trying to find a way out of the city.

“Get all that?” Vargard asks.
“Yes,” Throck acknowledges, through the sending stone, “A shame he did not know more. We’ve arrived at our target, and will let you when we’ve reached our lock.”
“We’ll let you know when we’ve reached the gatehouse,” Vargard says, “And don’t get any of my people killed.”

Talia, meanwhile, hands the short sword back to Valdir. “You have done well to keep its blade sharp. It appears you may need it again.”
“Yeah,” the initiate agrees, “Especially if we don’t get to the seal in time.”
Vargard moves closer to the two, picking up on the conversation, “Getting worse?”
“Yeah,” Valdir nods grimly, “Strong enough to hold back invaders, but not for long.”
“More reason to hurry,” Lesani cuts in, “Especially if we are to face the beholder again. Not to sound morbid, but if we are quick, it may still be dealing with the cultists.”
“I am more worried with why it attacked in the first place,” Talia argues, “It speaks to the possibility that the aberrants are aware of the barrier surrounding the central tower as well. They are organized.”
Vargard clears his throat, and says, “All I’m hearing are reasons to move. So let’s go.”
“Of course,” Talia agrees.

Throck’s Group, Meanwhile
Marwyn had departed from the central tower with a building unease. Travelling with the druids wasn’t necessarily an ordeal, but now Vargard had left him alone with them. Well, he also had Jorduna, though that was hardly a boon. He still wasn’t sure what she planned to do once released from her magical bonds, and feared what might happen if this occurred without Vargard present.
Speaking of which, Throck had led he and Jorduna through the western road. According to his notes, their lock was located in what had been referred to as an ‘armory’, dug into the earth. The druid had remarked that there must be enchantments supporting the underground bunker, as the soft earth here would not normally support such construction. The group fervently hoped that said enchantments were still active.

Their lock, being located inside of the castle as opposed to near its walls, was also closer to the central tower. They arrive just as Marwyn’s sending stone goes off.
“What is it?” Throck asks, as Marwyn hands him the stone.
“Var said to give you the stone,” the bard answers, “I think they’re… interrogating someone.”
“Interesting,” Throck comments as he receives the stone. Marwyn, for his part, shudders a little as he remembers the times his group had been forced to resort to such measures before. This piques Jorduna’s interests as well, though for different reasons.

Eventually, Throck hands the stone back to Marwyn. He’d kept the volume low so as to avoid attracting unwanted attention, leaving the others somewhat in the dark as to what was conveyed.
“What’d they want?” Jorduna was the first to ask, curiosity overpowering her moroseness.
“They had captured a cultist, and extracted information from him,” Throck answers, “Apparently the aberrants have laid siege to their target, assaulting the cultists already there.”
“But they fare well?” Kansif questions, “Especially so to take a captive.”
“Yes, though there was little information for our part, unfortunately,” Throck continues, “The captive appeared to be little more than a blind follower. I imagine we might face more of his number, if those of the Dragon Below still guard this lock.”

“Doesn’t look much like an armory,” Jorduna comments, and Marwyn agrees that the half-collapsed building seemed similar to those around it. A slight difference is the wooden beams propping up a makeshift entrance, construction done by the cultists, no doubt. It looked shoddy, and the bard was slightly nervous as they walked under the creaking beams.
“No signs of fighting, at least,” Kansif points out, stepping carefully over some rubble that had almost sent Marwyn sprawling, “Anyone hear anything?”
“Silence,” Throck reports, though at first it was mistaken as a command, “This is disturbing. Marwyn, are you sensing anything?”
“N…no,” Marwyn hastily says, realizing he had forgotten to keep his senses open for the arcane lock.
“I’d imagine we would need to be closer,” the Gatekeeper comments. The orc was having some trouble with navigating the collapsed building. The path they walked seemed to have been quarried from the surrounding rubble, and there wasn’t nearly enough headroom for the druid’s stature. “I’d imagine we’d encounter a way down soon.”
“What, like a trapdoor?” Jorduna asks nonchalantly, “We passed one a few minutes ago.”

After struggling not to berate the rogue, Throck asks her diplomatically to lead them back to where she had seen the trapdoor. At first the druids thought she was misleading them, until she pulled back an unassuming section of the floor to reveal a passage down. It was simply a hole cut into the earth, with a rope tied to a stake driven just below hatch.
“It’ll be a lot easier going down than it will be coming up,” Marwyn says, “Wait…”
“What is it?” Throck asks, stopping himself at the last moment from descending.
“I can sense a faint aura now,” Marwyn reports, indeed feeling something in the distance. It was an odd magical sensation, though. The air below seemed ragged, pulsing with an uneven energy field. The eddies were weak now, though they hinted at a greater force. “I guess it’s the lock?”
“Seige notes said that it could be sensed from a distance,” Throck shrugs, “Everyone follow me carefully. We have no idea what is down there. And rogue, try to remember not to run off.”

The climb down was short, though somewhat constricted for the orc. As he was leading the descent, this caused somewhat a problem, until he simply shifted into something smaller. Fortunately, the passages below were large enough to accommodate his normal size.
The tunnels, for that is what they were, were resplendent with supports holding back their inevitable collapse. Aside from the beams, however, the immediate area was clear.
“This really doesn’t look like an armory,” Jorduna complains, “Are you sure you read those notes right?”
The gatekeeper continues to ignore the rogue’s impudence, taking it as a miracle she wasn’t actively trying to find some way around the binds of the geas. “Something may have gotten lost in translation,” he admits, “Marwyn, have you a lead on the lock.”
“Uh…” Marwyn stalls, as he tests both directions, “That way,” he finally decides, pointing to the tunnel leading back into the city.
“Rogue, are you as keen for traps as you are trapdoors?” Kansif asks suddenly, “I’d expect there to be traps around an armory.”
Jorduna scoffs, “Can I find traps? Are you actually asking for my help?”
“Yes,” Kansif replies flatly.

Kansif’s plea turned out to be useful when, only after a minute after the group had started moving the hobgoblin had spotted a thin tripwire. The trap’s mechanisms had proved to have been disrupted by movement of the surrounding earth, but it still validated the adept’s actions.
As they moved closer to the source of the aura, Marwyn began to feel more and more ill. The enchantment, whatever it was, was wrong.
“Anyone see that?” Jorduna asks suddenly, daggers in both hands.
“Trap?” Throck asks.
“No, movement,” Jorduna replies, “It seemed small. Maybe a rat.”
Throck stops suddenly, grabbing the hobgoblin by the arm. The rogue would have protested if not for the look on his face. Orcs couldn’t go pale, but Throck was making a spirited attempt to try. “Armory…”
“Get off,” Jorduna grunts, shaking herself free from the gatekeeper’s grip, “What the hell?”
“This is an armory for living weapons,” Throck says, drawing a staff, “Eyes to our surroundings. Has anyone been attacked?”

Marwyn was confused by the sudden change in the gatekeeper’s demeanor, but more so when Eivald suddenly pats him down, as if checking for weapons. Kansif gives Jorduna the same treatment. While Jorduna complies, sensing implicit danger, she conveniently fails to mention several of the weapons she did have concealed on her. The adept finishes with several thin cuts where hidden daggers had nicked him.
“No parasites, Master,” Eivald reports.
“Someone mind telling me what the hell is going on?” Jorduna protests.
Throck sighs, “Aberrant munitions are not always as straightforward as ours. Sometimes minor aberrants themselves are attached to hosts for use as weapons. While this is not strictly harmful to the bearer…”
“A swarm of them’ll eat a man,” Kansif finishes, “And we’re walking right into a den of ‘em.”
“Your leader did mention the cultists hear had gone silent as soon as the aberrants returned,” Throck says, “The weakening of the planar seal must have awakened any symbiotes in the area.”
Marwyn, feeling his skin crawl despite having Eivald’s assurance that he was clear, asked, “What do they look like?”
“Some, like eels,” Throck answers, “Though it may vary. If one fuses with you it can be removed, but only with injury to yourself. We must remain absolutely vigilant. Marwyn, you should remain in the center of our formation, you are the last who should be subjected to this.”

So Marwyn continued to lead the retinue towards the arcane source. Now that they were watchful, several of the creatures Throck described were spotted during their walk. They lingered in the shadows, however, and fled quickly when one of the druids tossed fire at them. The tunnel branched off at several points, yet the pull of the arcane aura was still forward down the main one.

The effect of the aura was almost nauseating to Marwyn when they found the first corpse. Skeleton was more apt a word, though even the bones had been cracked in search of any nutrients.
“Gods,” Marwyn says, overcome by the image.
“Keep moving,” Throck guides, “No point in stopping.”
“Why haven’t they just swarmed us already?” Jorduna asks, looking at the body grimly, “If they can do that…”
“They fear fire,” Kansif answers, “Our talents are enough to scare the horde, though hunger may embolden them if we linger more than necessary.”
“Keep it up then. Hey kid, how much farther?”
“I can’t,” Marwyn tries to say, but then stops as he holds in a retch. Arcanically attuned as he was, Marwyn was taking the brunt of the twisted aura, though the others were beginning to feel its effects as well, “Strong though,” he finishes feebly.
“I believe we have indeed arrived,” Throck clarifies, “This poor soul was likely a guard for the cultist’s encampment down here. And I believe I see tents in the distance.”
“What?” Jorduna questions, herself peering into the edge of her vision, “How the hell, I don’t see anything.”
“You may have a keen eye for traps, rogue,” the orc answers, “But I believe I have the advantage here.”

Indeed, the party finds themselves coming to a broken camp. The same deconstructed corpses met them, though there were far more than the one at the entrance to this place. The tunnel had widened into a cavern. The tents were constructed towards the outwards part of the space, while in the center remained only a plinth. The greatest amount of corpses seemed concentrated on that area.
“There,” Marwyn points weakly at the pedestal.
“Var. Yeah, it’s Jor,” the hobgoblin speaks into her sending stone, “Found the thing. Where the hell are you?”
“Still travelling to the gatehouse,” Vargard reports, “Are you safe?”
“Dunno,” Jorduna shrugs, “Hey druid, are we about to get swarmed?”
Throck takes a good look around, and answers, “This area appears to be clean of any aberrant filth. Likely, once the symbiotes… consumed the inhabitants, they moved elsewhere in search of fresh hosts. But they will return eventually.”
“Druid says to hurry up,” Jorduna relays.
“Alright,” Vargard nods, “Les wants Marwyn to try and figure out the locks if he can.’
“He’s pretty out of it boss,” Jorduna responds, “Might want to warn Les that these locks are pretty toxic.”
“Got it. Don’t take any risks.”
“I’ll get the job done boss,” Jorduna replies, signing off. The five then move towards the arcane lock, to both secure the area, and their way into the central tower.

Meanwhile, Vargard’s Group
The sun had sunk below the horizon when the group had finally found the gatehouse. The streets were far from regular, and their twisting took what should have been a quick journey and extended it. When they arrived, they immediately identified the target building, by way of noticing the beholder that was sieging it.
The eye rays shone brightly in the darkness, illuminating windows as they darted through. There appeared to be defenders still alive behind the fortifications as both arrow and spell returned fire. A massive ruined gate stood beside the building, blocked by the rubble from the other gatehouse which had collapsed.

“Valdir, can you sense the lock?” Talia asks in a whisper.
“No,” the man answers, “I don’t…”
Lesani interrupts, pointing to the top of the structure, “There, where there are still those defending. The spell is definitely of aberrant origin.”
“You can sense it from this far?” Valdir asks, straining to detect anything himself.
The elf nods, retracting her finger, “Your vision is rather selective, I imagine. Whereas I have trained myself to find and identify traces of arcane magic. We are still too far for me to decipher anything from it, of course,” she coughs slightly as she says this, and continues, “Though Jor’s warning is in fact necessary. Whatever foul magics were used to secure the keep are repulsive. I will likely be impaired if we venture closer.”
“Les, we need you to work the lock,” Vargard points out.
“I am not saying I will not go. Simply that doing so will impair me.”

“We should also be concerned with the combatants up there,” Talia interjects into the conversation, “We can disguise ourselves, but you three will need to worry about being spotted.”
“Like ‘ell,” Cletus grumbles, while staring down the beholder from cover. The dwarf still remembered being tossed into the flesh mounds.
Lesani sighs, and replies, “Our ranger can handle himself, though it is a valid concern for Var and myself.”
Valdir points out to the gatehouse’s windows, and reports, “I’m seeing less return fire. The cultists there have almost been defeated.”

“We aren’t taking the structure, we’re hitting a button,” Vargard says suddenly, “Forget stealth. Throck, get ready on your end,” the warrior says, speaking into his ending stone.
“Haste would be appreciated,” the gatekeeper responds, “Marwyn is not doing well this close to the lock, and several symbiotes have tested our defenses.”
“That’s the idea,” the warrior replies, drawing both of his swords, “Let’s go, in and out, then run back to the tower.”
“This is insane!” Talia protests, as Vargard breaks cover and runs to the tower. However, upon seeing all but Valdir do the same, she realizes she had been outvoted.

The run to the gatehouse was brief, and thankfully so. The beholder was much more focused on finishing off the few remaining cultists, and no other aberrants seemed to be taking part in the assault. Vargard wonders briefly if they had killed most of the force that had been intending to assault the gatehouse, before his shoulder crashed into the gatehouse’s door.

The rotted wood yielded easily, as did the two cultists who had tried escaping through the ground exit. The five let them leave, not having the time to deal with them otherwise. The climb up was as easy as the entry, as all of the other cultists had been drawn to the top of the gatehouse. As Vargard finishes the ascent, he sees the last of these fall to one of the Beholder’s eye beams, disintegrating into a fine powder. The room had once contained a variety of furniture, most of which had been pressed against the windows in a desperate attempt to create cover. The only piece still standing was a plinth towards the back of the room.
“That is it,” Lesani says, pointing at the plinth. She was handling the debilitating aura better than Marwyn, but it was still wearing on her defenses, “I will need to…”
“Les, do what you need to do, and tell me when you’re ready,” Vargard orders, and turns to the rest, “We’ve got to hold off that creature. Before it…”

The warrior was cut off, however, when the outer wall was breached. The beholder had thrown its whole weight at the stonework, and the stones which had already taken the punishment of many of its rays yielded under its bulk. The face grinned once again at Lesani in recognition, though it held its antimagic field. Instead, it supplied several of its rays, all directed at Lesani.
Lesani disappeared suddenly. By the way the rays impacted the wall behind where the warlock once stood, Vargard figured she had teleported to the far corner, and then cast her invisibility on herself. “Hold it off!” Vargard yells, dropping one of his swords and grabbing his shield.
The battle that followed was a desperate play for time as their invisible warlock tried to disable the lock. It would have been over quickly if the low ceiling had not impaired the beholder’s ability to maneuver its eye stalks. Once everyone had placed themselves between the plinth and the aberrant, it completely held back its antimagic field.

As it was, everyone took at least one beam over the course of the fight. Vargard himself was hit by one that seemed to freeze his muscles, and would have remained an easy target if not for Cletus tackling him out of the way of more beams. After what seemed like an eternity of purely defensive posturing, Lesani speaks up.
“Var, we have a major problem!” the elf says desperately.
“What?” Vargard shouts back, amidst a building ominous feeling.
“The unstable magical aura is due to the cultists perverting the enchantment. The barrier around the tower will now reestablish itself one minute after deactivation!”
“What!?”
“It appears we will have to secure this building,” Talia yells, “Any suggestions?”
“I hesitate to use this spell,” Lesani replies, “Yet I can attempt to banish the beholder.”
“You can do what?” Jorduna yells back, “Why didn’t you do that at the beginning?”
“It is the last spell I have held back,” Lesani answers, “And…”
“Les, just do it!” Vargard cries, noticing that the beholder was once again turning its stalks towards the warlock.
“But,” Lesani begins the protest, then comes to the same realization. With a silent plea to Oalian, she prepares the spell.

Valdir, meanwhile, had been keeping up with the conversation. It would have been hard not to hear the raised voices mere feet away, and thus knew what the warlock was attempting. The half-orc also knew it wouldn’t be enough, at least not on its own. Mark glowing, the druid could see the beholder bolstering its presence in this plane, having read the aura of Lesani’s building spell.
So just as Lesani and the beholder were to release their spells, the druid charged forward while quickly firing off one himself. Strong winds form around him, buffeting both the beholder and Vargard, who had engaged the beast in melee. The sudden wind threw off the beholder, and as it reestablished its physical orientation, its focus towards its metaphysical bearings was thrown off. Just as its beams were about to fire at Lesani, the giant orb disappeared from the orb with a soft pop.

Everyone save the warlock stares at the space the beholder occupies, before sighing with relief when it does not reappear.
“Good job Les,” Vargard says, “How long will it stay gone?”
“Forever, unless it finds another way into our realm,” the warlock responds, voice growing more ragged with both her recent expenditure and the continuing barrage from the arcane lock’s aura, “But we have more pressing matters to attend to. One of us must remain behind at each lock in order to gain entry.”
“What?!” Talia exclaims, “Master Throck said we only needed to trigger each one simultaneously.”
“That appears to be the original designers intent, though the cultists appear to have added another safety measure,” Lesani explains, “We must be before the tower when the shield is deactivated.”

“Shit,” Vargard says, pulling out his sending stone, “Marwyn, Marwyn, are you there?”
“Var!” Marwyn says, fear evident in his voice, “Please tell me we can get out of here!”
“What’s going on?”
“We’re under attack!” the bard yells.

Throck’s Group, Meanwhile
The five who had invaded the armory had at first remained by the lock without much contesting their position. A few of the eel-like symbiotes had probed the entrances of the chamber, but had been driven back by the druid’s fire. However, just as Vargard’s group had begun it’s assault on the gatehouse, a mass of the symbiotes had poured in.
The druids had quickly thrown up a circle of fire around the plinth, but that would not last forever. Even with continuous attacks on the symbiotes, there were still far too many to handle before their defenses would expire. The relief of Vargard’s call quickly turned to dread when Marwyn relayed his message.
“Are they insane?” Jorduna cries, “We’re gonna be worm food in a few seconds and they want someone to stay here?! Like hell.”
“The geas is now in your favor, rogue,” Throck contests, “It must be one of my druids who remains at each plinth. Though our situation is too precarious, I do not see how we can…”
“Master,” Eivald speaks up suddenly, “There is a way. I can remain concealed here until you are at the tower.”
Throck looks incredulously at his adept, until he realizes what the druid was proposing, “You would not survive.”
“That is not important, if this is to work you must go now!” Eivald yells, “Our fire spells are nearly spent. Leave one of your sending stones activated near the plinth, and I shall act when called.”

Throck nods, and grabs the sending stone out of Marwyn’s frail hands. “I will explain later, but we will have a man in position,” the orc says, and then hands the stone to Eivald. “Your services to this land will be remembered, Gatekeeper.”
Steeling himself for what was to come, Eivald merely nods, and then sinks into the rock below. This act would have been called into question, if not for the symbiotes still outside the wall of fire.
“Marwyn, if you can make us invisible, now would be the time,” Throck says.
“O…ok,” Marwyn says in a shaken voice, eyes still fixed on where Eivald had melted into the floor, “It’ll go away if…”
“We know kid, just do it!” Jorduna yells, and, galvanized, Marwyn complies.

When the fires die down, the symbiotes lunge towards the plinth. Most simply surround it, though a few latch onto the four escaping when they collide midair. As Marwyn and the rest flee, they all acquire a few symbiotes as they latch onto their flesh. There weren’t enough on one person to trigger a feeding frenzy, though the two non-druids almost reveal themselves in a panic. All four manage to get through, however, and after a certain time the group stops to burn off the parasites.
Throck grabs the group’s last sending stone from Jorduna, and contacts Vargard. “Eivald will remain by the lock as we make our way to the tower.”
“Everything’s quiet here too,” Vargard reports, “Any input on who should stay?”
“It must Talia or Valdir,” Throck answers, “Your geas will not allow another to stay. Give one of your sending stones to the one who remains, and then hurry to the tower.”
“Sure,” Vargard says, “What’s Eivald going to do after he hits the lock?”
Throck sighs, and answers, “He shall join Marvel in the legends of our order.”
“I… understand,” Vargard replies, suddenly appreciating Throck’s situation, “We’ll meet you at the tower.”
“Indeed.”

Vargard’s Group
Vargard grimly disconnects, and turns to Talia. “One of you’ll have to stay and disable the barrier. Who…”
“There is no choice,” Talia interrupts, “Valdir will return with you. I have the greatest chance of remaining long enough to activate the lock, and then escape any who assault this position. What of the one they are leaving behind.”
“Throck… he said Eivald is staying behind,” Vargard answers, deciding to conceal the full truth for now, “Take this, we’ll let you know when we reach the tower.”
“Understood,” Talia nods, accepting the stone, “Windhailer, how do I operate the mechanism?”
“Simply place your hand on the plinth,” Lesani answers, “Though do not do so for an extended period of time. There may be repercussions.”
“I will go conceal myself until the right moment. I imagine it will be impossible for me to join you once you are in the tower. If you are successful, I will instead be waiting outside the castle walls.”
“Talia, do you think you’ll be able to make it?” Valdir asks, concern in his voice.
“I will be fine initiate. Now go, preserve the seal!”

With that, Vargard led the rest out, breaking into a sprint towards the center of the castle.

Blightspot Spire, One Hour to Midnight
Vargard’s breath was ragged as he arrives back in the courtyard before the tower. Throck and his group had arrived half an hour before, and had mostly recovered from their wounds. Not wasting time nor breath on greetings, the eight assembled before the barrier flickering across the tower entrance. Raising the sending stone, Throck commanded his two adepts to lower the barrier.
In the gatehouse, a rat hiding between walls bolted out suddenly, shifted into a half-orc, slipped between several aberrants which had appeared a few minutes earlier, and slammed her hand on the plinth. Shrugging off the few attacks that were directed towards her, Talia waited until confirmation that the barrier had dropped before retreating. She dove out of the hole created by the beholder, avoiding swipes from those enemies around her on her way out.
Eivald was less fortunate. He had spent the entire time faintly aware of the writhing mass of symbiotes above him, and the knowledge that there would be no escape wore on him. But he kept his vigil, and leapt into action as soon as the signal was sent. The aberrants bore into his flesh the moment he reappeared, but he ignored the pain and activated the plinth before him. Just before the druid was consumed totally, he heard Throck confirm that they had entered the tower. Eivald smiled briefly, before his flesh was devoured, and all that was left was another skeleton left beside the plinth.

Concluded in Part 36, Tower of Fate – Winter’s End

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The Gatekeepers
Those Who Watch, Those Who Wait

Part 34 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

One Day Later, 3 Days to Spring Solstice
“Damn Druids,” Jorduna curses, waking up to the pungent aromas and soft terrain of The Shadow Marches. The collection of bogs and wetlands used to be a bountiful land. That was before the daelkyr came, using breaches between their realm and Eberron to lay waste to the region. What happened here might have happened to the rest of Eberron, or worse, if not for the combined efforts of all who opposed them.
Once Vargard and the rest of The Split Falchion had learned of the geas they had been placed under, there was no resisting the Gatekeeper druids. Lesani herself was exempt from the enchantment, but only because of her existing ties to Oalian. Shakris, to her great dismay, was informed that she too had been placed under the geas. All who were involved in the decision believed her to be the sixth person mentioned in the prophecy, despite the wizard’s frantic arguments that she was more an acquaintance than a friend.

So the six had travelled through the Gatekeeper’s secretive teleportation network, ending up deep within The Shadow Marches.
The Gatekeeper group, a mixture of half-orcs, humans, and one orc, had all gathered to greet their guests. They were all druids, that much was obvious. The head druid, who was the only ‘true’ Gatekeeper in the group, greeted them. An orc, he was far gentler than the druids in Greenheart, though this was likely just an attempt to win over his reluctant allies. Naming himself Druid Thock, he then told the group that they should rest today, while he and his druids constructed a plan of action on the upper floor.
The team was invited to contribute to these discussions if they wished, though their presence wasn’t needed. The ruined keep, whose slightly-flooded basement hid the teleportation circle, would remain safe for the time being. Vargard declined the offer, wanting to instead talk with his own team and figure out what to do.

Despite her dual loyalty, Lesani cast silence over their little gathering to further isolate them from the Gatekeepers. They had made camp in the largest of the rooms on the ground floor, a room which also housed the Gatekeeper’s camp and the stairs up to the next floor.
“It’ll be a big vacation Jor. Trees, Jor, think about the trees Jor! Everyone else wants to go, what could possibly go wrong with chasing down a prophecy that got us sent to hell,” Jorduna’s complaining, which had been internal up until this point, continued.
“At least they didn’t take the ruby,” Marwyn compromises, feeling at least a little responsible for their situation considering his role in the prophecy, “Even if they aren’t exactly paying us, they didn’t rob us either.”
“Like hell they didn’t,” Jorduna shouts back, unafraid now that her tone was muted to outside ears, “What exactly do you call this? A vacation?” she stresses the last word, throwing it in the faces of everyone else.
“Jor, calm down,” Vargard orders, and the hobgoblin is temporarily mollified by her superior’s words, “Les, what the hell is this?!”
“Var, I did not know,” Lesani pleads, not liking the look of anger in the warrior’s eyes, despite herself harboring similar emotions, “My meeting with the Gatekeeper was less a discussion and more a briefing. Master Oalian had ruled before I had even reentered the Reaches. While I understand their motivations for this trap, I still despise their refusal to attempt to bargain with us.”
“At least you ain’t cursed. Again,” Jor replies bitterly. She eyes an open exterior door, and an idea forms. She drops to a whisper, saying, “Var, I’m going to make a break for it. Someone should be able to remove this, and we can keep in contact with the stones. If none of the druids see me….”
“Jor, I do not think…” Lesani begins, but the hobgoblin was done listening to her. Vargard attempted to order the hobgoblin back, but Jorduna had just passed the area covered by the silence spell. The warrior was about to rush over and drag the rogue back, when another wave of pain hit the latter, just as they crossed the threshold.

Throck was down in an instant, though he wasn’t angry. “Apologies,” the orc pleads genuinely, “I did not mention that Oalian would likely have restricted you to this base before we are ready to move out, and then to within a certain distance of at least one of our number.” The Gatekeeper then realizes the presence of the silence spell, and continues, “Feel free to talk amongst yourselves without fear of eavesdroppers.”
“What’d you care?” Jorduna challenges him, body weakened from the geas backlash but spirit still fierce.
The druid frowns, and what appears to be shame lights across his face. Eventually, Throck answers, “The decision to place you under a geas was not mine. Though I would not question Oalian, and I believe in the urgency of the task at hand, I find such measures distasteful. For what it is worth, I see you as equals in this venture. I must return now to my fellows. Please, do not attempt to fight your restraints, for my sake as well as yours.” He gives a formal nod in parting, and ascends back to the second floor.
“It appears Throck is more a kindred spirit than I would have believed,” Lesani observes.
“Like hell,” Jorduna replies.

The rogue managed to trigger the geas’ wrath three more times over the course before Vargard directly ordered her to stop fighting the spell. Each infraction, which consisted of either a direct physical threat to one of the Gatekeepers, or attempts to flee, seemed to inflict more and more pain to the rogue.
Thock decided it was a good time to explain the exact limitations of the geas while he healed Jorduna. The Gatekeeper also suggested that the spell took into account intent along with their actions. It wouldn’t penalize them for striking a druid if attempting to shock them out of a trance, for example. Though regrettably, the feedback would grow to the point of lethality if resistance was constant. All of this led Lesani to believe that Oalian had used a greater geas when binding her companions, and such measures surprised her. Even though she herself believed in the prophecy, her master wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

Marwyn had spent the night blaming himself for everything. He hadn’t asked for this, of course, but to the bard the only reason his friends were again trapped by a curse was his part in some kind of prophecy. He must have fallen asleep somewhere in the middle of his self-loathing, because he wakes suddenly to Jorduna’s cursing of the druids.
Breakfast was taken from the party’s supplies, which had thankfully been replenished in Sharn before they were run out of the city. Marwyn had also taken to carrying more with him, his second separation from the rest of his group finally teaching him that he couldn’t always rely on others to pack mule for him.
The druids had their own provisions, which appeared to be primarily drawn from game native to the area. The Split Falchion would have to resort to this as well if the prophecy wasn’t fulfilled soon.

To that end, Vargard was politely told by one of the apprentice gatekeepers that Throck wanted to see him in order to discuss their next move. The druid’s attitude was deferential, though the warrior couldn’t tell if that was due to actual respect, or more of a deferral to Throck’s position on the mercenaries. The other druids had kept their distance up until this point, keeping primarily to themselves.
This pattern continued when the two groups meet at the top of the keep. Throck himself was at the head of a long, rotted table upon which a map had been laid out. The rest of the druids remained behind him, impassively.
Vargard and Lesani were at the other end, waiting for Throck to begin. Marwyn was just behind the two, while Jorduna was glaring at everyone opposite to her from the doorway. Cletus and Shakris were in the far corner, the latter still trying to reconciliate having been kidnapped by druids, and the former surveying the landscape. The rough terrain and ample locations for an enemy to launch an ambush did not endear themselves to the ranger.

Everyone being assembled, Throck clears his throat and begins. “Our mission is to prevent the failing of the dimensional seal which safeguards this area from aberrant invasion,” the orc explains, indicating the circle drawn on the map which marks the zone. The area encapsulated was somewhere in the north-west region, bordering part of the Western Deep Wood. “I have been safeguarding this region for many years, yet I have never seen the wards this weak. Something is attempting to break through our protections, which we do not have the strength to replace at present. If this seal falls, we are looking at what may be the first foothold the daelkyr have had in our lands for centuries.”

“I assume the Cult is your first suspect?” Lesani asks, resolving to try and guide her companions through this as quickly as possible, “How long will the seals hold at current rate?”
“Those who worship Khyber are indeed ones we suspect to be involved,” Throck confirms, glad that there wasn’t any sign of open hostility yet from his ‘allies’, “Their presence in these lands have long threatened both our order, and Khorvaire as a whole. As for the seal, the situation is grim. Minor aberrants have started slipping through the cracks. On their own they are simply another breed of monster that haunts The Shadow Marches, but they herald a greater storm.”
Lesani, aware her companions weren’t aware familiar with the politics regarding of the Gatekeepers, asked for a moment to explain the Cult of the Dragon Below. “They are small sects of the Aashta clan, a part of House Tharask. Their intents vary from simply following old tenets of the clan, to a dangerous obsession with Khyber.”
“For the most part, our order remains uneasily at peace with the cults,” Throck continues, sensing a moment where he could interrupt, “However we will not tolerate their actions now.”

“I’m not an expert on the Great Dragons,” Vargard says, “But from what I’ve heard Les talk about, the aberrants come from Siberys, not Khyber. How’s this cult involved?”
Throck sighs, and taps a spot on the map close to him grimly, “Blightspot. That’s our name for it, but officially it is Castle Tantetril. There are two regions in our area capable of supporting heavy buildings. This keep is one, the other is the site of a large daelkyr ruin. We keep clear of it because we aren’t suicidal, but unfortunately fate has seen it to lead us into its clutches. The failing seal is centered there, and it is our belief that a cult has endangered it with their mad quest to rob what should be left to rest.”

With the conversation turning towards the specifics of their mission, the rest of the mercenaries come to the table. Shakris remained where she was, however, now trying to desperately probe for any weakness in the geas that affected her.
“My knowledge of Blightspot isn’t total, but I believe I should be able to guide us to where the seal’s primary enchantments are located,” Throck continues, “We can stabilize the seal once there, so long as it has not entirely failed.”
“If your damned magic is the only thing keeping monsters out,” Jorduna says challengingly, “And it’s failing, doesn’t that mean the place will be filled with monsters? And why do you even need us if you’re all entirely capable of fixing your own damn mess?!”
The Gatekeeper weathers her storm patiently, sympathetic to the rage despite who it was directed to. Finally, he answers, “We do expect the presence of aberrants, for which your presence will be welcome. However, the draconic prophecy you uncovered leads us to believe your presence will be crucial in finishing this task.” Jorduna laughs sardonically at the mention of the prophecy, and storms out of the room muttering to herself. A few of the druids behind Throck look at her incredulously, though the orc himself continues undaunted, addressing those who remain. “We are in agreeance with Warlock Windhailer that Marwyn is likely the one ‘Son of the Sea’, and is thus most integral to restoring the seal.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Marwyn asks.
“Draconic prophecy is always vague. Though in our history, we have seen it come to pass many times,” Throck answers, “I am not sure what will pass, only that it will follow the prophecy.”

Vargard, thinking more in terms of tactics, throws out a question, “What’s the short term plan?”
“We take boats across the swamp to Blightspot,” Throck answers, “It should only be a day’s travel, perhaps two if we run into trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“Aberrants, as previously mentioned. Other beasts haunt the swamps, though most we are able to deflect without resorting to combat,” Throck answers, “Two of my adepts are particularly skilled at this.”
“In my opinion, there is little point in discussing Blightspot until we are there,” Vargard points out, “And I believe I speak for my companions when I say this matter should be resolved as quickly as possible.”
“Those sentiments are indeed shared by my party as well,” Throck agrees, “Meet us by the main entrance in one hour. We will properly introduce ourselves, and be off.”

One Hour Later
Jorduna had to be tracked down by Vargard, who found her angrily chiseling offensive script into a wall with an adamantine dagger. At first she had been hesitant, unsure if the action would trigger the geas. She soon discovered otherwise, and gleefully defaced the old building.
His rogue collected, Vargard and the others meet the druids back in the great hall. They had broken down camp in the meantime, and were assembled much like they were when the mercenaries had come through the portal. “I am Gatekeeper Throck, as you are aware,” the orc explains, “My companions have kept their silence thus far in deference to me, and with respect to your… particular situation. Though now that we are about to depart this place, such measures will no longer be needed.”
“Adept Talia,” a half-orc at Throck’s side says quickly, giving a formal nod alongside the introduction. She withdraws a bow and continues, “Ranged martial focus, curative spell focus, and secondary squad leader when necessary.” The druids finally impressed Jorduna with this, as the hobgoblin had always respected team discipline. She grudgingly admitted that they reminded her of the Wordbearers, though she was careful to hide it from the rest.
“Adept Eivald,” the human to Throck’s left carries on, “I’m the team’s scout. Transformative spell focus,” and the man’s skin ripples at this in a show of druidic power, “I also know a few artillery spells.”
“Adept Kansif,” a human druid steps up, “The only one more in tune with the land than I am is Throck. Eivald spots something too close to us and most of the time I’ll be able to keep it away. ‘ve got a nasty razor for anything that doesn’t” Kansif finished, patting a longsword on her hip.
“Initiate Valdir,” said one of the two towards the back of the druids. Now that the focus was on the half-orc, those familiar with House Tharask noticed he bore a mark of finding. This point wasn’t addressed, however, in favor of letting the druid continue, “I’ve been with the Gatekeepers for two years now. My Mark allows me to keep track of the dimensional seals more easily, though I still have much to learn. Right now I act as ranged support for the rest of the group.”
The last druid, a young human male, finishes, “Initiate Marvel. Gatekeepers took me in after something destroyed my village. Small place, not many memories,” he says almost nonchalantly, “Still in training, though I’m battle ready.”

The druid’s display surprised Marwyn, it was rather organized for people who hid in ruined swamp keeps. Though admittedly, if they really were fighting horrors from another dimension, such tactical precision might be necessary. He fingered the ring in his pocket, and wondered if he could get away with talking to Mevalyn while they were on the boat.
Vargard also approved, though for a different reason. These druids seemed reliable, not the kind of people who would throw a curse on you after offering hospitality. “I’m our frontline,” he starts, feeling he should reciprocate the druid’s greeting if they would be fighting together, “And leader. Not sure how chain of command will go, but we can sort that out later. Lesani’s our main magical support, though it seems you are familiar with her.” Throck nods in confirmation, and Vargard continues, “Jorduna’s our infiltrator, works both melee and short-range. If you can flank an enemy with her and draw their attention, she can get some good work in with her knives. Cletus is a pretty good shot with his bow, but he’s just as good with those short swords. No one’s quieter than him either, I’ll usually send him ahead with Jor if I can.”
“Jor?” Throck asks.
“Jorduna,” Vargard repeats, frustrated with himself for the slip, “It’s just a habit for us. Anyways, last is Marwyn. Usually sticks with a bow, most of his spellcasting enhances that. Has a rapier for close calls, with some healing magic. Between him and Les we can probably make a good number of us invisible.”
“That could be useful at Blightspot, though beforehand, not so much,” Throck says, “Speaking of which, we should go. Before something eats our boats, of course.” By his tone, it was clear that the orc was serious.
“Damn druids,” Jorduna curses again, under her breath.

The boats were tied to a dock which extended from the small hill which the ruined keep was built upon. Swamp stretched as far as the eye could see. Off in the mid distance something sank into the water. The druids didn’t seem to worry though, so Marwyn didn’t either.
Throck and the two half orcs each loaded onto separate boats, spreading their greater weight across the boats more evenly. Kansif and Marvel each loaded onto the fourth boat, while Adept Eivald remained at shore. Shakris, still mute, had to be practically dragged onto one while the mercenaries boarded by themselves. Marwyn was stuck with Throck, whose boat would head the formation.
Just before they would cast off, Throck addresses Eivald. “Keep a moderate circle Eivald. Not too far, the extra weight on these tugs will reduce our speed.”
“Of course Master Throck,” the adept nods. As each of the boats shove off, Eivald slips into the water, transforming into something with scales. Marwyn, who was wondering why the druid wasn’t on one of the boats, was startled. Though as before, the lack of concern from the other druids mollified him. The bard even found that he could track Eivald’s movements when he was close to him, a low primal signature surrounded the druid, though he soon lost track when the druid circled farther out.

Throck guided the remaining members through the swamp, himself moving the oars while telling Marwyn where to turn the tiller. They accidentally ran aground a few times, the boats only had at most a foot of water beneath them. But the orc was more than capable of pushing them back onto course, and not much time was lost to Marwyn learning how to steer.
Those who weren’t working the boats were at a constant vigil, examining anything that looked or sounded odd. With the exception of Shakris, who had so far been diving deeper into a depressed coma. The unfortunate reality was that there were many unusual sounds and sights in the swamp, putting everyone on edge.
Guided by Throck, the trip through the swamp took them through seemingly random directions. At times, they were forced to go single file due to the banks encroaching close on either side. Other times, the swamp was wide enough to allow for an arrowhead formation. Any natural wildlife that ventured too close to the boat diverted suddenly, along with a burst of primal energy from one of the druids behind Marwyn. The bard soon found out what happened when the group encountered something they couldn’t magically turn away.

Marwyn nearly has a panic attack when a crocodile pulls itself over the edge of his boat, but relaxes when he recognizes the primal aura surrounding it.
“Got something Eivald?” Throck asks to the rapidly unshifting druid.
“Definitely an aberrant, up by the channel half a mile ahead. Could be more, didn’t want to get too close. Big bastard,” Eivald reports, in an even tone. Marwyn, still putting his rapier into its sheath, was surprised by the composed manor of the druid considering what he’d just been through.
“We’ll go around,” Throck answers, nodding grimly, “Take the west path and edge around. Unfortunate, but we would lose more time displacing the creatures.”
“Understood,” Eivald acknowledges, and slips back into the water.

There were several other instances of this over the course of the trip, and judging by the nonchalance of the druids it was a regular occurrence. Throck’s knowledge of the land seemed immense. Any obstruction relayed to him was instantly met with orders for a new path. On the fifth such time, however, his knowledge ran dry.
“Damn,” Throck curses, after Eivald had told him of three hostiles blocking the pass ahead. He stops rowing, and the other four boats move close together. The width of the channel prevented them from putting two boats next to each other, so the conversation was somewhat ludicrous as everyone tried to talk loud enough for everyone to hear, but quiet enough as to not attract attention.

“What is it?” Vargard asks, from the third boat.
“Enemies ahead,” Throck answers, straining to keep his voice at a proper volume. Vargard sighs and just pulls out his sending stone, Marwyn doing the same. “Ah, very useful,” Throck compliments, glad that he was able to move down to a murmur. The mercenaries on the other boats did likewise, allowing for a more muted conversation.
“Never seen them before,” Eivald explains, after being prompted by Throck, “Three large twisted things, writhing appendages, eyes all over.”
“Eyes?” Vargard asks.
“Yes. It’s somewhat disturbing,” Eivald confirms, “We can’t avoid them, but they haven’t noticed us yet.”
There was silence on the line, until Cletus offers, “Can’ move tha’ boats over land?”
“No,” Throck answers, “With all the maneuverings we’ve been forced into, we have been forced to take what is akin to a river, whose outlet is not for another mile. Dragging these boats across land would take more time than simply combating the creatures would.”
“I thought the whole point of this was to avoid fighting aberrants?” Jorduna challenges, hidden anger coming to the surface somewhat.
“We can tackle three servants of the Far Realm if you are more content guarding the boats,” Throck answers back, deftly silencing the rogue without raising his voice.

It was eventually decided that Adept Talia, Adept Kansif and Shakris would guard the boats. The former, as she would make tactical decisions for the group staying behind. The second, in order to ward the area against any curious wildlife. And the latter, because it was clear the wizard was in no state to fight. Throck regretted having to bring her along, but the geas was merciless.
The away party was separated into two groups. Jorduna, Cletus, and Eivald would make silent approach and attempt to circle around aberrants, while the rest waited an appropriate distance. The mercenaries were advised to ‘stand back’ while the druids initiated. Apparently they had something special in mind.

With a note from a high pitched whistle, both Eivald and Throck gathered primal power. It was released into the swamp, and suddenly two giant waves rose from the ground. They collided at the surprised aberrants, which were exactly as horrible as Eivald described. One of the waves might have left some standing, but the combined might of both left all three prone. Vargard was prepared to rush in, but the combination of magical and mundane projectiles quickly finished the three.
“Like I said,” Throck says proudly, “We can handle three servants of the Far Realm. Though stow not your swords, warrior. We will likely need them as we move closer to Blightspot.”
“Alright,” Vargard shrugs.

It was near dusk when Castle Tantetril came into sight. It seemed they wouldn’t reach it until tomorrow, but their target was in reach. The land had been sloping upwards towards the latter part of the day. The swamp was also growing shallower with more time, reducing the paths for the group. Three more groups of aberrants had to be combated, the last raging on for quite a few minutes after a second group appeared from seemingly nowhere. Fortunately, all the injuries sustained were able to be healed by the group. Having 6 druids on your side does have its advantages, Marwyn admits to himself. He remembered the scrapes they’d gotten in before, when his own healing had run out and they were forced to rely on potions.

Throck led the group to a cluster of trees in the swamp, oddly close together considering the terrain. Throck confided that the copse was grown by the Gatekeepers themselves, specifically for this purpose. The boats were concealed with loose foliage, while everyone else made camp.
Curiously, the Gatekeepers consumed only a single berry for their meal, and were content. Marwyn examined the one offered to him, and sensed it was enchanted.
“Goodberry,” Lesani answers the look of confusion on Marwyn’s face, “A comfort of travelling with druids. They are certainly not as filling as normal rations, but they will sustain a grown man an entire day.”
Satisfied, and curious, Marwyn tries the berry. It tasted like what he would have expected of a mundane fruit, but suddenly felt an odd sensation of satiation. He stowed his flask and asked, “Why isn’t this common fare?”
“Would you enjoy eating the same meal day after day, especially if it were one berry?” Lesani asks rhetorically, “There is also the magic which is used to create them to consider. The berries do not last, and druid spells are often needed elsewhere.”
“Oh,” Marwyn replies. Not having much else to do, he turns his attention to the castle in the distance.

It was an odd structure, in that it looked nothing like the architecture he had seen in his time. Coming from one who had seen the capitals of most of the Four Kingdoms, this was saying something. The walls themselves generated a feeling of unease, though he couldn’t quite place it. Perhaps it was the knowledge that the place held monsters like the one that had tried to go for his throat earlier today. Or, it was his lingering thoughts of the prophecy. Though he had talked with Mevalyn again during the trip, despite her being busy with ‘sailing a thrice-plundered galleon with more leaks than loot,’ he hadn’t felt a glimmer of Winter from his dragonshard. The bard fervently hoped that he hadn’t hallucinated the entire thing. Even concrete proof like the copy of the prophecy he’d received from Sage couldn’t dispel his lingering doubts. He’d also acquired the unfortunate habit of waking up and, for just a moment, thinking it was all still some trick by the spirit of Blue Cloak. Marwyn also fervently hoped that would go away soon.

The druids offered to take watch for the night, granting the mercenaries a chance at a full night’s rest. Jorduna didn’t trust them enough to not take a half watch herself, but it was still a nice gesture.

The Next Morning, 2 Days to Spring Solstice
The next day’s travel proceeded as the last day’s had, though Throck had Eivald keep a closer distance. Aberrant sightings had increased, though they were able to dodge any that couldn’t be put down quickly.

“The seals are degrading at an increased rate,” Initiate Valdir reports, as they moved closer. His mark was glowing faintly, “I can feel the rift to Xoriat growing. We need to hurry.”
“Agreed,” Throck answers, “Anyone have sight of Eivald?” The was a general no that resounded throughout the group, and Throck grimaces, “He hasn’t reported in an hour.”
Everyone scanned the immediate area more intensely, searching for the missing druid. Eventually, Valdir manages to find his signature in a pool a few hundred yards to their left. “He isn’t moving,” the initiate reports solemnly.
“We go, now,” Throck orders, jumping out of his boat and onto the shore. It nearly sinks, causing Marwyn to desperately try and follow him out before the water gets over the edge. His effort fortunately saves the hull from taking on water, and the rest of the group follows the druid. Save Shakris, of course, who was going to stick with the boats.

The party arrived at the pond’s edge, and by now most could sense the shapeshifted druid lying at the bottom of the pond. “Eivald, get out of there,” Throck calls out, but to no effect.
“Could be unconscious,” Adept Talia suggests, wading in carefully. There were other organisms within the water, but they shouldn’t bother her so long as she was careful.
Lesani, who was less trusting of the beings within the pool, gives them a deeper inspection. The moment she detected psionic energy, she cries out a warning, but it was already too late. Her cry of “Aboleths!” was punctuated by Talia suddenly summoning a giant vine from the center of the pool, and using it to try and drag Throck in with her. When she turned to face them, her eyes were empty, and it was clear something else was controlling her.

“Get back!” Throck yells, fighting off the vine.
“No!” Lesani countermands, talking quickly “They can shake off the control, but only they are injured first. The creatures will attempt to control others, and steal essence from those they control to defend themselves.”
“Got it, punch the druids!” Jorduna responds, releasing a knife towards Talia. A moment after she worried about the geas, but fortunately nothing to her happened as the blade lodged itself in the druid’s shoulder.
Talia seems to shake a little from the pain, but the glassy look in her eyes doesn’t go away.

“There’s two of them!” Lesani continues, observing the pool, “That means they can control up to six…” she stops midsentence, turning to blast Marwyn with a bolt of energy. The aboleths can’t understand common, but they could read minds, and they’d identified the main threat already. A combined mental assault from both of the aquatic horrors had easily overwhelmed Lesani’s mental defenses while she was attempting to discern theirs.

The fight quickly devolves into a panic as friends turned against each other. Those who weren’t controlled were focused on either avoiding the aboleths or trying to free their friends, allowing the two abberants to focus on those who were close to the pool. Marvel and Kansif are pulled towards the pool by Talia, who was now throwing out lesser spells as she directed the vine. Kansif is quickly controlled as well, while Marvel seems able to resist the mental assault. This did little to help him, however, as Eivald’s primal form now tried to drown him in the pool. In a panic, the druid attempts to shift to something that can’t drown, but soon realizes his mistake as it only allows Eivald a greater hold.
Those who had managed to remain on the shore had to deal with a controlled Lesani and Cletus, as the aboleth also took control of the dwarf. Marwyn was quickly rendered unconscious through the efforts of both, and it took interdiction by Vargard to prevent them from outright killing him. Valdir, wide-eyed, also tried to help by firing half-drawn arrows at the two controlled mercenaries.
Throck, at the center of the storm, manages to fight off a mental assault from one of the aboleths. He curses to himself softly, knowing what he had to do, and silently asked for forgiveness as he summoned a whirpool in the center of the pond.

The suddenly violent current at the middle of the pond disrupted the vine which was still attempting to draw Throck in, as well as the two aboleths. The raging water slapped against Talia, throwing her down and finally freeing her mind. The unshackled druid turns her rage towards the aboleth closest to her, which was currently trying to swim away from the grabbing current. Most of her combative spells had been used against her allies, but fortunately there was one that persisted. Lightning, which had been assaulting those the aboleths hadn’t controlled up until this point, now struck the beast itself. Throck joins the assault from the shore, alternating between throwing poisonous fumes and bolts of cold at the beast. The vine was doing work at the same time, and eventually wrestled the creature into the air.

Though aboleths are certainly intelligent, far more so than the common man, but their physical forms leave much to be desired. To compare them to eels would be an insult to the latter. Besides beauty, they also lacked natural armor, relying instead on their superior aquatic mobility to dodge attacks. Suspended in air, it was helpless against its attackers.
With the fall of the first aboleth, Cletus snaps out of his trance. After an extremely vulgar string of curses, he wrestles Lesani to the ground and shouts, “Go! I’ve got ‘er!” The second aboleth lasted not much longer than the first, though it did almost manage to escape the vortex before the vine dragged it back in. Its last thought was of regret for choosing that particular spell from Talia’s repertoire.

And then it was over. The fighting had thankfully not attracted any other monsters, though it had left everyone drained. Those under the aboleth’s control had been forced to expend most of the magic, and those that hadn’t were drained from resisting. Marwyn was unconscious, several were on the brink, and both Marvel and Eivald were missing.
Adept Eivald answers to both when he emerges from the pool in his true form. Blood was dripping from his mouth, and he was holding his hands away from him with what appeared to be shocked disgust. “I…I killed him.”
“Eivald…” Throck says softly, “What happened?”
“I… I had sensed something. Here,” the druid answers weakly, “And then, I don’t remember… not until I had ripped out Marvel’s…”
“It was not you,” Lesani answers firmly, “Aboleths are skilled at…”
“Leave it, Les,” Vargard says softly, though it didn’t seem like Eivald had registered her words anyways.
“Talia, take Eivald back to the boats if you are able. We will make camp at next opportunity,” Throck says, to which the adept nods. Those who had been under the control of the aboleth seemed to have rebounded quickly, save Eivald. “You should return as well, I will recover for Marvel’s remains.”
Everyone else departs. Marwyn wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, as he had just been revived, but he didn’t like the grim looks. He fortunately counted four of his friends, but only five of the druids. Something had gone horribly wrong.

Fate continued to frown upon them when the group returned to where they had kept their boats. The timber which had made up their hulls had been smashed by some minor aberrants. They were quickly deposed of, but among the wreckage was found Shakris’ corpse. To the woman’s credit, there were signs that she had tried to put up a fight, but alone and afraid she was no match for those who assailed her.
They salvaged what they could, buried Shakris, and then looked for a place to camp.

Throck found his way to the camp somehow, no one bothered questioning how. “Marvel has returned to the earth,” he says in greeting, and notices that two things were missing from camp. “The boats?”
“Destroyed,” Talia responded morosely, “The one we left slain.”
“I must rest,” Throck says, turning away.

“That’s it?” Jorduna asks incredulously, “We get floored and that’s all you say?”
“What more is there to say?” Throck asks, in a defeated tone, “I knew not your friend, and Marvel… we grieve our dead on our own terms.”
“This is all your damn fault! And I bet we’re still going to that damned castle, despite the fact that worse things are waiting for us! And we lost two people before we even really started, how the hell are we supposed to…” Jorduna rages on, but is stopped by Throck’s next words.
“Had I the power to release you from your bonds, I would,” he says forcefully. Not with anger or malice, but with enough strength to drown out the hobgoblin, “Yet we are bound by oath, and you by geas. We complete the mission for the dead, not in spite of them. Now I must go. I will return at dawn. We will continue.”

The druid leaves and silence falls over the camp. The Gatekeepers seemed to be holding vigil for their fallen. Eivard was still taking Marvel’s death hard, though the initial shock was wearing off. The mercenaries simply talked quietly amongst themselves. Marwyn was informed of how the battle had gone whilst he was knocked out, though no one felt the need to go too much into detail.
“So… it’s over, right?” Jorduna asks, still taken aback by the rise she had gotten out of Throck, “Shakris is dead, and we needed her for the prophecy. We’re screwed.”
“I cannot believe that,” Lesani argues, “And we cannot lose hope. As… unpleasant a though it is, Master Oalian was likely mistaken in believing Shakris was part of the prophecy. Or perhaps, she was, and her part has come to an end.”
“That’s pretty cold, Les,” Jorduna points out, “So what you’re saying is ‘Oops, we accidentally got someone killed, but it’s ok because they probably didn’t matter anyways.’”
Lesani bristles, and whispers fiercely, “That is not what I said at all! I mourn her passing as much as you. More perhaps.”
Vargard, sensing an argument that could blow up and reveal their cover, cuts in. “Stop it. This is only making things worse.” The team discipline, frail as it was, held, and the two stopped their fighting.

There were still a few hours left in the day, but no one was intent on moving on. Several had wounds which would have to wait for the next day in order to heal, as between the fight with the aboleth, and all those before, the party’s spell pool had been largely drained. Marwyn was among the ones who had to resort to the bandages applied by Talia.
So, there was little for the bard to do but try to not open any of his wounds. He didn’t want to bother Mevalyn with any of this, from the sound of it she was having her own adventures. The others present were clearly against any form of conversation. Not having much else to do, the bard idly practiced loading his crossbow, being careful not to make too much noise. The last thing anyone needed was alerting more of the aberrants.

The Next Day, 1 Day to Spring Solstice
This night the watch was split between both the mercenaries and the druids, allowing those more injured on either side to rest. Those who made up the last watch saw Throck return, haggard but unharmed. He speaks with Lesani, who due to her nature had risen hours before.
“Will they continue?” the orc asks simply.
“What choice do they have?” Lesani answers evenly, “Had we the chance to return, you would have never lost Marvel.”
Throck shrugs off the last part, not feeling it worth challenging. “We will need to make it on foot, without the boats. At the very least, we shall not run into any more of the scum which assaulted us yesterday.”
“How dire must the seal’s integrity be to allow aboleths through?” Lesani questions, pulling Throck further away.
“We do not know if the aberrants were not here already,” Throck answers easily.
“Liar,” Lesani calls out softly, “Had they been on Eberron for an appreciable time, they would have assaulted us with flesh servants as well. These were new arrivals.”
“Warlock, you are making this more difficult than it has to be,” Throck whispers back fiercely, and then sighs. “Valdir is the only other who knows. While I have led you to believe the seals are gradually degrading the truth is… more difficult.”
“Why the deception?”
The Gatekeeper thinks to himself for a moment, weighing the situation. Eventually, he relents, “The truth may have led even my own druids to lose hope. The seal… failed. Briefly, before failsafe built into the enchantments were activated. But in that time…”
“When was this?” the warlock sternly interrogates, shock evident on her features, “For how long?”
“I do not know,” Throck answers honestly, “Only that it happened. I had hoped, not long enough for anything too dangerous to slip through. When we encountered those aboleths…”
“Aboleths are the least of our worries,” Lesani interrupts again, “Had a daelkyr been wise to opening rift…”
“I have been assured that is not the case,” Throck fires back, worried that Lesani’s loudening words would spill into the wrong ears, “This land has not been visited by much more powerful than that of an aboleth for some time.”
“You have discerned this personally?”
“Where did you think I had absconded to this past night?” Throck answers knowingly, “Had the answer been different, I would not have us continue.”
Lesani nods, now understanding the druid’s motivations more clearly. One thing bothers her, however, “You have discerned that nothing more powerful than an aboleth has invaded this land?”
“Yes,” Throck repeats.
“That still leaves the fact that there are creatures as powerful as aboleths, likely at highest concentration within Blightspot.”
“Oh,” Throck says, taking her point, “There is that to consider.” He takes a closer look at those resting, and notices the ones wearing bandages. “You have injured.”
“Remnants from yesterday,” Lesani explains.
“I shall correct this,” Throck replies, moving towards the wounded.

The dawn of the next day brought renewed hope to the travelers. Throck’s ministrations were enough to fully restore the group. The deaths of Marvel and Shakris still weighed heavily on all assembled, but the general consensus was to push through the grief and finish the mission. Jorduna was the major outlier, retreating further into a bitter silence.

All that was left to discuss was the final stretch of the journey, and then the great obstacle itself. Castle Tantetril, or Blightspot, an ancient Daelkyr fortress filled with monsters from another dimension. With the fate of the world at stake, the ten adventurers began planning their assault.

Continued in Part 35, Assault on Blightspot – Storm of the Century

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The Eldeen Reaches
A Fade to Green

Part 33 of The Adventures of The Split Falchion

The Ragged Flagon, First Tower, One Week Later
The bartender of The Ragged Flagon had seen many things in his lifetime. Owning a bar opposite of a lightning rail terminal which led straight to Sharn will do that to you. Travelling performers, magical oddities, regiments of troops moving to and from the front lines, there wasn’t many things that would surprise the surly elf.
That being said, Cael had absolutely no idea what he had been handed for payment of ‘all the booze you have in the place’ by a thoroughly unpleasant and travel worn hobgoblin. It was… something stick like? Clear, it was definitely clear. Fortunately, one of his regulars from Morgrave was in, and he tiredly handed it over to the wizard to check on the off chance it was actually worth something. When one of the bouncers caught her trying to sneak out with the thing, Cael’s interest suddenly peaked.
Bargaining with the hobgoblin was renewed, and eventually the odd crystal stick was traded for half of the grog and three cases of finer drink from the Flagon’s hold. The bartender shrugged when it was all over. From what his wizard friend had covertly told him, the stick was exceedingly rare and valuable. He didn’t understand why, but in exchange for forgetting the whole ‘trying to flee with the valuable stick’, the wizard had offered to broker its sale. She was even so kind as to forget any kind of commission.
The hobgoblin then left having secured the deal. The bartender scratches his head, thinking of how many barrels he’d have to bring up. Thinking quickly, he deputized three of the stronger looking men amidst the crowd to help him with the barrels. They happily obliged, sensing the beginning of what promised to be an epic night.

Jorduna met up with the rest of her team, who had just left the town’s most expensive bathhouse. That is, to say, its only one. They would have drawn straws to decide who would go ahead to the tavern, but Jorduna didn’t want to let go of her loot.
Unfortunately, the angels that had sent them back to Eberron were very precise about where they returned them, which was back in the center of the King’s Forest. Fortunately they didn’t feel it necessary to return Il’yena to Cyre, now the Mournlands, which everyone felt was generous of them.
The walk back was mercifully uneventful. Perin was nowhere to be found, though honestly Vargard and the others hadn’t expected otherwise. Food was still low, though now that Cletus had returned to the land of the living, this rapidly changed. He also spotted several bandits who were attempting to in turn scout his group, but they quickly fled as soon as they caught sight of Vargard.
The first real shock came when they found the main road and ran into some travelers. During the following conversation, they determined that several months had passed. The New Year had come and gone, and both Olarune, and winter, were coming to a close. 997 YK. There was some debate over how this could have happened, and the group eventually blamed dodgy planar travel for the time shifts.
It was at this point that Lesani had pulled Vargard to the side, again repeating her desire to travel to the Eldeen Reaches. Vargard thought for a moment, then begged her to stay until at least First Tower. Besides, he had reasoned, Sharn was her best bet for finding some way of travel. Il’yena had two years of history to catch up on herself, and didn’t want to miss The Split Falchion’s celebration of their return. It was also her own celebration, but that was marred by the deaths or obliviations of her own friends.
So, one week after they had returned to Eberron, The Split Falchion treated the town of First Tower to a celebration it hadn’t seen in years. No one knew quite what it was about, only that one of the local taverns had practically opened its stores to the public based on a ‘private donation’. Other taverns soon followed their example to varying degrees, smelling blood in the water. After all, not everyone could funnel into one tavern. Soon, the only persons not inebriated were those who were profiting from the drunkenness of others, both bartenders and cutpurses alike.

As the city had partied throughout the night, so too did the inevitable collective hangover arrive. Hearing reports of mass revelry and the inevitable crimes which follow, Sharn sent and emergency force of guardsmen to secure the town. They’d come equipped to quell a full-scale riot, but these preparations were largely unnecessary. Mostly, they rounded up anyone too drunk to stand, and anyone brazenly committing a crime.
All of The Split Falchion had escaped the night relatively unscathed, however. Marwyn probably had it worse than most others, however, as he had a certain someone to remember every time anyone made a pass at him. Mevalyn had of course already been briefed on the situation, her voice was in his head the moment he had touched down to Eberron. She would have taken the first train to Sharn in order to meet him, but had apparently been caught up in some kind of pirate business. She assured him that everything was fine, and was currently on her way back to Khorvaire. The exact details were reserved for a proper face-to-face retelling.
So, when the bard woke up alone and in his own bed, he did what no other bard in the history of time had done and called it a win.

After all had awoken and recovered from their respective troubles, the group met in one of the few pristine tavern rooms left in First Tower. They were trying to make the meeting quick, before anyone had realized that it had been they who had started all of this.
“I’ve been thinking,” Sha starts, “And I’m going to journey to New Cyre. Someone, at least, should be told of what happened to Marvor and the others, they may still have family that survived. I wish I could stay with you, but…”
“You do what you have to have to,” Vargard tells her gently, “Do you have enough to make the journey?”
“Oh yes, you have been very generous,” the eldarin replies, tapping the gold pouch the group had given her. Normally, Vargard may have been more reserved with their gold, but the anticipated income from Jorduna’s ruby put those thoughts aside. “I had reserved a seat on one of the trains last night… I think. It should be leaving soon, so I…”
“Go,” Vargard nods, having noticed the eladrin nervously glancing towards every guard that passed outside the window. She still hadn’t gotten used to the world not being at war, and didn’t exactly have identification.

“Wait, wasn’t she in the prophecy?” Jorduna asks, watching her go, “Not that I’m complaining about ignoring that ratty piece of paper, but…”
“The prophecy said Marwyn would stand with five others, true,” Lesani answers, “Though, assuming the ‘assault’ was what we endured, it could not be Il’yena. The prophecy mentioned only four in that assault, which we can safely assume to be us.”
“Oh,” Jorduna says, concern abated. “Wonder who the sixth man is.”
“If the prophecy really is true, guess we’ll find out,” Vargard grunts.

The warrior pauses for a moment, dreading what was to be discussed next, “So. I’m just going to say it. Lesani is heading off to the Eldeen Reaches. She thinks the prophecy we heard is dire enough to warrant warning… the proper authorities.”
“We’re still going on about this prophecy thing?” Jorduna bristles suddenly, “Dammit Var. This is the Royal Eyes all over again. We go chasing this thing and it’ll get us all killed. Again, in some cases.”
“I am perfectly willing to go alone, if Var decides not to follow me,” Lesani clarifies, to the surprise of Jorduna.
“Wait, you’re not going with her Var?” the hobgoblin asks, incredulous, “I thought…”
“If the rest of you don’t want to go, then we’ll see what happens in Sharn,” Vargard heads her off, “We’ll have to tell Morgrave about Perin. The University won’t be pleased, and we probably won’t want to stay in town for long. I’m thinking of taking some time off from all this since you had the presence of mind to salvage something from this mess,” the warrior continues, and Jorduna accepts the implicit compliment, “My thoughts are that The Eldeen Reaches are as good a place as any to get some R&R. I’m sure Cletus wouldn’t mind, so we might as well accompany Les. Though if anyone has any other ideas?”
Marwyn, as usual, instantly deferred to Vargard’s opinion and stayed quiet. Cletus wasn’t that far behind, spending some time in the forriest of all the forests on Eberron sounded like a nice vacation after the literal hell he went through in Mabar. Jorduna thought for a moment, and reading the room properly, decided that she had been outvoted before one had even been called. Satisfied with the silence, Vargard then informed the group that he was “going to call an old friend to arrange transport,” and left the room, careful not to step on one of the drunks the guard had missed.

Sharn, Morgrave University, One Day Later
When Vargard had arrived at the gates of Morgrave University, identifying himself and his intent, he had assumed there would be some form of response. What he didn’t expect was his immediate detention by armed guard with the suggestion to not reach for the two swords hanging from his waist. What really blew him away, however, was who they led him to.

“You utter bastard!” Professor Perin shouts to Vargard as the warrior is escorted into his office, “You leave for me dead in the middle of the woods after I was mauled by wolves, and now you come here expecting payment?!”
“Wolves…?” Vargard replies weakly, still getting a handle on the situation.
“Well, I’ll have you know that your due payment will be rendered,” Perin continues, wincing slightly as he got up to stand, “Hopefully a stay in Sharn’s finest dark hole will teach you not to leave a man bleeding to death in the woods.”
Vargard actually shrinks a little under the professor’s bluster, before he remembers who was wearing the spectacles in this conversation. “How the hell did you get out of there alive?” he yells right back. The guards behind them draw their weapons, but wouldn’t actually interfere unless things got physical. Probably.
“Oh, wouldn’t you like to know,” Perin sarcastically returns, “I was captured by bandits! And after spending two weeks bleeding to death in their camp, Morgrave finally got a ransom through! Then, after a week of travelling while bleeding to death, I was barely returned to what now appears to be a permanent position at this damned desk!” Perin finishes.
Now that he had a chance to fully inspect the professor, Vargard did notice that one of the elf’s legs was suspiciously wooden. He sighed internally and realized that the man’s anger, while ill-informed, was probably justified.
“Did I mention nearly bleeding to death?” Perin lashes out again, while Vargard thought.

Finally deciding on what to say, a remark on what would hopefully defuse the situation, Vargard simply asks softly, “No, I meant how did you get out of Mabar?”
“W..w..what?” Perin sputters, “Is that some kind of threat?”
“I mean,” Vargard continues, making sure to tone down the aggression, “If we were sent to Mabar, it only follows that you were too. Seeing how much trouble we went through to get out, I’m a little confused as to how you managed it on your own.”
The professor glares at him for a few seconds in shocked silence, trying to tell if he was bluffing. Eventually, the elf comes to the conclusion that the warrior had to be lying, no matter what his gut was telling. “Do you want to try giving me an excuse that will actually make sense?”
“No, because I’m sure the truth would more than explain our actions,” Vargard fires right back. Meanwhile, the two guards behind him were quietly trying to figure out amongst themselves why everyone was getting upset over The May Bar, and how spending three months drinking in Cliffside was getting the merc off the hook.

An impasse was quickly reached, where Vargard stubbornly maintained his innocence and Perin just the same refused to believe him. Eventually, the guard sergeant shrugged and suggested bringing everyone to the station where Mr. Zone of Truth could settle matters. In the meantime, Vargard was allowed to contact the rest of his team on the condition that they not try to flee the city, and instead meet him at the guard station. Vargard had to give the safe word at least three times before he was sure Jorduna wouldn’t try something.
The warrior was shuffled into a guarded room while Perin watches from the window with anticipation. He was admittedly impressed at how long the mercenary was keeping up the charade, but knew the façade was about to be revealed for what it was.
Another guard, bearing the symbol of one of the Sovereign Host, walks into the room and casts the spell. Just as quickly, he departs, leaving Vargard and the interrogator. The spell zone of truth wasn’t used often among the city watch, there were often better means of acquiring the truth, and it didn’t work every time. In this case, however, the spell was being used more to verify the truth than to acquire it.
So the interrogator began with a series of ‘control questions’ to make sure that they spell had taken effect. These questions became increasing probing and personal over time, until finally Vargard gave the frustrated response typical for someone under the effect of a zone of truth, ‘I don’t want to answer that question.’ The interrogator smiles and declares that they were in business, and nods to Perin.
The elf’s expression goes from smug, to disbelieving, to horrified, to some kind of weird assortment of facial expressions that Marwyn could only guess was immense internal conflict as Vargard relayed his side of the story. He wasn’t stupid enough to spill some of the more sensitive topics, and the interrogator certainly wasn’t pressing the issue when he barely understood half of what the warrior was saying anyway.

When Vargard finishes, the interrogator briefly leaves the room and asks if Perin was satisfied. The elf weakly nods, and then says, “The University is dropping its complaint against these mercenaries.” The guard interrogator smiled, and grabbed one of the passing footmen to guide everyone back out onto the street. As they were walking, Perin took turns staring at each member of The Split Falchion, trying his hardest to determine if they were some kind of corporeal ghost or, perhaps, disguised demon. He knew something wasn’t right, and damn him if he couldn’t figure it out.
“If it’s any consolation,” Vargard says as they exit the guard station, “I do regret that we weren’t able to defend you. The promised payment is, of course, forfeit, and we have plans to leave the city within the week.”
“Good,” Perin replies distractedly, “Very good. Goodbye. Please don’t come back.” He then takes off, as fast as his one and a half legs would allow at least.

Meanwhile, Shakris
The winter of 996 hadn’t gone well for Professor Langhorn either. Relatively speaking, it was a cakewalk compared to the mercenaries, but being complete disgraced as an academic is never a fun thing to go through. Whether he had been a little too vague about his capabilities when describing his research to Morgrave University, or had flat out lied to them, Shakris would never know. When, after two months, they were asked to give a progress report to the university’s board, ‘nothing’ was a poorly received response. It wasn’t from a lack of effort, certainly, but the accumulated weather data they had taken amounted to essentially confirming that Sharn was experiencing winter. Even the reports from the few colleagues Langhorn had left in Fairhaven confirmed that the brief cold snap experienced in the beginning of the season had abated, and that it was actually now rather temperate for this time of year.
One of the board members wondered aloud if the professor was even worth the price they paid to transport him from Fairhaven. When the others agreed that this was a fair point, and asked Langhorn for reimbursement after a failure to produce anything of note for the University, the old elf had to admit he was broke.
So, her mentor was thrown into debtor’s prison, and Shakris herself was politely told that her enrollment at Morgrave University had been canceled. Forced to find some way to provide for herself, she eventually found work in one of the many magical shops around Sharn, which felt that it could use a cheap apprentice wizard to help with the merchandise.

She didn’t recognize Jorduna when the hobgoblin had first entered the store. She hadn’t thought of the mercenaries in some time, actually, especially after the university had declared them either dead or wanted for desertion. After Langhorn had been disgraced, her days were then filled with stocking shelves, and examining any curios a customer had brought in.
Her boss was discussing what appeared to be a gemstone with the hobgoblin, when he had offered to take it back to examine. Jorduna returned with, “I didn’t pry that out of a mountain just to let it out of my sight, not without being paid of course,” and it was then when Shakris recognized the voice. She kept quiet though, and tried to duck into the back before any association with the rogue cost her her job.
She was too late, however, as the gruff dwarf who owned the place pointed over to her and said Shakris could take a look at it. It took a far shorter time for Jorduna to recognize the woman, mostly because it had been a far shorter time for the rogue since the last two had met. The hobgoblin unfortunately misread the situation, thinking Shakris was merely a regular of the store, and asked her how Langhorn was doing.
The dwarf finally realized what had been nagging him the whole time, that the rogue looked strikingly similar to the mercenary Morgrave University had blacklisted months ago. He quickly told the hobgoblin to get the hell out of his store, and then did the same with Shakris, explaining a little apologetically that if he pissed off the University his business would die before night’s end.

And so, Valderis found herself once again jobless. At least this time, there was someone who owed her an explanation, instead of the other way around. Jorduna sighed, mumbled something about how if fate wasn’t playing with loaded dice then the cards were definitely marked, and asked if the woman could wait for her explanation until they were in the presence of the rest of her team. And a generous helping of alcohol.

Later, The Crimson Eagle
Vargard had barely convinced Grunhilda to allow them rooms for the night, and only after promising her that they wouldn’t be staying for long. He was surprised at her reticence at first, then realized that Perin was making sure he made good on his promise to leave the city.
He was understandably further annoyed when Jorduna reported in, explaining what had happened with Shakris, along with the guess that they wouldn’t be able to sell the ruby in Sharn for any appreciable amount. There would certainly be someone they could offload it to, but only if they didn’t mind making someone else rich instead.
The six dined with what could be called a melancholy mood, shoved into one of the corners of the bar away from the ‘respectable crowd’. Vargard, tired of explaining their recent multi-planar adventure to a semi-hostile audience, left Shakris’ explanation to Lesani. The wizard had been initially skeptical, but actually examining the ruby which was Jorduna’s prize was all the proof she needed.

“This… this is an astral ruby,” Shakris replies, careful to keep her voice down and the ruby itself hidden from plain view, “This has to be worth a small fortune at least!”
“Astral?” Jorduna asks, interest piqued, “Thought it was just a ruby.”
“Just a?” Shakris begins to yell, before lowering her tone again, “Just a ruby? This is worth at least ten times a normal ruby! Forget magic shops, you need to talk with a noble or one of the Houses to sell this.”
“What distinguishes it from a normal ruby?” Lesani asks. The warlock was now interested in the ruby as well, but more because an apparently magical object had escaped her notice.

Shakris thinks for a while, then decides to press what little luck she had left. “You’re leaving the city soon for the Eldeen Reaches, right? How?”
“Why, do you want a ride?” Vargard asks, noticing that the wizard had suddenly clammed up.
“I think you owe me that much, yeah,” Shakris replies, “Especially considering you’ve gotten me blacklisted too.”
“What about Langhorn? We’re not exactly up for a prison break right now.”
Shakris shrugs, and answers coldly, “Leave him. I’m not really sure he was onto anything this whole time. Sure, he taught me a fair bit of magic. But he ruined my career with that mad obsession of his, let him rot for all I care. Aundair’ll probably try and bailout one of their old battlemages at some point anyway, once his dignity is broken down to the point where he’ll ask for their help.”
“Wait,” Marwyn perks up at this, “That whole ‘everything getting colder’ thing wasn’t real?”
“No!” Shakris replies in a hurt tone, “It was all fake apparently. No one else could verify what he had been suggesting. He probably believed it, I don’t see why he would just lie, but he couldn’t prove it. So, how are you getting out of here?”
“Airship,” Vargard answers, “A little tug called the Asarclane.”

Once Shakris was assured passage out of Sharn, she was remarkably less tight-lipped about what she knew about astral rubies. It wasn’t much, but it definitely convinced Vargard that they should be taking better care of the thing. Answering a question from Lesani, Shakris further explained that they’re properties weren’t magical per se, and that part of their exorbitant value was indeed this quality.
This was both good and bad news. The good news was that the future seemed brighter for the purses of The Split Falchion. The bad news, aside from Jorduna really regretting not grabbing any more gemstones, was that they had planned to use part of the gold from the ruby’s sale to pay for the airship ride.

The Asarclane, Three Days Later
The arrival of The Asarclane into Sharn’s skydocks was met with a mixture of anticipation and relief from the members of The Split Falchion. Sharn was becoming increasingly hostile to them, spurn on by Morgrave University’s ire. Meeting with his old acquaintance, Ramerie, Vargard thanked the elf for answering his sending so quickly, and then regretfully told him that they were coming up a little short on payment. He left out the astral ruby, as Ramerie wasn’t the kind of friend you trusted with information such as that.
The combined purses of The Split Falchion, and the last meager coins from Shakris, amounted to half of Ramerie’s fee, and that was after reducing their bunks to the minimum. Sighing, Jorduna pulls out a knife, and after reassuring the captain that he wasn’t under attack, offered the blade as the rest of the payment. The elf was initially bemused at the seemingly poor offer, until his arcane eye picked up some pleasant looking auras coming off the dagger. He gladly accepts it, and welcoms them aboard.
“You didn’t have to do that, Jor,” Vargard tells the hobgoblin as they board.
“Didn’t want to give him the you-know-what,” Jorduna replies out of the corner of her mouth, and smiles at the gruff fighter, “Besides, I figure you’ll just reimburse me later from the group’s take.”

The travel would take one week, and would mostly use established trade routes. When Vargard raised his eyes at the use of the word ‘mostly’, Ramerie reluctantly explained that Brelish-Droaam border was temporarily closed while diplomats shouted at each other. They could either dodge around the Silver Lake and put three more days onto the travel clock, or go through the Graywall Mountains. Ramerie assured ‘my old chum Vargard’ that he had done this plenty of times, and everything would be fine as none of the patrolling Brelish airships ever went into the mountain range.
Two days into their travels, Ramerie confidently ordered his navigator to take them through the massive piles of earth that were the Greywall Mountains, while the everyone else, crew included, watched nervously. They expected to be through in only a few hours. Then, they learned why Brelish airships didn’t patrol the Greywall Mountains.

It didn’t help that it was raining as if the heavens had flooded. Vargard had carefully suggested waiting for the storms to pass, but Ramerie shut him down by replying that he had a busy schedule and any delay would unfortunately incur additional fees, despite their good relationship.
Spotters were posted every ten feet along the deck to make sure that the airship wouldn’t hit anything as it navigated passes barely thick enough to allow the Asarclane through. Cletus and Jorduna were even tapped to assist with this, the former taking a position in the Crow’s nest while the latter helped on the deck. Things were going as smoothly as they could have, given the circumstances.
Suddenly, one of the spotters cried out, saying he saw something coming at them. Those that heard the cry assumed it was rocks falling from above, and took whatever shelter they could find. Fortunately, at Vargard’s insistence, some cover had been set up along the deck in case the inhabitants of the mountains took offence to their trailblazing. What fell on the crew that didn’t get into cover in time wasn’t rocks, however, it was fire. A couple were immolated, while the rest were put out by a combination of rain and assisting crewmembers. Jorduna had been caught out in the middle of the blast, but had somehow managed to dodge the flames and emerged unscathed.

“Drag’n!” Cletus shouts into his sending stone, and then again to the general crew. He watched as the red drake which had just toasted one or two crewman flew the length of the ship, before disappearing into the haze behind them.
“What?” Vargard replies, and then orders, “Everyone, topside now. Get to cover!”
Marwyn’s blood chills when he hears Cletus’ warning. He’d seen an impressive amount of both combat and monsters for someone his age, it was true. But it was only a rare few who could look at a winged lizard three times as long as they were tall, and not feel a sense of impending doom. Especially when said beast was dousing their flying boat with dragonfire.
The bard finally manages to steel himself, and interrupts a shouting match between Ramerie and Vargard near the ladder up to the main deck.
“If it brings the ship down you’ll die too!” Ramerie yells. He was hiding behind his cabin door, which he quickly closed whenever the dragon made another pass.
“The dagger,” Vargard says simply, “If you want us to take that thing down, we’ll need every weapon we can get! I’m sure you can get its value from the dragon’s corpse, assuming we kill it.”
“Fine!” Ramerie relents, after yet another wave of dragonfire. He quickly disappears into his room, and comes back out with Jorduna’s dagger, “Just kill it!”

Surfacing, Vargard and Marwyn find the deck of the ship in chaos. Half of the crew had either been burned alive, or were too weak to even try and find cover. Those who were left were trying to drag the injured below, as none could even begin to do anything about the fire drake above.
The mercenaries had escaped most of the fire, and Cletus had even put a few good shots into the dragon. Jorduna and Lesani did what they could, but their enemy had never really gotten close enough for either to be effective. Shakris had elected to remain below, and Vargard couldn’t really blame the wizard.
The dragon had made five attacks on the ship when the last two of The Split Falchion joined the battle. With his adrenaline pumping, the earlier fear Marwyn had felt was abated. It helped that the dragon was nowhere in sight, up until the moment Cletus shouted “AFT!”.

Marwyn notices the ranger was punctuating this by readying his bow, and quickly fumbles to bring out his. He can barely pull back on the bowstring before the massive head of the dragon becomes visible amongst the rain. The bard sees immediate confirmation that it was a red dragon, the scales shone brightly even in a downpour, and loosed his arrow. The aim was wide, however, and the bard was nearly toasted before Vargard drags him behind the wall created by the Asarclane’s lifted stern. The two just barely manage to duck under the encroaching wall of fire. Cletus remained unscathed, as his position was well above the majority of the flames. Lesani wasn’t able to get into cover quite as quickly and was slightly scorched, while Jorduna again took the brunt of the fire with impunity. Marwyn couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the hobgoblin, who was standing out in the open, disappear in the center of the fire, and the come out of it completely fine. He made a note to ask how she was doing it if they survived the attack.
“I got the dagger!” Vargard yells, holding the aforementioned blade up, “Will you tell me what it does now?”
“Toss it over!” Jorduna shouts back, which the warrior does. He wasn’t as accustomed to throwing knives as the hobgoblin was, but Jorduna was perfectly capable of prying it out of the floor when he missed. “Paralysis enchantment!” the rogue answers, twirling the knife in her hand, “Think I can knock the bastard out of the sky!”
“One problem,” Lesani counters, though it takes a moment for Marwyn to understand. The warlock was speaking in Elvish for some reason, and if the bard’s ATHS was bad, his elvish was worse. He managed to get the gist, starting to remember the language. “Dragons are resistant to magic. We will need to wear down those defenses or it will simply ignore it. Marwyn, you should use your non-marksman powers to assist!” Marwyn’s spirit falls when he understood what the warlock was saying, and further when he realized there was only one spell he could use.
“Just let me know when it’s go time!” Jorduna replies, switching over to elvish as well. She then resolved to focus on observing the dragon whenever it flew over the ship, trying to anticipate where it would come from.

Another problem reared its head when everyone heard the sound of the hull scraping against one of the mountains. The helmsman had either fled or died, and the Asarclane was now doing its best to beach itself. Vargard swore, and realized he was the only one who could be spared from the fight. While the others prepared for the dragon’s next attempt to catch the airship on fire, he ran to where the ships controls were. Thankfully, the steering column as well as other instruments were located in an enclosed cabin. Unfortunately, said cabin only had three full walls, the one facing forward had a giant open space which allowed the pilot to see where the ship was going. The resulting low wall was all that stood between him and every other strafe from the dragon. The fighter gripped the airship’s controls, steered it away from the rock face, and prayed that Lesani knew what she was doing.

Inevitably the red dragon returned, having refreshed its fiery breath. It was beginning to focus it on portions of the ship, having identified who were the main threats amidst the rapidly disappearing crew. This required it to fly closer to the deck, but the defenders weren’t doing enough to encourage it to keep its distance anyways. Said defenders had relocated to a position that better covered the dragon’s approach, but all were still a little exposed.
Marwyn’s cover of a crate which had been left on the deck provided him some defense, but he was still burnt by the fire that wrapped around the edges. The bard had to hold in a scream as the exposed flesh crackled, and he instinctively uttered a healing spell. He then remembered what he was supposed to be doing, steeled himself, and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Hey dragon! You’re wings are, uh, dumb!”
The bard could have sworn that the dragon, whose head was level with him at this point, looked incredulously at the little speck who was insulting its luxurious wings. For a moment it appeared as though the spell had taken hold, but the dragon merely shrugs it off at the last moment. Lesani, who had held back a spell to instead observe Marwyn’s attempt, yells out “Yes! A few more hits, and it will be vulnerable.” This would have emboldened the half-elf, if it also didn’t make him one of the Dragon’s biggest targets.

Speaking of which, he was still partially on fire. The minute or so between strafing runs was spent hurriedly putting Marwyn out, while using more mundane methods to treat his burns. The dragonfire HURT, even with relatively solid cover between most of its volume, and Marwyn wasn’t sure he could survive even one blast on open ground.
Responding to Vargard’s bellows for assistance from below, the ship’s cleric, who had her hands busy treating the wounded crew, did pop her head out temporarily to put some kind of shield over Marwyn. It was nice to see the crew contribute in some way to saving all of their lives, but the five were still mostly left alone to fend for everyone.
The last few seconds before the dragon returned were spent returning to cover. Jorduna remained out in the open, hoping to both draw and dodge most of the dragonfire. From his new position, Marwyn was thankfully shielded from enough of the onslaught to avoid injury. His attempt with another insult had failed to trip the dragon’s defenses, however, as had the shot of black fire from Lesani. Vargard, meanwhile, was forced to abandon his post in favor of not dying a horrible death, and though he avoided the dragonfire, the hull of the Asarclane rubbed a little more of itself off onto the mountainside.

The good news was that, eventually they would wear down the dragon to the point where it would either collapse from the accrued damage, or from Jorduna’s knife. The bad news was that the ship was probably going down well before that. They could only guess, but the general opinion was that the ship could sustain at most 4 more strafes before going down.
Guessing that his last attempt to avoid the dragonfire by hiding behind a crate would end like the first, Marwyn instead got crafty. Three times now he had seen the dragon hose the ship with fire, and had noticed that it couldn’t cover the entire length of the deck with flames. He rapidly explained his plan to the others, and then turned himself invisible.

When the dragon next approached the Asarclane, it saw every still living defender on the top deck gathered in cover by the starboard side. As this was the same side as the crate Marwyn had taken cover behind before, the dragon didn’t think anything of the fact that it could only see four instead of five. This false assumption was corrected when, after focusing its breath on that side of the ship, Marwyn suddenly appeared at the opposite end, away from the majority of the flames. Not having to worry about keeping his head down, Marwyn managed to get off two poorly worded insults, one of which seemed to trigger the last-second defense from the dragon. Likewise, the bolt of dark fire issued from Lesani’s hand was diverted from its course just before impacting the dragon’s hide.
“That should do it!” Lesani yells to Jorduna, “You’ll have to get it on the next pass!”
“You better!” Vargard shouts from the wheelhouse, also having adopted the elvish tongue, “Controls are getting sluggish!”
There was a thud, as Cletus lands from his jump from the crow’s nest. Jorduna looks at him with a mixture of confusion and surprise, as he’d nearly landed on top of her. Cletus merely gestured to the top portions of the ship, which had begun to catch fire despite the rain. Adding this to the beating the rest of the ship was taking, it soon became clear that The Split Falchion would have to stop the assault quickly.

Said attack never came, however. The next few minutes were spent anxiously scanning for any sign of approach by the dragon, but it had apparently flown off. The four on deck briefly speculated as to why, theories ranging from the airship leaving the dragon’s territory, to the beast being able to understand Elvish. Then Vargard shouted over the conversation, saying that unless someone who actually knew how to fly the airship took over the wheel, he’d likely crash the whole thing into a mountain.
The crew carefully made their way back up. The helmsman fortunately survived, though the dragonfire had damaged the ship and killed or critically injured a dozen crewman. Repairs were quickly started under the continuing assault of the rainstorm, while Vargard argued with Ramerie below deck. The warrior resurfaces just as the Asarclane passes the bulk of the Graywall Mountains, with most of his team’s cash in tow. Ramerie had eventually agreed to refund them most of their fee, but only after Vargard had wondered aloud how much it would cost to replace an airship, and observed that it wouldn’t take much more to totally destabilize this one.

The rest of the journey was mercifully calm. The tension between Ramerie and his passengers was eased slightly when they offered to help with repairs, though both sides still felt as if they were being cheated.

Greenheart Approach, One Week to Spring Equinox
The approach to Greenheart was at first unremarkable. The Asarclane had been above the Towering Wood for a few days at this point, and to those on deck it appeared to be all forest. The woods were named appropriately, some trees were so high that the helmsman had to navigate around them, rather than just fly over them. It inevitably dawned on all who approached that such trees were becoming more and more common, until those looking for it recognizes a gathering of such giant trees in the distance. By Vargard’s estimation they were at least a mile away when the airship began to descend.
“What the hell, Ramerie? We’re not there yet,” he complains.
Lesani, however, intercedes before the airship captain, “Var, Greenheart does not permit trade caravans entering the city, and that includes airships. I am afraid this is as close as the Asarclane can go without provoking a response.”

Given this sentiment, then, Vargard was surprised to find a sky dock constructed in a seemingly random forest clearing. There were only a few at the station, rough looking people whose armor was interlaced with plant life, though the warrior had the distinct impression that there were others just out of sight. The six departed the Asarclane, which just as quickly removed itself from its moorings, and disappeared towards the south. Vargard got the distinct impression that no amount of fare would convince Ramerie to make another such journey.
Marwyn, for his part, was feeling creeped out. He shared Vargard’s sensation of being watched, but only on a more subconscious level. This background dread mixed with the memories of all the horrible things that had happened to him in or near a forest, and caused the bard to go quite quiet.
“It should be but an hour to Greenheard,” Lesani informs the others, taking over the lead now that she was close to home. “I must warn you that the circumstances surrounding the city are somewhat different than what is commonly observe in the other kingdoms,” the elf continues, as they began walking in the direction of their destination.
“How so?” Vargard asks, content to let Lesani hold the reigns for a while.
“There are no stores nor inns, as the trade restriction extends within the city itself,” she explains, “And while I name it a city out of respect for its importance to our nation, its size is more equivalent to that of a town. While I will be welcomed back with open arms, I warn the rest of you that you will be treated as guests in another’s house. So long as you avoid flagrant breaches of Greenheart’s ethics, we should be fine, however,” she finishes, directing a particular glance at Jorduna towards the end. The hobgoblin, for her part, swore internally as she realized she had severely underestimated the backwardness of the forest nation.
“No inns? But where will we stay?” Shakris asks, she too being unprepared for the difference in customs.
“Where else?” Lesani asks rhetorically, “My home.”

Windhailer Manor, Later That Day
Lesani had led the six travelers adeptly through the twisting foliage, past the guards patrolling the border of Greenheart (who seemed to recognize Lesani, oddly enough), and into the center of Greenheart. Along the way they passed many people, whose garb ranged from that of what Marwyn now recognized as the Greenheart guard, to loose-fitting, flowing robes of those more peaceful denizens of the village. There were also a few Wardens, heavily armed and armored, who too were wandering Greenheart. Most either ignored the travelers, nodded gracefully in passing, or greeted Lesani when they recognized her. Each greeting was short and formal, however, not keeping either party for long.
The buildings were impressive as well, some appeared constructed through normal means, but others appeared to have been grown from the surrounding plant life. What truly overwhelmed Marwyn, however, was the sense of primal power that littered the air. He had experience enough with divine and arcane energy, but rarely had the bard come across a shaman or druid. Yet here, the stuff was everywhere. It seemed a good third of everyone they passed was someone with some form of primal talent. Even though he couldn’t begin to tap into it, the primal energy gave Marwyn a heady feeling.
That feeling diminished slightly with time, as Marwyn acclimated to the environment, and he was beginning to feel normal again when they finally arrived at Lesani’s ‘home’. That word did it little justice, however, for the structure before them was one of the largest they had seen. The others stared incredulously at Lesani when she rapped on the door, wondering if she had made a mistake.
That the one who opened the door greeted the warlock by name banished those doubts. A serious elf, wielding a bow and wearing his armor as if it were a second skin, suddenly reached out to embrace Lesani.

He then turns to those who had been following Lesani, all signs of grimness replaced by a joy that was just as fierce. “Welcome, welcome! My daughter has told me much of you! Please, come inside,” the man punctuates his greeting with an open gesture to his guests.
They were led into a large room containing an absolutely massive fireplace, and numerous decorative wooden chairs. The chairs, no matter how flimsy they appeared, were actually quite sturdy. The fire likewise burned ferociously, but didn’t damage the wood surrounding it or fill the room with smoke. Both anomalies were obviously the work of magic.
“It is good to see you again, Lesani,” her father says, when all had been seated. He himself remained by the fire, returning to venison which he had obviously been cooking, “As well as your friends, though I see one more than I remember from your most recent tales. Who are you?” he asks Shakris.
The woman, who had only really taken the airship ride to get away from vengeful scholars, was a bit overcome by the hospitality, and took a moment before she could answer, “Shakris Valderis, I was merely travelling with them, I’m not…”
“Oh, it’s ok,” the elf cuts her off, “I don’t need an explanation. I am Folgore Windhailer, if my Lesani hasn’t already spoken of me before.”
“I admit I have kept tales of my homeland somewhat limited,” Lesani says, “Though not out of distrust of my compatriots.”
“Well, I am very glad to meet you all,” Folgore says, removing the now fully cooked venison and offering it to his guests, “However I regretfully must speak with my daughter in private. Should you need anything while we discuss family matters, another of the house will be able to assist you. Lesani?” he looks to the warlock, who follows him out.

When out of sight of the others, Folgore’s demeanor rapidly shifts back to the serious elf that had initially greeted Lesani. “We received your message in full, daughter, though we could scarcely believe you had sent it. You know that the Gatekeepers are not to be disturbed unless absolutely necessary!”
Lesani faces the storm bravely, however, and deferentially responds, “I can verify the prophecy that was relayed, and the circumstances leading to its retrieval. Though I do not fully understand how or why we had come across it, it now appears that fate may be guiding our actions.”
“And that boy is this fabled ‘Winter’s Bow’?” Folgore asks.
“Apparently,” Lesani agrees, “I must attest that he does seem to take to the life of a mercenary surprisingly well. Others his age would have not survived his first trial by fire, much less everything else that has occurred. If this ‘Winter’ spirit has been observing Marwyn for all this time, then perhaps it would go towards explaining some of his more… miraculous feats.”
Folgore sighs, and replies, “I trust your judgment. Most of the Gatekeepers have dispersed for their annual renewal rites, though a few have remained in Greenheart to see to the defenses here. One has expressed interest in meeting with you tomorrow, at dawn. Will you bring your companions?”
“Not initially,” Lesani decides, “Some will probably be against assisting the Gatekeepers, at least at first. I am not sure exactly how much I should tell them.”
“Nothing, at first,” Folgore answers firmly, “Go, and meet with the Gatekeeper tomorrow. It is possible this prophecy is still a falsehood. As for your companions, have they been informed of our traditions?”
“Yes,” Lesani replies nervously, “Though I imagine one of my companions would prefer to go hunting at some point. I am not entirely aware of the current restrictions…”
“I will lend him aid,” Folgore offers, knowing exactly who Lesani was referring to, “He has the looks of a good hunter. If I didn’t know better, I might suspect the dwarf to be a warden. What are his origins?”
“You know father, I am not sure. He rarely talks about his history, or in general honestly.”
“Why, he sounds like the perfect hunting companion,” Folgore remarks thoughtfully.

The Next Day
Marwyn awoke to one of the best nights of sleep he had had in ages. The bard had no idea what had lined the mattress of his bed, but he had fallen asleep the instant he had laid down. Remembering this, Marwyn wearily does a quick scan of the bed, seeing if there was any enchantment that aided rest. He found none, however, the bed was just that good.
For the first time in months, he felt truly relaxed. The goings on of Fairhaven had always awoken him early in the morning, and whenever he went anywhere else he was either roughing it on the road, or under the stress of a job. The denizens of Greenheart appeared to be more conscientious of their neighbors, and the only noise which surrounded him was that of nearby wildlife. The sun was also well above the horizon, surprisingly close to its zenith.
He groggily climbs down the elegant central staircase, back to the foyer where he assumed others would be. He finds only Vargard and Shakris, who were both reading from elvish texts.
“You’re the last up,” Vargard tells Marwyn, answering his question before the bard had even asked, “Les went off somewhere before dawn, Cletus is out with Folgore hunting, and Jor had better be staying out of trouble,” the warrior says, raising his voice just a little towards the end, “I can only assume she’s meeting with whoever handles dire Draconic Prophecies over here. Lesani, I mean. There’s still some breakfast left for you.” The fighter points to a selection of succulent meats resting on one of the hearth stones, kept warm by the fire.
“Thanks,” Marwyn says, taking the food, “I never knew Les had something like… this. Why’s she been with us this whole time?”
“I always knew she was in contact with someone from her home,” Vargard admits, “Though I never imagined this. Always assumed it was an old warden contact, but to find out that her father is a Marshall…”
“A what?”
“Marshall. Something like a warden general,” Vargard explains, “Druidic sects aren’t organized exactly like the military, but it’s safe to say he’s high ranking. A little hard to believe Lesani left the Wardens when her father was this important.”
“Wait, if he’s a druid, why isn’t Les?” Marwyn asks.
“Magic’s funny like that somethings,” Shakris answers, over from her corner, “Sometimes the oldest, decrepit wizard, completely fitting the stereotype everyone imagines a wizard to be, has a grandson gifted to be a shaman. Or vice versa.”
“I’ve never really thought about Les’ patron beforehand, to be honest,” Marwyn says thoughtfully, “Just didn’t occur to me.”
“It doesn’t come up much,” Vargard explains, “The source of her power is Les’ business, as are her reasons for leaving Greenheart.”

“Back Boss,” Jorduna announces, entering the room, “No dice on any buyers. Got the impression that no marketplace means no one wants to buy a really expensive gem, but I did some digging anyways. Think’ll have to wait a little bit longer. At least Les’ folks are the welcoming sort.”
“Indeed,” Vargard agrees. They’d only really interacted with Lesani’s father and a few of what appeared to be a cross between manservant and Warden in training. Likely, the druidic sect added housekeeping duties to their trainees’ education. The warrior assumed there were others related to Lesani within the household, but the place was big enough that they hadn’t run into any. It was equally possible that Folgore was the only actual member of the Windhailer family that was currently living at Windhailer Manor, and that the others were travelling across Khorvaire.
“What do we do now?”
“Relax, Jor,” Vargard answers, “Les’ll let us know if anything’s up when she returns. Until then, I say we take a well-deserved break from other people telling us what to do for money. If we can somehow get out from under this whole prophecy mess, and sell the ruby, I wouldn’t mind taking a longer vacation.”
“At least until the gold runs short, yeah that sounds kinda nice,” Jorduna yields, internally adding that it would be a relief to go somewhere where picking a pocket could only get you landed in jail for a few nights, instead of quite possibly being hunted down by every bowman within miles.
Not wanting to risk offending anyone, and not having a strong reason to leave Windhailer Manor, the four resolved to wait for Cletus and Lesani to return.

Meanwhile
Lesani had waited for almost two hours before the Gatekeeper had arrived. She was within one of the more central structures of Greenheart, practically a short walk away from Oalian’s grove. The warlock had expected the wait, and quickly worked with her journal in the rather plain room.
When the Gatekeeper druid did arrive, it was with another in tow. A more ancient druid enters with him, to Lesani’s surprise. Not because of the older druid’s presence, but of the markings adorning their hide (for their natural skin had long ago been augmented with both animal skin and tree bark). It was an Oalian druid, one of the few chosen to act directly under the Great Tree’s will.
Both the Gatekeeper and Lesani wait for the Oalian to take her seat, knowing what would come next. The elder druid shifts a chair close to one of the walls, sits, and takes a deep breath. Tendrils of wood grow out of the wall, and splice into the druid’s barkskin. Eyes glowing faintly, the druid announces, “He is with us,” and then goes into a trance.
Now allowed to speak, the Gatekeeper initiates the conversation sternly, “Warlock Windhailer, it appears you have brought a matter most dire to our attention.”
“Gatekeeper,” Lesani returns, “I do not understand why Master Oalian’s presence is required. I do not suggest it is unwelcome, simply unusual.”
The Gatekeeper sighs, and answers, “It is customary for Oalian to adjudicate any dispute between the druid sects, as you should know.”
Lesani bristles, slowly becoming aware of the jaws of a trap. A slight twinge of betrayal runs through her, though she rarely had contact from her patron, surely Oalian could have given her a sign beforehand. “I was not aware of any dispute between us,” she finally answers cautiously.
“As Winter’s Bow is currently under the protection of a Marshall, our demand will certainly create one,” the Gatekeeper replies.
“Demand?”
“You understand the stakes, Windhailer. Your report sharpened a concern we have had for some years. One of our seals is becoming undone, and for all our efforts, we cannot prevent this.” The Gatekeeper lets this hang in the air, observing Lesani’s reaction.
“Where?” Lesani asks quickly, starting to grasp the severity of the situation.
“The Shadow Marches,” the Gatekeeper responds, “And we will need to act quickly to prevent new catastrophe. Xoriat must not be allowed to plague our realm again.”
“Then what is your demand?”
“That you and all you brought help us renew the seal, and fulfill the prophecy,” the druid explains, “You will be transported by our circles to the mire, and attached to the Gatekeeper leading the defense. Master Oalian has been apprised of the situation and has tentatively granted our request. If you have any reason to dissuade him, speak it now.”
“I…” Lesani pauses, floored by the sudden turn of events, “I cannot assure my companions will oblige.”
“That is irrelevant,” the Gatekeeper answers, “They will assist us in defending Eberron.”
“How will you assure their compliance?”
“Leave that to us,” the druid answers ominously, “Master Oalian, does your ruling stand?”

There is a pause, when both looked to the ancient druid connected to the wall. After a moment, her head nods slowly.
“So be it,” the Gatekeeper acknowledges. “Windhailer, I must apologize, but the fate of Eberron takes precedence over anything else.”
“Your reasoning is understandable, but this ambush was an insult.” Lesani responds, as she storms out of the room.

The Warlock manages to reach Windhailer Manor before the rest. “Var, I am sorry. I did not believe it would come to this.”
“Daughter, what is wrong?” Folgore asks, for he and Cletus had returned from their hunt.
“Master Oalian, he…” she tries to explain.
“Marshall Windhailer!” an authoritative voice from outside of the manor shouts. The Warden looks between the door and Lesani, gives the latter an apologetic look, and moves towards the former.

“Les, what’s going on?” Vargard asks, worried.
“The Gatekeepers were more desperate than I had imagined,” the warlock explains, “They have…”
Once more Lesani is cut off when Folgore returns, paler than before. “Lesani, have your friends gather their belongings and meet outside.”
“What?” Vargard asks, still not understanding, “What’s going on?”
“Per the decision of Master Oalian, the Great Druid,” Folgore explains, “You are remanded to the custody of the Gatekeepers until Winter’s Bow has fulfilled its duty. Resisting is… ill-advised.”
“We’re not part of your kingdom, you can’t do this!” Jorduna protests.
“It has been done,” Folgore says ominously, “Though I personally apologize for my failure to protect guests of the house, a higher authority has ruled.”
“Like hell, Var, we’re getting out of AUGH!” Jorduna suddenly screams, clutching her head after trying to reach for one of her knives.
“What the hell? What did you do to her?” Vargard yells, though he was careful not to reach for one of his swords.
“I have done nothing,” Folgore answers, “As I said, it has already been done. Master Oalian has placed upon you a geas. You must comply with the wishes of the Gatekeepers.”
“Or… what?” Jorduna asks weakly. The pain that had struck her had been intense and debilitating, but short lasting.
“Or you shall perish,” Folgore replies simply.

Continued in Part 34, The Gatekeepers – Those Who Watch, Those Who Wait

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