Fruit of the Fallen

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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