The sun shone bright above them, reaffirming the same assertion it made through the window in their room. The streets were busy, oddly so considering the part of town they were in and the time of day, but not prohibitively. As they took in their surroundings and wracked their brains for some semblance of recognition or direction, they all noticed something very strange.
The predominant race in the region was blatantly human (they stretched as far as the eye could see in colors ranging from ebony to ivory), with a few smatterings of variety here and there. That in itself wasn’t strange, as Raelyn was happy to explain, but more that each group or individual of Humans seemed to be accompanied by at least one Orc dressed in little more than rags.
“You’ve been here before?” Maximus asked quietly.
“Oh no,” she replied. “But I studied the Tuw-Doreni War at length many years ago. It was actually very interesting, it set the social landsca-“
“So now that we’re kicked out of the whore house, who wants a pint?” Mat interrupted glibly. Raelyn stared daggers but let it drop. He knew not the power to which she held the reigns and she preferred it stay that way.
“I need my bearings. Physically and spiritually. Silver-hair, what’s your name?” Reverence offered. Raelyn responded and that led to a round of introductions ending with Balthazar.
“You’d think you’d wear a little more out and about with a face like that,” Mat playfully jibed. Balthazar remained unfazed.
“I am the way I am. My fraternity with nature is the only thing that matters.”
Reverence continued where she’d left off, “Raelyn, would you point me in the direction of the nearest Temple of Lliira?” Raelyn thought for a long moment and shook her head.
“Doreni, and Eaglefell in particular, is mostly full of Pelor worshipers. Any other spiritual demographic is too small to merit a centralized place of worship. I can point you to the Temple of Pelor if you like?”
Reverence sighed and nodded. “It will have to do.”
“I will join you,” said Balthazar. “I find a temple creates a smoother channel between myself and the Fey, particularly in times of personal turmoil.”
“I’ll need to see to the local barracks,” said Maximus.
“Am I the only one in desperate need of alcohol?” begged Mat. He was met with nothing but silence and dead stares. Raelyn leaned over and quietly gave him directions, then more clearly advised Maximus on the probable location of the barracks.
Satisfied, Mat clapped his hands together. “So, meet at The Prancing Pony before nightfall, then?” They all turned and went their separate ways without answering. Mat stood alone in the hustle and bustle of the busy street, rucksack over one shoulder. He looked after them for a moment, then turned and headed off toward the Pony, muttering under his breath. “More ale for me, then.”
Reverence and Balthazar spoke little on their way to the Temple, less so out of distaste for each other and more so out of habit. They were both solitary creatures, strange as it was they had chosen to pair for this brief outing, and respected the others’ apparent lifestyle. Reverence, a priestess of Lliira, had always felt a subtle kinship with the druids. They had a serene calm she’d always admired, viewing it as a marker of inherent joy in its many forms. Balthazar, now a wizened druid of many years, understood the importance of spirituality more than most and wished only good tidings upon any follower he encountered.
Together, in this white-washed town of Eaglefell, they did make an interesting looking pair. Balthazar seven-feet tall with the skin and head of a dragon, Reverence hooded and diminutive in comparison but with distinctive horns she could never quite hide and a pair eyes shining silver. They received quite a few curious looks and more than once mothers hurried their children passed the two or to the other side of the street.
“Not afraid to hide their true face, it would seem,” said Balthazar, filling the aching silence between them.
“I find my hood can stave off the worst of it,” retorted Reverence.
“One should never hide their heritage, least of all one of such proud ancestry.”
Reverence held her tongue for a moment. Proud was never a word she’d heard describe her lineage, but she had always felt a certain affinity for it. She was never ashamed. She just desired to prove herself better than her kinds history begat. “It’s out of respect. Parents in places like this teach their children what they were taught and so goes the prejudice. I wish not a difficult conversation on someone who already struggles through life.”
“These people seem hardly to struggle.”
“Their dress is fine, yes, and a great many of them seem complacent receiving servitude, but it is not our place to judge.”
“Indeed.” Balthazar let the issue drop, ever conscience of stressing another’s morals. The people of this town could do with quite a few lessons as far as Balthazar was concerned, but Reverence had a point. They were not here to fight a war that was not theirs.
Unwilling to let the silence resume from there, Reverence offered her own topic. “I assume you’ve resolved yourself to our seeming destiny as I have?”
“The methods used to obtain us were perhaps…unsavory, but my duty is to the world. Should it come under attack I must defend it, even if the enemy is the universe itself.”
“Agreed. I must have a world upon which to spread my joy or my fealty means nothing.” Balthazar snorts before he can catch himself. Reverence eyes him suspiciously. “Yes?”
“Truly you are loyal and almost certainly noble, but joyful would not be my first descriptor,” Balthazar said. Reverence turned from him, her glare harsh and muscles tense. Balthazar regretted his comment but again decided not to press.
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
Upon arriving at the Temple they split ways without a word. The temple was enormous and the grounds three times that. The grounds here was obviously magically maintained, with fountains comprised of floating stones and water spouting from nowhere. The priests and priestesses here certainly had it better than Reverence’s ilk. The massive, ornate front double doors were made of wood and painted with the symbol of Pelor dead center, one half of the sun-face on either door. The grounds swarmed with scholars, believers, and clergy alike, the latter split into two groups: the young, fresh-faced and optimistic here to spread the word of the One True Lord, and the elder, wizened men and woman who likely ran the upper echelons of the church.
Balthazar took to a nearby grove of trees, finding a shaded spot under which he sat cross-legged with his hands on his knees. Here he would focus his energy and try to commune with nature as best he could, but already his stomach sat uneasily. He could feel the disturbance before he even reached out and that never bode well.
Reverence stole into the Temple in search of answers. She had noted on the walk here several priestly figures moving to-and-fro in a daze. She had always known priests of any God to be a group of good humor or dire straights, never ambivalence. She approached many of the robed professional members of the church to ask about the strangeness among them, but none seemed to be able to focus. A few didn’t respond and brushed past her, the rest simply waving her off and apologizing for their busyness.
Her patience growing ever thinner, she clutched the triangle pendant hanging from her neck and stopped for a moment. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting herself calm and re-center. Reverence muttered a short prayer under her breath to Lliira, the heresy not lost on her, and opened her eyes again. Lliira would give her strength, of this she was certain, as long as she tried. Sometimes it just seemed like she’d been trying for so long.
Realizing she could waste little more time as the sun was already starting to dip low in the sky, she marched toward the nearest priest. The man seemed to be in a rush, ever busy with his brothers and sisters spreading the Good Word. Reverence took the triangle pendant from her neck and hung it in her palm, chain between her index finger and thumb. She moved close to the priest and pressed it to his chest, speaking softly. “Your fellows are in a daze and this Temple has a sense of chaos. What are you hiding?”
The priests eyes glowed happily golden from the magic of the pendant as a long-lost joy spread its warmth over his mind. A smile touched his lips as he spoke to no one in particular. “They try and hide the truth but it is known throughout the clergy. Pelor…has abandoned us.” Reverence held the pendant to the man’s chest for a long moment, knowing that if what he said was true this joy would be the last he felt for a long time. She finally relinquished and moved past the man as if nothing had happened. He blinked a few times and shook his head, looking around in confusion before continuing on his way, completely oblivious to his encounter.
Reverence made for the entrance. This would require more than the power she could offer alone.
Balthazar found it difficult to concentrate on his breathing. The astral feeling of these temple grounds were different. He had been inside many Peloran temples before and had always found them serene, but this one had no such quality. His mind itched. The air stank of neglect. Nature had been twisted through magic so severely that it barely resembled its flowing self.
Still, he found his way eventually into the mind-space of the Fey and was met immediately by rampant discord. His mind was suddenly full of white-noise and old memories, none of them his. Violence wracked his mind-sight and he heard the tearful cries of many, interspersed by unfamiliar, and unsettling, laughter that boomed so fiercely it rocked his brain. He tried to connect the many frayed edges of continuity but found they had become so tattered they were all but irreparable by his hands.
In his many druidic years he had never seen the Fey in such disarray. Most shocking, perhaps, was that it had happened so suddenly. He specifically remembered the serenity of it a few days before he had been taken, but…he still couldn’t remember much after that. His memory picked up as he awoke in the dark, stone room.
He decided to realign his efforts. If he could not immediately repair the Fey or his connection to it, he would delve into what memory he had of the past few days in search of answers. At first he was met with the same images. Flame. Great wings. His father’s smile.
That was different. Before it had simply been a vague concept of his father. Now it was a full image. A small loop of memory of the smiling, aged man on his humble bed, taking Balthazar’s scaled hand in the pink flesh of his own. He wasn’t dressed in his normal vestments. He had on some sort of white robe, made of fabric unfamiliar to Balthazar.
No, no, it was familiar, but he couldn’t place it. In addition his father was not on his bed. He was on…something. Balthazar sighed in frustration, as much of an emotional outburst as he ever allowed himself. Picking out his own memories from the jumble in his mind both caused and aided by the Fey was no simple task, but staying focused on them for more than a few seconds was nigh impossible.
The grave feeling he’d had since arriving in this town only worsened, clamping down onto his core like the talons of a hungry beast. Few beings had power to bring disaster to the Fey and most of them no longer had names. They had almost been lost even to myth and legend. They lived on only as nameless Boogeymen in stories meant to keep druidic children from venturing too far into the Fey at too young an age.
Balthazar felt a physical presence bringing him back to reality. A hand on his shoulder, rocking him gently in place. He opened his eyes in shock, his worry readily apparent on them, and looked up to see the similarly worried face of Reverence staring down at him. They spoke in tandem.
“We are not safe here.”
Raelyn liked big cities like this. Big cities meant big universities, which meant tomes and tomes of regional literary goodies that she could pour over. The university was remarkably close so she quickly found herself in the Grand Library on its campus. A young girl staffed the reception desk with a happy smile and a book open in front of her, chin resting lazily on her hand.
“Excuse me, could you point me to the historical section?” Raelyn asked with a smile of her own.
“Absolutely.” The young girl closed her book and stood, moving around the desk toward Raelyn. “World, Regional or Local?”
“Local would be wondrous.” The girl nodded and lead Raelyn past the myriad book cases near the front of the building and deeper into its musty core. They passed through an innocuous doorway and found themselves in a 20×20 room with shelves upon shelves of scrolls, books, and leathery tomes ripe for Raelyn’s picking. Her young guide gestured to the room, “Everything about Eaglefell going back 200 years before the Grand Victory.”
Raelyn looked at the girl strangely. “I’m so sorry, the Grand Victory?”
The girl nodded enthusiastically, “Yes, of course. The Grand Victory over the barbarian Kingdom of Tuw, led by Oot’Gar, The Felon King.” The girl was talking about the Tuw-Doreni War, obviously filtered through 300 years of propaganda. Raelyn raised an understanding smile and nodded, “My mistake, I recall now.”
She bid the girl thanks as she left to return to her desk and began to peruse the shelves for any titles that jumped out at her. She seemed to window shop for hours, lost in the feeling of the spines and smell of the pages. She felt at home among the books. People were well and good but you could garner only so much from them. One could not keep a person as one would keep a book, knowing the knowledge was theirs and stowing it away for further use. She had amassed quite a collection from all over in her travels. Books on the sea, the sky, the earth and the elements. Books of lies and books of truths and books somewhere in-between, books on family—
Raelyn stopped with her fingers trailing along the spine of a book titled Mischief Becomes The Mighty Orc: Orc Servants and Proper Discipline. The prejudice in this place was apparent, and often disgusting, but that wasn’t what distracted her. She had remembered something about the time before she’d been taken. She was atop a tower with her telescope, marking stars on charts with her companion, Mischief.
Speaking of which, she suddenly noticed a strengthening tug at the back of her mind. Mischief was trying to reach out to her. She smiled and reached back, happy that their link had been reestablished. In a brief flash of smoke and with a crisp POP a small dragon appeared on her shoulder. It resembled the Dragon God Sardior, a red behemoth she’d once made a pact with. Its wispy tail swished back and forth as it nuzzled Raelyn’s cheek.
She pet the tiny dragon along its scaly spin a few times and then resumed her perusal. She soon had piled a good many books on the table and, satisfied with her choices, sat down and cracked open the first. Flipping pages and choosing chapters carefully from their indecies, she lost herself in the books and to the world around her, ever pursuant of knowledge and its bounty.
Mat trumped happily in the direction of The Prancing Pony, sun high in the sky and surrounded by people women of all colors. He had long since resolved to let his eyes wander. Everyone was so busy and unobservant that no one noticed anyhow, which meant he could get as much of an eyeful as he wanted.
The Prancing Pony was an unassuming Inn, tucked away between an Herb Shoppe and a Butcher in the city’s market district, but inside it was certainly a fine establishment. Fine craftsmanship on all the tables and chairs, not to mention the bar itself. One solid piece of stained and varnished maple. A few patrons sat here and there, but it was not yet the end of day so the customer variety was paltry at best.
Because of this, Mat spotted the man in the robe almost instantly. Tucked away in a dim corner that would be missable in the hustle and bustle of the night crowd, but now completely in view and unblocked by bodies, he stood out like a sore thumb. The stark contrast of his alabaster skin against the dark dye of the robe only furthered the effect.
Mat cautiously took a seat at a table nearby the man, not ready yet to engage him. He’d come here for a pint or two and he’d have them first. Play first, business later. He flagged down a waitress and ordered himself a pint of the house beer, a stout ale by the sounds of it, and promptly began hoping the beer in this strange place was as drinkable as the kind back home.
Halfway through his pint, after half a dozen stolen glances to the white-skinned man with the crystal glass of wine in front of him, the man he was neglecting meeting with spoke up. “Are you going to come over here or not?”
Mat played dumb and pointed at himself, looking confused. The mysterious man nodded and tapped the table in front of him. Mat stood and joined the stranger, settling into the comfortably worn chair opposite the man. Or woman. Mat suddenly realized he couldn’t peg down a gender on the person in front of him. Their face was remarkably androgynous and had few memorable features. In fact the only thing not immediately forgettable about the man was the fading, jagged scar that ran from beneath his left eye and followed his cheek, chin, and neck down to his chest. Mat couldn’t tell if the scar ended there or kept going as it disappeared into the folds of the robe.
Mat decided on they would be a He.
The man slid across five pristine slips of white parchment. Mat took up one and inspected it. Though the upward side was unremarkable, the underside was covered in ornate handwriting and golden borders. It appeared to be an invitation to “The Blight Festival”, admitting one to the party. The other four pieces of parchment were identical.
Mat put the last of the papers down and looked at the man expectantly. They sat in silence for a long time before Mat finally spoke up, “So…what do we do?” A confusion passed over the man’s face before he leaned forward, speaking quietly.
“What do you mean, ‘what do we do’?” Mat did not share the man’s secrecy and spoke normally, even backing away a little in unease.
“What are these invitations for? Are we to attend?”
“How do you not know what you’re supposed to do?”
“The guy with the wings just said “Kill the Ki—” The man’s hand shot across the table and covered Mat’s mouth before he could finish the phrase. The arm of his robes pulled up with the movement, exposing arms of a pale translucence and the beginnings of some intricate black markings that disappeared up his forearm.
“Do not speak your mission allowed. You are behind enemy lines. Act as such.” He removed his hand from Mat’s mouth.
“What enemy? We weren’t told hardly anything,” Mat whined. “We were told ‘kill this…guy, then I’ll be back’. The gaunt man was very unhelpful in clarification.” The stranger’s eyes narrowed knowingly.
“They are never helpful. My business with them is limited by choice but remains a necessity. They pay extremely handsomely and one does not simply refuse them as one might a civilian. There are consequences for everything.”
Mat looked at the man with desperate eyes, “Who is they?!”
The white-skinned man looked around suspiciously and leaned back in his chair, downing his wine. “We cannot discuss this. I have completed my agreement.” The man stood and Mat sat there, unable to think of a way to stop him. He sighed and resolved himself to his Ale, taking a long swig. The man took a few steps toward the door, then turned and addressed Mat in a low voice. “You seem…genuine. So I will tell you what I know. The weapons you have received are not what they seem. There are pieces in play at levels you and I could never fathom. Treat everyone but your companions with immediate suspicion and take no chances with your mission. Make your move only when you are positive it can be done efficiently.”
He turned with a flourish of his robe and disappeared through the establishment’s front entrance. Mat watched after him for a few moments before turning back to his beer. He eyed the five invitations on the table in front of him for the remainder of his drink. Then while drinking another. After a few more beers the bar began to fill up and for the sake of security he grabbed them off the table and shoved them into the pocket of his trousers unceremoniously.
He couldn’t be bothered by it anymore, he had drinking to do.