May 24 2008

Chapter 19

Jeremy @ 12:03 pm

They remained at Gryphon College for two weeks, during which time, Ulrich pays a visit to Leathes and since the Duke and his men have only recently repulsed the forces of Frelik, they are geared for war. Consequently it is a relatively easy matter for Ulrich to introduce himself to the resident blacksmith and for a small sum, obtain the suit of plate-mail he has been after. Fitted and properly hinged it is a nice piece, although without any special properties. The helm is thrown in for free and the total sum is 205sp.

Asheren learned some more about his condition, which Zaris is beginning to show an interest in, since the Lestajii does not seem to be functioning as well as it had on previous subjects.

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Eventually it was time to leave the College and they made their farewells to the members of the faculty they had come to know – Zaris, Alarin and Selena in particular. Some of the students turned up to see them off too, although to them they were merely honoured guests rather than the crown-rescuing heroes the Collegium knew them to be.

Prince Keir in particular was both saddened and more than a little concerned at leaving the College, after all he had been their guest for nearly three years, hiding from the evil he knows pursues him. The package was now in the open, so to speak.

Kodiak was looking forward to the trip. He felt he was rescued by his encounter with the Prince and is now unswervingly loyal to him. He had never been comfortable in close confines and found the College somewhat oppressive, but his loyalty to the Prince kept him from staying outdoors the whole time. He did take some time out to show Lysar and Berrak some of his tracking abilities which they all enjoyed.

Berrak had been a little bored during his stay, the College was a far cry from the busy streets of Norek and even farther than his Wulrian home. He did get to hone some of his bow-skills and enjoyed an excellent couple of days in the acrobatics training area with the Martial Arts Master, Kieran. Word among the students was that Kieran had spent some time with the Changramai monks before coming to the College and indeed, the tall elf did display an almost unnatural quickness and ease of movement.

The Changramai Warriors are a quixotic organisation, almost legendary in their unarmed fighting prowess. Reputedly trained from infancy in the most advanced techniques of unarmed combat, it is well known that Changramai monks can catch arrows, run on walls, leap incredible heights, punch through stone walls and defeat half-a-dozen well-armed foes simultaneously with their bare hands. Though they never participate in military service, they do rent their services as ‘security’ at several places across Kulthea.

Ulrich has spent the last few days since he got his armour, practicing simply moving around in the training yards. The new armour is somewhat restrictive and Ulrich finds that he cannot fire his bows very well at all. Catching sight of him in the training yard, Asheren is reminded of the Tale of the Black Reaver. An armoured terminator who absolutely would not stop.

Researching

Asheren was so unsettled by this that he spent the next few days and nights down in the library, reading the gods knew what, but reading like a man possessed. Lysar came upon him one evening, pointy hat pulled down over his eyes, a sputtering candle on the desk and all around him tome after tome, opened. The language in them was indecipherable but occasionally she could make out a word or two. Wizards, battles, kings, swords, spells, legends, herbs, dragons and amulets were all covered by these books.

Asheren had been writing notes for two days and the scrolls in front of him were covered in his thin, spidery hand-writing. Most of it was in note-form and Lysar could make head nor tail of that either. She placed the bread and meat on the table and shook him gently.

“I’ll take you both together! I’ll beat you both apart!” shouted Asheren sleepily.

Lysar stepped back as the mage waved his quill threateningly in the air. Asheren awoke.

“Where am I?” he pushed back his hat and Lysar could see his sunken eyes and grey, dead skin.

“Asheren, you’re in the library again and you’ve been down here for nearly four days. You need to rest, you don’t look so good.” Lysar refrained from mentioning that he looked like death himself, but she plucked the quill from his hand and set it down amongst the notes.

“Now grab your food and come outside for some fresh air. This is the first decent day we’ve had in over a week. Me and the others have been talking and we think it’s time we left. The Prince in particular is keen to get on the road and Kodiak is going spare in here. I think he’s the kind of man that likes to catch his own food and not bother with things like napkins and cutlery.”

They met up with the others in the main courtyard, the weather was fine and a couple of tutors had brought their class outside to give them their lessons. There was still a spot for them off to one side, so they gathered around the base of a tree. Berrak drew what he knew of the region in the dirt with a stick.

“We go down the Ryanna river to Leathes. I believe Ulrich wants to get his armour modified so we’ll stop there for a night, then we’re going to follow the lake to Ixbridge. From there Zaris tells me we should be able to catch a ferry across the great Lake Lakyran into U-Lyshak or head east to Gryphonburgh.” Ulrich’s eyes light up.

“Hey, you know there’s a great inn there. The Green Gryphon is famous for it’s beer. You know, that’s about the only thing that bothers me about this place – with all the assembled knowledge you’d think they’d be able to make a decent ale, but it all takes like piss! Why don’t they run some home-brew courses here?”

Prince Keir interjects.

“Ulrich, I couldn’t agree with you more. But if we could return to the matter at hand?”

Berrak continues to explain that at Ixbridge they should be able to get a decent idea of the direction of the items.

Once again, Prince Keir adds that most of his research at the College, suggested that the three items were in fact a triad, their power inter-linked in some way and although he had not been able to discover how, the items allowed communication over great distances. Although the Pendant had been presumed destroyed, it’s presence at the ball revealed that there were dark forces tapping into it’s power. That must be their first priority. Using the Pendant and the Sword they might be able to wrest the Crown from the Dragon-Lords clutches.

The strange party begins their journey fully supplied by a grateful College. Packs are full, equipment is clean, swords are oiled and everyone grabbed probably the last bath they will have for some time. Not much time for luxuries on the long road…

The weather again turned miserable, although the rain was light, the winds blowing off the lake were icy, cooled by the Saralian marches. They buried themselves deep within their travelling cloaks and tried not to think of the luxuries they were leaving behind.

As they passed through the duchy of Prevan they saw the fields standing empty. There was little movement in the area for miles – the effect of the recent war and the constant danger of Frelik and his army combined with the raids from the wild men of Zor – had driven most of the villagers to the relative safety of Leathes Castle. From there his grace, the Duke of Prevan (The Hawk) sallies regular patrols of the region. Currently a large section of his troops were station in nearby Kaytha, where they hold the northern border against the Usurper.

When they reached Leathes Castle, Ulrich spotted a large number of the legendary Emperor’s Legion. He asked one of them for news of the war. It soon became apparent that with the combined force of the Legion and The Hawk’s men, the battle was over quickly, however the war was most certainly not won. Much of the Usurper’s troops retreated into the Zor Wastes and it had been difficult to rally the Emperor’s forces to follow them into that infamously arid land. Those scouting parties that had been dispatched had not returned. The Emperor’s Legions had been ordered to secure the northern border of Rhakhaan while more troops had been dispatched south to deal with the southern Melurian states, many of whose lords had thrown in their lot with the Usurper.

“Though wot dey ‘ope to gain beats me. More laaand I guess. Dat’s what seems to drive ‘em.”

All the inn’s were taken and they ended up sleeping in an abandoned barn, Kodiak seemed much more at home here, unfortunately he relaxed a little too much and his snoring kept most of them from sleeping much at all. Asheren cast a Quiet spell on him and with a collective sigh they crashed.

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As they journeyed along the lake-shore, Lysar could make out an island in the centre. Prince Keir told her it was known as the Isle of Ghosts and that sailors and fishermen avoid it.

****

During one of their stops Lysar took the cane out of her belt loop and ran her hands over the smooth surface of the Miran, she glanced through her fringe at the tall, robed, wizard “I wonder” she mused. Turning to the others she saw that they were still deep in discussion about possible destinations and plans. Tucking her hair behind her ears she strode over to Ash and squarely stood in front of him, startling him out of his thoughts she held the cane out before him.

“Can you take a look at this for me, please? Lionar gave it to me and knowing him as I do, it must be more than it seems”.

As Ash reached out, Lysar saw that his bony wrists projecting from his robes was still red, dry and scaly. Small white patches of skin floated to the ground as he took the cane.

“Nice walking stick but a bit small for me” joked Ash. Shaking his head as if to clear his thought, he held the cane close to his eyes, peering intently at the knots and whorls in the wood.

Suddenly, he circled his arms around, stopping above his head, hands shaking and knuckles whitening as he clutched the cane, pointing it towards the shocked ranger. His eyes rolled back in his head and like a dagger slashing into a body, he drove the cane straight into the ground between them.

Lysar’s lightning reflexes resulted in flinging herself backward onto the ground before rolling, cat-like to a crouch position. She looked toward Ash and cried out as she saw something spring from the ground where Ash had plunged the cane. Awestruck by its simple beauty she gazed upon a small, but perfectly formed Miren tree.

“How in Illoura’s name, did you do that?”

****

It took them a couple of days to reach the Blue River and they passed the castle of Tanatris, ducal home of Klaen Pychelar outside the town of Gloven Hill. The castle itself sits on a high cliff overlooking the town. A short ride of about six leagues later, they reached the fortified port of Ixbridge. Reminiscent of Norek’s wooden dock area, much of the port partially extends into the lake and though it lacks Norek’s stone walls it’s wooden palisades were sturdily built and well-manned.

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Once in Ixbridge they found an inn with a stable and once in the rooms, Keir spun the sword again. As the sun sets through the room’s small windows, the sword pointed directly to it.

“Due west for the pendant!” breathed Keir.

The sword still pointed south for the sword, little changing it’s orientation.

They already suspected that the sword was at Nomikos and it is on the southern-most tip of Jaiman, and the pendant’s direction had so radically changed in such a short distance they concluded that the pendant was the closer of the two items.

Lysar in particular was glad they are pursuing the pendant. While keen to assist the Prince in his quest she was very concerned for Lionar and she knew his location was linked somehow to the pendant, or at least to it’s wielder.

In the morning they decided to board a ferry to cross the Lakyran and sail to Harrowgate.

The journey was uneventful, though the weather is once again piss-poor at least it wasn’t raining. There was some fog rolling off the lake which delayed their journey a little and after some haggling with the boatmaster they were on their way.

Ulrich had never been a big fan of water and in his new armour he was even less secure. He kept his eyes fixed firmly on the shore, reluctant to consider the lake’s murky depths. There was little room on the ferry for other passengers when all the party’s gear and the horses had been brought aboard, but a couple others squeezed on board just before cast-off. They had the appearance of priests and stayed much to themselves for the two hour journey.

Berrak had been keeping an eye on the priests for some time and noticed that they stood by the ferry’s railings, well away from the horses and the boatmaster and conversed in low voices. While not unusual in itself, when they did turn to look at their fellow passengers, Berrak felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. His mind was racing, what if these were priests from U-Lyshak? Should they declare the prince’s presence and see what happens?

The prince himself had already decided that since they seemed to be returning to U-Lyshak that he should remain incognito and kept the hood on his cloak up had placed himself between Kodiak and the two priests, blocking their view. Keir saw Berrak’s subtle gesture as he tried to calm the horses. Conversation on the boat died and Lysar strolled over a little too casually to assist Berrak with the horses.

At a quick signal from Berrak, Ulrich began a loud dissertation on the merits of mounted combat and the most effective means of dealing with a foe in a superior position. Asheren rose to the moment and even Kodiak had a little to add.

A whispered conversation took place between Lysar and Berrak as they secured gear and adjusted feedbags.

“What if they recognise the Prince? Should we be concerned for his safety? He certainly seems to think so.” asked Berrak as he scratched his horse’s ears.

Lysar considered this for a moment. “Well, we’re heading back into Keir’s kingdom, if he had not been worried about doing this before now, then why did he spend the last three years holed up in Gryphon College? I’d say he’s very worried and I’m getting the sinking feeling that he has very powerful enemies.”

“As if we need any more powerful enemies? I’m still worried about what Thev is going to try next. That evil bastard has been bothering us since the beginning, just what is it that he thinks we have?” said Berrak, becoming more depressed as he tallied up the odds of them succeeding in their mission.

A gust of wind shifted the ferry in it’s tracks and one of the horses stamped it’s feet and snorted. This seemed to break the moment and the priests returned to staring across the lake. Ulrich had just hit his stride and was even now discussing the famous battle of Alaros between the Emperor’s men and a huge Tharn force. The battle is more famous for the knighthood of one of the two Imperial Commanders – Sir Karis Cyndel, son of the Baron of Barrowdale. Even though the need had passed, Ulrich and Kodiak ended up discussing the battle in detail.

Finally they reached the shore and the priests quickly disembarked, hurrying into the large port-town. The party grabbed their gear and walked the horses off and onto the docks. The town itself was large and brimming with people. War always seems to get business going and the proximity of Rhakhaan, the raiders from Saralis and the war-like nature of the Vorn region itself meant that this was a war that could really sustain itself.

As Ulrich stepped from the boat, he was scanning the dock for the thrice-damned Vornian ship, the Waverunner, which landed them in so much hot water in Norek. He would love to catch up with that captain, he’d furl his sails permanently. Fortunately for everyone involved, the ship was nowhere to be seen and they moved through the throng towards the town proper.

As they walked the streets, they were amazed by the sheer industry going on. Hawkers were hawking, beggars begging, drunks drinking, guards guarding, smiths smithing and many other people doing what they do but all with a passion born from the clink of solid coin. Harrowgate was clearly enjoying the current dark climate.

At one point during their journey they had to get quickly out of the way as a group of soldiers cantered through town, escorting a carriage. Mutters from the townsfolk revealed that it was Nadia, the mistress of Oswen, ruler of Harrowgate. The number of people making the ward against evil sign, suggested that she was considered a powerful sorceress.

Before they got on their way, Keir suggested that they stop at the markets and try and pick up some local rumours as well as filling their bellies with some hot food. During times of war, rumours are of course flying thick and fast.

Frelik has donned the Phoenix crown and it’s powers have summoned winged beasts from the bowels of the earth. The southern Rhakhaanian barons have thrown in their lot with Frelik and are even now marching on the capital. The Y’Kin have attacked a Sulini village but were turned back by mysterious elven warriors who depart as swiftly as they arrive – aboard sleek catamarans. Even further abroad in Emer, The Nameless One has been seen in the city of Kaitaine, he has predicted that the city will be destroyed by a fireball from the sky. The Cloudlords have assaulted the Y’Kin city of Achren in retribution for the Myri attacks and burned it to the ground with their sun-rods and have sent the rest of the population fleeing into the hills. Some of the Lords to the west, on the Rhakhaan / Tanaran border are also summoning forces to attack the capital. Saralis raiders have crossed the Pelyar Mountains and attacked towns in northern Helyssa, some say they have a secret base there and may even have designs on the capital.

More locally the Yarthraakian priests have begun expelling all other religions from all the major towns in U-Lyshak, a number of priests and their followers from many of the Orhan religions have disappeared and much persecution is taking place. Official announcements from Cynar state that the continued absence of the Prince and the unsettled state of affairs in the rest of Jaiman, mean that a semi-state of martial law is being declared. Curfews are expected soon and a combination of Helyssan troops and the churches own forces – Paladins and Priests – are performing enforcement duties. Last week there was some trouble in Norek between the religious forces and the Norinth. Some sort of row erupted in the Council and they have declared themselves a kind of independent city-state, rejecting the government of Cynar and the priests. Forces in Cynar have been gathered for some sort of retribution against the city. Lord Boshkar of Vorn has loaned some of his own forces for the job too.

The climate in U-Lyshak had certainly changed since they were there last and as they got on their way, the Prince was seething with barely controlled fury. Muttering darkly about royal retribution, he dropped into a state of depression and rarely spoke for the remainder of the day. By dusk they reached the town of Linton which was placed strategically at the meeting of the three rivers as they fed into the River Khine. Berrak made the arrangements and they found a decent inn to stay the night.

Down in the bar that evening they tucked into a delicious mean of roast guinea-fowl and freshly baked bread. The inn’s main room was full of locals and more than a few soldiers. Deciding that discretion was probably best they remained in a darkened corner of the bar, to the left of the fire and listened to the talk. As evening wore on and most of the locals departed there was a small amount of trouble between some of the Vornian and Helyssan troops but before tempers got completely out of hand a robed man descended from one of the upstairs rooms and with a loud shout declared that he had a bag full of gold and was interested in a wager.

This surprising turn of events captured everyone’s attention.

“My name is Sanar Fenira and I challenge all comers to a game of cups!” He grabbed three tankards from the soldiers table and turned them upside down. The contents spilled all over two of the soldiers but Lysar noticed that a soldier from each troop was soaked. All the soldiers laughed heartily as Sanar, with mock seriousness began to apologise and tried to mop up the spilled drink with the hem of his long, brown robes.

Berrak, Ulrich and Kodiak wandered over from their table to watch but Asheren was a little suspicious of him and asked the landlord about the man.

“He’s a priest of Andaris – a wandering cleric. So long as we don’t get any of the Yaarth priests in here, he’s alright. I haven’t had any trouble from him so far and he can certainly pay his bills. Oh yeah and he’s not a bad gambler either.”

Asheren knew from his pantheonic studies that Andaras was one of the Dark Gods. He was known as the Lord of Cats and his adherents have some rather unsavoury habits, not the least of which was live sacrifices and dealing with demons. While not evil per se, for the most part they left other religions alone and kept pretty much to themselves. Asheren decided that there wasn’t going to be an demon-summoning during a game of cups and settled against the bar to watch the game unfold.

Sanar declared the competition open – entry was one silver piece, the prize was one gold piece. After a few rounds three of the soldiers had lost all their coins, Sanar was faster than anyone Berrak had seen so far, sliding the tankards around in a blur. If he was cheating then Berrak couldn’t see it.

The evening wore on with Sanar taking most of the winnings. Occasionally he would lose as someone picked the right tankard and the silver piece was revealed, but for every gold coin he let go, he was taking twenty silver in return. Now he began to get tricky, he had six tankards twirling with three coins beneath them.

Once Sanar moved onto six tankards, Asheren could feel something awry. The cleric was using magic! The tankards moved faster than anyone could spot, impossibly all six of them seemed to be moving at the same time. Far more money was being lost now and Sanar was antagonising everyone.

“Come on you lot, there must be someone around here with some skill. Would anyone like to raise the stakes? How about we play with gold coins instead of silver?”

Half of the soldiers decided to depart before they lost everything, but the Prince moved forward from where he had been watching from the corner.

“I’ll take your wager, priest.” and he flipped a gold coin at him.

With a smooth move, Sanar caught the coin and slapped it on the table. “Aha! A taker! You are a prince among men, sir. Shall we begin?”

As the priest used the word ‘prince’ Kodiak bristled, but Ulrich put a hand on his arm. “Kodiak, it’s a common enough phrase and if the priest turns out to be any more than a trickster, well he won’t be getting out of here in a hurry – y’know what I mean?” he murmured to the giant

Most of the soldiers were too drunk to notice anyway, but Asheren stepped up to the Prince’s side.

“He is cheating, you know. I’m going to see if I can spot it and turn it against him. Maybe teach him a lesson.” Ash whispered.

Sanar placed the gold coin under one of the tankards and two silver pieces under two others. He began moving them all with exaggerated slowness.

“Everybody paying attention? Good then let’s begin the game.”

The tankards slid faster and faster, the rasping sound filling the bar. Asheren quietly cast a spell to detect the presence of magic, tuning it slightly so that it had a little twist in it.

As Ash mouthed the last of the incantation Sanar slowed the cup’s movement, he looked over Keir’s shoulder and winked at Ash. Ash was so surprised he almost broke the spell, but Sanar had already returned his attention to the prince.

“Well sir, where do you think your small fortune is?” he asked as he stopped the tankards.

Keir leaned forward and placed his hand on the fourth cup. Berrak nodded, he agreed with the prince’s choice. He picked up the tankard to reveal nothing! Sanar stepped smoothly into the surprised silence.

“I’m sorry, good sir, but it appears your gold has gone missing.”

Just then there was a loud pop and the prince’s gold coin popped into view.

“ah” said Sanar and began to back away from the table.

“What!?” said the landlord.

Asheren: <heh heh>

“Cheat!” shouted Keir and lunged for Sanar. The priest leapt nimbly back onto the stairs. Keir’s sword slid from it’s sheath, he was outraged. Kodiak was right behind him when the priest motioned and muttered. No-one needed a magical detection spell to work this one out, Prince Keir turned into a small, black cat. His sword clattered harmlessly to the floor.

“Fuck.” said Berrak.

“Meow.” said Keir.

The priest was already halfway up the stairs when Kodiak launched himself after him, bellowing with rage and hurdling the cat which was mewing confusedly.

Before anyone else could react, the priest launched himself feet first from the top stair, both feet landed squarely in the centre of Kodiak’s face and everyone knew that the sickening crunch that resulted meant that Kodiak was no more.

Sanar vaulted onto the landing and disappeared from view as Kodiak tumbled ungainly back down the stairs. Berrak had the presence of mind to grab the cat / Keir before Kodiak landed on him.

Ulrich hurried to the big warrior’s side.

“Ulrich…protect the prince. Give him back his kingdom. And see that Thev meets with justice.” With those final words he died.

They searched the rooms for the priest but there was no trace of him.

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