Two weeks passed since the fight with the monster in the dark. In that time, they were allowed to stay in the castle but had a small detachment of guards following them at all times. Though it was dressed up as a reward, they were clearly being monitored. Frankly, after the whole giant centipede thing, Gillam didn’t blame them – he’d have a battalion watching Erol.
They heard news about the blockade in Gosfallen being gradually reduced and a grain ration begun. Bruht also seemed to have pulled through, though he continued to be bedridden. And the cult had gone quiet.
Gillam had Vaprus brought to the hold and commissioned a new shield – this time a large sturdy steel one with an added punch. Oddly, Phaedra frequented the hold’s library almost daily, and Gillam would see her later grinning or muttering some poem over and over. In the end, she revealed she had been meeting up with Wendika who was somehow slipping his way in and out of the hold, and that she had sent him off to deliver a message to Aaren
Erol also had a revelation. While meditating in the gardens he had met Vitora and for some reason now seemed certain that her safety was paramount. Thus, he told them, he had decided to put his snake in her room. For a brief moment, Gillam thought this was a euphemism for something. Then he remembered Erol’s spirit animal and the Mrissan explained that it would watch over her and alert him if trouble occurred.
As two weeks came to an end with no emergencies, Gillam caught himself thinking, just for a second, that maybe the trouble was over. But of course it wasn’t. One day, the hold was in a sudden uproar of activity and they were told to return to their rooms. After a few hours they were all brought to the audience hall though.
They heard from Jaren that his younger brother Oleh had returned from Durica with a contingent of their men (intended to assist with the situation in Gosfallen) but instead of entering the city, he had made camp outside – blocking the road north. It was clearly an aggressive gesture, but as yet the brother had made no demands, as if waiting for something to happen first. On top of that, further attempts to kill Vitora had been found and foiled, including one man almost succeeding in scaling the walls of the hold. He had been found just before he reached the top and had been sent plummeting to his death. Furthermore, some cultists had been caught, proving that that dark threat was still present.
When the council session was briefly adjourned, Jens scurried over to them to request their advice to put to Jaren. In the hour that they had, they decided to speak with Bruht. The captain was still stuck in bed but was being kept up to speed with all the current events in spite of his healers’ advice to take a break from it all. He told them all about the history of feuding between the Tullekens, but they were also keen to know who his most trustworthy man was. Of course it was his second-in-command, but since Bruht was out of action the man was overwhelmed with work and was a little dull-headed besides. They pressed him – keen to know who could be trusted to watch over Vitora – and he gave them his three lieutenants: loyal Ivar, cautious Brit, and respected Daag – who was also infatuated with Vitora.
They returned to Jens with their ideas: allow them to talk to the captives, have Jaren and Eva present a united front, and have Daag guard Vitora. The first two were approved by the court, but the third was laughed out of the hall, much to the embarrassment of Daag. Instead, Jaren had his own men do the job.
The Lord decided that, with threats both inside and outside his city, and currently unable to do anything about the one outside, the inside one needed to be dealt with with all haste. He assigned three companies of guards, some 300 men, to Gillam, Erol and Phaedra to command as they wished.
Their first course of action was to see the imprisoned cultists. It was a man and woman. Both were unresponsive, jabbering away in whispers about their master. Erol noted they were both manual laborers and had mud and splinters on their ragged clothes. Phaedra and Gillam began playing good cop, bad cop, but neither got through to them.
It was up to Erol to try something. He touched their heads and muttered a few words. The woman showed no change, but the man jolted as if he had sat on a pin. Gillam didn’t know what Erol did but something in the man’s expression showed that he was back to his own self. As he own thoughts returned to him they slowly learned about who he was. Tom, from Asegard district, had been in deep debt but had been told about a guy who could help. Since his memory was still hazy, he could not remember much detail about his contact, so they left him – in a separate cell from the woman – and sent their companies of men to investigate the docks and warehouse quarters of the city.
The next morning they woke to learn that a person had attempted to break through to the inner walls and by being uncompliant with the officers on watch had ended up dead. While they were investigating the body, finding splinters on his clothes, they were informed by a messenger that the company doing the rounds in one of the Lower Kahnard warehouse districts had gotten information from a local baker regarding unsavory folk behind his shop.
When they arrived, the baker, Jahn, was very quick to advertise his bread as the best in the city, and to prove it even offered some breadrolls for free. Phaedra and Gillam gladly took them and they were good. Though, if these were truly the best in the city, it was probably time to start importing bread.
Down to business: he said that there were often gangs hanging about in the back alleys, usually wanting to steal something, but he had noticed the ones lately showed no signs of interest – instead they seem to just skulk about.
They went to the back-alley and found nothing, but it seemed worth returning to. On the way out, Phaedra stuffed her expansive pockets with as many free breadrolls as they could take.
They went to visit the captive cultists again the following morning. Despite his best efforts, Erol still could not reach the woman, but the man was improving, though he still suffered slight shaking and fever. From the little chat they had, they learned he had gotten into his debt by playing dice, which was held on random nights in random locations around the warehouse quarter – you had to hear from a friend of a friend to find out where the next would be. After getting into his debt he had been telling his best mate Jahnny over drinks at a street bar when he was approached by an older man – whom he eventually remembered as having a long scar that went from his jaw all down his neck – who told him about a contact who could solve his money problems. Regarding the day of the meeting, he could only remember walking to the rendezvous point before everything went black and waking up in the cell – what he thought was 3 days later, but in reality was almost a month.
While Erol and Phaedra went to find his friend Jahnny to gain more information about the mysterious man (they found him successfully but he could only confirm his mate’s story), Gillam returned to the alley to take a better look. For quite some time he carefully looked up and down the alley for anything unusual. The alley was well trodden, but he eventually noticed certain groups of tracks that came from the road and stopped at a sewer access which had evidence of being opened regularly.
Leaving Vaprus above, he ventured down into the sewers and followed the tunnel until he came across some boxes full of crude axeheads and foodstuffs – clearly not something you would expect to find in a sewer. There were marks beside the boxes where other things had been left and later taken away and further scratches on the walls which led him up a short passage and a sewer access he figured out was beneath a warehouse in the fifth district of Lower Kahnard. He left it at that for now and returned to the hold for a good scrub in the bath.
All three of them returned to that warehouse the following day, but not before having men from one of the companies split into groups of three and guard every known access and exit of the sewer, including where it spilled out into the Snakewater river. They approached without any trouble and from the outside the place looked like any other. Phaedra approached the foreman and surreptitiously inquired about any dice games. He disinterestedly waved her inside and told her told speak to Roer. As the others went to find him, Gillam held back a little. He took a good look around while Phaedra did her work. There was nothing unusual about the place inside either and the sewer access did not seem to have been opened recently.
Phaedra quickly turned to conversation to the dice games, managing to show interest in them because she truly was interested in getting involved, but the man was still hesitant to give details to the newcomers. Showing off her money and having Erol add how rich she was only made it worse – his expression soured. They left unable to get the information out of him, but Phaedra was determined to come back and try again.
They hadn’t been back at the hold for long before they were visited by Brit, one of Bruht’s lieutenants. She told them dreadful news that the guards at the sewer outflow had been attacked, killing all but one who was left badly beaten. They visited the man and heard his story of a group of people come down the road toward them with a wild murderous intent in their eyes. They were not carrying anything but basic weapons and never spoke, not even as they beat the watchmen to death with superhuman strength.
The next day, they learned that Jens’ attempts to talk with Oleh had once again been rebuffed, as they had been every day. The three of them went to the outflow pipe in the hope of finding further clues in the area. They had also focused the search areas of their three companies to just three districts in Lower Kahnard, meaning that the men could pick through those areas in detail. It wasn’t long, then, before a messenger came to them saying that someone resembling the description of the scar-necked man had been found coming out of a warehouse that was officially listing as unused. When a group tracked the man, he had lashed out at them, but thankfully was subdued.
With impressive speed and organization, the three companies arranged themselves so that one company surrounded the warehouse while the others covered every road and sewer in the area. By the time the three arrived at the scene, everyone was in position and an army of men stood before the building.
The lieutenants looked to them for a strategy. They chose Daag to lead, knowing how popular with the men he was (and hoping to see him succeed after throwing him in the fire when he was embarrassed in front of the court). As nothing was known about just how many cultists were inside, they suggested a cautious approach and drawing them out somehow.
While the commands were given, Erol and Phaedra scaled an adjacent building hoping to get a view through the skylight windows. Down below, the army of guards began throwing stones at the warehouse, hoping that this would draw the cultists out, but there was no passion in their voices. Gillam, sat upon Vaprus, did his best to give the men a rousing speech. He didn’t remember what he said – probably something involving “our city” and “those bastards” – but it seemed to work and the men were throwing both stones and heckles.
Without warning, the doors burst open – jolting the guards into silence – and out of the building rushed an army of axe-men followed by a couple of robed chanters. The cultists formed up in something resembling order, facing the guardsmen, and for a moment the two sides stared at each other.
But behind them the warehouse doors suddenly burst open and a corpulent mass squeezed through, chipping off bits of mortar around the frame. It stood up, twice as tall as a man, its skin slimy and frog-like. It spoke with a booming croak laced with evil. “Ah, the infidels have come.”
Erol didn’t waste a heartbeat – he drew his bow and scored a shot on the closest chanter, and just to make sure he had all their attentions, called out to the man-beast, “You get uglier every time I see you!”
Harald didn’t look surprised as he gazed up at Erol on the rooftop. “I thought I could smell your magical stink…”
As the chanting began, Harald picked up a crate beside him and threw it with surprising speed and accuracy at Erol. The crate exploded in a thousand bits and where there was once a wall and rooftop there was only a hole and a cloud of dust. Gillam thought he saw Phaedra slip away before Erol began his taunting, but he had no idea whether the archer had managed to avoid getting hit full in the face by that projectile or not. There was no time to dwell on it though: the two armies clashed into each other and the chanters at their back were rouses the axe-mens’ spirits – it was clear in their eyes.
Gillam rode Vaprus through the fighting, spectacularly vaulting a pile of sacks and ropes that split the battle into two. They charged at one of the chanters, cutting, hoofing and biting him. A moment later, Phaedra reappeared out of the warehouse, came up swiftly behind the chanter and mangled him. She gave Gillam that look like she always did.
Just then, over their heads another crate flew and burst against the wall, and Harald laughed. But looking in that direction, a moment later they saw Erol pop his head up from the hole. It was good to see he was still alive but the fool insisted on aggravating the giant monster and quickly took another shot. Harald shrugged the arrow off and stomped over towards Erol, throwing another crate. Gillam and Phaedra were right in his path – though he didn’t even notice their presence – and quickly split up again.
Gillam charged over to the other chanter and finished him quickly. He glanced at the battle then and saw the axe-man army were now notably less organized and the guards were quickly picking up on this too. Their voices raised as they felt the tide of battle turning to their favor. Gillam looked over to where Harald now stood beside the building. At his feet, Phaedra was stabbing away, but he didn’t even notice. He had found Erol. With a grin his tongue shot out and, like a whip, wrapped around Erol’s legs and lifted him into the air. Erol went limp and flailed about at the end of the tongue. Then, with a flick, he was flung into the wall of the warehouse, smashing through it.
This time, Gillam was sure the Mrissan was dead. He charged over on Vaprus to join Phaedra at Harald’s feet. They hacked and slashed and cut. Vaprus bit a chunk of his flesh off but was so disgusted by the taste spat it out. Gillam managed to cut deeply into his leg down to the bone, but as soon as he pulled out, the flesh healed, and he realized why Phaedra was looking so desperate.
Harald turned his attention to them. He casually swung a huge mace and sent them flying across the battleground – picking off a few of his own men with it. In the panic at that moment, the cultists turned from the guards and routed. Gillam was just getting to his feet and gathering Vaprus’ reins when they all heard a shout from the direction of the warehouse.
There was Erol at the doorway, struggling to keep on his feet, and suddenly, from within the warehouse, a barrel shot overhead and smashed into Harald’s fat face. It sent him flying backwards in the wall of the building with a crash.
Everyone fell silent and looked at the spot where Harald had fallen beneath a pile of rubble. A heartbeat later and the rubble burst into flame. A claw reached up and a thin figure followed – its outer corpulence dissolving into a thick smoke before their eyes. The figure’s form was charred and burned with an intense inner fire like hot coals and its eyes blazed like lightning contained in glass marbles. The figure craned its neck back and howled with an inhuman shriek. Gillam felt the hair raise on his back.
Suddenly, the howl stopped and the figure snapped upright. It began slowly walking towards them, as a hellish voice resounded in their ears, “You have not won this day. Wheels are already in motion.”
The figure threw its arms open wide as if expecting to be embraced. “There is nothing you can do to stop it. My lord’s return is nigh! All works of mortals shall fail and splinter before him.”
Its leg snapped like burnt wood, and it fell to its knee. Unconcerned, it continued, “You believe you can make order; impose your will upon the world. Cities… kings… peace…” He spat the last word out. “It’s all a lie – an illusion. He will make you see the truth!”
As the figure shook with unearthly laughter, one arm gave out with a sharp dry crack and fell to the ground. The voice continued, unchanged, “Kohlen is doomed. My work here is complete.”
At last, its eyes burst in a gout of fire and flames consumed the body which now fell still.
All around the battlefield a roar of cries of agony and confusion went up from the injured cultists. Those who had turned to flee, stopped and blinked, wondering where they were. Gillam carefully approached the smoldering pile and picked up the fallen arm, but it simply disintegrated in his hands.
Over at the warehouse, Erol had collapsed to the ground. Phaedra rushed to him but the pain and exhaustion was making him go faint. Just as Gillam approached, he struggled out the words, “Get to Vitora.”
With Erol lapsing in and out of consciousness, they put him on Vaprus’ back and hurried back to the hold – leaving Daag’s men to clear up. Once they were through the gate of the inner walls, they found the yard filled with noble women and children with their guards close and noblemen-at-arms milling around looking desperately unsure what to do. A guard told them that just two hours before Eva had stormed out with her retinue and personal guards.
They went inside, carrying Erol between them, and entered the court. The room was full to bursting with men shouting words of fealty to their lord, yet the lord himself was not present. They found Jens collapsed to his knees against a wall where some of the men in their eagerness had knocked him aside. When they asked him what had happen with Eva, he was as clueless as they were though.
They helped him to his feet and joined him in seeing Jaren in his own quarters. Jaren was pacing restlessly up and down, shouting a myriad of orders to a stream of guardsmen coming and going. The left side of his face was wrapped in a bloody bandage. Captain Bruht was also there, sat on a chair.
They gave a brief report of their defeat of Harald, but he was not interested in it. “The assassin was here!” he gasped. After having the door locked, he calmed himself enough to explain. After breakfast, Vitora had returned to her room to freshen up. As a romantic gesture he gathered some flowers and brought them to her in person. They had only been in there together a few minutes though when Eva burst in with her men. Seeing her brother there she hesitated, expecting him elsewhere, but only for a moment; she soon ordered them to kill Vitora. Jaren had defended her and his men came to fight at his side and with her plan foiled, Eva fled both the hold and the city, most likely to join Oleh.
With a distraught look, Jaren murmured, “My own sister…” At this, Phaedra gave a look that said she had her suspicions. Everyone noticed, including Jaren, and she wasted a good few minutes digging her way out of that hole.
Jaren looked at them all and asked, “What do we do now?”
“Is Eva really with Oleh?” Erol asked.
Bruht answered him, “She was seen leaving the city gates and approaching Oleh’s camp.”
“So now that the assassination attempt failed,” Gillam wondered, “what’s their plan B? Are they preparing for war?”
No one knew – they still hadn’t received a message from Oleh. However, it was known that some men had left the city guard to side with Oleh, bringing his host to approximately 3,000. The number of men still loyal to Jaren also numbered about the same. But despite Bruht’s hints to hit them quickly while they were still unprepared, Jaren had to ask, “Are we prepared?”
“No,” Bruht admitted – apart from everything else, his men were simply not trained for open battle.
As they pondered, there was a knock at the door. A pair of Kohlen guards entered flanking one man – he was Durican and he had a message from Oleh and Eva. Jaren took it reluctantly, broke the seal and read. It was an invite to parley just outside the city. That was all.
While Jaren thought about his answer, he sent them away. They took the opportunity to investigate in their own way – Erol went to Vitora’s room (though she had been moved) and Phaedra went to Eva’s quarters. Gillam strolled around and chatted with a guard. The man was not really sure what was going on, but knew he and his buddies were tired from all the elongated shifts. But he did know something interesting about the last assassin that had attempted to scale the walls and fell to his death. “He was carrying a magic scroll!” he exclaimed.
However, when Gillam asked Jaren as they reconvened later, he simply passed them the ‘magic scroll’. It read, “Kill the witch-queen.” Phaedra, meanwhile, had also gotten a hold of something – an ornate little box – though she made no show of it and, while the discussion of Jaren’s reply continued, she fiddled with it constantly. Finally, it clicked open revealing money and a small pearly white stone. Though Phaedra tried to hide it again, Erol was keen to see the stone and she grudgingly gave it over.
In the end, Jaren made his decision: he would go to the parley and he would have them accompanying him. So, the next day, they went out to the spot riding in litters (which was quite the experience…) Then began the long discussion – or rather squabbling with extended bitter silences. But at least there was food.
“What do you have to say?” Jaren began it by arrogantly demanding. They repeatedly demanded his abdication. Eva looked like she didn’t have a wink of sleep, but her anger kept her awake. Oleh, on the other hand, was alert, and was constantly on his feet, banging on the table. Jaren was red in the face looking frustrated as everything he said went unheeded by them. Again and again, they pressed him to stand down and Oleh said that he should be lord.
Eventually, Erol could not keep his silence and said, “A would-be assassin would be a lord…”
The younger brother turned on him, telling him to stay out of it. “Mrissans know nothing.” And then he flipped. He shouted at the top of his lungs, at both of his siblings. He pointed at Eva, “You have failed at everything you were supposed to! And you,” he pointed at Jaren then, “went and married a whore who all despise!”
They both tried to shout back at him but, despite the request that everyone come unarmed, he suddenly whipped out a dagger. Gillam was about to tackle Jaren out of the way, but the brother thrust it point down into the table. It successfully silenced them all. He slapped Eva as he ordered, “You will do as I say.”
“What do you propose then?” said Jaren flatly.
“You will continue to be lord, but you will act like a lord should and marry a lady of suitable standing for the benefit of our House and City, and, to be certain of your promise and our guarantee of her safety, I shall marry Vitora in your stead. But if you continue your folly, know that your wife will be removed one way or another, and rejecting these terms will mean war.”
They left giving Jaren a few minutes to consult his advisers. He looked stricken – the thought of having his beloved paraded around with his brother in front of him day after day must hurt. On the other hand, with a weak political position, and with Bruht out of action, war would have no good chance of victory, and mean devastation for Kohlen even in the best case. They wracked their brains for any other possibility, but none of their suggestions would do.
Oleh and Eva returned for his answer and he gave it to them solemnly. “So be it.”
He laid his head on the table as they left, less of a man than he who came that morning.
The party returned to the hold. As they walked through the gates, they saw Vitora above, waving down. But Jaren could not meet her gaze. He went inside and locked himself away.
After Jens made the announcement to the massed nobles he came to speak the three of them. He thanked them for their help and service and promised to see the transition go through smoothly, to ensure the people of Gosfallen were aided and that Jaren too was looked after. They thanked him for all his assistance in return; Erol adding a request to pass word of the growing darkness to the other branches of the priesthood. With a hug, and handshake and a pat on the back they said goodbye.
But as they were preparing their stuff to leave Kohlen, they had one last visitor: Lord Jaren. He also thanked them, though his face did not truly back his words. He added that he had spoken to Jens and suspected their connection to Aaren, though he did not ask them to confirm it. Finally, he gave them a letter to pass to Lord Dhonyl and left.
They left Kohlen hopefully cleansed of evil and facing an age of stability – and took the road back to Aaren.