Aria

Kohlen Part 4

Yesterday had been a long exhausting day, so when the young acolyte knocked on their doors before even the roosters had opened their eyes, he wasn’t at all welcomed. He said their presence was requested at the hold by Jens. At this time, before the sun had even broke the horizon, the city was quiet, but there was something more – it seemed just too quiet. They also noticed there were a lot more watchmen on duty and Gillam realized the whole garrison must have been out – it was certainly painted on on their tired faces. When they asked the acolyte about this, he told them the whole city was on lockdown, but they would learn why later.

Once at the hold, the acolyte told them to go to the audience chamber; yet after getting up at this time and walking across the city and climbing the hill, they were still stopped by the guards at the doors. On the other side angry voices could be heard along with Jens’ pleas. Gillam attempted to buddy with the guards but in the end Phaedra had to give them a show of her swords to get them through.

The argument stopped mid-sentence as they entered and almost instantaneously a line of guards rushed in between them and the lords on the dais. Lord Jaren was there, his sister Lady Eva, Captain Brute and Jens. Jens told his superiors that he had had the party summoned to verify his report, but Jaren continued to be suspicious and asked them to prove their trustworthiness.

Fearful of exposing their allegiance to Dhonyl of Aaren, they once again told their tale of being a travelling merchant with her bodyguards who just so happened to have been requested by a certain lord of a certain town that they inquire into the whereabouts of a certain man. This was all too complex for Gillam though; if it had not been for the express command to not reveal their true purpose he would have gladly spouted out the truth there and then.

The excuses were met with cynical gazes and words of suspicion, but Erol came to the rescue wielding the letter. Telling them it was proof of an assassination attempt on Vitora and explaining the circumstances of it coming into his hand, he offered to read it. The court was of course still wary and so they turned to Bruht who claimed to have a smattering of Mrissan. Erol passed it to him and everyone listened as the Captain struggled through the letter. Erol’s face cringed as he read, awkwardly misinterpreting grammar and difficult words until eventually he couldn’t help but speak up give the Captain some guidance.

The court now knew of the threat and Jaren deemed them trustworthy enough to remain. The discussion went on… and on. There had been random uproars around the city the night before and this was why the whole place was on lockdown. But in the prisons under the hold something terrible had happened.

There were reports of guards leaving their shifts and rabidly attack other guards. The prisoners in their cells had gone wild like beasts and the whole place was plunged into darkness. The whole dungeon had to be sealed off locking in all, prisoners and guards alike. Inhuman howls reverberated out of the depths. None dare go in but for a team of Bruht’s bravest. They had not returned.

Gillam was only half-listening to it all, though. His whole concentration was focused on that one man – the one who had called him ‘dishonorable’: Captain Bruht. He silently glared at him. That was until someone suggested their party go down and discover what was down there. Bruht responded that it was not their place, and this sparked Gillam off. He roared at Bruht calling him close-minded and stubborn and pointing out all they had done for his city already. Bruht argued back, continuing to call them untrustworthy. The slanging match went on until Jaren ordered it to stop. And then, maybe as some form of punishment, he decided that the Captain would join their mission. With that they were dismissed, leaving the court to discuss further politics.

Gillam was still angry even as they stood at the locked door to the prison. There was nothing but black through the barred window on the door – all the torches had gone out – but there was sound: Erol claimed to hear someone sobbing deep within. Jens had had one of his talks with Bruht and so the Captain now didn’t complain as they set a marching order. Gillam took the lead holding a torch enchanted with Erol’s light, and Erol, also with an enchanted torch, took the rear.

They descended. This wasn’t the prison yet but the stores one level above. Regardless, they soon found a dead body and it wasn’t long before they found more. They carefully moved in line through the stores. But then, Gillam heard a sound from a room to his side. He stepped inside. The scuffling stopped. Then there was a sniff, a clatter, and out of the dark corner of the room a guard charged at him.

Before Gillam even had a chance to take a fighting position, Bruht came up behind and pushed him out of the way. In a loud booming voice he commanded, “Stand down, soldier.” Of course the guard, who was no longer a man, ignored this, and attacked the captain. As Gillam and Bruht focused on that one, Phaedra and Erol noticed Bruht’s shouting had attracted the attention of two more. They went with Jens to deal with them, but soon Bruht noticed. He ran over and boomed at these ones too, for all the good it did.

They managed to knock the things out. Bruht had a look of confusion on his face as he explained that these men, including the dead ones, had been his best squad that he had sent down just hours before. They soon found a survivor though. The sobbing had become loud enough for everyone to hear and when they turned a corner they found a guardsman crouching inside a makeshift circular barricade. The distressed man was in tears and shaking even as they approached and called out to him. Bruht, not understanding the situation one bit, ordered the man to compose himself. Jens had the Captain be quiet and took a gentler approach with the guard. With Erol’s assistance, they consoled him enough – persuading him that they were not one of ‘them’ – that he allowed them to enter his little fort. Erol eased his weapons off him and Gillam, with a nod of agreement to the others, knocked him out with a whack of his fist to the back of his head.

Now that they did not need to worry about the man, they continued through the barred door down into the prison proper. The upper level was dark, but here was pitch black; Gillam was glad they had their torches with them.

It seemed they had a few moments of breathing space; Bruht sidled over to Gillam and whispered, “Thank you for not killing my boys.”
Gillam humphed in reply, but Bruht continued, “Seems your Mrissan and the priest are right.”
Well, it seemed he was finally starting to understand. “It’s all a bit weird and difficult to get your head around, but you learn to trust them,” said Gillam.

Meanwhile, Erol and Jens were also in hush conversation. They looked down into the dark prison with concern. It looked scary down there as it was, but their faces said there was something more.

The prison was thick with the smell of blood and fear. They quickly came across a body torn up like a bear attack. In the center of the prison was the guard room with windows that looked out in all directions to the assortment of cages and cells. They went around to where Bruht said the door to that room was, Gillam taking the lead again. All around them were the faint sounds of shuffling and scratching, but it was difficult to pinpoint where from.

Just as Gillam turned a corner to reach the guard room door, he heard a demonic scream from right behind him. He spun around and came face-to-face with a horrifying visage. The creature’s skin was blotchy grey like it was rotted, its mouth and nose were sharp and skeletal, and where its eyes should have been were only pinpricks of red. It disappeared again in an instant. Gillam lost all control of his senses (and a little bit of his bladder too) and he began running for the exit. Phaedra caught him though, and dragged him into the guard room with all the others, bolting the door behind them.

As Jens calmed him he described the thing to the others. They had all heard the scream but no one else had seen it. Erol scouted out the cells, peeking through the barred windows with his torch. “There’s something hunched over a body,” he reported. But when he turned back to look once again, a figure dropped down from the ceiling. They all saw it now. As Erol dodged back, it snatched its long arm through the window and grabbed his torch, putting it out and then disappearing once again into the darkness.

They now knew this was the thing that Erol and Jens had sensed and clearly the source of the prison madness, and whomever it was previously, it needed to be killed. Once they had composed themselves of the shock, they ventured out once again.

It soon attacked them. Swinging round the corner they had just passed, it struck at Erol who just managed to dodge it. The others attacked, and it was Phaedra that got the perfect strike, slicing off its arm. It took a swing back at her, but then fled back into the black with a shriek.

All of a sudden the party split up. There was now a pool of blood that had spilled from the demon’s arm – a black ichor that stank of rot. It made Gillam feel sick, but Jens was left retching. Erol, Phaedra and Bruht went off in pursuit following the trail of blood, but Gillam had spotted that the thing which was hunched over a corpse had reacted to the commotion. It got to its feet, so Gillam charged in.

But it was powerful and in mere seconds the thing had ripped through Gillam’s shield. Astonished and enraged, Gillam shook the broken wood off his arm and swung with all his might at the foe, tearing through its face. It collapsed to the ground, but to his horror it began to get up again, despite lacking the upper half of its head. Gillam sliced again, cutting open its belly, but watched as the guts immediately started scabbing over. Undeterred, he took one more hack at it – it finally stopped moving.

Just then, the monstrosity jumped out with a scream and extinguished the torch that had been lying on the floor. Darkness flooded over; Gillam shouted out to the others, wherever they were, “It’s here! It’s here!”

He knew where Jens had been, still throwing up, and ran over, grabbing the priest and pulling him over the pool of stinky blood towards where the others had gone. But Jens had now composed himself and with surprising firmness held Gillam by the shoulder and pulled him in the opposite direction, around a different corner, insisting that this was the best thing to do. The creature approached quickly, as did yet another zombie-like man. They both readied themselves for the fight in the dark.

Thankfully, just then Erol and Phaedra reappeared on its flank, bringing light back with them. It did not help Gillam much though: he had failed to notice the dead body at his feet and, of course, tripped on an outstretched leg. While he was getting to his feet, he saw Phaedra and Jens engaging the thing, stabbing at it to little effect while just about managing to dodge the broad sharp swipes of its arms.

Then, out of a corner of the dungeon they all thought was blocked, Bruht appeared, charging with his sword raised high and bellowing a battle cry. He swung wildly at it. As it turned to the man, Phaedra opportunistically stabbed at its chest, but strangely her thrust went deep inside, coming out of its back and splashing Bruht with its ichor. A head shot by Erol splashed more onto him. The beast then turned on him and shoved its hand into his guts. Bruht toppled over.

The situation had gone from dangerous to desperate, but it was soon over. Just as Gillam struck down the minion, a sudden blinding flash of light cut a crescent from Phaedra’s general area. He was momentarily stunned by the surprise and how dazzling it was. It was gone in a second, and while the imprint was still fading from his eyes he saw the upper torso of the thing fly across the room, gurgling still.

The lower half fell, but right before their eyes it began forming flesh to create a new upper part while it found its feet. It almost seemed impossible until Erol swiftly cried, “There!” and shot an around into a certain dark part of it. It stopped and began to dissolve.

They rushed over to Bruht, who clutched at his open belly. Gillam held him and with new-found adoration gasped, “You damned brave crazy fool.” As Erol attended to the wound as best he could, Bruht fell unconscious.

The monster had completely dissolved and in its wake Erol found a bag that had been hanging by a leather thong around its neck. Inside the bag was a small leather journal with a familiar dog motif and the initials ‘U.M.’ – the elder Marton. He passed the book to Gillam who read a random entry and the last, and they quickly realized it was an account of the man’s days from two years hence till his final day of humanity.

But they decided to exit the dungeon with haste. They returned to the lower levels of the hold to expressions of surprise, gratitude and great concern for Bruht. He was taken to be seen by healers, and they were taken to specially prepared quarters in the hold. Jens left them to give his report. They took the opportunity to relax a little, but as Phaedra swiftly fell to sleep, Gillam and Erol prospered to read more of the journal until they too fell asleep.

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Kohlen Part 3.5

The fight was over and they inspected chests locked behind a wooden wall, finding within the possessions of the people who presumedly had been tempered by the cult. Among them, Erol found a bow which seemed to delight him. They investigated the area, first finding a door behind which Gillam came face-to-face with a giant charging centipede! The shock made him stagger and Phaedra was forced to drag him out and slam the door shut in the horror’s face. A short argument erupted which ended with Gillam announcing he would do no more “door stuff”.

Further around the cave they came upon a collapsed tunnel. Erol announced a strange feeling, something he described as a “lighthouse within the fog” of evil aura. He tracked it to the foot of the rock fall and, with a sigh, Gillam began to dig through the rubble with his shield and hands. He would pick up a rock, present it to Erol who would study it before rejecting it, and repeat the process.

Finally, Erol said, “Stop,” and he looked at a long slab of rock carefully. At one end small circles were burned into it, and sticking out of one side was what appeared to be melted silver. Erol fiddled with it, using some of his magic which Gillam didn’t care to inquire about, but in the end it was up to Gillam to go at it with a pick-axe, eventually chipping off enough to reveal a short blackened iron blade. He kept going, eventually knocking off enough rock so the blade popped out. There was skeletal-shaped charcoal around the hilt and the silver in the seemed to surround that, and when Phaedra picked it up she noticed the hilt was made of paesh stone.

Gillam didn’t understand the significance of it, but there was an odd look in Phaedra’s eyes and when Erol asked her if he could take a look she passed it to him only after some hesitation. He pointed out that the blade was dull, but this didn’t bother Phaedra at all and she quickly took it back.

Continuing to explore, they found the out-of-use elevator and a dorm room where Phaedra successfully knocked two men out but woke a third who, in the panic, had his head exploded by Erol.

They entered another door, passed through a small dining hall and tunnel. As they went down a voice got louder ahead of them – a fanatical sermon full of world-changing ideals. The orator’s voice was rising as the speech approached an end. Just as it told its disciples to go out and do their master’s bidding, they charged in, Erol flinging back the hanging curtain announcing, “Your lies end here.”

As expected, at the end of the room was Harald, but he was now hairless, bloated and his skin was rubbery. He still had he arms in the arm as the last syllable left his mouth. Flanking him were a stooped, beady-eyed but strong pair in thick armor and wielding heavy axes and shields. And between the party and their target was a room full of cultists who turned on them as one.

Gillam held the door with the others around him as axemen, unarmed acolytes and cave scorpions charged. At the far end, Harald took a seat and watched proceedings. Behind the rush, a pair of robed ones began chanting – one’s chant was like a shriek and so disturbing Gillam felt a little despondent. Then he felt Jens hand on his shoulder and a whisper “The Warrior’s strength fill you.” He wasn’t religious but these words somehow made him feel lifted.

They fended off the rush. Gillam managed to get a slam on one axeman, sending him flying into the side of a brazier in the center of the hall. As the man attempted to get to his feet an arrow of Erol’s stapled him it. He howled like the one before and exploded, sending the coals and flames all about the room onto a handful of acolytes – some of whom continued to stumble forward despite their burning clothes. Noticeably, Harald cowered from the blaze of light. As Gillam, Phaedra and Jens dodged attacks and stabbed and slammed back, Erol took aim at the chanters, finally silencing them and lifting the effect.

Still more men flooded onto them, trying to pin Gillam arms, but one-by-one they were dealt with – either shoved off, sliced off or backstabbed by Phaedra. At the same time, Erol dispatched archers.

As it became clear the fight was lost, Harald got to his feet and fiddled at the back wall. An opening appeared and he fled down it with one of his guards, the other remaining to hold the door. Gillam and Erol ran around the blaze and to the far end. Gillam got the grotesque guard’s attention and suddenly found out being bashed back by a shield was like. He gave as good as he got though, slashing and shoving back.

As they fought Erol slipped by, incredibly dodging a chop aimed at his head, and pursued Harald down the tunnel. Gillam kept fighting the man, feeling the heat emanating from him and noticing his armor may actually be hardened skin.

Erol’s voiced echoed into the room, but Gillam was much too concerned with the fact that he had just been deshielded to listen to it. He scrambled to pick it up and turned to slam his attacker into a wall. He began rupturing and Gillam had no time to get away before he exploded. Gillam patted the flames on him down and looked around to see Phaedra urgently leading Jens back to the main cavern. He followed.

They found Erol pulling himself out of the pool. “He got away,” he said angrily, glaring around at them. The back passage had led through the centipede’s lair and Erol had distracted the beast, getting through only to be faced with the second guard blocking the way across the small bridge. That was how he ended up in the water.

They exited the cave, finding a cart knocked aside, its contents of rocks spilled out onto the unconscious captives, crushing them to death. It was a horrific scene and Erol’s anger rose. Outside, they found Karl, who reported that two super-strong men had cut through their guardline and were headed in the direction of the blockade.

They heard the riot before the saw it. Voices cried out angrily, desperately, “Let us through!” The mass of people surged against the blockade, projectiles flew at the city watchmen. Gillam had seen a riot before and noticed the crowd’s behavior was different – it was moving like a swarm. But there was a dark, black thing climbing the walls. The watchmen had seen it too. They moved on it, trying to knock it back, but below, in the center of the crowd, was a bulbous, green figure. A second later, a massive explosion ripped a hole in the wall – some bodies went flying with it. Harald looked around at them, and then dived into the gap.

They leapt into action, Erol literally. He jumped up high, and sprang across the people’s shoulders and launching over the wall. Phaedra spotted a gap and flung herself into it, somersaulting around the masses and emerging on the other side. Gillam grabbed Jens and, with his shield up, charged through.

On the far side Captain Bruht was ordering his men to “cut down any of those who escape!” Their emergence caught his attention. He acknowledged them but was not happy to see them there. In return for not having his men kill them, he demanded they find a way to calm the crowd. Erol, having seen the figure of Harald slip into an alleyway, had no time for debate. He closed his eyes, mumbled and the centipede in the mine appeared, but towering three times as big. It loomed over the crowd, who all fell silent, backing away from it.

However, it also intimidated the watchmen and Bruht turned on Erol. “Just what the hell are you?”
They stood at an impasse, until Phaedra relayed the situation to Jens. He approached Bruht, walking straight through the image of the centipede (which, of course, he could not see) and spoke to him aside. A few moments later he came back and said they were given leave to go.

They hurried off after Harald, but the track soon grew cold and, as evening crept in, they were forced to give up. Jens told them he would return to the hold to give his report, but Erol also requested that he send a message to Sallen to inform the priests there. He left them, and they returned to their inn.

Erol trailed behind the others in thought, but found his path interrupted by a young boy appearing from a side-street. He pressed a small envelope into his hands and ran off. He continued after Gillam and Phaedra, spotting a fellow Mrissan man around a corner, looking around and acting generally suspicious.

When they got back to the inn, Gillam and Phaedra, along with Wendika, joined Erol in his room where he read the unmarked letter. He told them that, in shaky Mrissan, it read, “Kill the whore-witch and get a lock of her hair.”
They quickly realised this was a mark on the soon-to-be Queen Vitora. They also realized that they was no need for urgency – the message had been missed and the assassination failure would not be noticed until the next day at the earliest. They would inform Jens at the earliest opportunity.

Wendika reported that he had been keeping an eye on anyone communicating across the wall and had spotted someone atop a building looking for something inside Gosfallen. Unfortunately he was unable to track them.

They left Erol to assess his new bow; Phaedra went to her room gripping her dagger; Gillam went to see Vaprus before collapsing into bed.

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Kohlen Part 3

Unlike the upper level, which was chiefly hewn by hands, this part of the complex had natural walls and bulky stalagmites. Though fewer, there were still wall torches to light their way. They investigated a pitch-black tunnel which ended abruptly in a seemingly bottomless pit. As they returned to the main cavern they turn a corner to find a procession of cultists approaching them – a robed one, surrounded by three armed men, an archer, a docile scorpion and an acolyte. In the low light they weren’t seen, so they scurried back to the dark of the tunnel hoping to see the parade go past. Gillam though, wasn’t quick enough to realize why the others were hurriedly tip-toeing in retreat and voiced his confusion.
“You’re not supposed to be down here,” said the cultist band’s robed leader when they spotted Gillam and then the fight begun.

Again, Erol focused his arrows on the leader, to silence his exaltations, but this one was harder to fell. Beside him, the acolyte picked up a stone to throw at Gillam, but as the stone bounced off his shield, it rolled off to a dark corner of the cave, and kept on rolling, tumbling down into an abyss. Seeing this, Gillam tried to coax the opponents to a position where their back would be against this hole, but they knew better and held their ground.

As Gillam and Phaedra charged in, with Jens in support, the leader told the unarmed acolyte to tell “the savior” about their “guests”. The boy ran, but Erol turned his attention and used a blunt arrow to knock him out just before he was able to get into the cover of a distant tunnel. Noticing this, another of the men ran to inform “the savior” but this time Erol’s arrows were not enough to stop him escaping.

In the melee, things were going well until Phaedra gutted a man right in front of Gillam and shit hit the fan. Gillam saw the man’s eyes grow wide and his pupil’s dilate. With a horrific scream, he rushed full pelt at Phaedra, colliding with his buddy and tumbling to the ground together. Still screaming, he grabbed his head and exploded in flame, setting his friend alight too. Gillam was quick and hid from the explosion behind his shield, but Phaedra had no such cover and got a little burned.

They finished off the others with Erol knocking out the man on fire. As Erol tended to Phaedra’s wounds with the Asatae-Gaya extract, Gillam bound the survivors up and put out the flames.

They continued down the tunnel where the escapee had ran, coming across a locked door with the sign: “Danger: Authorized Personnel Only”, behind which was very dark and lofty cavern with a noticeable drop at the far side.

Further down the tunnel they came out into a cavern that could be smelled before it was seen. A thick, slimy substance covered the entire floor, but track marks could be seen tracing a path to a tunnel at the far end. In the middle of the cavern was the man who had escaped the fight. Worryingly, he was dead.

Gillam took head and gingerly led the party across the guano. They stopped briefly at the dead man, to notice slip marks around him and bites all around his body. Around them, from every corner of the roof they could hear high-pitched squeaking and the fluttering of leathery wings.

However, they made it through without disturbing the occupants and followed the tunnel steeply down to the next level.

They came out into an even bigger cavern which contained a large, deep pool of water, certainly not safe for drinking. Around the edges, streams and falls fed the pool and at the far shore they could see a camp. Gillam and Erol went to the water’s edge to better assess the situation, suddenly realizing they had walked right past a guard who, luckily, had not noticed them either. They were so surprised by his presence that they beat him up in moments; Gillam knocking him into the deep water to his death. Erol was overly upset at this, but Gillam could only apologize. He didn’t really understand why Erol was so keen to keep as many of these cultists alive.

They entered the camp and attacked the men there. The last scuffle was bad, but this one was manic. Gillam and Phaedra fought a group beside the campfire. In the scuffle, Gillam knocked one of them into the fire. He died, and exploded. Burning coals and flames were strewn about, setting a huge area on fire and catching a nearby tent which also went up. They fought on the as the flames licked beside them. And Erol discovered a new way to stop the blazing death-throes when he put too much power into a shot and caused a man’s head to burst like a watermelon.

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Kohlen Part 2
My Mind's Mine

Next morning at breakfast, Erol told them he had had one of his dreams again. It involved some old miner scratching his arm, before a foul black substance poured from it and ultimately consumed him. He described the substance as having the feel of wet sand and the miner as appearing to have awoken from another dream mumbling about “cleansing the land” and such.

He was clearly disturbed by his vision, fearing it portended of dark events to come. Phaedra decided to ask Wendika if he had any knowledge of prophetic dreams. The only story he knew was of an entire village which had a collective dream of impending disaster. As everyone had had the same dream they made the decision to leave their homes and move. The very next day there came a flood which destroyed the village. The villagers chose the praise the Steward for his guidance.

Gillam, on the other hand, didn’t need dreams to know that stuff was about to blow up in that part of town.

They made for the Asagar district where the Temple of the Hunter was located, having left Wendika to work the stall for the day. Compared to the strict form of the Mother, the Hunter’s complex and priests had a look that could only be called rustic. They also all carried staffs that were distinctly spear-like.

At the door they were greeted by an acolyte who was surprised to see three people. He lead them through the temple to a non-descript room. There, Jens proclaimed surprise at hearing three sets of the footsteps approach and enquire who the third member was. Phaedra introduced herself but the old priest was more interested in what she thought of the situation. She told him she wanted to help as she believed they had been wronged. Jens considered this opinion a moment before stating, “It is not always a case of being right or wrong.”

He accepted, though, and continued, telling them that he had investigated Egil’s death and planned to enter Gosfallen in order to hear the word on the streets. Gillam was starting to like the man’s style. The way to get in he had envisioned involved joining the daily supply cart that entered the area, but he was open to other suggestions. Phaedra let slip that Erol had managed to cross the hills into the district and so the archer was obliged to explain what had happened. Jens was impressed: he exclaimed how he had simply intended to employ some protection but was pleasantly surprised to find that he had acquired more than mere bodyguards. He was also keen to meet Hendrik.

After some discussion, they settled on crossing over the hills at night – despite the difficulty for the blind man, it was better than drawing suspicion of their intentions by joining with the hated city guards.

Gillam had to ask something. “You said you investigated Egil’s death,” he pointed out, “What did you find?”
Jens was willing to explain. “It appears the guards had nothing to do with his death. When he was arrested, he was taken to the gaol under the hold – a common cell with some 15 other prisoners. It was there that he died, likely at the hands of a fellow captive – one that was not all mentally sound.”

Gillam put two and two together and got four, which was fine except that he let his mouth do the arithmetic.
“I think I know who that man was…” he let slip. He was proud of himself till he saw the eyes of the others, looking disapproving. Jens picked up on this and enquired eagerly, “Oh, you do?”
Though Gillam tried his best to avoid revealing everything and Erol coughed loudly and pointedly, Jens was persuasive and made him feel compelled.
“We were asked… by a lord… if we happened to find anything… about this man… a lesser lord…” he told the old priest awkwardly. “I was told by a guard that they picked up a mad man outside the gates.”

Though Jens was clearly dissatisfied with the information Gillam had divulged, he let it slide for now and told them what he knew of the man from the prisoner dossiers. He had been picked up a few months ago for talking mad in the streets and since the Egil’s death priests had been trying to restore the man’s sanity.

There was no chance of them simply walking into the castle gaol and meeting the madman, so they moved on. Though Jens added, “I will be willing to help, if you in turn will help me. I hope we can trust each other.” A look in his eye indicated that he knew there was more to the three of them than they were revealing, and that he was determined to find out what.

Later, they found Jens appropriate clothing for touring Gosfallen and rendezvoused with him on the borders of the city at the foot of the hills Erol had ascended a few nights prior. There was a brief hold-up as Phaedra brought Wendika along and asked if he could come as well – because clearly she could not bear to be without him, Gillam figured. Jens talked to Wendika privately and when they returned the swordmaster announced he would stay behind and keep watch on the blockade. As Gillam had already discovered, this detective-priest had quite a way with words.

The party passed over the hills – successfully avoiding the guards despite the blind man’s unsteady footfalls – and reached the top of the cliff overlooking the mining quarter. As Gillam and Phaedra trailed down a rope, Erol stood behind muttering something and suddenly Gillam had a feeling of lightness through his body as if his flesh was made of feathers. Gillam glanced at Erol who merely nodded.

Gillam went down first, then Phaedra. Jens followed; at first he seemed okay, but suddenly he lost grip some 40 feet up. He fell tumbling, but impossibly slowly and oddly silent, without a cry or scream. Gillam and Phaedra caught him easily and the old man seemed exhilarated rather than terrified that he could have fallen to his death. Next was Erol, and he jumped – just to prove a point – landing smooth and soundlessly.

Erol lead them to the storehouse where he had rested before and there they caught up on sleep. They kept watch, however, and the next morning, Erol reported surprising a suspicious man who had been sneaking around the many sleepers, sending him scurrying away.

Gosfallen was as bad as Erol had described it – the people were gaunt, looking upon the newcomers with both jealousy and desperately hoping that they would pass them food. Even though they had dressed down, they still looked like kings among these folk. Clothes were filthy, the streets were littered, many buildings were damaged by fire. Even the rats looked pitiful, especially while they were chased by children with sticks.

They searched for Karl the engineer and it wasn’t long before they found him, cornered in an alley by a pair of tough-looking men. He had a scrap of food and barely any clothing left, while the bullies were dressed well (in clothes they likely pilfered) and definitely weren’t in need of the food they were demanding from him.

Erol called out to them. At first the men simply told him to go away, but then Phaedra brandished her swords and gave them a display of sweeps and strikes which quickly drew their terrified attention. Jens stepped in and, playing the good cop, suggested they leave, which they did hastily.

Karl thanked them profusely and was even more thankful when Erol passed him a candle, telling him that he had found and spoken to his wife, Hilda, and that she was waiting for him, praying for his safe return.

Karl took them to the guildhall, and with the help of a little white lie that they were family (which despite the obvious physical difference between them all, seemed to work on the doormen) they were allowed in to see Hendrik.

The pretense was soon dropped in front of the guildmaster, however, as he recognized they were outsiders here on a task.
“I’m here to administer,” Jens admitted.
“I see…” Hendrik said. “But are you here to help or judge us?”
Jens didn’t answer, but said, “I’m impressed you have been able to keep order here.”
“What do you need?” Hendrik asked bluntly.
Jens told him he was here to investigate the situation in the area and told that Egil’s death was accidental. This didn’t seem to make much difference to Hendrik, as he was concerned with other matters.
“There is new faction growing,” he revealed, “It is a cult. It seems they talk of ‘cleansing the city’.”
This was new and worrying news to them all. He told them that they had not yet acted in violence and were still very much unknowns. But there was someone they might be able to find out more from: on old hag called Meryl. She would regularly come around asking for food and protection, but in recent days she had stopped coming.

They went out and found Meryl. It wasn’t hard. Just as Hendik described her, she was a wrinkled old woman scurrying around on her aged legs bothering everyone and anyone for food in a voice that had long forgotten the use of volume control.
“Are you Meryl?” Phaedra asked.
“That’s me, yes,” she croaked.
“We’d like to talk to you about some things.”
“I’ll give you answers if you give me food. Do you have any food?” she pestered.
“If you answer our questions, we’ll give you our food.”
The old hag considered this. “Three questions, then food.”
“Very well. Who is this savior of yours?”
The old hag’s eyes glazed a little as she recited, “The savior will sweep across the city and cleanse all. There’ll be food for everyone!” She swayed as she spoke, seeming almost enraptured.
“Have you seen your savior?”
“Not yet, not yet. But I have heard from him; in a dream. Oh, such a beautiful dream! A peaceful garden, yes, everything was plentiful.”
“The miner I saw also dreamt of a peaceful garden,” Erol whispered.
“Where are the other followers?”
“Oh! You wish to join? That’s good, that’s good. I will bring you to them. Not today, no no; tomorrow. But now, three questions: you promised food.”
Reluctantly, Erol gave up a piece of his lembas bread. She snatched it up and nibbled at it like a mouse.

The old hag’s words disturbed them all – Erol especially so. As the day was coming to an end anyway, he insisted on returning to the rest house. Once they had found a spot of floor, Erol took out his jade mirror.
“We don’t have to come with you again, do we?” said Gillam.
“No, I shall go alone. But this time, whatever happens, don’t try to smash it from my hands, please.”

He went into his trance. They watched him concerned for a while but it became apparent that he would be in there for some time; so they rested.

During Gillam’s latter watch, he heard a ruckus outside – the shouts of men and heavy feet approaching rapidly. He roused Phaedra and Jens and they watched as the gang burst into the building. The men were armed. They rushed around the place, animalistic, sniffing the air, waking the people from their sleep.

One of the intruders stopped dead and took a long sniff. “Found them.”
All the men turned to the party and charged, jumping over people still lying there too scared to move. Gillam and the others were ready though. Phaedra gave them a show of her skill before ducking and twisting and eviscerating her opponents, struggling somewhat to dodge the people on the floor who had yet to realize they were in the worst place to be right now.

Even Jens did his part: he brandished his staff, affixing a spearhead to the end, and took up a fighting stance to defend Erol. Though blind, his other heightened senses could tell when someone approached and he fought them off.

Gillam attacked his first foe with all his strength and sent him flying ten feet, landing perfectly on top of Jens’ spear which he had just dropped luckily landing in an erect position. Jens extracted the spear from the dead man and continued defending. Gillam next faced either the worst or unluckiest fighter he had ever met. The man dropped his shield and then let slip of his hammer as it rebounded off Gillam’s shield. When he tried to reclaim it, Gillam jumped on him, held him down and manacled him arm-to-leg, leaving him as they finished off his fellows.

Looking around to assess the situation, they saw many terrified faces, but the dead men spilled no blood, instead giving off an extraordinary warmth to the point they were steaming.

At that moment, Erol awoke.
“You missed the good stuff,” said Gillam. “We were fine without you,” Phaedra added.
As he regained his senses, he attempted to report his vision. “I went to another Gosfallen. It was bathed in a dark pungent miasma. And I saw a demonic frog made of shadow, the size of two horses… the mine in the fourth district…”
“Well, how about we asked this guy here?” Gillam suggested.

The man struggled violently in his binds, so Phaedra opened the interrogation by punching him square in the face.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“We had to stop you! The master told us where to find you.” His voice was high, like a crazed rodent.
“How did he tell you?” they asked. The man stopped writhing and looked confused, seeming to have trouble recalling.
“Where were you before?”
“I was guarding the door to the sanctum.”
“Have you been inside the sanctum?” they asked, but he gave no answer, defiant.

Jens knelt beside him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I want to meet him,” he said.
“No, you’ll hurt him!” the man cried, and then his voice became airy like Meryl’s. “He is… wonderful…”
He spoke of a promise of new order, where the land would be cleansed of dirt, the tricksters and unworthy would fall. He wasn’t sure how this would be done, but was sure it would.

Erol also tried to reach the man’s inner self, encouraging him to remember his true identity. The effect of his brainwashing was strong; but when he heard the word “pub” a single tear ran down his cheek. Gillam lost patience, declaring him a lost cause, but Erol was quick to snap back, questioning him on how strong his mental will would be against such an enemy.

They decided to give the man over to Hendrik, as long as he was kept silent and no one spoke to him (by gagging, not by cutting off his tongue…). Hendrik conceded to do so, but the report they gave him clearly concerned. He offered his men to create a distraction which would allow the group to enter the mine unimpeded, but they feared that this would put those men at risk of being themselves converted by the cult. They agreed that his men should form a perimeter around the mine, to bar anyone from leaving, to detain them and gag them and under no means listen to anything they may say.

They made preparations and set out for the mine. On their way, they passed other mines where miners lingered at a loss for what to do, but as they approached the mine which Erol recalled from the dreamworld they found it distinctly unoccupied. It felt as if their arrival had been expected.

The path into the mine sloped down beneath the Gosfallen hills. Regular mine lamps hanging from the walls lit their path. They arrived at a cavern full of tents, mining carts full of ore and three armed men. Phaedra snuck forward to get a better look at the situation, but for once the stealth-master was not so stealthy, slipping on a small rock and falling smack on her face. The noise got the men’s attention and the fight began.

Gillam charged in with Phaedra, who jumped back to her feet. They fought down one of the men, Gillam finishing by slamming him into a tent. Though they thought that was the end of him, the man then stood up and gave a monstrous roar, his entire body glowing orange. He charged at them both and in terror and urgency Gillam bashed him away again. There he fell and subsequently burst into a worryingly familiar flame.

From then on, Erol used blunt arrows to finish off their foes, knocking them unconscious instead of killing when he could. Jens also joined in, stabbing enemies with his spear, though with little success. Meanwhile, two archers appeared, shooting at them. Once they had dealt with the first group, Phaedra chased after one, finishing him quickly, while Gillam pursued another, clunking after him in his armor as Erol’s arrows whistled past. The final assailant led them to a massive elevator, powered by a massive yak. He attempted to open the elevator doors, but Erol’s blunt arrow knocked him out of business.

They bound all the unconscious and investigated the cavern. Phaedra discovered a map in the foreman’s office showing three levels. There were two ways down, either by the elevator, or a spiraling sloped tunnel. But there was also a door on this level and voices behind it.

Gillam took head and creaked the door open. On the other side was another large cavernous area, mostly unoccupied. But in the far corner, beyond a shallow pool and beside a pile of unhewn rock, was a pen containing around ten citizens. They seemed to be still of their own minds, begging to be released. Outside the pen were more cultists, four of them including a dark robed one who was loudly compelling his captives to convert. There was also a strange scorpion-like creature, as obedient as a dog.

Gillam and Phaedra snuck around to the hidden side of the rocks and waited in ambush. Erol then announced in a loud voice, “The only thing your savior will do is bring you sorrow and unhappiness.”
Even as the robed one cried, “Intruders!” Erol’s flurry of arrows peppered the robed one, killing him almost instantly. As he fell, the scorpion thing suddenly lost interest in the fight and wandered off to a quieter part of the cave. The remaining three were men not released from any thrall and ran at Erol. Here, Gillam and Phaedra jumped out. Again, after the men fell beneath their blades, they got up, roared and charged at them, but Gillam’s shield again knocked them away to a safe distance.

After the fight was over, they attended to the prisoners, Erol focusing his aid on a woman fallen sick from starvation and foul water. An argument blew up between Gillam and Phaedra with her insisting that the prisoners be kept where they are until the mine was cleared of the cultists and they could be safely taken out of the mine without being detained by Hendrik’s guards. Gillam was having none of it though – he refused that these men and women be confined here any longer than they need be. Though Phaedra did not want any of the party to leave in case there was another attack, Gillam was resolute in escorting the captives out. He turned to Erol for his support. “If this demon works by inciting fear, then surely keeping these people here in this dark place will only stir up fear in them. Better to take them out and instill them with some sense of hope, isn’t it?”

Erol agreed and Gillam took the captives out of the mine, passing them on to some of Hendrik’s guards. He made sure the guards understood they were sound of mind and were to be kept safe; and told the people to hold onto hope, in an awkward attempt at sounding inspiring.

He returned to the mine and the others and they made their way down the spiraling tunnel to the next level.

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Part 17-19 (Kohlen part 1)
A Ruptured Kohlen

Finally, they received summons to the castle once more. There, the look among the council of lords was of dismay. Arild was also there – his expedition had returned – and the expression on his face told them everything they needed to know, but he explained anyway. He and his men had been turned away at the gates and they were forced to return with nothing but a smattering of hearsay: of riots and a strict lock-down being set in place.

Lord Dhonyl explained the likely reason why Arild had been rebuffed: the two cities had had a difficult relationship ever since the end of the Shalteian Empire. After the empire’s fall, the lords of Kohlen had assumed Aaren, a small holding, to be automatically theirs, but the people’s resolve, favorable location and the leadership of the Sandemars ensured Aaren’s independence. So, clearly, Kohlen was bitter.

And so, they had come up with a new plan – one which, of course, involved the three of them. It was simple really: as unknowns, they would enter the city without brandishing the flags and colors of Aaren, and from within discover what they could.

Gillam expressed his displeasure at sneaking into a city on a mission of espionage. However, he stated, if the lords commanded it, he would do so. Lord Dhonyl assured him it would not be so shadowy. His cousin had recently sent him a congratulatory gift: a cartful of Banythian smokeleaf. He did not care for the stuff – in fact, he was keen to set a great distance between it and himself – and explained that they should take it freely to pose as merchants, with the added bonus that they would be allowed to keep any profit they make. On hearing this, Phaedra’s smile cut across her face from ear to ear.

Lastly, Lord Dhonyl set out their objectives clearly: to enter Kohlen without drawing attention to House Sandemar; to ascertain the whereabouts of the senior Lord Marten and, if possible, bring him back to Aaren; if not possible, then to dispense justice upon him; and finally, to garner anything information about the Priest Prefect Harald.

They went out to see the goods. What struck them first was the smell – a putrid stench not unlike rotting fish. Such a scent would have anyone scurrying but Gillam, a regular, nay, constant user of smokeleaf, recognized the stuff to be of the highest quality. He decided he could not let this opportunity pass by and asked the others to allow him a sample. Phaedra was quick to argue.
“We need all of it to sell!” she said.
Gillam had good reason though. “If I can smoke some of it, I can understand its quality and flavor so that we can be better informed when we try and sell it to knowledgeable customers.”
In the end, she conceded and Gillam went off to have a private smoke. Despite the smell of the leaves, it had smooth, mellow taste with a kick of spice to boot. He had never had anything so refined; this was surely top-end smokeweed. He felt a little tingly all over and realized he was unused to such potent leaves.

When he returned to the others, he learned that Lingen had declared he had pressing business in Egard. Apparently, he seemed genuinely distraught at having to leave them – no one cared. Erol, as Mahala’s supervisor, was concerned about bringing her to Kohlen as she would stand out quite a bit so he left her in the care of Griiz who had welcomed her in warmly. Wendika, on the other hand, was coming along – much to Gillam’s disappontment.

Another argument erupted over where to enter Kohlen. Gillam thought the idea of going past the city by river and approaching from the north, thus minimizing any suspicion they might come from Aaren, was sound, but again Phaedra argued. She said it was a waste of time and was so adamant that Gillam eventually backed down. Bizarrely, just as they all thought that was decided, Phaedra suddenly announced they should head in from the north… Women, huh?

With Vaprus pulling the cart, they had two uneventful days to Sallen, where they flagged down a boat going upriver to Darica. They were welcomed aboard, but the voyage was not at all pleasant as the sailors had a great love of singing and drinking all night long. Ahead of such an important mission, none of them were keen to join in. On the journey, they passed Kohlen, seeing its spread of warehouses and workmen’s houses, its walls and its hold upon a hillock.

They disembarked, quite sleep-deprived, at a village some three days north. All was well on the walk until the second night. Gillam was kicked awake and found there to be a unearthly alarm ringing while Erol, Phaedra and Wendika were up and armed. They were all focused on a spot in the darkness, soon out of which a large bear appeared. The bear, though, took no interest in them, but instead gingerly approached the cart of smokeweed. Just before anyone else made a move to stop the beast, Erol whispered to them all, “Wait.”
He then closed his eyes and mumbled something and out from beneath the cart an immense 10-foot tall bear appeared! It looked at the smaller bear, which hesitated. However, the real one was bold and risked moving closer. Suddenly, the giant bear opened its mouth wide and Erol began to roar with his best bear impression – it was quite good. He eyed the rest of them, indicting them to join in. As one they all roared at the bear who was sufficiently unnerved that it scampered off. The great bear guarding the cart then disappeared.

The next day, Gillam assumed it must have been a dream.

When they finally arrived at the north gate of Kohlen, Phaedra took the lead, posing as the merchant while the others stayed back acting as personal guards – a role Gillam was rather good at. One of the watchman asked her from where she hailed and she quickly told him Dalyria, a city to the north. He accepted her story, letting them pass, but picked out Erol, telling his “employer” to watch his loose hands. Gillam had never witnessed such racism towards Mrissans before and he was a little disappointed in his fellow Lugardian.

As they passed through the gate, they noticed the large number of watchmen milling about. Some were serious about their work, but many could be found yawning or sitting around in guard-houses chewing the fat. Phaedra was intrigued enough to enquire with one of them. She learned that all guards had been placed on double hours, even if they didn’t have a dedicated position to guard; they were simply told to maintain public order.
“Why?” she asked.
“’Cos of the problems down in Gosfallen, that’s the mining quarter.”
“Can we go there?”
The watchman looked at his buddies and chuckled, “Why would you want to go in there? It’d be pretty tough to get in or out of there anyway: the whole place is restricted.”
“Why is that?” Phaedra asked again.
“Well, the peasants got ideas, didn’t they…”

They entered the city and found an inn in the middle-class district, conveniently just around the hill from the mining quarter; then managed to lease a stall in the market district, right along the main street. And after their long journey, and disturbed sleep, they all agreed to take it easy that night.

On the morn, they decided to split up and ask around. Gillam took the first day shift on the stall, using his personal experience to better inform and attract customers. It was a slow start, but he got some interest from other merchants and inquisitive passers-by. Late in the day, he struck a nobleman up in conversation, elaborating on the quality of the smokeweed, and then asking how the mood was among the upper classes. The man told him there was a little nervousness but they were assured of their safety from any riotous outbreaks. He added that the younger brother of the ruling Lord Jaren, Lord Oleh, was keeping them abreast of the situation at all times and he was certain that they would be forewarned if the peasants did rebel.

When they regrouped later and reported what they had learned, Phaedra told them that she had taken a stroll with Wendika around the merchant district and had been informed by a local there that the riots had been over pay and the leader of their group, a foreman called Egil, had suspiciously died during the negotiations. Erol was able to add to that. He had visited a tavern on the near side of the barricades in Gosfallen. Asking around the bar, he had learned that with the river traffic decreasing, Kohlen’s warehouses were overflowing with un-transported materials. As the materials were not moving, the mine owners were not making profit from operations and thus, to save their money, they had asked the miners to mine less ore. The issue with this being that reduced quotas meant reduced wages for the miners. This was what had started the discontent.

On the second day, Gillam visited an inner city gatehouse. He hailed a friendly-looking guard, and chatted about guarding, telling him the truth about his time as a watchman in Lyden, but lying about his current job, continuing the guise of a merchant’s private guard. Of the affair with the foreman, the guard said that there had been an altercation with him and a lord, which his boss, Captain Brute, had personally broken up, taking the foreman up to the hold. What happened after, he was unaware.

As he was quite talkative, Gillam took a shot and asked if he knew anything of strange outsiders entering the city. As luck would have it, the guard had been on duty the night an odd man had approached the gates. He described him as dressed like a noble, but the clothes were dirty and torn up, and clearly mad as he was stumbling about screaming that someone was following him. He was picked up and taken to the cells to sleep and again that was the last the guard saw of him.

When they reconvened later, they all agreed it seemed highly likely that this man was Lord Marten senior. Phaedra, who had been on the stall with her darling Wendika, reported that she had talked to a rich customer – a man very knowledgeable about smokeleaf and his clearly long-suffering wife – about the latest news. He told her that in order to stop the spread of discontent, extra men had been taken on from Darica to the north and they had the assurance that the lords were trying to get to the bottom of it.

Meanwhile, Erol had visited the Kohlen’s Temple of the Mother. He had gone to learn any information on the whereabouts of Harald, but the Priest Prefect there knew little. Indeed, he was much more focused on the church’s attempts to deliver food and aid donations through the blockade to the people of Gosfallen. Erol learned that every day they requested to be allowed in to administer to the people – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The archer believed that this could be a way inside.

However, eager to get to the heart of the issue, Erol went out alone that night intending to cross over the hills and enter Gosfallen.

He did not return all day. He had told them this was to be expected as he was to enter and leave the area under cover of darkness, but still it was hard not to worry somewhat about the Mrissan; if he were captured or killed they would likely never know about it and never see him again. Their worries were exacerbated when, during the day, an announcement was made that the city guard were cracking down on any individuals attempting to enter or leave the restricted area around the barricades – exactly what Erol was doing.

The Phaedra-Wendika pairing took the stall that day (and later reported terrible sales which infuriated the money-loving rogue immensely). Gillam took the opportunity to sign up for the tournament. He went towards the hold and found the admissions desk located at the foot of a road which wound up the mound upon which the hold was built. He had to admit it was a little intimidating, perched above the city as it was with it great stone walls – it certainly dwarfed Aaren’s – but having seen Lyden Castle and the enormous structures of Trikala, Gillam just shrugged it off.

The man at the desk was flanked by guards. Despite this, he cheerily beckoned Gillam closer.
“Come, come! Sign up for the tourney! Which event will you be entering?” he rattled off. Before putting ink to parchment though, Gillam had a few questions.
“What are the prizes?” was the obvious first.
“Well,” he smiled, “there’s 300 gold for the winner of the melee, and 400 for the winner of the archery. And both winners will get a seat of honor with the lords at the banquet that follows.”
That sounded a worthy prize and a good chance to get closer to the top brass.
“Why now?” Gillam asked.
“Oh, you know, to attract talent and to keep the guards up to shape. Captain Brute expects his best men to enter.”
“I mean, why hold it now with this present situation?”
“Well, it was already organized. Actually, it’s a bit late this year. Lady Eva is in charge, but really she isn’t at all interested in it so every year it gets delayed more and more. But Lady Vitora seems to enjoy it so… the show must go on.”
“Vitora?” he enquired.
“You’ve not heard of Vitora? She is Lord Jaren’s…” the man glanced at the guards, “well, you know…”
The man and the guards were looking suspiciously at him and even Gillam now realized he had been prying too much. He quickly signed up for the melee – under the pseudonym Gerry which he felt he needed for some reason – and left.

He was still interested in this tournament and now this Vitora. He let his watchman feet do the work and they took him to a bar in the Aappen area. However, this time they let him down. The barman and his regulars had little to say about the event and had only rumors to talk about the lady Vitora, describing her equally as angel, witch, princess and whore, despite none of them having actually seen her. They warmed to Gillam though and promised to give their support when he announced he would be entering the tourney.

Late in the night, Erol returned with a lack of shoes and a fragrance of piss. He looked like he had had a tough time of it and it was a blessing he was back at all. Though very tired he told the others what he had found in there. After crossing the hills, avoiding construction on guard towers, and shimmying down a cliff face on the Gosfallen side, he found the area littered with garbage and disrepair but strangely quiet. He had come across a storehouse being used by the residents en masse as temporary housing. There he chanced to catch up on some sleep for a few hours. That was how he lost his shoes.

Walking around the next morning with his feet wrapped in linen, he saw people making do with what they could: drinking dirty water and eating unlucky rats. They were going hungry but all they could do was grumble and try to keep going. He drew quite a bit of attention with his clean clothes and bow.

After speaking with a pick-axe-wielding door guard at one of the guild-houses, hoping to speak with the leader of the miners, he did as he was recommended and waited in the central square. Around noon, people began gathering there and soon a cart packed with food arrived surrounded by a squadron of city guards. The people heckled them but no one moved to attack. The guards shoved the food off the carts and then hurriedly exited. After they were gone, the people looked at the food hungrily, but still no one moved. Then the miner/guard, his fellows and his boss Hendrik arrived and began rationing out the food to the people who waited duly in line.

From the crowd, Erol had picked out a man who looked totally out of place. He wore fine but filthy clothes, was covered in fresh-looking bruises and had a look of starved desperation. He befriended the man, named Karl, as they waited in line, learning that he was an engineer who had been investigating a sabotaged mine collapse at the time the riots began and got stuck on the wrong side of the barricades. He had a wife and children living in the affluent Kilden area of the city and missed them terribly, and when he learned that Erol was planning to cross the hills out of Gosfallen, he begged to be taken with him. Erol refused knowing that escorting someone else out of here would be suicide but assured the man that he would seek out his wife and let her know he was surviving.

He then waited till nightfall – witnessing the riots in the evening – and climbed the cliff face. But tonight the city guard had upped its lockdown: the wooden towers had been completed and were manned and there were patrols along the ridges. He narrowly missed being pissed on while hiding from one of these patrols but managed to get back safely. He didn’t elaborate on this, much to Gillam’s disappointment.

The next day, Gillam manned the stall while Erol and Phaedra went to sign up for the tournament. For some reason or other, business was booming and by the time they were back, he had earned more in one day than they had in the past three. He treated himself to a celebratory Banythian smokeleaf cigarette (or five) and thought (aloud) that maybe he had found his calling as a merchant. Phaedra sneered and shook her head.

They practiced that evening, for there was one more night before the big day.

The tournament was held within the walls of the hold in two makeshift arenas. As both the melee and archery competitions would be held subsequently, they would not be able to watch each other, so Gillam and Phaedra wished Erol (who had taken on the alias “Arol”) good luck and then went to the melee arena to prepare. Gillam eavesdropped on Phaedra’s pre-fight pep talk from Wendika. It was all stuff about being one with the sword, seeing with your eyes, and stuff like that. Gillam rolled his eyes and went about his own pre-match preparation: a smoke and thoughts of Kushlu. Oh, and remember to hit them, hard – on the head if possible.

They entered the arena with around 40 others, all brandishing wooden versions of their favorite weapons. A horn blew and the free-for-all began. Gillam was quickly faced with a quick-footed brawler who dodged his attacks again and again until Gillam finally managed to smash the blighter in the face with his shield. As the man went down, Gillam heard a chant from the crowd which went something like this: “Gerry Gerry, pumpkin berry, he so scary, he…” He didn’t quite catch it all, but he saw the bar regulars cheering for him and gave them a wave.

Behind him a voice spoke. “Who are you waving at, pretty boy?”
“My adoring fans,” Gillam replied as he turned around only to find not one, but three guard men. They quickly surrounded him and started beating. Gillam struggled to get a hit on the sword-and-shield wielding man in front of him, while being whacked repeatedly by the spear-carrying one. Suddenly, the whacking stopped and the man let out a squeaky groan instead. Gillam saw him crumple to the floor, hands clutching his groin, and behind him, with a big grin on her face, was Phaedra. He hated to admit it, but she had saved his ass for sure – of course, he wasn’t about to thank her for it.

She quickly dealt with the sneaky fellow that snuck up on Gillam from behind, while he finally managed to get the upper hand on the one in front of him and sent him flying with a shield bash. Just as their scuffle ended, the horn blew to signal the end of the round. Gillam’s fans cheered again, but as the beer flowed their chant became even harder to comprehend.

While they rested and recovered, Erol returned from the archery with the news of his narrow victory. They congratulated him heartily.

Phaedra was first up in the knock-out rounds and she defeated her opponent in almost one shot. Gillam also had an easy time knocking down his axe-wielding opponent, and so they both entered the semi-finals.

And the inevitable moment arrived: they were matched against each other. After a brief moment of shock, Gillam realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to stamp some authority on the little rogue. As they stood before each other, he saw that Phaedra was also relishing the chance to fight against him.
“I’m gonna beat you senseless,” he shouted, only half-joking.
“I’d like to see you try,” she grinned back.
The fight began and before Gillam knew it, Phaedra was behind him, having slid through his legs in a flash. She bashed him over the head so hard his helmet rang like a bell. Both surprised and annoyed, Gillam spun around and caught her in the neck with his sword. Though she tried to block, it made little difference as she was knocked to the floor. The rules stated that this meant the match was over, but it wasn’t enough for Gillam and he could see the determined look in Phaedra’s eyes. He offered his hand to lift her back to the feet and around them the crowd gasped. She looked at his hand, and instead lifted herself up, nodding at him in thanks. The confused announcer declared the fight restarted.

Gillam decided to get the first hit in this time and he charged straight at her. His obvious attack was easily side-stepped, and though he attempted another swing that brushed through her hair, she quickly slipped into prime position and caught him hard in the kidneys. Gillam coughed with the shock of pain, but kept himself afoot. He turned once again and brought his sword crashing into her side, sending her to the floor once again.

This time, the announcer declared the fight over. Phaedra sat on the floor shaking her head while Gillam waved to his fans. She got to her feet and shook his hand, a new look of respect in her eyes. Gillam also gained a new appreciation of her skills and told her honestly, “That was a close fight, you almost had me!” Of course, he wouldn’t tell her that he was genuinely scared he would lose a couple of times. She walked from the arena to her Wendika, patting Gillam on the shoulder as she left.

In the final, he was up against a fighter with a chain whip and buckler. He was daunted – he had never fought against such a weapon before. Even before the fight began, the man was swinging the chain around over his head, and as the horn blew, he sent it flying in Gillam’s direction. It missed, but it certainly sent the message loud and clear.

Gillam went all out and swung furiously at him. His sword missed but his follow up shield knocked him flying back towards the arena wall. The guard kept his footing though and threw his chain again. Gillam tried to block but the thing hooked around his blocking arm and sent it swinging heavily into his back. Gillam was raging now, and his next shield attack sent the guard crashing into the wall, and falling to the ground.

Once again, Gillam let his opponent stand and glanced at the crowd. Maybe he had taken one too many blows to the head today, but he was sure he saw Vaprus swaying among the bar regulars as they chanted drunkenly. The guard saluted Gillam as the fight restarted, but no sooner than it began it was over for good. Gillam caught the guard with another bash of his shield and this time sent him flying, literally – toppling over the top of the arena wall and collapsing in a heap on the other side. The crowd went wild.

A short while later, servants came to escort Gillam and Erol to the banquet. They entered the hall to great applause and were sat at either end of a long table, with the high nobles between them, while other minor nobles sat at tables ahead of them, and the rest of the diners sat in the squabble beyond them. Phaedra was somewhere among them. Between Gillam and Erol, sat Captain Brute, Vitora, obvious from her beauty, Lord Jaren Tulleken, his siblings Oleh and Eva, and a Priest Prefect.

Lord Jaren opened the banquet and they dined. While Gillam ate greedily (he had had a busy day…) he watched Erol talking to the priest intensely and wondered what it could be they were discussing. He attempted to strike a conversation with Brute next to him. The Captain was stoic, drinking only water and sitting rigidly in his chair, and spoke bluntly. Gillam wanted to get into his good books and was quick to explain that he himself was once a city guard, but Brute was quick to question why a person who could defeat his best men in martial combat would ever be ‘retired’ by any city watch. After hearing Gillam rattle off excuses, he simply said, “You fight well, but you have no honor,” and returned to chewing his food meticulously. Gillam was stunned into silence. Never before had his honor been questioned. He tried to shake it off but he would not forget that for a long time.

After a time, Lord Jaren stood and announced it was time to present the prizes. He gave Gillam his gold in a bag, and gave Erol his reward in a small chest. Just as Jaren was turning back to his subjects, Erol made his own announcement.
“Thank you! I will be donating my winnings to people suffering in Gosfallen.”
From the silenced crowd, Gillam thought he heard someone scream bloody murder.
Jaren looked perplexed, but suddenly the priest sitting next to Erol popped up and announced, “On behalf of the Priests of the Temple of the Hunter, I graciously accept…” This seemed to satisfy everyone.

The banquet went on. Gillam turned his attention to Vitora. She was young, pretty, with a cheery nature and dainty posture.
“Your reputation precedes you,” he called to her around Brute’s back.
Vitora eyed him. “What reputation would that be?”
“Your beauty, of course.”
She gave him a smile out of courtesy and stated, “You fought well today.”
Gillam didn’t know what to say now his usual lines bounced off her. He blathered about Lyden, which peeked her interest somewhat and then she asked, “What do you think of Kohlen?”
“It has its charm,” he answered, “but there’s a tension in the air…”
At this, Vitora glanced at Lady Eva with an expression that was a sudden shift from the carefree air she exuded before. “That’s true…”
Gillam sensed she could tell him something more. “Sitting in this chair is making me stiff after a day of fighting,” he said, “Would you walk with me?”
She refused and the reason why was soon revealed.

Lord Jaren stood once again to make another ‘important and joyous’ announcement. He took Vitora’s hand, she stood, and he announced they were to wed. The hall erupted in cheers which raised higher as he announced that a special wine would be served. What Gillam failed to notice, and learned from the others later, was that the cheer among the other nobles was delayed, and was distinctly non-existent between Oleh and Eva.

Gillam, now with no one to talk to, supped on the fine wine, until he was surprised by a tap on the shoulder. The Priest Prefect, introducing himself as Jens and the city’s arbitrator of disputes, took him aside and requested to hire him for an important body guarding task on the morrow. He didn’t elaborate but he was so insistent, Gillam could not refuse.

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Part 16

He could not have been more happy to see a ship. It had almost been a week in this boat. It wasn’t small, but it wasn’t exactly roomy either. And when it’s shared with a horse it gets very cramped very quickly. He loved Vaprus like family, but he soon discovered that he was not the best of roommates. Gillam quickly learned that shoveling excrement was 50 per cent of the job of looking after horses.

During the voyage, he had taken some time to train with Vaprus; employing Lingen’s help. He would have Lingen start at one end of the boat and try to make his way to the other. Vaprus job was to get in his way. The horse was a fast-learner and Lingen spent a lot of time being knocked overboard into the water.

They had remained just in sight of land, but never seemed to turn toward it. This, along with just a trickle of information from down below whenever Erol, Phaedra, Mahala or Lingen came up to visit left him feeling a little frustrated. But now, after five days, there was a ship. He jumped up and waved his arms furiously. Even while it was far away, and despite his limited seafaring experience, the ship looked exotic in the shape of its hull and sails. As it came closer, the deep red color and the sigil on the sails told him it was Rabhanastren.

The big bulky merchant ship pulled up alongside the little craft seeming like a blue whale resting alongside a minnow. Gillam thought they might think he and Lingen were castaways, but the sailors were more observant than that – they had seen the great orbs floating below in the water and were not at all surprised, or even disgusted, when the Al’Qeri jumped out of the sea.

They Rabhanastrens laid down a gangplank and the captain along with a translator came down to the little boat just as Erol, Phaedra, Wendika and a good host of Al’Qeri joined them aboard. If the boat had been cramped before, it was shoulder-to-shoulder now.

The ship hailed from Rabhanast city and was headed to Aarta, the independent city-state sat on the coast just to the west and below the hills and mountains of Lugard. It was a geographically figurative stone’s throw away from Aaren; it was just where they needed to go. The captain offered them a ride, for a monetary fee. Gillam was all too willing to pay; Erol wanted to pay his way with work, but the gentle rocking of the small boat was already turning him a slight shade of green; but Phaedra was determined to haggle and successfully managed to barter the captain down a third of the cost for all of them.

Before they left, the Al’Qeri had prepared gifts for them. These included a few vials of salve extracted from the Asatae-Gaya, a bag of powder that they claimed would stop any amount of bleeding and a bolt of the extremely tough seaweed cloth they used to construct their underwater abodes and armor.

Then Gillam, Erol, Phaedra, Wendika, Lingen and Vaprus boarded the ship. The gangplank was lifted. But that was not all. Out of the water, carrying all her stuff, Mahala appeared. They watched as she and Mikel argued for a good minute or so and then Mikel conceded to her. He turned and looked up at Erol, “Please look after my daughter.” And Mahala scrambled up the side of the ship and climbed aboard. Erol paid her fee.

As the Rabhanastren ship pulled up its anchor and unfurled its sails, they waved a teary goodbye to their hosts and friends, perhaps never to meet again; although Erol was certain that they would meet again one day. He seemed assured that he could keep in contact by some means.

They struck north-east and the further from the Al’Qeri floating village, the less Gillam’s nose ran. He welcomed this with a loud sigh, “It’s so wonderful to be able to breathe again.”
At that moment, Mahala appeared beside him. “What’s wonderful?” she asked and his nose ran again. Meanwhile, hanging over the edge of the ship, despite how effortlessly it cut through the waves, Erol still suffered his seasickness.

They reached Aarta – a bustling city, not quite as overwhelming as Trikala but certainly with its own charm, having a unique mix of Marian and Lugardian food and culture that probably could not be found anywhere else in Aria. The locals appeared quite at home with both tongues.

With the arrival of the ship, the docks became an orchestrated chaos of movement as crates were unloadedand sorted into various piles by an army of dockhands. The group slipped off the ship and navigated their way through the growing mountains of boxes. Erol seemed to suddenly realize something and zipped off into the city proper announcing that he would be back within the hour. Gillam, Phaedra and the others were left to debate how to continue their journey to Aaren. As they discussed the options of walking or hitching a ride, Gillam caught the sound of a familiar voice, one he hadn’t heard in quite some months. He turned and found, talking with their ship’s captain, a small but spritely old man with long gleaming white locks and beard to match – it was Griiz.

He hailed him, but when the aged Rabhanastren turned and cast a glinting eye upon him, he froze up. Griiz hopped over and patted him on the shoulder.
“Ho! What have we here? Were you on this ship? I had heard that you had gone to Trikala!”
“We were. We took a different way home,” Gillam replied awkwardly. “What about you?”
“I have come to collect my purchases. This ship has brought many books and the like which I acquired in Rabhanast and beyond.”
“Who is this?” Phaedra asked and Griiz was all too happy to introduce himself to her.
“We did a job for him in return for that book,” Gillam added and then finally asked his burning question. “Is your daughter here with you?”
“No, she has stayed at home this time. She has become quite obedient as of late.”
Griiz went on but Gillam just let out a long breath as all the muscles in his body relaxed.

While they were giving Griiz a brief recount of their tale, Erol returned and welcomed him warmly. He queried the old man about the current situation in Aaren.
“The city is in good spirits,” he told them. “The harvest festival has begun and the people are happy though Perol’s boss is not all well.” He didn’t elaborate on this, instead turning his gaze to Mahala, Wendika and Lingen. “I see you have made some new friends on your travels.”
“Yes,” Erol replied, “With a personality like Gillam’s, it’s quite easy.” Gillam scowled at him.

Out of the blue, Griiz got a cheeky glint in his eye. “Knowing your ability to retrieve books, I wonder if you could help me…”
Soon Gillam, Erol and Phaedra were following the collector around the city, doing all the heavy work of carrying his many many purchases of books and other curiosities while he popped in and out of shops, splashing around gold like water. While they went around he gave them a short history of Aarta, with input from Erol who seemed to be quite familiar with the city.

According to him the city was established shortly before the fall of the Shaltean Empire in order to settle the northern regions. An academy at its centre was intended to bring culture and civilization to the region, and this same institution continues to run the city-state to this day. It is for this reason the citizenry are somewhat more learned than their Marian counterparts. Indeed, any attempts to bring the small nation under Marian rule were constantly thwarted; the last time, the numerically strong Trikalan fleet reportedly being defeated by extraordinarily accurate catapults.

Anyway. Suddenly from behind a voice called out to Griiz. They all turned to see a youthful richly-dressed man run towards them followed by his entourage of friends and guards.
“I was hoping to avoid this,” Griiz sighed under his breath. The man stood before him and gave an elaborate, unnecessarily long bow and then proceeded straight to business without even a by-your-leave.
“Master Griiz! I must hear your response to my request. May I take your daughter’s hand?”
The pile of books Gillam was carrying concealed the look that crossed his face, while his fingers dug deep into the their covers. Griiz played a slow game and stroked his beard thoughtfully, but the boy, who was introduced as Lord Antipolas was insistent, and offered any amount of money. The old man was not interested though; he pointed to the books that the party were carrying. “As you can see I am not short for money.”

“Besides,” he went on, closing in on the boy and patting him casually on the belly, “I cannot possibly give my daughter to someone so… weak and flabby.” He grinned playfully and glanced at Gillam. The watchman was already proving himself by making a show of lifting the 3-foot high pile with one hand.
“If that’s how it must be, so be it,” the young lord conceded and began stripping. It had been a while since he had seen it so at first Gillam was a little startled, like the others, but he soon realized the lord was preparing for Lugardian-style wrestling. Even though the brat looked like a Marian, he clearly was aware of Lugardian tradition and was soon down to his small clothes, borrowing a sash to act as a replacement tarn. Erol and Phaedra had quite the look of shock on their faces but the situation was quickly explained to them and Gillam too stripped down to his tarn.

The idea of Lugardian wrestling was that both combatants were stripped and oiled up. There were few specific rules, but no permanent damage to your opponent was allowed and the winner was decided by the first to reach their arm up through their opponent’s tarn.

The fight began. The two circled each other for a few moments, eyeing one another up. Around them, a crowd of inquisitive passers-by formed a make-shift circle. Mixed in were Erol and Phaedra, sat watching with hastily acquired snacks, and shouting encouragement to Gillam (though the cheering coming from Phaedra bordered on jeering).

Antipolas made the first move. He lunged at Gillam, clasping one hand on his side and the other on his shoulder. The guard was caught a little surprised and left himself open to a quick knock to the chest. He broke free but after a short struggle the lord was on him again – this time from behind and forcing his back into an unnatural bend. He was lithe and fast but Gillam finally caught a grip on his arm, twisted it around and held the lord in a lock he had used many times when dealing with petty thieves and drunks.

Until this point, the boy had been getting all the hits in so Gillam got revenge with a sharp bonk on the head. He was finally starting to get a grip on the weaselly little bugger. But then, as he tried to wriggle out of a grapple, the little lord slipped. He fell to the ground flat on his back. Gillam didn’t hold back – he gave him a good hard kick in his ribs and leapt on him. The lord had no chance as Gillam swept his arm up his tarn-sash and roared victoriously.

Lord Antipolas was gracious in his defeat. He got himself up (with the assistance of his fellows), nodded at the victor and conceded, “The better fighter won.”
But then he turned to Griiz once again and begged a second chance. “Surely, a good husband not only needs to be strong but also wise!” he claimed.
Clearly he was a sore loser after all and Gillam decided to shut him up by shoving him forcefully out of the way. The lord tottered, barely managing to stay on his feet, but when Gillam looked at Griiz the old man was looking thoughtful again.
“Yes, you may be right. We’ve had a test of strength, let us have a test of wisdom,” he announced and once again there was a glint in his eye.

Most of the crowd dispersed by the time the second round began. The two opponents stood before the Rabhanastran who then spoke his riddle.
“Soft of sole, they do not be, but soft of touch, you must be. Worth but burden they seem to thee, but in the desert, they can save thee. What wise thing of Rabhanast do I speak?”
A flip of the coin decided that Antipolas would get to guess first. Gillam was uncomfortable. This really wasn’t has his thing. He generally solved things with a bit of physical persuasion and threats of more physical persuasion. He didn’t go for this kind of wordplay. The lord to his left probably had had years of education with a personal tutor and would get the answer straight away.
“An army!” said the lord.
“Wrong!” said Griiz.
Now it was Gillam’s turn. Maybe the lord wasn’t as smart as he had thought. In all honesty, he had an answer and he was pretty confident with it. He ummed an ahhed for effect. When you thought of deserts you thought of only one thing. He even saw Phaedra mouthed the same answer.
“A camel,” he said with certainty.
“Wrong!” said Griiz.
The watchman was stunned. Griiz looked to the lord again, who considered it before saying, “An eagle?”
“Wrong!” said Griiz.
Gillam’s mind ground through every word of the riddle again and again. The old man’s gaze was boring into him – a look that said the answer should be glaringly obvious. His eyes shot to the others but Phaedra had nothing and Erol had a poker face on. He wondered if there was a time limit. And then he found the answer and felt a fool for not realizing it earlier.
“A horse,” he said flatly.
“Correct!” said Griiz with a broad grin.

The lord slunk off with his people in tow, leaving with an assurance that he would try again. Gillam, on the other hand, strutted off in the opposite direction, without his armor so everyone would see his bulging muscles and tapping his head to display his superior intellect. As he did so, Griiz hopped up to him and said quietly in his ear. “I’m afraid I probably can’t go and give my daughter’s hand away,” he said. Gillam faltered mid-step. “If you know my daughter half as well I think you do, you’d know that it’s not mine to give. And she’d probably kill me if I tried. Even still, good job.” Griiz quipped before skipping off again leaving Gillam a little lost for words.

That evening, Griiz treated them to dinner and they told him of their travels in more detail. Erol was keen to know any news he had about Trikala, but he did not have much, except that trade up the Gold River and Snakewater had slowed, which added to the concern about the slowing trade down river from Kohlen. Gillam asked about Lord Dhonyl’s health and he explained that the lord had been blessed with a male heir which finally settled the question of succession. However, there were rumors that Dhonyl had not had a wink of sleep in weeks.

The next morning, the party joined Griiz’s caravan for Aaren. The journey was steady as it wound sharply up into the hills around Aarta culminating in the pass that struck through the mountains into Lugard. Gillam rode on Vaprus for much of the 4 day journey while the others rode in the carts surrounded by all the goods.

The road returned them to Gillam’s home village, Tavalen. With summer been and gone, the snow drift that had buried half the village was gone and the rebuild was going along smoothly thanks to monetary and physical assistance from Aaren. Gillam immediately went in search of his brother, finding him leading the construction of a new inn. Fenn greeted him coldly, asking where he had been. He began to tell his story but soon fell to silence as the look on his brother’s face showed total disinterest.
“I have been unable to find Gloen,” Gillam admitted soberly and his brother’s disappointment was clear.
“I see.”
“But I have been doing all I can! And I will keep searching. I will find him.” He tried to sound as assuring as possible.
“The world is large, but fate has a habit of weaving people together,” said a sage voice behind him.
“You remember Erol,” said Gillam. “He’s also been searching with him.” Erol nodded and his brother thanked him, aiming none of the thanks at Gillam. The atmosphere was tense, so Gillam tried to shift the conversation.
“How is the house?”
“You don’t think I can maintain a house?” Fenn snapped, “I’m leading the building of a new inn here.”
It was clearly best not to stick around. Gillam trodded off somberly to visit his parents’ graves by himself, not returning to the caravan for over an hour.

The caravan headed out of Tavalen the next morning and at the end of two more days travel it was passing the city spread and approaching the old wall and gates. Word was soon sent to the keep and the caravan was barely through the gate when a message returned inviting the three to dinner with Dhonyl. They thanked Griiz for the ride, and he went off to sort and document his purchases.

They were given little time to deal with their own affairs, so Gillam quickly greeted his men in his constabulary and left Vaprus stabled to get to know Snuffler the boar. As he walked back to the castle, he savored the cobbles under his soles of his boots and thought how good it was to be back. He was looking forward to refamiliarizing and getting back on the beat once again.

He rendezvoused with Erol and Phaedra, who had likely been dealing with her own nefarious affairs in a similarly hasty fashion. They were accompanied by Mahala, Wendika and Lingen. The dining hall they were brought to was familiar, but it was the first time seeing it prepared for an actual dinner. There was food aplenty laid out on the long table and it was just waiting for them to eat it. Gillam was sure the others were too looking forward to eating a lord’s dinner, and a free one at that!

Lord Dhonyl then entered the room. He was noticeably shattered. He was followed by Yahn, Alvyarin and also Perrol, who gazed at the additional guests and burst into a fit of excitement. He hobbled over to Mahala as fast as his aged legs could take him and scanned her head to foot. Erol introduced her, and Phaedra followed up by introducing Wendika in that annoying voice she had for anything related to him – Yahn seemed to take great interest in him. It was left to Gillam to introduce Lingen, and he was not happy that he had automatically become the bard’s supervisor.

As they ate, Dhonyl explained that they had heard news of rioting in Trikala and worried about the fate of the three of them. He appeared genuinely grateful that they had returned safe, though they had taken much longer than expected. Erol asked if there was more detail of the situation in the city. It seemed the mob had attacked the palace and the king had abdicated. With the prince taking over, peace had returned to the city but there were murmurs of tensions with nobles in the other cities of the Marian alliance.

Dhonyl and the others were very much interested to know their whole story and so the three obliged, Erol leading the retelling with Gillam and Phaedra chipping in. The one key thing they had agreed on beforehand was not to mention the dream world. Gillam was glad about that: he imagined Yahn would think him crazy.

And with their tale told, they were updated on situation in Aaren. The baby and his mother were healthy; the people were content. However, there was something amiss. Gier Marton had taken over affairs of his house due to the strange disappearance of his father. Gier had vowed fealty to house Sandemar, so tensions had lessened, but any searches for the whereabouts of his father had brought up naught. That was until two weeks ago when reports came of him sighted in custody of the Kohlen city watch. Arild Broenn and taken some of his men to see, but as yet a reply from them had not come.

It was all very suspicious but there was no need for haste. While the others seemed eager to solve another mystery, Gillam was adamant that they should not make a move unless they were ordered by the lord to do so. Besides, they had only just got back, and there were things to organize and people to see.

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Part 15 - Gill

When the group returned to the Al’Qeri village, the whole place was in a panic. All the frogmen were scurrying about in a tizz or just standing around helplessly looking at one another. It did not take too long, however, for their presence to be noticed and they were suddenly surrounded.

Erol spoke in Al’Qeri language to them – it sounded strange, like he had a frog in his throat… The one frogman who seemed to have her head somewhat more on her shoulders than the others thanked them from retrieving her sisters, but was eager to have them follow. “Mikel is awaiting us,” Erol translated. Gillam sniffled.

They went down into the underwater orbs and to the great hall at the center. Outside there was much urgent and worried chatter, but within was silence; although from the look in the eyes of all the Al’Qeri aides present they would welcome a good scream right now. However, they kept still and quiet and looked at Mikel nervously. He was sat at the center of the room in a strange pose. Cross-legged, his eyes were closed and his head lolled forward as if his neck had been partially severed, and even from this angle it was clear to see the contortions on his face.

“What the hell is wrong with him?” Gillam reacted, but Erol chose his words more carefully, turning to Mahala who was also there. “Is aught amiss in his meditations?”
“He called for all of you to come at once,” Mahala answered. Erol went over and examined the frog-father, reported that his skin was slimier than usual and his heartbeat hastened.

Suddenly, Erol started and turned to one of the aides, speaking in their language. The sister hurried from the room and returned moments later with every single one of his possessions. He opened his pack and took out the jade mirror which he had picked up from under Prince Doukas’ desk. As beautiful as it was, Gillam did not understand why he would have held on to it for all this time, nor why he would so desperately need it now. Phaedra looked just as perplexed as he was.

Erol turned to them and announced he was going to give them a crash-course in meditation. Normally, Gillam would have out-right refused to take part in such a nonsense activity but Erol’s eyes were alight with urgency – it was hard to say no.

It seemed simple at first: sit down, cross your legs, close your eyes, and relax. Gillam could do that – being a guard meant standing around, remaining completely still for hours at a time – but when Erol requested that he clear his head of all thoughts… well, you might as well tell a bird not to shit everywhere. There was too much to think about: who had a guilty conscience, where the closest potential weapons were, and when was the next chance to have a smoke.
“Imagine you are holding a transparent ball in your hands, cup it there in your hands, now the ball will expand, let it grow, let it completely surround you…” Erol went on. Gillam tried. He imagined being inside the ball. Maybe he had it?
“Now, look into the jade mirror,” Erol instructed.
Gillam jolted out of any semi-trance he may have been in and glared at Erol. “How am I supposed to look in the mirror when I’ve got my eyes closed?”
“I meant mentally look…”

Though Gillam didn’t understand, they tried again. However, it seemed hopeless to Gillam. He had an itch on his butt, his nose was running like crazy and all he could think of was tobacco. After a while, he opened his eyes and looked around. Phaedra seemed to be getting into it, and the Al’Qeri in the room seemed to be taking bets on who would fail first. He looked at Erol, who was clearly deep in his meditation with the mirror firmly in his hand, and he sighed. He thought he had found someone sensible in this world, but it turns out this Mrissan was another nutcase. Oh well, he was still better than most, he would forgive him this, he supposed.

Suddenly, Erol’s condition changed. He started to visibly sweat and shake and his muscles bulged. Gillam nudged Phaedra, just as Erol began to convulse dramatically. His grip on the jade mirror tightened so much it seemed it might cut through his skin. Gillam leapt over to hold him as Phaedra cried out to Mahala, “What’s happening to him?”
“It appears he is diving deep,” she replied as she gazed at the mirror.
“Is he safe?”
Mahala gave no reply and in response Phaedra reached out to snatch the mirror from Erol’s hand. But as soon as she touched the thing, her whole body shuddered and fell still. For a second, Gillam thought her dead, but she still breathed. Her body was limp but her hand looked like it was stuck to the mirror. With Erol’s convulsions worsening and Phaedra’s eyes rolling back, Gillam was forced to react in the only way he knew how.

He swiftly unsheathed his sword and ignored the cries from Mahala and the other Al’Qeri. Before they could do anything, he swung it down squarely on the damnable mirror.

The mirror did not break. Instead, the sword stopped and stayed there. It would not move and neither could he release his grip from the sword. In a panic, he jerked his arm back with all of the remaining strength that he felt hadn’t been sucked out of him already. The last thing Gillam remembered was seeing the living statues of Erol and Phaedra topple over into the meditating Mikel.

And then he was somewhere else.

He realized he had his arms in the air as if he was carrying his sword and shield ready to attack. But he didn’t have his sword and shield, and he didn’t have his armor on either. He dropped his arms sheepishly and looked at Erol. Yes, Erol was there, as was Phaedra who looked infuriated. And around them was a world – a normal-looking forest yet with everything dyed a strange cloudy blue color.
Erol reacted to Gillam’s confused face and said unsurely, “Welcome to the dream world…”

Out of nowhere came a thunderous roar, and then an immense wave appeared, towering over the trees.
Phaedra yelled at Erol, “This is your dream, so get us out of here!”
But Erol stood there and a look of concentration crossed his face. He was doing something, maybe, but it didn’t stop the wave. It arched high over them, and crashed down like a stampede.

And now they were in water. Not rushing, sweeping or falling water, but deep in a calm ocean with no apparent surface or floor. And they were just floating there. Gillam and Phaedra held their breath, like anyone would when they are underwater, but Erol indicated them to breathe normally. It took a bit of mental persuasion to do so, but when he did it felt like a warm, soothing liquor rush down his throat.

Erol pointed to a glow below them and began to swim toward it. He moved smoothly, like a seal or one of the frogmen – just where and when had he learned to do that?! While Phaedra followed as expected of a Marian, Gillam, who was generally used to being on top of the water rather than in it, could only manage a paddle.

They swam down through the hazy water. At one point, Erol decided to create one of his uncanny lights. It flared like the surface of the sun. Gillam and Phaedra cursed him loudly and he put it out immediately.

In the center of the glow, a figure came into view; a frog-like figure. Erol called to Mikel and the frogman opened his eyes.
“Ah, you have come. I was told to expect you.”
This was certainly a strange thing for someone they had already met to say and the expression on all their faces must have betrayed them, because the Mikel in front of them tapped is head, “My grandson is here. He wished for me to meet you in person.”
“You are Mikel the Fatherless!” Erol exclaimed softly.
“Like many of my kind, I was born of a father who was once a sister, thus that moniker became attached to me in my dealings with your people. To be honest, I am surprised that you all were able to make it here.”
‘You were surprised…’ thought Gillam while Erol introduced the party.

The Fatherless one nodded along as Erol reminded him of the burning man story in his own Book of Tales.
“The reason we came seeking you is that we have also witnessed a man bursting into flames.”
At this the frogman was astonished and could not believe it until he touched Erol’s head. Once he did this, he believed every word of it and his expression became solemn. When asked what this meant, he responded with a question: “Do you know of the War in Heaven?”
Of course Gillam knew of it – there was barely a child in Lugard who wasn’t told it. He learned it from his father, his grandmother, and his teacher. He had even recently seen the whole thing being performed beneath the dome of the Aethusa. But the way the Al’Qeri now recounted it made him feel like until now he had only been given the light version. It left him at a loss: even if he bothered to contribute it seemed it would not help the story along.

Of course, he spoke about Somah and his six children, and of the war between chaos and stability with Somah and the First fighting the other four, without the Wight. And the four won and Somah was stripped of power and the First’s body became the earth. He told of the second war fought against the Wight and how when his defeat was apparent he split his power up among his lieutenants so that when the Builder went to banish him he fell to pieces and scattered across the void to remain powerless while plotting his return. And how, upon seeing death, the Builder vomited and this formed the lesser races.

Now Gillam had always had doubts about the story, but the tone in Mikel’s voice insisted it was fact. And here was where he went on further. He knew the names of two of the Wight’s lieutenants: Pain and Fear. Pain was capable of wanton destruction, but Fear was more subtle an aggressor, able to pluck servants from within the ranks of his enemies as their terror overcame them. In this way, the ancient empire of the Al’Qeri was defeated. They were all surprised to hear that his people once lived on land, look like “normal” humans and had a great empire and were even more so when Mikel added that the story of the burning man was a history from the time just as Fear’s forces were rising in their lands.

Mikel went on. When Fear’s armies swept across their empire, the Al’Qeri begged the gods for help and their prayers were eventually answered by transforming them into their present frog-like forms which was both suitable for making a new life within the sea and, in that they now looked similar to the demons, being able to hide of plain sight of them. This saved them but came at a price. They were forever unable to forget their tragic past and forever doomed to live as outcasts as this demon-like form, he theorized, sparked an ancestral memory in other races that causes an inherent distrust of the Al’Qeri.

He gave the group a chance to ask questions; and there were many. Erol showed a figure of Harald (which Gillam assumed was something he had learned to do in this dream world). Mikel did not recognise him, but warned that such abilities as changing their appearance would be trivial for demons.
“How can we identify a demon?” Phaedra asked and Mikel warned that some may not know that they are becoming demons but his best advice was “Men bleed while demons may not.” It seemed a little strange to suggest that they go around stabbing anyone to see if blood comes out, though.

When they asked for any other advice it was that they should work together and take a lesson from the Al’Qeri’s downfall brought about, he suggested, by a lack of unity. This advice, too, seemed rather hard to achieve in the world as it was.

Erol was also keen to learn as much as he could about his premonitions from the old frogman as this opportunity would unlikely present itself again. He showed another figure: this time of the girl in Gillam’s dream. He really had seen the same girl! Gllam was amazed. Again, Mikel did not know who she was but switched the topic to the existence of this dream world.
“This place… these are our memories,” he said and gestured to the emptiness beside him which suddenly shifted like hundreds of turning glass panels to reveal possible reflections possible other Al’Qeri sat meditating. It was spectacular and disconcerting and Gillam was glad when it stopped – he certainly did not understand the significance of it.

Though there was no sense of time in this world, there was a sense that they should return soon. Before going, Erol wished to pass on the message that the nearby humans were becoming restless but old-man Mikel assured the Mrissan that his grandson had been present throughout. Then, finally, Gillam asked, “How do we get out here?” The Mikel before them smiled, blinked and then said, with a somehow minutely different voice, “Thank you, father.” He then proceeded to blow a bubble which enveloped them all.

They were back in the real world again. At least, Gillam hoped it was the real world. But before he could even readjust, Erol turned on him angrily, holding Gillam’s sword point-down and waving it in his face.
“You tried to break the jade mirror, didn’t you?” the archer fumed.
“You and Phaedra looked like you were having a fit! I was trying to save you.” Gillam countered.
Erol gasped, “You could have trapped us in that wold forever!”
“Well, you didn’t tell us what we were supposed to do before you went into your weird trance,” the watchman protested but the Mrissan shoved the sword back in his hands and turned away. Gillam studied the blade momentarily and spotted a dent in the edge which hadn’t been there before.
“You deserved that,” Phaedra chuckled beside him. He ignored her.

Taking on Erol’s warning, Mikel, also out of his trance, announced to his daughters that they would be moving to a new location. The entire population of Al’Qeri immediately set about making preparations for the move. The whole place soon became a buzz with work. The group were asked if they wished to disembark now or stay with the village as it moved and catch a ride back to land further up the coast. After some deliberation they decided to stay and during the night the anchors holding the orb structures in the bay were loosed and the whole village floated away. Wendika and Lingen, who had been away on their own travels, returned just in time to join them.

Erol welcomed the extra time to learn some final instruction from Mikel, but Gillam, whose nose still could not take the Al’Qeri, remained on the water’s surface in a small boat, with his horse, towed along behind the ocean caravan. He welcomed the few relaxing days at sea, updating his notebook, smoking his cigarettes and gazing at the stars; though he soon learned that horses’ bowel movements were significant and endless.

They eventually came across a ship that was willing to ferry them back to land and said a sad farewell to their frog hosts and friends, possibly never to meet them again.

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Part 14 - Gillam's log
Fear not, Al'Qeri you home

Having gotten the chambermaid to finally accept his explanation and leaving her to change the bed-sheets, Gillam only just stepped out of his room when a large bang came from downstairs. He hurried down to find Erol and Phaedra desperately looking for him.
“The herb-gatherers are in trouble!” Erol announced. Gillam didn’t quite know what he was talking about. “The what?”
“The Al’Qeri herb-gatherers!” Erol clarified sharply. Gillam had not spent much time in the Al’Qeri village at all, so he was unaware of the village roles, but now that he knew it was to do with the frogmen he understood the urgency. He was just about to ask what had happened when a roar of angry voices erupted outside the inn.

It was a mob, which contained almost the entire population of the tiny village, and at the center were three Al’Qeri being bound to stockades. Erol led the way as they rushed out. He sped over to the Al’Qeri and spoke to them in their own language. Gillam was amazed by how quick he had picked up their language, but the villagers’ response was not of admiration. They turned on him with shouts of “Frogman sympathizer!”

Gillam looked around for a ringleader and spotter a local farmer, leading the protest from atop a barrel. He and Phaedra went over to the man to ask him what the meaning of all this was. The farmer told them that his horse had been stolen and when he and his lads had searched the local forest, they had found the Al’Qeri sneaking around. Phaedra looked like she was about to hit the man. “They are herb-gatherers so they were gathering herbs,” she explained, “Besides, they don’t even ride horses! They certainly don’t eat them!”

But even with the back-up of horse-rescuing local superstar hero Gillam, her explanation was ignored. The villagers’ suspicions of the frogmen were too strong; they disliked the proximity of the Al’Qeri village to theirs. Phaedra snapped and ordered them to stand down. Gillam also gripped his sword hilt. They listened now.

One woman came forward and tearfully explained that just four days prior her two children had gone missing after going to play in the woods. With the horse rustlers a month ago, the missing children and missing horses, obviously tensions were high among the villagers. Erol quickly assured the woman that they would find her children as long as the Al’Qeri were unharmed until their return. Gillam felt a little more persuasion was needed: “If they are hurt in any way, I’ll bash every single head in this village together.”

With the crowd dispersing like a sell-out performance by a famous artist had been prematurely ended and no one was sure what to do with themselves, Erol took the opportunity to bribe a local boy to keep the Al’Qeri watered. Gillam got Vaprus from the stables and the group headed into the forest.

As they followed tracks easily spotted by Erol, Gillam introduced his horse to the others. Erol recognized the beast as Mrissan and welcomed him, but Phaedra kept a scowl on her face and stayed a few steps away from it.
“How did you know the Al’Qeri were in trouble?” Gillam asked the archer.
“It was a dream I had which came true,” he replied.
He had heard Erol talk about his dreams before, but suddenly it seemed as if they would be useful. “So if it’s true, what happens next?” he asked but still skeptical.
“I don’t know. The dream ended. But I did see a great on a river and Harald, the priest in Sallen, lashing out at a man and laughing maniacally. And as I watched him, two great waves came from the east and west and enveloped me.”
Even if he did see Harald, this didn’t seem to Gillam like any reason to stop doubting all this prophesizing mumbo-jumbo. “Sounds like you’re just having nightmares,” he shrugged and added, “I had a pretty weird one last night. I fell off my horse and this girl appeared. She had bright white hair and these fierce green eyes. She asked me ‘Who are you?’”
The others gaped at him. Phaedra gasped, “I dreamt about the same girl!”
“As did I,” said Erol thoughtfully. They looked at each other unsurely for a moment and fell silent.

The tracks they were following suddenly branched off in two directions. One had very large footprints, one had small ones. With no better reason than hoping to find the children alive, they followed the small tracks.

A little further on, they came across a pile of sticks – a childish attempt at building a fort; something Gillam recognized from his youth. In among the branches they found a small shoe, and heading away were yet more large-footed tracks. Erol suddenly became alert – he had heard the rumbling call of a beast to the north. Vaprus too became nervous. Gillam dismounted and led him as the group carefully made their way towards the sound.

Ahead of them, through the trees, they saw the land incline, and then they saw a massive lizard, as big as a cart, dragging a dead horse into a cave. None of them wanted to follow and enter the cave so boldly, so they agreed to stake it out. Erol hunted down a deer and place the corpse outside the cave. Some three hours later, a lizard came out. Phaedra and Erol leapt on it and slayed it before Gillam even had a chance to react. But even as they were congratulating themselves, Gillam coughed. “Wasn’t the one we saw before a lot bigger than this one?”

With the deer cut up some more so its guts were well on display, they continued to wait.
“If it likes horses, we should leave your horse out as bait,” Phaedra kept suggesting with a smirk. She repeatedly showed her dislike of Vaprus, which irked Gillam no end. He had never hit a woman before but…

It was already now long past noon and nothing was coming out. Erol volunteered to take a look inside the cave and using his strange light stick he went in. Gillam, Phaedra and Vaprus waited by the entrance in silence, though Phaedra still made gestures towards the horse.

Minutes later Erol came racing out. He looked a somewhat spooked, saying that he had come across a lair of lizards who, when they saw his light, hissed and chased him. But they hadn’t followed him outside. It became clear the only option was to go in.

Gillam took head, holding the light in one hand and leading Vaprus by the reigns in the other, with Phaedra and Erol behind. They walked slowly, careful of every footfall, but Vaprus was nervous and it was a task to keep him settled.

Coming across the cavern to the side, Gillam’s light fell upon a group of lizards lurking in the water. He quickly hid the light beneath his cloak and it seemed he had avoided their attention. But in the darkness, a small lizard jumped out from another direction at Vaprus. It missed and the thing was subsequently squashed under his hooves. For a moment, they all held their breath as they waited to see if the noise from the encounter had attracted any others. But it seemed they were lucky and continued on.

The tunnel continued and led them through a shallow stream and soon they could see a faint light coming from round the corner. They came upon a large cavern with a gaping hole in the roof through which light and a waterfall fell into a pool. The rest of the cavern was littered with scree as well as broken tables and beds. There was also a large lizard, munching on a dead horse while other smaller lizards hung around scrounging for scraps. And at the edge of the cave, they could see two mangled corpses of children.

They were all enraged, Phaedra especially. Gillam quickly hid the light as she carefully but purposefully stepped around the edge of the cave, gripping her dueling swords. But despite her skill, she was seen by one of the small lizards. It hissed and leapt at her. With lightning reflexes, Erol shot the thing mid-jump and its skewered body fell to the floor. The fight had begun.

Gillam took Vaprus and together they attacked the great lizard from behind, while Phaedra dodged her way in and attacked it head on and Erol shot the other lizards where they stood. At first they found its tail was tough to cut, but finally Gillam hit a sweet spot and sliced the tip off, following it up with a crumbling bash to its knee. Bones smashed and he had its attention. It turned and opened its massive mouth to hiss in his face. Gillam could see right down its throat and got a good whiff of its repugnant smelling breath. The stench hit him so hard he felt dazed, and Vaprus was the same.

What’s more, the hiss disturbed a colony of bats which swarmed about the cave and descended upon Phaedra, nipping at her as she tried to fight. The lizard attacked her again, and Gillam reacted to it with a swing, but Phaedra moved smoothly in response and accurately buried a blade deep in the beast’s abdomen and it was dead.

There was no time to rest however, as Erol, who had killed the other lizards and pinned a few bats to the walls with his arrows, alerted them to the fresh pack of lizards now coming up the tunnel. As this was his first time in real combat, at this development Vaprus turned-tail and tried to flee but stumbled to the ground in the gravel. Gillam and Erol finished the remaining lizards only to find Phaedra still hounded by the bats and looking worst for wear. Finally, Gillam ran over and used his shield to swat them out of the air like flies.

With the cave cleared and a good horde of gold discovered, the group took the children’s bodies back to the Bermi as well as a few dead lizards as proof. Despite the evidence, the people were still unconvinced that the Al’Qeri were wholly trustworthy and still concerns were voiced about the nearby village. Under pressure, though, they released the prisoners. Before they left, the group gave the grieving mother some of the gold they had found in the cave and then they returned to the Al’Qeri village with the rescued herb-gatherers.

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Downtime-2 - Gillam
He woke up feeling a little horse

By the next morning, Gillam had had enough. It had been a restless night, constantly waking up to wipe the pool of snot of his face and the leaf-woven pillow. He could not stand of thought of spending a month or two like this. When he heard about the human village just down the coast, the answer was clear: he would stay there, at least for the time being.

After thanking the Al’Qeri for their hospitality and asking Erol to keep him in touch, he set off. It was a short and pleasant walk along the coast; he spent most of it gazing at the vast ocean, and by the time he reached the human village his runny nose was entirely cleared up. The village was called Bermi and was a small affair, with one inn, a small harbor and plenty of fish. There was also a travelling horse merchant passing through with a whole herd of various kinds of horses. He admired the beasts for a time, but had business in the inn.

With a room secured, Gillam relaxed and partook of a few beers, a good smoke, and a long chat with the locals. There was very little in the way of crime in the village, but that was okay – after the past few weeks it would be nice to have nothing to do – plus the locals were very generous and provided every more beers (although they also provided the local fish liquor, which was disgusting to say the least).

Some hours later, late at night, he had made up his mind: he would stay in Bermi until Mikel came up with some information and they could return to Aaren. And no better time than the present! He set off to gather the rest of his stuff from the Al’Qeri village.

The moonlight shone down on a watchman a long way from home tottering side-to-side, singing Lugardian drinking songs to himself as he walked. He hadn’t gotten far when he heard a great clamor behind him. He turned to see a herd of horses approaching, led by a group of… three, five, ten… No, five men, five… maybe… There were more horses than he could count in his current state, and it didn’t look like the men had any idea how to handle them. Clearly, they were horse rustlers.

Gillam puffed up his chest, held out an arm and boomed, “Halt!” The gang did so, mostly because it would be difficult to get around through the wet muddy grass either side of the road. He continued, “What you are doing is a crime! Return the horses and hand yourselves in to the authorities peacefully.” The gang looked at him blankly; then their leader approached him. He said something in Marian and then shoved Gillam to try and get him off the road, but even when drunk it would be difficult to push Gillam out of the way, especially when he had The Law behind him. He drew his sword and shield and bashed the leader on to his butt in the grass.

The leader shouted something and quickly he and his four mates surrounded Gillam with their cudgels drawn. He roared with laughter. “Not even the lowest thieves of Lyden use cudgels!” he taunted. They didn’t understand. One man attacked: he chopped off his arm. The leader attacked again: he knocked him into the grass again. Another guy tried to hold him: he sliced deeply through his chest.

Finally, one man had him grappled, but moments later Gillam got free and took a swing at the leader which struck him dead. That was enough fighting, he decided, and bellowed, “Stand down or you’ll all end up like your fool of a leader!” The two remaining rustlers understood the tone (even though they didn’t understand a word) and put down their weapons.

He manacled them together, tended to the two that had collapsed from their wounds, and had them all, including the dead body, on the horses. With his strange affinity with animals, he was able to calm the horses and led them back to the human village.

When he returned, he found a crowd of people gathered around the village notice board watching the village’s constable put up a wanted poster. The quiet chattering became gasps as everyone turned to see Gillam and the horses. The constable dashed over and gestured wildly, but Gillam could not understand a word of what he said. He tried to explain but they didn’t understand either. Finally, the only one in the village proficient in both languages – the innkeeper – came to the rescue.

The horse merchant was of course delighted and shook his hands vigorously. He seemed to want to say something, pointing at the horses. “Yes, they are your horses,” Gillam responded unsurely. In the end, the innkeeper had to show him the wanted poster and translate the reward: “For whomever returns my horses and the thieves dead or alive, your choice of any of my stock.”

His face bloomed into a grin and he pointed excitedly at the horses. “I rescued them!” That meant he could have any. He could have a horse. And having a horse practically meant he was a knight. He was one step closer to his dream! In the excitement, Gillam fell asleep.

The next day, the horse merchant introduced his selection. Banythian, Shalteian, Mrissan, Rabhanastren, Caramnian. Gillam knew nothing about them. “What’s the strongest?” he asked through the innkeeper. The merchant indicated two and Gillam chose the one that fitted the image he had in his head: a dark brown-haired Mrissan. The merchant then asked if he had a name for it. He sure did. He had this name decided since he was a child, playing with toy horses and dolls. Vaprus – ‘bravery’, in the old Kohlen dialect.

The next few weeks were spent endless training and practicing with his new pet. They became close partners. He even commissioned metal barding for Vaprus and learned to ride him with ease.

But one night some days later, while asleep in his bed in the inn, he had a strange dream. It started out familiar: him riding his horse through sunny grasslands on his way to another adventure with a certain beautiful lady at his back. But then he fell off, and kept on falling, falling, into a black abyss. Out of the darkness a figure appeared: a young girl – pale-skinned, platinum-haired. She turned to look at him with fierce green eyes and asked, “Who are you?”

He woke up with his bedsheets drenched with water just as a chamber maid entered the room. “It’s just sweat!” he shouted urgently at her. “Dammit, why do you maids always enter at the worst time?”

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Part 11-13 - G-PoV
A matter of Prince-ipal

That night, the streets were peppered with shouts and movement. It was mid-festival, so this could have been expected. However, these shouts did not sound cheerful, rather frantic and aggressive. What exactly was happening, Gillam never knew, but it didn’t take a leap of logic that their raid on the Wolves headquarters was the cause of it all. He and Erol agreed that it was probably much safer to stay holed up inside the inn than risk a look outside. Phaedra, meanwhile, stayed sound asleep.

The next day brought a visitor to the inn. She entered boldly, about as bothered about the glances of the bar’s early-morning regulars as an elephant is of ants, and came into their room. Mahala’s news was mixed. The city had been in an uproar and there was smoke hanging in the air. The safehouse they had been given by the Dockmaster had been burned down – possibly in a revenge attack by his opponents, more likely by his own men to cover up any tracks. On the positive and even more shocking side, the Al’Qeri’s lead had been fruitful and their capture of a man involved in the raid on their village had led them to discovery that his orders had come from the royal family of Trikala themselves.

It seemed the royals, or at least one of them, had wanted the Asatae-Gaya badly. Phaedra, refreshed and awake once again, asked the frog-person just what was so special about this plant. The answer was vague as ever, but Mahala did reveal the plant was unique and had both medicinal and poison properties.

Before she could continue to explain – if indeed she ever intended to – a large commotion came from outside. Erol went to the door of the room and creaked it open an inch. He reported that a group of soldiers in armor emblazoned with a sunburst motif, which Wendika informed them was the symbol of the royal house of Trikala, were currently spreading around the tavern and questioning the barkeep already.

Now realizing that the royal family was very much mixed up in all of this, it was clear that there were in danger. Phaedra risked a looked outside the only window in the room, finding just one soldier outside in the alley it adjoined to, and luckily he was looking the other way. She went out first, silently, followed by Gillam who also managed to not arouse attention despite a couple of slips. Erol also struggled somewhat over the threshold, but thanks to Wendika’s quick-thinking (and over-acting as he pushed Mahala against the door and they both moaned erotically) he was able to duck out of view just as the soldiers burst in.

The three of them waited a few moments as they listened to the conversation within. Wendika knew the captain well it seems: his name was Patros, and he referred to Wendika as Jethro, the sparring teacher of Prince Doukas himself! However, this reunion was not a happy one and a fight soon broke out. Mahala jumped out of the window moments later but not before killing a couple of the men. As Wendika fought on, Gillam was quick to start making tracks round the back of the building. Wendika, or Jethro or whatever his name was, was doing this to allow them to escape, so they shouldn’t let the chance go to waste. Erol was of the same mind, but he had to drag along Phaedra, who could not bear to leave her beloved swordmaster by his self. She needn’t have worried though – he soon caught up once they had fled.

They decided to return to the safehouse to see if anything could be made of the ruins. On the way there, Wendika revealed that during the brawl he had managed to snatch a note from the captain. It was an order to find the group and bring them in so that they could be implicated with death of Lord Skleros – the Alpha. It also said they had one in custody, who could only be Lingen, and it had the seal of the Prince of Trikala. It was clear then, the one behind this plot, the Dockmaster was the Prince. And to have any hope of solving this, getting out of the city alive and possibly finding the Asatae-Gaya, they had to go into the Palace.

The safehouse was indeed a burnt-out shell. With no other options, and the city streets a constant danger now that they knew every organization from thieves to royalty was after them, Mahala invited them to stay with her people in the sewers until they came up with a plan. While they were there, they heard the news that thanks to the unrest the week’s remaining festivities had been cancelled (which surely went down well with the populace…). That evening’s masquerade, which normally would be citywide, was now restricted to the nobility and within the grounds of the royal palace. With this information, they came up with a plan to enter the palace in disguise. Options were tossed around but finally, with the location of a sewer entrance that Mahala knew about and servants’ costumes and masks acquired through Wendika’s connections, they prepared themselves for this city saga’s final act.

The party of three crept up out of the sewer to find themselves in a small storeroom filled with barrels of beer. Erol stashed his bow in a well-hidden gap, hesitant and clearly uncomfortable about leaving it for any amount of time. Gillam placed his trusty sword with it, but there was no way he was going to leave his shield, especially as he had to leave his armor with Mahala and only get to carry a small dagger under the servant robes (it was okay for Phaedra, she knew how to use them – two of them!). Covered with a cloth, however, the shield made a good imitation of a serving tray and he would end up carrying it in this way all night.

They wandered about the basement stores which were filled corner-to-corner with bags of flour, boxes of cheese, and many many barrels. Erol spotted a room with a door, the only one with a door that was shut after anyone went through it. The room turned out to be the wine cellar but Erol, as soon as he entered, sensed something odd. He and Phaedra looked around closely and before long they had found it: a door-shaped gap in the wall. While Gillam guarded the door, they tried to find a handle, switch or anything that would open it, but their search was soon brought to an end as they heard a loud whistle from upstairs.

Along with the other servants and slaves they hurried up stairs to the main kitchen. There, the entire kitchen staff gathered around a battleaxe of woman (who looked as if she had taken a few knocks from a literal battleaxe), named Dulga. It was 5 o’clock: an hour before the ball began. With a voice befitting of her large mass, she gave each group their duties for the next hour. The three were ordered to bring beer and flour up from the basement and that’s what they did. Of course, they needed to get information and search the palace but until they got the chance to work the floor they could do nothing. Besides, Gillam had no qualms about taking orders and soon got on with the job he was assigned. The other two spent a short time trying to figure out the hidden door but could find nothing. The hour passed quickly and they heard the next whistle blow.

Their next hour’s assignment was to bring some food to the guards in the jail. As they were newcomers, the group was partnered with a woman who guided them to the jail. Gillam carried the food on his “tray”. Their guide took them briefly through the event hall, allowing them a fleeting look at the gleaming décor, decked-out tables and the nobles entering as the event began. The jail was at the far end of the building and down a staircase. Down there, two men “guarded” the doors to the cells – Gillam noting that sitting around a table scoffing food was not “guarding” while so many nobility were present in the palace. But Erol – through Phaedra’s translating, of course – discovered, there was only one prisoner. Erol asked if they needed him to bring food to the man, and the guards, too busy flirting with the woman-guide, waved them in. If this was Aaren and his men, thought Gillam, he would give them a good smack upside the head.

They entered the gaol and soon found the prisoner locked in his cell. Ragged clothes, unkempt hair and an expression that had lost all hope – he was hardly recognizable, but it was him. Gillam didn’t hate the man, but still he gave a little sigh. Erol called out to the bard, throwing in compliments and clues about their identity but for a few moments Lingen lay still, curled in the corner, moaning away.

Finally, Erol’s words reached him and he jumped up with excitement, cheering so loudly that Erol had to quiet him down again. He explained, with a giddy voice, that he had come across some games at the grand banquet and had joined in. He had been so good at these games and won so often that the other players claimed he had cheated and eventually was thrown in prison. His face begged for pity at this sorry turn of events, but Erol was quick to ask, “Did you happen to use your lute during these games?” The bard cocked his head – as clueless as ever.

He also mentioned being visited by the Prince but he told him little, as there was little he could tell. It was time to go again, but Erol had an inkling and sure enough he spotted the gap in the wall at the end of the row of cells – a same-sized door as in the wine cellar…

Now 7 o’clock, their next job from Dulga was to serve in the banquet hall – finally a real chance to attain some information. The put on their simple servants’ masquerade masks, loaded Gillam’s shield with wine and nibbles and entered. Stepping into the room was like stepping out into sunlight after a year living in a cave, so dazzling was it. The walls were pristine white, the edging was golden, the floor was such perfect marble it reflected all the light back into your face once again. Multicolored bunting was hung around the place, and silverware crowded the buffet tables packed with so much food it seemed they might explode out. The gaudy clothes of the lord and ladies matched the bright décor: shimmering flowing dresses and colorfully-embroidered tuxedos was the fashion. Gillam was shocked to say the least – the most color you would get at a ball in Lugard was a red blood-stain on a white shirt.

They circled the room, offering the food and drinks to each noble they came to and hanging around just long enough for Phaedra to listen in to their conversations. In contrast to the bright scene, the mood among them was dark. Everyone had something to say about the King and the Prince, and none of it was positive. Rejected lovers, stifled business owners, bitter rivals – they all had a complaint about the Prince especially.

Phaedra spotted one certain lord, already quite tipsy after only an hour. His tongue flapped away with complaints as he stood at the drinks table artlessly throwing together measures of different liquors in an attempt to form various cocktails. As no one else was really paying him any attention, Phaedra slipped over to give the man, Lord Slevo, some mixing tips. While she explained how to make a “Trikalan Sunrise” she persuaded him to reveal his story. The reason he was drinking away his sorrows was because a close friend had been murdered in his own home along with all his guards. The lord was sure the Prince was behind it and while he wanted to mourn his loss he was obliged to come to this event and face the Prince himself. Knowing exactly which death he spoke of, Phaedra chose to move away at that point.

A few minutes after 7, the royal family finally entered to a blaze of trumpets. The King himself, followed by the Prince, in a mask with the symbol of a harrier, and his two right-hand men: Captain Patros, who sported a distinct limp thanks to Wendika, and an aging adviser called Fidi. The King made a generic speech and the “festivities” continued.

Gillam, Erol and Phaedra continued moving around but before they could get to the royal party they were called back to kitchen as 8 struck. Luckily, thanks to Dulga’s sporadic system, they were back to serving again. This time, the three made a beeline towards the King and Prince. King Adianous said little as he sat in his throne and gazed vacantly over proceedings. They gave him some wine and cheese and moved on to Doukas who was in close conversation with his two aides. They eavesdropped as the offered the tray to each of them, picking up snippets: the Prince was repetitively vocal about his dislike of festivities; the captain reported that his men were unable to find the assassins of the Alpha; Fidi reported on a rumor that Wendika had joined those assassins.

It was all very intriguing but at no point was the Asatae-Gaya mentioned, frustratingly. Just how were they to find this damned plant if no one was going to talk about it? Soon, the Prince’s conversation would be interrupted when a Lady, whom the group had previously overheard bitterly complaining that she had been rejected in love by Doukas, chose that moment to come over to give a sarcastic greeting to him. The group left the scene and continued serving until 9 o’clock came.

At the next hourly gathering Dulga told her staff the news that a mob had gathered outside the gates of the palace. She asked those serving the lords and ladies to try to assure them to keep calm and carry on and for this hour’s assignment, she had Gillam, Erol and Phaedra take beer, bread and meat out to the men on guard.

Loaded with food and drinks, they went out of the main building and crossed the broad courtyard to the front gates. There the guards were stood in a tight line, weapons drawn, looking nervous and facing the mob of commoners brandishing torches and shouting anti-royalist slogans like “Nobles drink while the city burns”. Such was the anger in that crowd that it seemed like a solid red block of rage.

They beckoned the guard captain, who introduced himself as Theros. When Gillam asked, he told them he and his men had been here out 6 and would only switch shifts at 12 and as such more beer would be welcome to calm their nerves. Erol then asked if there were any other guards in the palace that would appreciate a fill-up. It just so happened there was: a man called Jason who was always forced to be on guard in the royal apartments. It was just the ticket they needed.

They hurried to back to the stores, found a decent bottle of red and entered the apartments. The lights were on low down the corridors but the carpeted floor and mahogany walling gave a warm feel. Just to the side, a lush garden could be seen through a pair of glass doors. Jason and his colleague were there, suspicious at first but eyes lighting up as they saw the wine. They drank as they spilled their gripes about always having to deal with Prince Doukas’ fiery temper when he returned from royal events. Before they could ramble on, quick-thinking Erol asked if would be okay to step for a smoke. The guards waved them out and continued drinking.

They stepped through the glass doors. The garden was big and filled a plethora of different plant species, which under light of day would surely be spectacular – unfortunately, it was almost 10 at night. While the other two gave the place a search, Gillam stayed by the doors and actually did have a smoke, because it really had been hours since his last one. He relished it for a few minutes until they came back, reporting that they had found one of the secret entrances Wendika had told them about. It was good that they now knew two escape routes, at least.

There were many beautiful flowers, but no Asatae-Gaya and 10 p.m. was fast approaching. They returned to the kitchen and were told to take a break for the next hour.

They sat in the breakroom and mulled over their options, but nothing came to mind. As they were free, they split up to take a look around the palace. Gillam popped his head into what turned out to be the guards’ breakroom. The men on their breaks turned to look at him and he urgently gestured offering to get them more food or drink. They shook their heads and he slipped back out again. At the same time, Erol looked in the throne room to find it empty apart from the grand throne itself and one stone-faced guard, and Phaedra strolled about the servants’ quarters, finding only another back entrance should they need it.

Suddenly, a great clamor came from the ballroom. Shouts and gasps could be heard. The three of them regrouped and reentered the grand hall (remembering to slip their masks back on) to find the aftermath of a little incident. From the scene it appeared the drunken Lord Slevo had, while approaching and throwing accusations at the Prince, knocked into a serving girl causing her to spill a pot of steaming hot soup all over him. The poor girl was in tears proffering apologies to the lord. This had caused the Lady Ephemia to shriek in horror, while Doukas, indignation twisting round his face, made to storm from the room. Erol swept over to soaked noble to give his aid but Gillam hurried out of the room and through the kitchen in the hope of catching Doukas before he locked himself away in his apartment or did anything dangerous.

But Gillam was halted in his tracks by Dulga. She then called for Georgina – the pretty woman who had guided them to the cells a couple of hours before. Dulga ordered her to go on “Doukas duty”, something she was familiar with, very unhappy about, and begged to not have to do. Phaedra asked if she could help, something which Georgina nodded at so enthusiastically it seemed her head would topple off. Dulga took pity on her and so reassigned Doukas duty to the Gillam, Phaedra and Erol instead. This was finally their chance to get up close and personal with the ‘Dockmaster’ but it was going to be dangerous.

As they searched the stores for certain top-quality wines indicated by Dulga, Gillam noticed that the other servants had taken a liking to them, and so it was easy for them to slip in the room with the sewer cover, recover his sword and hide it under his servant robes without them batting an eyelid.

They returned upstairs, passed by the guards who gave them knowing glances. When they knocked it was Fidi who opened the door. The room was cozy and other doors lead to a bedroom, bathroom and store. Doukas sat by a desk upon which was possibly the most stunning plant Gillam had ever seen. It was like a miniature tree with vibrant green leaves that seemed to glitter slightly and gave off a lush fragrance; it was undoubtedly the Asatae-Gaya. By Doukas’ feet lay a chest with a sizable lock on it. Patros was also there and stood aside as Gillam went to the desk and placed the wine and food on it.

Phaedra asked if there was anything else they could assist with but they were simply told to wait in the corner. They did so, and a curious conversation continued.

The Prince, with an expression of exasperation and frustration, once again bemoaned the nobles and festivities. At this, Patros nonchalantly offered to have his men kill them all – a suggestion which earned the response, “Idiot”, and he subsequently fell silent.
“We cannot be implicated,” Fidi explained.
“Will it work?” Doukas asked, eyes red with fatigue.
Fidi replied with a yes and told him the mob was already outside, ready to spill in. Realizations and more questions flooded Gillam’s head as he was sure they were filling Erol and Phaedra’s too. Had they incited a riot? Were they to use the ‘poison qualities’ of the Asatae-Gaya? Just what were Doukas’ intentions and goals?

But for some reason, Doukas seemed concerned. “We have to secure my father. And what of all the innocents, such as the servants?”
Why would this murderous plotter care about such things?
“We have to be unseen, like them,” he concluded, indicating Gillam and the others in their servant clothes and masks. But when Fidi also looked at them he soon made a realization: “No masks in the royal apartment!”
The group stalled as they whispered to each other; what should they do? Fidi turned white – he had realized; the gig was up. Erol was first to take off his mask, as did Phaedra, and when Gillam did he also revealed his hidden shield and sword.

It was an understatement to say the Prince was surprised to see them – both alive and in his own room. He explained he was sure they had left the city and commended their tenacity. The questions flew around between the two parties: the plant, the rioters, their ‘mutual friend’ in Wendika.
“What right do you have to dictate people’s lives?” Erol asked angrily but only when Gillam added, “The job of a monarch is protect his citizens!” did the prince sigh and shake his head.
“As a doctor,” he began, “sometimes one must cut-off the hand to save the body…”
His explanation was soon cut short, however, as a dull rumble resounded throughout the palace. He jumped to his feet and looked at them. Sweat was pouring down his face now. “Look,” he said with a new sense of urgency, “We may have gotten off on the wrong foot” – this was the understatement of the century – “But why is it that you haven’t tried to kill me yet?” Oh, thought Gillam, I would love to, but the noise would alert the guards and I wouldn’t want to involve them, plus we still have questions.

Erol pointed at the table. “We’ll take the plant and the bag,” he demanded, possibly keen to get out of here. Gillam didn’t know what bag he talked of but there was still a burning question he had to ask, “Why are you doing all of this?”

Doukas response was something no one would have expected: he pulled down his pants. Now is not the time… thought Gillam, but the prince turned around and pointed to his buttocks. There was a brand of a wolf with the number of a slave. He explained that as a child he would often sneak out of the palace and adventure around the city. On one of these occasions he was kidnapped and sold as a slave. It was Fidi who found him and at great cost bought him so he could be returned to his father. During this episode Doukas had learned that the cartels were under the Garusia – the nobles – and ever since it has been his goal to free the city of them.

Now his story was out, did he expect their trust? Gillam wanted to grab the runt by the scruff of his neck and beat some trust into him, but he resisted the urge and stood still while keeping his sword pointed at him. He asked why he wanted them dead and the answer the quick and obvious: to cut off any lead back to Doukas. Gillam was still adamant and still wanted to know why they could not have told them their plan from the start, but the prince ignored his continued questioning.
“We must go, or many innocent lives will be lost,” he insisted and with Patros and Fidi made for the door with no resistance from the party. As a gesture he gave Erol the key to Lingen’s cell (and was surprised to learn there was a secret passage to the wine cellars).

They ran out to do whatever they had to, and the party was left in the room with the Asatae-Gaya and the chest. Erol scooped up the plant as well as the bag that had been under Doukas’ chair while Phaedra attempted to unlock the chest. Gillam stared daggers at her as she repeatedly failed and tried again. She was obsessed and now they did not have time. Eventually, she had to be dragged out.

He raced down to the jail and Erol got rid of the guards by telling them the prince required their assistance. Inside, Lingen took a moment to realize that he was actually being freed, but while he got himself up, Phaedra was already searching for a lever or switch to the secret door. Despite the urgency of the situation, she luckily found it and the four of them were soon racing across the stores to the sewer grate.

They jumped down and shuffled through the tunnels according to Mahala’s instructions until they saw the light of an exit. It came out onto the river, and though there were no Al’Qeri, there was a boat roped to the stone bank below them. All around was a cacophony of shouts, crashes and the roaring of fire – it was a citywide panic. Looking around the water as they slipped down to the boat they saw the silhouettes of hundreds of other craft jostling for place, racing, colliding up and down the entirety of the broad river – nobody bothering to light themselves.

With Erol at the oars and Gillam holding out a stick with one of Erol’s uncanny lights at its tip they cast off downriver towards the docks – their intended goal: the small rock known as Nisi at the tip of the wall that protected the great harbor. The route was treacherous as other river-farers cut them off and cursed loudly in Marian and there was little chance to observe the palace in flames, the angry crowds swelling over the grand square and the peaceful few praying to every god beneath the dome of the Aethusa.

They deftly managed to dodge around every obstacle but the closer to the Prok’Maeya they got the worse the traffic. Inevitably disaster struck and they were cornered by two colliding boats bringing them into collision with the Pasch stone of the docks.

They still had to circumnavigate the docks to reach the rock and so they ran along the waterfront. At the entrance to the stone pier they found Wendika and Mahala. However, they also found a gang of palace and city guards surrounding them. They leapt into the fight.

Gillam tried to ignore Phaedra’s shrieks of adoration as Wendika sliced each attacker in two. He also saw Erol rush into the fray, which struck him as odd as usually he stayed back to barrage enemies with his arrows. The distraction caused him to drop his shield. He looked down and by the time he looked up again his opponent was the only man left standing. He had no personal grudge with this fellow city guard, so with an intimidating prod of his sword he suggested the man run back to his guardhouse.

Once Gillam had seen him off, he turned around and did a quick headcount – or rather body count – and there were distinctly less bodies than there should have been compared to the number at the beginning. Meanwhile, Erol was slumped to the floor, holding his head and breathing rapidly as if he had suddenly been struck by the flu. Certainly, a fight against a few small fry shouldn’t have affected him; had this whole city drained his spirit so much? Gillam could not figure it out, nor why Wendika and Phaedra were praising him so much.

He seemed incapable of standing by himself though and so Gillam and Wendika lifted him and they all hurried along the stone pier. A large boat was moored by the rock, surrounded in the water by dozens of Al’Qeri. As soon as they were aboard, Mahala tugged a rope which was tied to the front end and immediately the Al’qeri started swimming as one, tugging the boat like horses to a cart.

Boats and ships were still criss-crossing the dock waters hazardously but the frogmen easily steered around them all. Gillam watched Erol as he lay in the back of the boat, barely conscious. Suddenly, the archers eyes shot towards a large ship coming into port and possibly in some kind of delirium he reached out his hand as if wanting to grab it before falling to sleep.

Once they were safely out of Trikala, the noises of a city in uproar evaporated into the air and they left the rising smoke behind for clear starry skies. Gillam realized this was his first time at sea – the great An’Rabh sea, the setting of so many great legends of ruthless pirates and gallant captains. Under the moonlight it was beautiful. But for some reason his nose was running again. Thank the gods there was a lot of water here to wash his hands or they would be covered in snot…

The team of swimmers took them out but still within sight of the Marian coastline until they got tired, bored or something and decided to goad the biggest fish Gillam had ever seen into pulling the boat for them!

As the sun broke over the flat ocean horizon, they turned toward land and the village of the Al’Qeri. At first it looked like just a few huts built out of sticks and leaves but you had to look down beneath the waves to see the rest of it. Great orbs made from a mesh of plantlife hung in the water and before long they were taken into one – the interior was a bubble of air!

They had rested during their cruise and Erol was also awake when they went to see the sole remaining male of the village. For a person of such importance it was quite a shock to find him standing only three feet tall. It seemed as if one of the females could easily crush him if she was having a bad day.

The Al’Qeri male spoke eloquently though and listened to Mahala recount their activities and thanked them graciously for returning the Asatae-Gaya and his daughters safely. They told him of their mission and the tale of the burning man. But despite the frog-man also being of the name Mikel he was not the same: the writer bring his long-deceased grandfather. However, to repay the party for their deeds he offered to commune and contact or read his grandfather’s thoughts. To be honest, it sounded like something one of those sidestreet wacko witches would do to Gillam, but if he insisted it would work and they could return to Aaren with at least something for their troubles, so be it.

The task, though, would take some months of achieve and so they were offered a place to stay in the village. For Gillam though, the Al’Qeri man explained the runny nose showed he was allergic to their people and offered him a hut on the land. As it would turn out, however, Gillam would spend much of the time, like Phaedra, staying in the human town just down the coast…

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