The outward journey from Aasla proved uneventful; the three wizards breathed easier as the distance increased between their carpet and the desolation behind. That night the weather proved mild and the trio camped beneath the stars by the side of the river they were following north. Their sleep was undisturbed.
The Road to Dovir & The Queen's Castle
Resuming travel the next morning, Teldon gave a murmur and pointed to the skies. Flying south overhead was an enormous, red-scaled dragon, gliding lazily on the breeze. This could be none other than Infyrandax, returning to Aasla after exile in the Aasla Spur mountain range. The wizards took advantage of the fact the creature had not noticed them to debate whether they should engage it, rather than allow it to reach Aasla. Humanitarian concerns were weighed against notions of self-preservation and the need to conserve energy for conflicts which were unavoidable. Karnus and Lana debated at length until Teldon pointed out that the dragon had out-distanced the carpet and was no longer in view, let alone within spell-range. Lana sighed in disappointment, Karnus felt relieved that caution had ultimately prevailed, and the carpet resumed its course.
The Queen's Palace
Around midday a sprawling structure came into view atop a faraway hill. On the road ahead, an arched stone bridge led across a water-filled moat to a complex of gaudily-coloured buildings and towers all encircled by an immense stone wall whose exterior was covered in murals depicting a variety of scenes and landscapes. Within the wall, a large rose-coloured building dominated the complex, surrounded by myriad courtyards, lawn areas, some small copses and a tower for every colour of the rainbow - nine in total including, to the wizards' bemusement, two whose presence could only be discerned when not focused upon directly. These structures appeared to fade in and out of existence, shimmering and indistinct. If nothing else the scale of the complex was astounding, easily surpassing the size of Duke Stefan's stronghold in Specularum and even the Imperial Palace of Thyatis City.
Inside the wall hundreds of people were milling around, carrying out everyday tasks; this marked a contrast to the dark and lifeless void that had been Aasla, only miles to the south. As the carpet closed the distance, the insignia displayed on flags flying over the battlements and towers became apparent - a circular spray of rainbow colour set upon a white backdrop.
The wizards were in no doubt that this was the home of the ruler of Haven. Mindful that their bag of holding was brimming with contents "liberated" from Aasla, Karnus viewed the palace with apprehension and asked whether it was essential to stop here. The prospect of prying eyes and inconvenient questioning did not appeal to any of them. It appeared feasible that the trio might simply continue on their way and reach Dovir. For her part, Lana felt drained after her resurrection and welcomed the prospect of rest in peaceful surroundings. Teldon thought it would be worthwhile to stop by the palace to make their presence known to the authorities and glean what information they could about the road ahead.
The carpet approached with caution, sailing unhindered over the outer defenses to land in a courtyard. Guards came to meet the wizards as they alighted, and the party was informed that they would meet with Her Majesty's seneschal - a wizard by the name of Arythlyndar. This prompted the appearance of a number of bare-footed slaves bearing sedan chairs. The Karameikans seated themselves and allowed themselves to be transported across the palace grounds - past courtyards and training grounds, fountains and copses - to the violet tower. Inside the tower's doorway was a large chest into which the wizards were asked to deposit any magical items they carried. The trio exchanged uneasy looks, unwilling to render themselves defenceless in this alien land however it appeared they would not be permitted to meet with the Queen's representative unless they complied with the request. As a safeguard, Karnus offered to remain with the possessions while Teldon and Lana proceeded to the seneschal's audience chamber. As his companions ascended the stairway into the tower, Karnus settled himself in the sunshine and began some gentle meditation.
Lana and Teldon were escorted into an expensively-decorated room where they found a slender, copper-skinned man with long, dark braided hair wearing elaborate robes of blue and orange silk depicting a dragon motif. He was seated at a desk with his back to an open window, through which bright sunlight was streaming. He gestured for the newcomers to seat themselves on a coach opposite, which they did. When it became apparent that Lana was unable to converse in the Alphatian tongue, Arythlyndar deigned to converse in Thyatian which he spoke fluently albeit carefully. While his tone was courteous, something behind the man's narrowed eyes left Lana feeling unsettled and ill-at-ease. Coupled with the bright light shining in her eyes and the potent strawberry wine she was given to drink, she was left disorientated.
Arythlyndar indicated that as the Queen's magist he was authorised to speak for Her Majesty in all matters. He listened with interest to the party's (selective) account of their time in Aasla and of the factions they had encountered. The growing undead presence was considered particularly worrisome; Arythlyndar assured his guests that clerics would be dispatched to investigate. Generally, Arythlyndar led the party to believe that their efforts against the beholder and the followers of Alphaks would be looked upon favourably by Queen Kryndylya and Empress Eriadna. Upon hearing that the party had obtained charts and reports from the beholder's lair Arythlyndar declared that he should take custody of these, therefore the haul of documents was retrieved from the bag of holding and was entrusted to his Lordship's care. Eriadna was pre-occupied with the ongoing War, Arythyndar stated, making Aasla the concern of Queen Kryndylya.
As the weather outside the tower was pleasant the party was given a tour of the palace grounds, culminating in a few rounds of the game 'clubs and spheres' played across a grassy course dotted by holes marked by small flags. While playing the group discussed the reasons behind their mission to Alphatia. Also, while her companions focused on lining up their shots, Lana seized the opportunity to take Arythlyndar to one side. She spoke of the Staff she bore and asked whether the magist would be able to perform a divination similar to the experiments Myskuramis had carried out on the jackal-headed staff which Karnus bore. While his brow creased on hearing mention of Lucinius, whom the Alphatian people considered a traitor, Arythlyndar indicated that he would be willing to examine the item.
In the interests of fairness Arythlyndar disqualified himself from the game, allowing Karnus to be crowned the winner with only two points over a 'perfect' score. Lana's efforts throughout the game had been un-focused therefore she finished last with several dozen penalty points.
The Sculpture Garden and the White-Haired Woman
Once the game was concluded, Arythlyndar led his guests to a courtyard overlooked by guards where various artworks had been positioned around a fountain. This, he explained, was where Her Majesty kept her those statues and sculptures which, at any given time, were her fifty favourites. Lana felt an involuntary shudder when Trelleremy's name was mentioned. Arythlyndar proudly displayed an piece of his own creation which had earned the Queen's admiration - a slumbering red dragon atop a bed of sheening coins, intricately carved with small wisps of smoke coiling from the beast's snout. This piece, he explained, had secured his position as Her Majesty's foremost advisor.
Shortly afterwards, it appeared Arythlyndar had pressing duties to attend to therefore he took his leave, leaving the Karameikans free to inspect the other works at their leisure. Teldon approached a statue of a young woman carved from crystal, within which a myriad of scenes could be viewed - a staggering assortment of people and places, including views of Aasla in happier times such as the Temple of Alphatia in its former glory and fleets of sky-ships departing from the great shipyards which had now turned to ash.
As if from nowhere, an ageing female appeared. Her long white hair spilled over silk robes which were embroidered to show an intricate cityscape similar to that glimpsed within the crystal statue, a dense mass of elegant towers, domes and spires. The woman professed to having created the piece which had captivated the newcomers' interest, and explained that the piece was a study of the Queen of Haven. She gestured to part of the statue showing the woman meeting with a young girl amid a garden, seemingly many years ago.
Karnus and Lana looked at one another nervously, as the reality dawned of who this woman might be. Their suspicions were confirmed when the wizardess introduced herself as Mylertendal, whose concealed laboratory the pair had accessed from the Ethereal Plane. Deciding honesty would prove the best policy, Karnus confessed that after Lana's discovery of the chamber (and unfortunate demise within) he and the cleric Alvion had sought to inspect the chamber as they believed its contents were attracting the undead whose numbers were growing within Aasla. Graciously, Mylertendal accepted that from the foreigners' perspective her basement had been just any other ruin amid a desolate city, and she recognised that no harm had been caused or intended. However, she wished to know whether anything in her laboratory had been interfered with. She scrutinised Karnus' expression as he replied, truthfully, that neither he nor Alvion had touched any of her apparatus. She also wished to know whether anyone besides those present and Alvion knew about her secret laboratory - for example Arythlyndar. Again, Karnus was able to answer truthfully and say no. By way of partial apology, Karnus indicated that he would be happy to use his crystal ball to scry for Alvion, if the wizardess wished to determine the cleric's whereabouts. She indicated that this would be helpful, therefore she and Karnus set off apace across the grounds toward Arythlyndar's violet-hued tower, where the party's magical items had been stowed. For her considerable age Mylertendal proved sprightly, and within no time she and Karnus left Teldon and Lana lagging behind. The slowcoaches finally caught up at the tower, where the chest lay open and Karnus was holding his crystal ball though it seemed he had yet to invoke its power. Instead, his expression registered confusion as he looked from the open chest to Lana. "Erm," he asked, "where is the Staff of Lucinius?"
An unexpected disappearance
Lana peered into the chest and found to her dismay that the Staff was indeed missing. All the other contents appeared present and correct. With a shaking hand, Lana withdrew her own crystal ball and called a vision of the Staff to mind. It had been laid upon a desk piled high with books. Beside the desk sat Arythlyndar, his lips pursed in concentration. Lana's trepidation lessened but just slightly - she had expected his Lordship to ask before taking the item for inspection.
Meanwhile Karnus was assisting Mylertendal in locating Alvion through his crystal ball, and announced that the cleric was in a bad way, healing his wounds in the shell of a burned out building. Clearly he remained within Aasla though his exact whereabouts could not be pinpointed. Hearing this, Mylertendal excused herself explaining that matters elsewhere required her attention. With a swirl of silk she teleported away. The Karameikan wizards were left feeling unsettled and somewhat guilty. To sate their curiosity, both Karnus and Lana raised their crystal balls to monitor Mylertendal's progress.
The wizardess was seen standing in what looked like the ruined harbour of Aasla, her eyes closed in concentration. From out of the nearby bay a giant crab emerged and made a direct line for the old woman. Irritated by the disturbance, she waved a hand and turned the creature to stone. She then resumed concentration before invoking a spell and rising into the air as if to leave the area. Pausing momentarily, she summoned an earth elemental and bid the creature lift the petrified crustacean onto a tall stone wall so that it occupied a position of prominence over the surrounding landscape. Nodding appreciatively at her own handiwork, Mylertendal dismissed the elemental and flew away. The crystal balls faded. Lana and Karnus renewed their visions a moment later, to reveal Mylertendal soaring over the ruins, grief clear upon her ageing features. She appeared to locate whatever she was seeking and landed to one side of a familiar figure - Alvion! The cleric dropped to his knees before the wizardess, though she bid him rise. The two conversed, and despite not being able to comprehend the foreign tongue Karnus discerned a reverential tone in the cleric's voice as he addressed Mylertendal. The name of the Roaring Demon was mentioned, both individuals expressing clear disapproval. The discussion reached its conclusion as Alvion uttered a prayer to Alphatia and both individuals rose into the air, flying swiftly toward another destination.
By this point the trio had been standing outside Arythlyndar's tower for some time, lost amid their scyring. Having grown oblivious their surroundings, they were drawing strange looks from many of the onlooking guards. The loss of the Staff returned to Lana's attention and she explained to her companions how she had revealed to Arythlyndar on the clubs and spheres course that she bore the Staff of the first Thyatian King, and how Arythlyndar had expressed a willingness to examine the item. Indeed, Lana had asked for that to happen however she had expected some warning of when Arythlyndar would take the item. It appeared he had simply helped himself. Karnus was appalled upon hearing this, and asked his companions to reconsider whether they wished to accept lodgings from a host who took such liberties. Clearly the disappearance of the Staff demonstrated a lack of respect, and served to further highlight the Karameikans' position of weakness. Karnus was minded to retrieve the Staff then leave. Lana had mixed feelings, the Staff's safe return being her foremost concern. The decision was made to locate Arythlyndar and seek his explanation for the removal of the Staff. The party agreed to remain vigilent and depart at the first sign of anything further which seemed untoward. Teldon approved but underlined the need to maintain good diplomatic relations - a incident in Haven might jeopardise the success of matters in Sundsvall.
A further audience with Arythlyndar was sought, and the trio was escorted back into the seneschal's reception quarters. His Lordship descended from a higher level of his tower to rejoin the foreigners however without the Staff of Lucinius. Politely, Lana enquired as to its whereabouts and asked for confirmation that the Staff would be returned. The seneschal answered that he was examining the item in accordance with Lana's request. It would be returned once his experiments were complete however Arythlyndar wished to learn the party's intentions for the item. He assumed the Staff was being taken to Sundsvall as a gift to be presented to Empress Eriadna. None present could disagree when Arythlyndar expressed his view that this would demonstrate goodwill between the nations of Alphatia and Karameikos, and would no doubt engender Eriadna's favour. What the Karameikans failed to appreciate, Arythlyndar explained in a manner-of-fact fashion, was that the Staff had been crafted by an Alphatian traitor and therefore already belonged to the Empress by virtue of Alphatian law, which rendered all of Lucinius' possessions forfeit. The passing of a millennium since the Staff was used to repel Alphatian overseers from Thyatis did not make any difference. Arythlyndar anticipated that Eriadna would award the Staff to one of her favoured commanders who would use its power to bolster the crushing of the Thyatian Army.
If this remark was intended to provide consolation, it did not. By her side, Lana sensed Karnus' initial smirk give way to anger as the blue-robed wizard imagined his companion's weapon being turned against the supporters of his adopted nation, Glantri. Without speaking, Karnus regained composure and his expression returned to one of controlled calm.
Arythlyndar continued speaking yet his words were lost on Lana. In her mind, she was attempting to reconcile conflicting ideals. In one respect, to follow Arythlyndar's suggestion and relinquish the Staff would safeguard Karameikos' position in the conflict between other countries. There was even the prospect that Eriadna might dispatch special forces to apprehend Bargle the Infamous - the villainous wizard whose misdeeds in Karameikos (including attacks on the town of Threshold, the destruction of the Flying Ferret Inn and the slaying of the wizard Valtanivark) had caused Lana to vow to bring Bargle to justice. The Order of Tarastia had loaned Lana the Staff for this specific purpose. To see Bargle taken down by forces he could not hope to evade was tempting, but would deny Lana the moral satisfaction of her own retribution. There was also the issue that the Alphatians should not be permitted to profit from their superior might whenever they wished, and furthermore while Eriadna surely represented one of the Known World's most formidable powers, whose wrath it would be unwise to incur, there remained the prospect of angering Tarastia to whom the safekeeping of Lucinius' Staff had been entrusted.
Arythlyndar saw that his words had caused consternation and explained that the decision whether the Staff should be surrendered could wait for the time being, however he bid his guests consider the folly of denying the Empress her rightful entitlement. Dazed and disconcerted, the Karameikans exited the violet tower and mounted sedan chairs which bore them to guest quarters. These turned out to be spacious and lavishly decorated, commanding impressive views over the palace grounds and surrounding countryside.
An evening of relaxation
Dinner would not be for some yet, therefore Lana used the remainder of that day's power to observe Mylertendal through her scrying device. She viewed the wizardess in the grounds of her tower surrounded by shattered bone and corpses - the remains of the undead horde which Alvion had obliterated. Making her way to the entrance to her tower, Alvion came into view, speaking with the wizardess and bowing low before clasping his hands in prayer and vanishing. Mylertendal too cast a spell and disappeared. Instantly Lana's vision was blocked. For a heartbeat Lana suspected she knew where the wizardess might have transported to. A hiding place somewhere... For some reason the thought refused to form within her mind. No bother, she thought, not wondering why her mind had given up the memory so casually.
[NOTE: unknown to our characters, Mylertendal had invoked a Wish to remove knowledge of her secret laboratory from their minds]
Servants prepared hot baths and the wizards enjoyed long soaks followed by naps. A message then arrived - Mylertendal had returned from Aasla and was inviting the trio to dine with her in her private chambers. The Karameikans were pleased to accept and spent a charming evening in the company of the old wizardess. She spoke at length of her Philosophy of Beautification - to which she had dedicated literally centuries of her life countering the Empire's expansionist ways. She went as far as to autograph a copy of her book which the wizards had 'liberated' from the Great University in Aasla. When asked about Eriadna, Mylertendal stated sadly that she imagined the Empress' demeanour would have changed drastically since the burning of Aasla and from the loss of her consort General Torenal. It was to be expected that reason had been given way to great anger in Eriadna's mind, and that she longed for revenge. It would be no easy matter to predict or oppose the desires of a woman whose temperament was known to be changeable at the best of times.
Mylertendal also informed her guests that she had spoken with Alvion after he barely managed to escape with his life upon being discovered at the Church of Alphatia by powerful followers of Alphaks. No doubt these had been the Inquisitors from Revenge, sent by the Black King and Queen. Thankfully the mild-mannered cleric had returned to his Church in the town of Herot in the Kingdom of Theranderol without suffering any permanent harm.
Retiring from dinner, Karnus voiced the desire to move on as soon as possible. The desolation of Aasla remained heavy on the wizards' hearts yet they were finding it difficult to relax despite their seemingly pleasant surroundings. Teldon concurred, voicing the opinion that despite Arythlyndar's faultlessly polite manner he was felt highly unsettled.
The Laughing Flagon
Early next morning Lana met with Arythlyndar to retrieve the Staff of Lucinius, then the three Karameikans lost no time in resuming travel to the north. The carpet rose from the palace grounds - as the young chaplain of Kagyar emerged from the large rose-hued building to wave them on their way - and was soon skimming along the open road again. The road was largely empty save for the occasional lone rider heading in one direction or another. Villages proved few and far-between. By early afternoon a circular building came into view by the riverside, seemingly an inn. A pristine sign stood to one side depicting an ale flagon with comical crossed eyes and a broad smile. Teldon translated the Alphatian script beneath as: "Welcome to the Laughing Flagon. Dovir: 20 miles."
Entering, the establishment was found to be spacious, well maintained and decorated with numerous paintings. An eerie hush hung in the air. Only two other patrons were present, both sitting on their own - one dressed in the colourful uniform of the troops the party had seen in and around the town of Goltar.
Behind the bar stood a fat, bald man who greeted the newcomers in a booming voice, gesturing expansively with his arms. Teldon gave a nod and seated himself at a table removed from the other patrons. As the fat barkeep bustled over, Teldon gestured to a sign hanging above the bar. It resembled the one outside except it was old and battered. Teldon translated the inscription as "Welcome to the Laughing Flagon. Aasla: 80 miles."
The barkeep stood over the wizards' table, sweating profusely and mopping glistening beads from his coppery skin with his barcloth. After a rapid discussion in Alphatian, Teldon relayed to his companions that their host was offering a wide selection of beverages but could in particular recommend the Thunderhead Ale or Rainbow Eruption. A wide variety of fare was also on offer, the specialities of the house being Spiced Leg of Griffon and Dragon Steak with the famous Laughing Flagon Secret Sauce.
Karnus opted for the Griffon Leg with a glass of wine, and Teldon chose the same. Lana selected a red dragon steak with a Rainbow Eruption. The innkeep laughed when Lana enquired about how he sourced his dragon meat, saying business was bad enough without him handing over all his secrets.
The barkeep bustled away and soon returned with the party's drinks. The wine proved acceptable - not especially memorable but not bad. Lana was mildly disappointed to find the Rainbow Explosion looked and smelled like regular ale. It did however have a pleasant, slightly sweet aftertaste and a refreshing quality.
The man who was not in uniform rose to his feet, paid and left. Suddenly Lana gave a great hiccup and put her hand to her mouth but not before a profusion of red, blue, pink, green and purple bubbles shot from her mouth to go drifting across the common room.
Exiting the tavern, Karnus discovered a small dock at the back of the building which did not appear to have seen much use in recent times. Heading on toward Dovir, Teldon informed his companions that the barkeep had professed to having been hit hard, understandably, by lack of trade since the burning of Aasla.
After several more hours a large town came into view. Karnus and Lana's first impression of the settlement was of Glantri City but on a smaller scale. The new capital of Haven, Dovir appeared to have been built at a point where two rivers converged and had a large dock area which was the most immediately obvious feature. Otherwise, the buildings although just as colourful and elegant as Glantri's were completely different and much more irregular in terms of their architecture. Glantri's unique canal network was of course absent as was the great suburban sprawl of the outer city.
Read the next instalment - Events in Dovir
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