Journey to the Hollow World
Dinner and a proposal
The Darokin party - consisting of Sylarin, Dudley, Solchia, Adriana, Jeremy and their newest recruit Giovanni - were invited to attend dinner at a lavish inn, where in a private dining room they were welcomed by their friend Rheddrian. Dressed in fine garments, he appeared to have done well for himself since being released from the Mirror Shield in Corran Keep. He revealed that he had been learning about the world, establishing a network of trustworthy agents and studying the ways of magic. He had been able to advance rapidly as a wizard without years of preliminary study. The energies he had absorbed whilst imprisoned in the Mirror seemed to have granted him an unusual affinity for the magical arts. He alluded in passing to 'other abilities' which the energies granted him but did not elaborate. He was extremely worried by the strange manner in which certain nations were behaving. He was also worried about the effects other missing devices from his ship might be having on Mystara's magic and thought there might be some connection. He also stated that he believed the Immortals were heavily involved in whatever was going on. In short, he felt the whole world was in danger and as the individuals who released him, he naturally trusted the Darokinian party the most. He urged his former rescuers to be very secretive regarding investigations until they could determine who was on which side.
Rheddrian had distilled his ongoing investigation into four areas, and he urged his friends to remain alert for evidence of these. Firstly - identifying strange, erratic or irrational behaviour in the leaders of nations. Secondly - changes in clerical philosophies. Thirdly - new or unfamiliar Immortals. Fourthly - anyone displaying knowledge of strange spells or unusual magical abilities that differed from or subverted the 'familiar' forms of magical learning within Mystara.
Once dinner was concluded, Rheddrian revealed his primary motive for having convened his rescuers. He wished them to travel to the island of Aegos on the southern tip of the Isle of Dawn, part of the Empire of Alphatia which was currently at war with Thyatis and Glantri.
Through his network of agents, rumours had reached Rheddrian that Aegos' population, or at any rate the majority of its able-bodied men and women folk, was missing. It was possible that they might have gone to join the Imperial Army on the Isle of Dawn or on the Alphatian mainland, however Aegos had no major ports and there was no evidence of such a large contingent of individuals having departed by sea (or by air, for that matter). Mass teleportation might have been involved, however it seemed unlikely that as many powerful wizards as would have been needed would have been bothered to travel to somewhere so out-of-the-way. Was something more sinister to blame for the locals' disappearance? Whatever the reason, Rheddrian was unsettled and wished his friends to investigate.
Toward the final stages of the discussion Rheddrian brought out a blackwood staff which - to the party's astonishment - he revealed was an Immortal artifact. This, he stated, he had acquired through recent business dealings. Rheddrian said he would retain the staff's twin, for the devices would allow their bearers to communicate with one another no matter the distance between them. In addition to its powers of communication, the staff would protect the bearer against missile attacks if they were to shout the words 'Shield Me!'. Rheddrian warned the party against calling upon the staff's power too often, lest the attention of whichever Immortal had created it be attracted. Solchia wished nothing to do with the artifact, lest her use of it should displease her Patron Ixion. Therefore Sylarin took custody of the staff and undertook to return it safely to Rheddrian once their mission was complete.
Journey to Aegos
Rheddrian informed the party that they would be richly rewarded for making enquiries on his behalf, and that one of his other agents - a Darokinian businesswoman by the name of Elynor-Andriette Tatescu - would make all their travel arrangements. The companions decided to undertake the mission. So it was that a week later the departed the Known World on a ship bound from Specularum. Jeremy had unwisely decided to perpetrate several crimes within the Karameikan capital; his acts drew attention from representatives of the local thieving consortium called the Veiled Society. The party's departure from Specularum could not have been any more swift.
A lengthy sea journey followed, the companions passing through the Minrothad Guilds and the nation of Ochalea. None of the Darokinians had experienced sea travel before and even after a fortnight they still suffered the ill effects of sea sickness. Halfway through the journey a giant octopus attacked but was despatched without the ship or anyone onboard sustaining serious injury. Otherwise the journey proved uneventful.
Eventually they reached the island nation of Aegos, arriving in a shorefront fishing village with little more than a couple of rickety jetties by the water's edge. The island's landscape appeared to be mainly pastureland and gently rolling hills. The terrain remained barren and unremarkable as the party progressed along a track which was signposted as leading to the capital - Aegopoli. Upon reaching Aegopoli it was found to be a farming community, its defences little more than a wooden palisade which didn't look to have been maintained well. The town seemed at least twice as large as it needed to be to accommodate the number of people who were about. Most shops and buildings displayed signs indicating that they were, 'Closed for the Duration'. Those few people who were about were crippled, elderly or children. Even the town guards appeared too old to be of any effective use. Rheddrian's reports appeared to have been substantiated. None of the townsfolk professed to speaking Darokinian and many appeared nervous when the outsiders addressed them in Thyatian - glancing round to make sure they hadn't been overheard conversing in the 'enemy' tongue during times of War. Sylarin, who a hundred years before had learned a small amount of Alphatian, was obliged to dust off his recollection and step in as interpreter go-between. One local mentioned the possibility of enrolling in the local 'Army' which would require a visit to the 'Palace'. After obtaining directions, the party made its way to a large mansion built from greenish marble which served as the home of the local ruler - King Haldebaran "No-Man's-Fool".
The party was permitted entry and met with the King's son - Prince Dromedon - in the main hall. The Prince was a strapping, red-haired and bearded individual with craggy features, who vaulted over a banister and levitated (by some means) down a staircase to greet the party. A diadem sat upon his brow and a sword hung on his belt. He seemed delighted to be meeting able-bodied young people; it didn't appear to matter that they weren't Alphatian. Dromedon explained that two types of work were available locally. One was mundane work in town - temporary shopkeeping, town guard, fishing or warehouse guarding for which the pay would be a mere couple of gold per month plus room and board. The other would be more interesting and more dangerous work with the Army at an unspecified inland locale. The Prince informed the party that the latter work would generate better pay, though he did not specify a precise amount or any other detail. Indeed, the latter option seemed to require a considerable amount of secrecy, and the party members would be asked to swear a solemn oath before further information could be revealed. Furthermore, a minimum of six months' enrolment would be required, during which time there could be no contact with family or friends.
"So there you have it." The Prince's bushy eyebrows rose. "Which is it to be?"
Dudley cleared his throat. "You won't elaborate on the more dangerous option?"
Dromedon shook his head. "No, but the pay should more than make up for any misgivings you have. Skills such as combat experience, spell use, expertise with a particular weapon, engineering, healing, military tactics, intimidation techniques, tracking and leadership ability will net you well upward of the basic 10gp pay per month. Some of you could receive that amount per week... or per day."
Sylarin's eyes gleamed at the prospect of monetary gain. "Your Highness, you make an intriguing offer. By your leave we would take a moment to discuss it."
The Prince nodded to indicate his consent.
Drawing the group into a huddle, Sylarin drew up a brief agenda:-
"Well." He surveyed each of his associates. "We have a choice to make. What are the advantages of entering a six month contract with the Army of Aegos?"
Giovanni piped up: "Military consultancy can be a lucrative venture - I heard that the Selenican Guild of Adventurers all got rich off their contractual work for the Rockhome Army..."
Sylarin considered this. "I'm intrigued that the Prince cannot tell us about the work - its secretive nature may be precisely what Rheddrian sent us here to investigate in the first place. We would have unlimited access to discover what is happening on the island, and, as Giovanni says, considerable remuneration for our trouble - with all that in mind, is the negative factor of a minimum six month contract a showstopper? Your views?"
Solchia appeared ill-at-ease. "I would feel bound by whatever oath we must take. I am not certain that I am prepared to serve in this army for six months. What if we do not find the answers we seek there?"
"I don't care," Jeremy shrugged. "You all know I'm no soldier but I'll happily pretend to be and I'll agree to whatever they want if it will get me some gold. If I want to leave, I will and they can chase me back to Athenos if they care so much."
Adriana tossed her hair while her eyes followed some detail elsewhere. "I don't intend the people of Aegos any harm so I'll take their precious oath. I won't lay down my life for foreigners though. I'll lend my talents to protecting our group and others so long as I perceive that I'm receiving the benefit I was promised when I joined this enterprise -" she fixed Sylarin and Dudley with a steely look "- but I can't guarantee that my enthusiasm won't wane. If that does happen, I may reconsider my involvement."
"Well chaps," Dudley said, rubbing his hands vigorously, "this venture could be lucrative indeed as it seems two parties - Rheddrian and the Prince - will remunerate us for essentially the same task! In principle I'm in favour of taking the oath but I would like to clarify the timeframe. As a starting point for our bartering, what say we propose one of the following options - either a three month engagement, with the option to extend on a month-to-month basis thereafter, or a straightforward six month term but with an early get-out for one or two of our number should their personal circumstances demand it." Dudley gave a nod toward Sylarin and Solchia. "I daresay we're in a strong position to barter, if capable individuals such as ourselves are in short supply here. What say you fellows?"
Sylarin nodded. "I think you're right, Dudley - let's see if we can negotiate something. Are we all agreed that one of Dudley's compromises is acceptable?"
Giovanni nodded and said, "If we can negotiate en masse, then we should be able to arrange something. My worry is that the Prince will expect each of us to sign on as individuals, thereby negating our advantage."
"It's worth at least trying to negotiate," Dudley grinned. "The Prince is dealing with Darokinians, after all."
The halfling extricated himself from the huddle and approached the Prince, bowing respectfully. "Your Highness, we have discussed your proposal and are pleased to say the company of Whistlestop & Co Exploratory and Adventuring Company will offer its services to the Army of Aegos, so long as mutually agreeable terms can be reached. Our proposal is that, in view of the experience and skills we can offer, the Company's members be permitted to sign up for a minimum term of service of three months, with the prospect of extension by mutual consent. Alternatively, the Company will consent to a six month engagement but would require your assurance that a limited number of its members would be permitted to withdraw if circumstances were to alter as a result of personal commitments. We earnestly hope such circumstances would not arise, but we need to provide for such a contingency. The mostpart of the Company, if not every member, will of course remain pledged to your service for the duration of the agreed term.
"Do we have your agreement to either of these proposals?"
Prince Dromedon had heard Dudley out but his bushy eyebrows furrowed in an unpromising manner. "In view of the experience and skills you can offer, why would I hire you for less than the minimum term? If you are as good as you make out we would want to retain your services for a longer period."
He forestalled any comeback on the foreigners' part by raising a large hand.
"But I appreciate you may be reluctant to commit yourselves to a six month period. If that is the case, I am willing to negotiate on the terms of work within Aegopoli. We could certainly use some more able guardsmen. However, if you want the army work out of town, the terms are not negotiable. You will simply not be able to discharge your duties in less than six months. Given the important and highly sensitive nature of those duties any attempt to leave the army and foreswear your oaths will be looked upon as treason. Furthermore, when I said earlier that you could not contact your friends or familes for six months I did not mean simply that it would not be permitted. I meant it would not be possible. The same could be said of leaving before the six month period is up.
"So, is it to be town or army? Or you are free to walk away now."
As one, the Darokinians returned to their huddle.
Sylarin sighed. "It appears his Majesty has never heard of the art of negotiation. How terribly frustrating."
"Indeed," Solchia frowned, visibly unsettled by the whole affair. "I do not believe Alphatians are famed for their love of negotiation. I do not have any useful suggestions. I will do whatever the party wishes."
"Well," Sylarin said, "it seems our choice is stark. I believe none of us has any interest in remaining long in Aegopoli, so the guarding job is out of the question. Do we therefore join the Army of Aegos, with the benefit of remuneration and potential direct access to whatever is transpiring here, or go it alone in the hopes that we are afforded an opportunity to investigate fully at a later date."
Giovanni added: "We have pledged to Rheddrian that we would commit our best endeavours to the investigation, and I believe that the detective work will be facilitated by joining the Army - the six month terms are... inconvenient, but by bearing that personal inconvenience we honour our existing arrangement."
Jeremy shrugged. "Whatever."
Sylarin replied: "Six months isn't so long, I suppose..."
Solchia continued to look highly uncomfortable.
Adriana crossed her arms and made an exasperated noise. "Put it this way - I haven't come all this way just to turn back without reward for my patience."
Dudley nodded. "Indeed we have few options. We have made our presence known here, so I believe it would be difficult to monitor the Army in a covert manner." He looked at Solchia reassuringly. "Six months isn't that long, is it...? Personally, I welcome the chance to explore the unknown, and to be able to report to Rheddrian with findings which could be of world-wide significance. At least if we join the Army we'll have protection and support from others and we won't be alone in a foreign land."
Dudley looked between each of his companions in turn. "Have we reached any sort of decision?"
Sylarin said: "I believe the benefit of joining outweighs the disadvantages. I say we do it."
Giovanni: "I concur."
Sylarin turned toward the Prince.
"Your Highness, we are in agreement that your offer of employment represents the best use of our time here on Aegos. We offer you our services."
"Excellent. I am pleased."
He paused. "You do mean you you want to join the Army don't you?"
Sylarin and Dudley both nodded.
"Excellent. Then we should discuss your pay. Why don't you tell me more about the skills you have to offer?"
Despite the Prince's unwillingness to budge on the period of service, the Darokinians came into their own when it came to negotiating their rates of pay. After an extended period of selling themselves and their talents, the Prince put the party's weapon skills to the test. He proved to be an expert swordsman whom none present could hope to best but he seemed satisfied that the Darokinians fared better than most other recruits.
After discussion, the party's salaries were finalised. Sylarin and Solchia would each earn 260gp per month, Jeremy would receive 160gp per month and Dudley, Adriana and Giovanni would each receive 150gp per month. Dromedon offered to pay the party's inn bill for the night, and instructed them to be ready to leave the following morning. They were to assemble at the town's northeast gate at dawn for transport to the site where they would spend their time in the Army of Aegos.
Before departing the Palace, each party member was required to swear a simple, verbal oath - to protect Aegos and its people to the best of their ability, until released from duty. Jeremy cheerfully swore on his honour, which none of his companions expected would count for much. Solchia on the other hand swore on her honour and by the Flaming Wheel of Ixion and seemed to take the whole affair extremely solemnly.
You're in the Army now
Dudley was not fond of rising before dawn and even less fond of missing breakfast so it was with a rather upset halfling in tow that the party made its way through the deserted streets of Aegopoli shortly after sunrise the next morning.
At the northeast gate was a caravan getting ready to depart. By Darokinian standards it was a pitiful affair - no more than half a dozen battered wagons and carts accompanied by horses and goats. An old but hale and hearty looking man was waiting for the new recruits. He was broad shouldered and slightly overweight, with grey hair and a beard. He wore a faded, travel stained tunic and held a piece of parchment in one gnarled hand. He shook his head as the companions approached and said something in Alphatian. He then called out the party's names - badly pronounced - and directed them to line up alongside three other individuals. The first was a tall, armoured man who like most everybody in Aegopoli had a coppery skin tone. The second was an exotic looking woman with dark brown skin. The third was a man with the lighter skin tone of most Known World humans although it was tanned and weathered, suggesting he was used to an outdoors life.
Sylarin nodded to the three others and took his place in the line. Giovanni barely acknowledged them, but also lined up. Dudley, who was still in sulky form, found it within himself to take off his floppy hat and bow courteously before the other recruits and the old man. "Greetings to you on this fine morning," he said quietly, before remembering he was speaking in his native tongue of Darokinian.
The copper-skinned man and the woman said nothing although the woman gave a slight nod of acknowledgement. Then to the Darokinians' surprise, the second man - the lighter skinned fellow - smiled broadly and replied in perfect Darokinian.
"Greetings to you too. It is indeed a fine morning and that is a fine hat."
The stranger stood a little over six feet tall. He looked to be in his mid- to late twenties, of compact, muscular build, clean shaven and what humans might consider handsome and had shoulder length black hair and brown eyes. His clothing - simple hose and tunic were black and dark brown. A massive sword was slung across his back.
"Good heavens," Dudley said, returning the man's smile. "Fancy hearing Darokinian spoken so fluently, so far from home. Introductions appear to be in order. Allow me to present Sylarin, Adriana, Solchia, Jeremy -" he pointed to each of his companions in turn, "and I am Dudley. Might we have the pleasure of your name?"
The man's smile broadened and he said, "Certainly. I am Kel..."
"Ahem." The old man had a bemused expression on his face. He said something but when this met with blank looks from the Darokinians he sighed and said in mangled Thyatian, "Carn yers ride aright?"
With the exception of Dudley, all present were able to ride the mounts which had been laid on for their use. The halfling seated himself beside the old man on the lead wagon. The strapping hat admirer appeared to be contemplating whether to lift Dudley up onto the high seat, but ultimately chose not to, presumably out of respect for the halfling's dignity. The mounts, which were somewhere between the size of small horses and huge ponies, proved strong and sturdy, and carried the group along at a good pace as the caravan rolled out of town, heading vaguely eastward along a dirt track which was about as far removed from the Darokin Road as the foreigners could imagine.
The old man turned to Dudley and said in Thyatian, "Scupper's tha name lil one. Where be ye from than?"
Dudley took a moment to recover from the 'lil one' comment before responding. "Pleased to make your acquaintance Scupper. We fellows hail from Darokin in search of adventure and the unknown. Which prompts me to ask - could you enlighten us as to where we're heading?"
"More fro' Darokin, eh? Can't tell yers where's we're goin' 'fraid but you'll get yer a'venture and plen'y o' unknown. How's yer trip 'ere? Long sail I bet. I know all 'bout tha'. Used to be in tha navy meself. Ship's cook I was."
Sylarin raised an eyebrow from the neighbouring horse. "There are other Darokinians here already? I'm surprised to hear that..."
Scupper pointed to the black-garbed man who had spoken to Dudley. "Jus' 'im."
"The trip here was fine," Dudley chirruped to Scupper, making polite conversation, "we came across the sea, obviously enough, through Ochalea, bit choppy in parts, personally I don't think I've found my sea-legs just yet."
"Aye," Scupper guffawed, "well they are very small. Har, har, har. Ahr don' mind me lad. Jus' a LIL joke. Har har. You won' be back on the sea fer a while though."
Despite his questionable sense of humour, Scupper provided to be not entirely unpleasant company. He liked to talk - mostly about himself and his time as the finest cook in the Alphatian navy. He complained that nobody ever appreciated his cooking but claimed the recruits would be in for a treat when they camped that night. He rambled on in this fashion as the sun climbed into the sky. He dosed off occasionally, only to start back into wakefulness when the wagon jolted over a dip in the track - which it did regularly. At these points he continued on talking in Alphatian until he remembered himself and switched to his rough Thyatian.
The trail led past fields of crops - golden and ready for harvesting. Back in Darokin the autumn rains would long since have started but on Aegos, despite being early Sviftmont, it still seemed like the height of summer - warm and dry.
In the late morning, the black haired man who had been talking to Solchia for the last two hours rode up beside Sylarin and nodded to him and Dudley.
"Hello," he said, "Scupper's impatience cut short our introduction earlier. My name is Kelter Zerben. I've been away from Darokin for some time. It's a nice surprise to meet fellow countrymen here of all places."
He smiled a warm smile.
Sylarin nodded and smiled. "Greetings, friend. My name is Sylarantharios, and this is my business partner and good friend, Mr Dudley Whistlestop. As you say, it is indeed a surprise to find another of our countrymen here - I assume you're travelling for business purposes?"
The big man laughed good naturedly.
"Ha ha. Business! No, not me. When it comes to business I have a mind full of copper as they say. To be honest, I didn't think elves cared much for business either. As I've told your companion, Solchia, I'm here to find out what's happening to the island's people. More than three thousand people have disappeared from Aegopoli but people just say they can't talk about it. I think there might be some monster on the loose but then again nobody seems that worried about their missing friends and family members." He shrugged. "If there is a monster, I'm going to slay it." He reached over his shoulder to tap his sword hilt. "So, what sort of business are you in? Like I said, I always thought elves didn't like the constant buying and selling of the merchant families."
Kelter's accent sounded as though he hailed from northern Darokin.
Sylarin smiled. "My father was a merchant - I suppose I take my fervour for the eternal questing after the Daro from him. As to our business, we are explorers and cartographers by trade - though this is a lucrative way of spending a few months on dry land..."
"Three thousand missing people is indeed an alarming figure - I would have thought that Prince Dromedon would have shown more concern for his subjects... unless he knows what's happened to them already, that is."
Kelter said, "I think Prince Dromedon knows exactly where everyone has gone but just like everyone else I asked he said, 'They've joined the army; they're serving Aegos – that's all I can say.' He didn't seem the type to appreciate being questioned by the likes of me but I still thought there was something strange going on. Where have they all gone if they haven't left the island and why is there no contact with their families? The king wasn't any more inclined to answer my questions than his son was. That's why I took Dromedon's oath and joined up. Back in the army again."
"Ah," Dudley took this in, "then you have plenty of military experience, have you? All of our group have seen plenty of adventure, however this is the first time we've been part of an army..."
"Yes," Kelter nodded. "I joined the Great Stone Wall when I was eighteen and served in the Thirteenth Legion so I'm not new to the army life. It was tough. I imagine this will be a very different experience - after all, how much action are we likely to see if we're not going to leave the island? Unless there's a monster on the loose of course."
"Anyway, I'm going to introduce myself to Torkia and Stryl. Speak to you later."
He spurred his horse forward to catch up with the dark skinned woman and the armoured man who were riding about fifty yards ahead. After a few minutes Solchia rode up. It transpired that she and he had been talking at length. He had professed to being a wandering adventurer who arrived in Aegopoli about a week ago and enjoyed an audience with Prince Dromedon's father, the King of Aegos. He seemed very concerned that something sinister might be going on around and showed a polite interest in the philosophies of Ixion.
The day passed without incident. Come evening Scupper directed the caravan off the track and into a pasture where a few cows were grazing and paid the newcomers no attention.
Scupper prepared the evening meal (despite some protestations from the other drayers) while camp was set up. Scupper's Bean-stew concoction was perhaps the worst thing the Darokinians had ever had the misfortune to eat. Iron Rations would be a treat compared to the thick sludge he spooned out and gobbled down with much lip smacking. Kelter ate his, smiling and nodding to Scupper. The man called Stryl tossed his away in disgust. Everyone else ate slowly and reluctantly.
Sylarin sidled up to Kelter and offered him the remains of the hideous meal. "What do you know of the other recruits?" he asked. "Is it worthwhile making introductions?"
Kelter eyed Sylarin's bowl and said "Errm... no thank you. I really don't think I could manage any more." He checked to make sure Scupper wasn't looking before disposing of the remainder of his own meal on the ground. "No sense in hurting people's feelings," he said.
"Stryl is from some place called Archport. Torkia Nuar is his travelling companion. She's from Seagirt - the Thyatian naval base in the Pearl Islands. They've spent the last few years adventuring in Norwold which I'd love to hear about but to be honest they didn't seem to want to speak to me. They weren't rude but talking to them was a bit like trying to get gold out of a copper mine. Pity. Like I said, I'd love to learn more about Norwold - I've heard all sorts of rumours about trouble there and it seems the sort of place where good folk need protecting and a few monsters need taken care of."
Sylarin gave Kelter a curious look. "You're a very altruistic man, Kelter - it's encouraging to see that there are people like you around in the world. I think I shall go and introduce myself to Stryl and Torkia, but we should talk again soon..."
Kelter smiled. "Just doing what I can. Good luck with those two."
With that, Sylarin rose and walked across to Torkia, reaching her and addressing her in Thyatian. "Greetings Torkia Nuar of Seagirt, I am Sylarantharios of Darokin - might I join you?"
The dark skinned woman regarded him cooly at first then managed a slight smile and said, "If you wish but I should warn ya I'm not feelin' much up ta talkin' tonight."
Sylarin removed his hat and executed a low bow. "Good lady, I wished merely to introduce myself. If you are not disposed towards further conversation this evening, I shall leave you in peace. Madam, your servant." Another bow followed, with a nod to Stryl and Sylarin returned to his companions’ midst.
Scupper dictated the night watches but nothing more threatening than a curious cow approached the camp. In the morning, Scupper woke each companion in turn before going to check the wagons.
Solchia had, as always, been awake since before sunrise, having risen to give thanks to Ixion for the dawning of a new day. It seemed Kelter had also been up for a while. He had donned heavy looking platemail armour coverered by a black tabard. He was standing some way from the wagons practising with his two-handed sword, making great sweeping arcs and grunting with the exertion.
"He's been doing that for an hour," Solchia said when her companions joined her. “When I awoke he was already up and in deep meditation. I thought we might be in the company of a paladin but we're not. He said he could never have been a paladin."
Kelter finished his exercise and turned to walk towards the Darokinians, waving and shouting good morning.
"He's a cleric ..." Solchia continued.
Kelter was now close enough for his fellow countrymen to see the symbol on the front of his tabard - a white circle displaying a sword shearing the neck of a red dragon.
"... of Balthac."
The unexpected Immortal
Dudley and Adriana looked at one another in puzzlement, familiar with the name but not the context. Balthac was a popular figure in the bedtime tales of young human children in Darokin. Sylarin recalled how he had heard two versions as a youngster - one from his father and one from his mother. One featured the brave dragon-slayer Balthac and his companion, the elf-maid Sinan. The other was the great elven heroine Sinan and her loyal human friend, Balthac. From what they could all remember of the tales, Balthac had died in his final battle with a gigantic red dragon.
Kelter bid everyone a good morning then helped Scupper get the horses ready for the day's ride.
Torkia caught Sylarin's eye as the caravan was preparing to leave. "Good morning," she said before spurring her mount into a canter to catch up with Stryl who was already out on the trail. The pair once again rode ahead of the wagons, leaving a trail of dust in their wake.
As the group set off, Kelter brought his horse alongside Adriana's. "Hello, we didn't get to speak much yesterday. I'm Kelter and you're Adriana yes? I couldn't help noticing you studying that book this morning. May I ask, are you a magic-user? Growing up I always wanted to be a wizard but things didn't quite work out that way."
Words of sarcasm died unspoken on Adriana's lips as her eyes roamed across Kelter's substantial frame. Smiling with uncharacteristic sweetness, which unnerved Sylarin and Giovanni who were riding nearby, she responded:-
"Yes, I am a practitioner of the magical arts. I understand you have abilities of your own, gifted by Balthac? I must admit I know of him only as a figure of lore, not as an Immortal... perhaps you could tell me more about his teachings?"
Her eyelashes fluttered frenetically.
Kelter beamed at Adriana. "Certainly... if you're interested, although to be honest there isn't much to tell. Following Balthac isn't really about teaching people. I try to set a good example - living as Balthac lived: travelling where I am needed, fighting monsters and protecting the innocent. Not everyone can be a great warrior but everyone can behave honourably in their own lives and I hope to encourage people to see that. Those who are fortunate enough to be born with the strength to protect themselves should also protect the weak. I suppose Balthac is the patron of warriors who defend those who cannot defend themselves."
"How gallant," Adriana said in a tone which Sylarin and the others identified as disingenuous, though her smile remained undiminished. "Please do go on."
Kelter shook his head. "That's all I can think of to say I'm afraid. I'm not surprised you don't know of Balthac as an Immortal. I am one of his first clerics and there aren't many of us. I suppose you only know the old tales and the story of his death in battle with Calortharyx."
"Yes, the great red dragon." Her brow furrowed. "But if Balthac fell, how then could he have risen to Immortality? And tell me how you became his cleric... is there a temple of his somewhere? I must admit, none in our party had heard of his worship before meeting you."
"Well," the brawny man replied, "the story that you know and every child in Darokin knows is true up to a point. In the time before the rise of the modern nations, the fearless dragon-slayer Balthac and his companion Sinan, having defeated many of the world's great evils, went up against a huge red dragon that was ravaging the area that is now northern Darokin. Balthac slew Calortharyx, burying his elven blade, Camb, deep in the monster's skull, but his own wounds were mortal and he died in the arms of Sinan who built a cairn for both him and the dragon."
Kelter glanced at Sylarin. "Sinan of course went on to become a legend among her own people, finally falling centuries later, defending Alfheim from a powerful Lich. I do not know whether she ever returned to the site of Balthac's last battle. If she she did, she would have discovered his body gone for he had been raised from the dead by the woman who would become the head of his clerical order. A few years ago, a woman who had been born in Darokin but taken by her father to live in Glantri came into possession of a powerful Glantrian artefact that enabled the bearer to travel through time."
Sylarin's eyes widened. "Fascinating. Do go on."
"Having nurtured a great admiration for Balthac since childhood she went back to secretly witness his battle with Calortharyx and his burial. She meant only to pay her respects but when Sinan left she found herself inspired to restore Balthac to life and bring him to our time. This she did but when Balthac became aware of his legendary status amongst the people of Darokin he was overwhelmed and assuming a new identity he secretly continued his work. The Immortals, seeing Balthac's continued dedication and humility and recognising that his name had lived on for over a thouand years since his death bid him lay down his weapons and rise to live amongst them and Balthac, realising how much more he could do for the world, accepted."
"As to how I became his cleric... I was chosen. As a lad, growing up in Corunglain, I was taught to honour Halav as patron of the City and to respect the Church of Darokin but I never dreamed of becoming a cleric. Like I said, I wanted to be a wizard but my parents were too poor. However, I grew up big and strong and became a soldier. I was happy enough with that. Serving at Fort Nell was exciting. We would sometimes cross into the Broken Lands in search of military targets to attack and we in turn would face many attacks from the Orcs.
"On one patrol mission we received word that a large orc raiding party had been spotted and we headed to intercept. Unfortunately, the orcs outnumbered us and were ready for a fight. The battle was a disaster for both sides. I was the only survivor. I remember my sergeant dying beside me and as I lay there, unable to move and preparing to join him I heard a voice calling to me by name. It urged me to rise up and travel north-east into the mountains. The voice gave me strength and I did as it instructed. For weeks I travelled, wounded and starving but always being supported by that voice. I cannot remember how many times I was attacked by orcs - I suppose by the end I must have been pretty near Grukk. I hardly had the strength to defend myself but eventually I arrived at the long lost cairn of Balthac where the voice told me to rejoice for I had been chosen for tasks above and beyond the concerns of a simple soldier of Darokin. I would be sent where the innocent were suffering and given the power to protect them. It was Balthac speaking to me and that is when I became his cleric.
"Weeks later I found my way back to Fort Nell. Of course I was charged with desertion but when the fort's commander heard my story he gave me an honourable discharge - although it was clear he thought I was mad and I had no proof at all to back up my story of becoming a cleric.
"Since that time I have served Balthac as best I can and that is how I come to be here."
Sylarin looked significantly at his colleagues. "It is good to hear that so noble a warrior has joined the Immortal pantheon. But tell me, when was Balthac brought to our time, and when did your epiphany take place?"
"Balthac was brought to our time by Lady Lillith about five years ago. It was a little over two years ago that I received my calling."
"And since then?" Giovanni queried. "Has your Order grown much?"
Kelter shrugged. "I don't know how many of us there are. I've only met Lady Lillith once - in Corunglain - and we don't have a church yet. Churches take money to build and we're more interested in protecting people than getting rich so we just wander to find those places where we're needed."
Giovanni appeared horrified at this. "How... spontaneous of you."
Sylarin gave him a reassuring nod. "Yes, well, if you're led by a Glantrian you can hardly expect a keen business acumen."
"Actually," Kelter replied, "I think Lady Lillith still thinks of herself as Darokinian despite having lived most of her life in Glantri."
"Even so..." A sly look crossed Sylarin's face, which the others recognised as the 'I smell a profit!' look. "When we get back to Darokin we could look at providing management services to your organisation - perhaps if you told us how to contact this Lady Lillith we could enable you to concentrate on championing the weak while we administer your business...?"
"Hmm," Kelter murmured. "I don't know how much 'business' there is to administer but I suppose that's not really up to me. I haven't been in contact with Lady Lillith since I set out to travel the world. She said that Balthac would guide my path and in time would guide me back to her. I can't help you very much with finding her but I don't think she intends to leave Darokin again. I'll write you a letter of introduction so she knows you're good people if you manage to locate her."
Sylarin bowed his head. "That would be... most kind."
Giovanni continued to engage Kelter in conversation while Adriana brought her horse alongside Sylarin's. Her eyes remained fixed on the horizon while she spoke in very low tones, so that only Sylarin could hear. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"If you mean to ask whether Rheddrian's warnings about new faiths and cults has come to my mind, then yes."
Adriana gave her companion a dour nod. Her gaze passed momentarily to the blackwood staff laid across Sylarin's saddle but she said nothing more.
The day proved to be another day of bumpy, rattling dusty travel along the road although a light shower in the afternoon brought some relief. Sheep and cattle watched disinterestedly as the caravan passed by. Signs of human habitation became fewer and further between. During the last few hours of travel no signs of life could be seen besides the caravan itself and the occasional seabird.
Kelter proposed sharing tales of adventure to pass the time. Scupper rambled on to Dudley and anyone else within earshot about various battles with pirates in the stretch of water between Aegos and the southern tip of the Isle of Dawn. "Course ever'one knows 'em Thyatian lords provide shelter ta the pirates but they'll deny it 'til their faces are as blue as tha sea."
Eventually Scupper called an end to the day's travel and began preparing another terrible meal while the rest of the men set up camp.
The night passed peacefully and in the morning the caravan set off once more.
With every mile, the dirt track became ever more removed from the Darokinans’ idea of what a road should be. They seemed to be heading in a vaguely south-easterly direction. A pleasant breeze was blowing from the south, carrying with it the scent of salt. Far to the north a low range of hills could be seen.
Scupper was telling Dudley more sea stories and asking if he knew any good trail songs. Stuck on the seat beside Scupper on the lead wagon, Dudley found himself wishing he'd spent time during his youth learning how to ride.
After trying to talk to Stryl and getting no more than a few grunts in reply, Kelter struck up conversation with Giovanni. He asked whether any of the party had met the King of Aegos - Heldeberan 'No-Man's-Fool'. Apparently, the day following his interview with Prince Dromedon, Kelter had been called back to the green marble manor house for an audience with the King - "a very pleasant, unassuming man who appeared to be no more than a few years older than his son. He asked many questions about Darokin, its people and magical practices there and then asked whether there were any signs that the war would be over soon. When I said I didn't think it had really begun he seemed disappointed and said that he didn't like wars and that they frightened him. I tried to ask him about his disappearing subjects but he just said 'They're needed for the army, brave souls. Dromedon is taking care of all that - good lad; he'll be a better king than me.' He then wished me well, said I should be sure to kill any monsters I found for him and dismissed me."
As Kelter was finishing his account, a settlement was spied about a mile down the track. The sea could also be seen and heard. "That's Ptabistah," Scupper shouted. "You can 'ave a break when we get there. I'll see if I can get any fish fer supper."
"That's an odd sort of name," Dudley commented. "I wonder does it have anything to do with the people who first settled it?"
Scupper gave a nod. "I think ye'd be onto summit there."
Ptabistah was a small fishing village. It had no walls - not even a simple palisade. It didn’t seem to be home to any more than a few hundred people. Looking around, it didn’t appear that anybody lived there at all. There was nobody in sight as the caravan followed the track into the centre of the village. Doors were closed and windows were boarded up. Down by the shore was a row of upside-down fishing boats that looked badly in need of repair. A scruffy cat hissed from atop the roof of a nearby stone hut. A high-pitched, wheezing laugh sounded; an old woman was noticed sitting in the shadow cast by the overhang of a hut roof. She seemed to be smoking a pipe and rocking back and forth, staring at the newcomers.
Scupper went to speak to her and she pointed with her pipe out to sea. The old man came back and told everyone to stretch their legs. He pointed out a lone boat on the water that seemed to be coming back to shore and said he would go get some fish.
The boat came in and Scupper helped an old fisherman heave his net out. It was full to bursting with fish. Scupper paid the old man a few coins and brought back a selection to the wagons. After about half an hour he was ready to go again. With little more to be achieved, the wagons rolled on out of Ptabistah. The remainder of an afternoon proved uneventful.
"Well," Jeremy commented, "life in the army is easier than I expected but it's also very dull."
Another night followed, as did another terrible meal from Scupper (somehow, he contrived to make the freshly caught fish taste like it had been lying in the sun for a month) followed by more stories about his exploits at sea - this time regarding battles with Thyatian ships from the Pearl Islands that sailed into Alphatian waters.
The following morning Kelter was, again, found to be up and practising his swordplay. Sylarin and Giovanni decided to take up their rapiers and spar with one another. This drew many polite questions from Kelter about technique and he even joined in - although he hadn't handled a rapier for a while and was clearly (by his own admission) very rusty.
The tedium of the journey was beginning to tell. The day dragged and even Scupper and Kelter became more subdued than normal. Eventually it was time to make camp once again. Preparing the evening meal seemed to improve Scupper's mood (even if the same could not be said for everyone else). He began telling tales of his youth on Aegos, growing up in the village of Ptotephtah at the eastern end of the island. Junzo, one of the drayers, had been clutching his stomach in discomfort and as Scupper was about to launch into a tale about the time a giant attacked his village, he bolted out of the camp in the direction of some trees to find a spot to relieve himself.
Minutes later a cry of terror went up, followed by a dull thud then silence. Kelter leapt to his feet and without hesitation charged off in the direction Junzo had been seen heading. Stryl also got to his feet but paused to look at Torkia. She rolled her eyes, nodded and picked up her spear.
Lifting brands from the campfire to light the way ahead, the Darokinians charged into the woodland following Kelter. The cleric had already found Junzo. The drayer was lying on the ground, his tunic hitched up around his waist. He seemed to be clutching his leg and an expression of terror was fixed on his face.
"By the Immortals," Jeremy breathed as he caught up with his companions and laid eyes on Junzo's frozen form. "He's been..."
"Petrified," Adriana finished, in a manner-of-fact tone but one which could nevertheless be heard shaking.
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