Rest and recuperation
Road to Sundsvall - Part Two
It was decided that a day of rest was in order. Teldon proposed staying in the inn to do some quiet reading and stay out of trouble. After the encounter with the nightmarish cloud creature Lana's mental state had returned to normal yet she still bore some nasty physical wounds. Karnus suggested that a friendly temple should be sought however it turned out there were no temples in town. Instead, the trio sought the services of a local alchemist named Sepralaine – a dark-haired and pale skinned woman whose icy blue eyes surveyed the three foreigners with displeasure as they entered her shop.
In addition to healing draughts Sepralaine had some other potions on offer therefore the wizards purchased an assortment in exchange for some of the gems they had acquired in Aasla. Karnus exchanged a Clairvoyance potion for which he had no need, then asked Sepralaine to test the peculiar stoppered vial he had bought in Tel Akbir. The alchemist took a sip of the elixir then grimaced, handing back the vial before pronouncing the potion to be of low quality and offering Karnus a mere thirty gold coins for it. Unconvinced, Karnus returned the vial to his robes and the wizards concluded their business, taking their leave.
Heading along the street in search of an inn, a robed individual was seen emerging from a nearby doorway. The man, pale-skinned with long dark hair, kept his purple eyes fixed on the way ahead as he strode past the Karameikans yet his lip curled visibly with a contemptuous sneer as he did so. Inspecting the door which had closed behind him, an elaborate insignia was displayed on its exterior. Teldon explained that this represented the letter 'K' in the Alphatian alphabet. Knocking on the door out of idle curiosity if nothing more, a whispering voice from within demanded a password the trio did not have. After a short debate, the wizards decided to leave the building alone and continued on their way.
Locating an inn, the wizards settled in for some rest which was long overdue. Karnus pored through his copy of 'The Northern Immortals' while Lana enjoyed a soak in a warm bath. Realising the extent of their exhaustion, the following day was dedicated to complete rest. Over lunch Teldon asked a few locals the best way to Sundsvall, to be told the main road from the opposite end of the enormous stone bridge would lead to the capital. The innkeeper informed him the town they were staying in was Saddor, the largest settlement on the western bank of the Greenlake River. Upon being asked about the building whose entrance bore the letter 'K', the innkeeper’s demeanour changed sharply and after muttering a low response to Teldon the conversation drew to an end. Aboard the carpet a short while later, Teldon relayed the innkeeper’s response to his companions:-
"That's none of my concern and if you value your lives, none of yours. That place doesn't exist. Forget you saw it. Now I'll thank you to leave and not cause trouble for my inn or get me and my family killed by asking questions like that here."
And so the wizards left the town of Saddor - flying out across the Greenlake River before heading northeast along the main road. By early afternoon they reached a large, bustling village which despite its size had no walls. Buildings were of varying shapes, sizes and designs and were all quite different from one another. Some seemed extremely old whilst others appeared more modern. They were all scattered about at random - the community had the feel of a place that had come into existence by accident. At the centre of the village was a junction where the main road joined another running north-south. At this junction was a large building with many horses tied outside and a steady stream of people going in and out.
Landing at the junction there were plenty of people to ask for directions. Teldon translated a sign hanging outside the large building, which was obviously an inn - 'The Three Paths. Oldest Inn in Vertiloch. Established AY 26.' By the wizards' reckoning this made the establishment just twenty years shy of two thousand years old.
Teldon accosted the first passerby who was able to confirm that the northern road led to Sundsvall and pointed to an old, weather-worn signpost saying 'Sundsvall: 108 miles'. Teldon then glanced at the inn and asked whether either of his companions were thirsty.
The Three Paths
Inside the inn was busy for the time of day. Serving girls negotiated jostling crowds to bring customers their drinks. There was a set of upward-leading stairs near the entrance and a sign which Teldon translated:-
'Upper rooms reserved for Noble patrons and invited members of the Gentry ONLY. Customers of Freeman status or lower MUST remain in the lower rooms. Uninvited commoners found in the upper rooms will be removed and charged with Impertinence. The owner of the Three Paths is not responsible for anything that may happen to commoners trespassing on the upper floors.'
The wizards proceeded upstairs where they found a spacious common room with large windows and some smaller adjoining rooms for private parties. The common room was much more peaceful than the one downstairs, its furniture old but well made. Paintings adorned the walls while small statues were displayed on side tables. There was even a shelf with a selection of battered books. Only three of the tables were occupied. A nervous looking girl stood silently in one corner. Once the wizards were seated she approached, bowed and recited a long list of drinks. Teldon ordered for the party and she scurried off.
As the wizards waited for their drinks to arrive they glanced around. At one table four men were engrossed in discussion. At another table sat an old man and a young woman. The woman stared at the foreigners as they entered and said something to her companion that Teldon did not catch. At a third table sat a pale-skinned old woman. Her grey hair contrasted with the colourful silk kihara she wore, with its many hues of blue, purple and green. She seemed to be staring at the newcomers but her expression was distant and it seemed possible she was simply lost in thought.
As he awaited his drink, Karnus toyed with a coin while staring into the distance. Suddenly he pocketed the coin, turned to Lana with a determined expression and asked her to recount the vivid dream she had experienced while seeking spiritual guidance in the Temple of Tarastia, over a year ago in Thyatis City.
"Certainly..." Lana regarded her companion curiously. "I was in the Coliseum, the great Arena, when it became dark - something massive had obscured the sun. It was an immense spider. A black, two-handed axe appeared to cleave the spider apart, and a golden chalice emerged from its entrails. The chalice appeared beautiful, but tipped forward to reveal its contents - bubbling green goo, like the inside of a cauldron - which spilled onto the arena floor. That's about the most of it." She fixed Karnus with a puzzled look. "What prompts you to ask?"
Reaching into his backpack, Karnus pulled out the book 'Northern Immortals' he had finished reading. "I believe I have determined whose icon that bubbling chalice is." He leafed through the book before showing Lana and Teldon a page entitled 'Loki'.
"Loki," Karnus explained, "is the Northern Immortal of Treachery and deceit - he is also a Fire immortal! Do you see? I believe it entirely possible that Loki could be the immortal that burned Aasla, then used his considerable faculties of deceit to convince Alphatia that it was Rathanos. He may even have been behind the burnings of the Temples of Asterius..."
"Another thing - see here?" Karnus pointed to a line in the book. "Loki constantly works to bring about Ragnarok - the great conflagration that will end the world as we know it. I would hypothesise that he believes this war is a step on that path, and so is busy interfering and aggravating the conflict at every turn."
"Of course, what is not clear is his relation with the other players we know. He must share some connection with Ixion and Rathanos, possibly even Alphaks, if the fire connection is a true one. And he seems to be at least loosely allied with Hel against Odin and his pantheon. Still, I cannot fathom the meaning of Lana's dream - is he masquerading as Korutiku? I assume Tarastia is opposed to him...?"
Karnus fell silent, inviting his companions' reaction. Teldon was about to contribute his own two copper pieces when the old woman, who had been sitting too far away to hear, seated herself at the table and spoke openly in Thyatian: "It sounds like you're having an interesting conversation. Do you mind if I join you?" Speaking loudly in the "barbarian" tongue, the inn's other patrons turned to give her unmistakeably dark looks. She glared back, meeting their gazes with an intensity which prompted them to go back to their drinks.
Karnus received the woman with a surprised but courteous manner. "Please, be our guest. Is there something we can help you with?"
"I'm afraid I couldn't help but overhear you talking about Alphatia and Rathanos and lots of other Immortals I've never heard of. It sounded much more interesting than sitting on my own and I'm also curious as to what brings Thyatian speaking foreigners into the heart of our Empire at this time."
Sceptical of this, Karnus raised an eyebrow and glanced over to where the woman had been sitting. "You heard us from all the way over there? How attentive of you." The blue-robed mage cleared his throat before continuing. "My name is Karnus Perdissium, and these are my companions Teldon and Lana Budanter. Might I have the pleasure of your name?"
Lana and Karnus exchanged wary looks, as if anticipating a specific response. Realising this, the newcomer hesitated before replying. "Well," she smiled, "I could tell you my name is Zarlysa but would you believe me Karnus?"
Lana gave a soft sigh. "That's certainly a new combination. My money was on Sylzara."
The woman smiled, her pale blue eyes glittering. "Sylzara is good. I may use it in future but in truth I am a little tired of the whole device and you caught me out far too quickly. This will be the last time we meet for I must return to Helskir. I of course know why you are here - you have already told me more than once. That question was just for show but I really am interested in what you were saying about Immortals and I imagine Her Imperial Majesty will be too."
Karnus nodded. "Perhaps before we resume that line of debate, you could indulge us in a few questions?"
"Oh very well," she replied, "but I can't promise I will be able to answer them. Go ahead and ask."
Karnus eased back in his chair. "Well, foremost I must ask who you work for? I had thought you to be allied with the Imperial Crown, but your desire to return to Helskir makes me question that, unless that is merely your designated posting."
"No," the stranger replied, "you are correct. I serve the Empress. My reports on your progress have advanced me in her eyes and for that I am grateful to you. I wish now to return to Helskir because that is my home and I miss my family and my friends in the Guildhall. It is that simple."
Karnus nodded, taking this in. "Then I suppose your mission is the next thing I would ask about - you seem to have gone to a large degree of trouble to track us, and we know you are reporting to somebody, so I am curious as to your intentions."
"My intentions were simply to learn what sort of people you were and to amuse myself."
"Well, if you don't mind me saying so, you've been remarkably overt in your mission - you've contacted us directly at least three times where logic dictates that covert observation would have allowed you to observe us for longer. This implies that you wished to interact with us, but to what end?"
"As I have said, to better learn what manner of ambassadors Karameikos has sent. Watching you from a distance - as I have also done - would have shown me your actions but not your characters. Besides, it is also quite boring. Talking to you and to Lord Arythlyndar has been much more interesting. After you recognised me in Dovir I knew the most important thing of all - that you are astute enough to be worth Her Imperial Majesty's time. After that - the Al-Saryz nonsense was just to keep myself occupied and check you were on course. It was also a test of sorts - which I am happy to say you passed by not getting involved.
"After all I have told her, Empress Eriadna is looking forward to meeting you, hearing your proposals and seeing the Staff of Lucinius for herself. She enjoys meeting those who are sharp of mind and possess unusual talents."
Lana fidgeted uncomfortably upon the Staff being mentioned, then spoke. "If I might ask a question of my own -" the stranger nodded "- regarding the Empress’ demeanour. We hear she has succumbed to unfathomable anger since the destruction of Aasla and losing General Torenal. You evidently have her ear and must know a great deal about her. Does she remain open to reason? The people of Karameikos would be indebted to you if you could offer advice as to how we might best approach the Empress. Are there particular subject matters we should avoid, lest we incur her wrath?"
"Firstly, you would be mistaken to believe I have any special access to the Empress. She has received me often recently because my reports were unusual and interesting but there are hundreds of others like me - gatherers of information - and I have no doubt that up to now I have been among the more insignificant of her agents. Her anger at Aasla and the death of General Torenal is no secret but time has passed and I have found her to be calm and focused upon the task at hand, which is the defeat of Thyatis, the Heldannic Knights and ultimately Glantri. In approaching her, you should show her the respect she deserves. She has ruled the greatest empire in the world unchallenged for over forty years. She has earned her epithet 'the Wise' many times over and her knowledge of magic is of course matched by only a few among the Council. She is looking forward to meeting you so you will be welcomed. Be sure not to squander her good graces. She is a good judge of character and though she can easily handle duplicity, intrigue and tough negotiation she has little patience for such Thyatian-like things. Be open and honest. Answer her questions and follow her lead in conversation. Once your business is concluded, do not raise the matter of the war again - more intellectual and artistic topics would serve you better. Do not speak of Glantri unless you have valuable information and if you have such information make it known early in your audience. It will not be to your advantage to guard secrets."
Lana nodded appreciatively. "That is helpful information and we thank you for it. Oh," she added, "may I say that's a fetching kihara you’re wearing."
"Thank you. I bought it in Sundsvall. It is a gift for my wife - a concept that Her Imperial Highness finds most amusing. Now, about those Immortals..."
Lana straightened in her chair. "We will gladly discuss what information we have gleaned, what in particular did you wish to know? It strikes me as curious that you would show an interest in the Immortals - have you been monitoring their movements and have you discerned any trends?"
"Monitoring the movements of the Immortals?" The stranger smiled. "That would be a little ambitious even for me. I have been fully occupied keeping track of your own movements. I am not so much interested in the Immortals themselves as I am in your theories of their connection with the war."
Karnus raised an eyebrow. "Well, that is an extensive topic - I'm not sure where to begin. We have spent a great deal of time gathering threads of investigation together, and the machinations of the Immortals appears to be spread across the face of the planet, including," he looked at the old woman, "Helskir.
"But before we divulge the results of our investigations, tell me: is this information for your own consumption, or will it be relayed to the Empress? If the latter, perhaps it would be better if we were to explain it her ourselves...?"
"I will be making one final report to the Empress to inform her that you are nearly arrived. Give me a brief outline of your theories and I will leave you to fill in the details during your audience. As a current resident of Helskir however, I would be personally interested to hear everything you have to say about my adopted home."
Karnus nodded. "Very well. We have seen much evidence on our voyage that Immortal intervention in mortal affairs has escalated in the last few years. The most subtle of these is that Immortals have been ordering their clerics to go out into the world and gain experience, thereby increasing their power and preparing them for the coming conflict - Ixion and Korutiku are two such examples.
"Next, there appears to be an increase in the enmity between the Immortals. In Darokin, clerics of Ixion have been vociferous in their denouncement of Glantri, and by extension Rad. In Alphatia, Asterius' power has crumbled considerably.
"Then there is the evidence for an Immortal or Immortals changing people's memories," Karnus gave the old woman a significant look, "which we have encountered directly at least once.
"Perhaps the most sinister development is that which we encountered in your home town, where the Immortal Hel had assumed the identity of Drrynden in an attempt to increase her influence through a front to her own worship. Thankfully we were able to undermine that particular outpost, but we have concerns that she may be employing the same subterfuge elsewhere.
"Presumably allied with Hel is her fellow Immortal in the Northern pantheon - Loki. He is the prince of lies and treachery, and a master deceiver. I would surmise that it is he who is weaving the web of deceit which continues to aggravate the war. Indeed, as you joined us I was suggesting to my colleagues that as an Immortal associated with fire, it may well have been Loki who was responsible for the burning of Aasla, before using his abilities of deception to convince Alphatia that Rathanos was the responsible party."
The stranger appeared to digest this information. "Interesting. Very interesting. I will leave it to you to provide proof of your theories to Her Imperial Majesty. Now, I must be going. You have been a most stimulating assignment. I hope the remainder of your journey is pleasant and uneventful. Farewell."
The 'old woman' stood. 'She' smiled, nodded and, with a few words of magic, vanished.
Karnus turned to his compatriots:-
"Well, that was interesting - I suppose you should be enthused that the Empress is looking forward to meeting us, but I myself am beginning to feel a little anxious, especially on the whole Glantri front..."
Lana patted her companion on the shoulder. "We should discuss that some time soon. Before we reach Sundsvall."
"An interesting encounter, yes," Teldon muttered, "though I felt rather like we were viewed as bright, promising children. Casual arrogance - not malicious it seems - but a clear sense of superiority nevertheless."
"As ever with the Alphatians," Lana said dryly. "Well, there are several hours left in the day. Shall we be on our way or see if there are free rooms here?"
Karnus appeared lost in thought. "I feel the need to think upon what has just happened - I would advocate we rest here overnight."
The inn was a large rambling construction with separate 'wings' for Nobles and Commoners. The Commoner wing was full but there were plenty of rooms available for Noble guests. In keeping with the rest of the inn, the furnishings were old and a little worn but well made. In each room there was a history of Threpyth (which Teldon scanned but did not deem worthy of translation) and the inn, including a list of distinguished guests who had lodged there over the centuries - the names included seventeen members of the Grand Council and the very first Emperor of this world's Alphatian Empire - Kerothar.
All three retired early to bed to think more on their theories relating to Aasla, and a pleasant night's sleep followed.
Leaving the inn and village far behind the next morning, the carpet followed the road northwards. The countryside was much like that of Haven - typically green fields and pastures though with fewer trees and a greater number of streams and rivers. In addition, a number of picturesque lakes dotted the landscape. The road was busy and villages were becoming more frequent. During one short period when human habitation was out of sight, the wizards spotted a pack of what they thought were dogs running around in a field to one side. As the carpet grew closer it became clear these were in fact giant ferrets which appeared to have killed a couple of sheep. Some were eating the remains but others seemed content to be chasing one other or were play-fighting in the long grass of the meadow.
Fun with ferrets
The carpet wavered slightly as Lana clapped her hands in glee. She had not seen a giant ferret since leaving her pet Whiskers at home in Glaston many weeks before. She had encountered Whiskers during her earliest exploits with her adventuring companions... was Fate now providing an opportunity for her to acquire another? She looked to Karnus with the excited look her companion had come to dread. The blue-robed mage gave thought to wresting mental control of the carpet, then watched aghast as Lana outstretched one finger and pointed at one of the playing ferrets. With a flash of magic it appeared to vanish, eliciting startled yelps from its fellows who looked around in confusion.
The carpet hovered for a while. The ferrets gathered around the spot of former-ferret occupation and sniffed the ground. To Lana's dismay they didn't seem keen to disperse. Chewing her lip she spoke the words of a second spell, causing a twenty foot bunny to claw its way out of the earth beside where the animals were gathered. Karnus and Teldon exchanged bewildered looks, watching the bunny rear as if preparing to smite the smaller animals.
The nine or so ferrets reacted with caution, spreading to encircle the massive rabbit. As their attention diverted from the loss of one of their number they snarled and bared their teeth, readying themselves to take on a month's worth of lunch in one sitting.
Teldon made a faint snorting sound.
Maintaining concentration on her illusory summoning, Lana gave a grunt of her own and inclined her head toward the patch of grass where the single ferret had vanished moments before. The ageing wizard appeared nonplussed.
Karnus arched his eyebrows, not bothering to repress a smirk. "I believe she wishes one of us to retrieve the ferret which I assume has been polymorphed into less offensive form. Probably into a snail, if I know Lana well. I call carpet control."
Teldon drew a long intake of breath before responding. "I am the head of the Magicians Guild of Specularum on a vital diplomatic mission on behalf of Archduke Stefan Karameikos III. I slay beholders, I summon intelligent beings from other planes of existence to serve me, I render mighty paladins helpless with A Single Word! I DO NOT grub around on the ground for snails and risk getting my bony old backside bitten by angry ferrets of any size - let alone ones the length of my arm!"
Silence followed, while Karnus' playful expression remained and Lana was obliged to maintain focus on her illusion. Then -
"Oh very well - if it will end this ridiculous mummer's farce."
Karnus lowered the carpet, allowing his one-time master to step off. "Oops," the ageing wizard exclaimed, inspecting the sole of his boot. The bunny image became indistinct as Lana's concentration wavered momentarily. Had Teldon unwittingly trodden on her new pet?!
The ferrets were circling the giant rabbit, unsure what to make of it. After a while they seem to determine it did not pose a threat and proceeded to engage in some sort of game - running up close to it then veering away at the last moment, again and again.
Teldon stooped with a moan to pluck something from the grass then resumed his seat on the carpet. Karnus bid the carpet rise back into the air, as Lana received the snail from her companion and delightedly popped it into her tinderbox.
Business concluded for the time being, the carpet resumed its course toward the northeast. The road continued to veer steadily and by the second half of the day the wizards were heading due north. They stopped late in the afternoon at a roadside inn near a small lake. Some ducks and geese were bobbing on the water. Teldon gave Lana a stern look and said, "No." Without further ado the wizards secured lodgings in the inn and enjoyed a night of undisturbed rest.
On the morrow, at long last, the wizards reached their destination.
Read on - Arrival in Sundsvall
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