And our heroes must go to a bar!
Tobimar set down the crystal-carved draftglass and signaled for a refill, shaking his head in amazement. "That's… quite a story."
The little Toad waved a hand dismissively. "A little luck goes a long way. I'm just a lucky Toad." He lifted his own cup and poured a trickle of a black drink – nearly as thick as honey and with a taste Tobimar unfortunately could still recall – onto his tongue, making the Prince wince with the memory. Poplock had told him, just as he tasted it, that it was brewed from locusts and flame-ants. "Your story was much more interesting. But you didn't really finish yours; you didn't explain what you're still doing here. I mean to say, you're on a quest, shouldn't you be doing the questing?"
Tobimar laughed, then thanked the server as he refilled Tobimar's glass. "Well… you know, I thought about that a lot. I came here looking for clues to our lost heritage, and I found some. But not really enough to give me an idea of how this connected to what Khoros said." The Toad gave a nodding bob of his body, showing he was listening. "I realized that with dozens of my family, maybe hundreds, having gone on this journey before, they must have come here at some point."
"And your family doesn't really have many clues to the past." Poplock nodded again. "You don't even know how you came to Skysand, really."
"Exactly. We fled there from somewhere, but even the direction isn't clear, just that wherever it was there were many mountains."
"Oh, that's helpful." The ironic tone of the little Toad's voice brought a wry smile to Tobimar's lips.
Mountains were not something in short supply. The entire continent was bisected by the Khalals – something like four to five thousand miles long and a few hundred wide, with the Archmage Idinus ruling his empire from the sixty thousand foot peak of Mount Scimitar. Then to the south of the Khalals, forming the main border and barricade between the Empire of the Mountain and the State of Elbon, were the Ice Peaks, themselves another two thousand miles of mountains sometimes reaching six miles in height. To the far West and just south of the end of the Khalals, the ramparts of Hell's Rim stood grim and impassible save through the pass at Hell's Edge, while much farther south the Krellin Mountains formed a circle said to house the Father and King of Dragons himself; in the Southeast, the Wyrmscrest was a smaller but still notable range on the way to Elyvias, which was surrounded itself by the Cataclysm Ridge. North of the Khalals, Tobimar's own Skysand was bracketed by the Flamewalls, the White Blade Mountains surrounded the similarly-named country… there were, simply put, a lot of possibilities.
"Very helpful indeed," he agreed. "But I've found a few reasonable possibilities. Still, what bothered me was that I might be retracing my forefathers' steps; Master Khoros once said 'whenever it seems clear to you what needs to be done to solve some ancient riddle, remember that many others may have thought it clear as well.'"
"Hmm…mm. I see. I think. He's saying that if it really was that simple, why does it still need to be done."
"Exactly. So I spent, oh, I don't know, weeks trying to be clever and think of some new approach." He took a drink of the deep-blue, slightly bubbly Artanian wine and tried one of the baked tineroot chips. "Plus I was trying to figure out what direction I needed to take to follow his awfully cryptic advice."
Poplock's tongue snapped out, snaring a fly that had started an ill-fated investigation of Tobimar's plates. "Mmm. Crunchy. Yes, that did sound vague. Wizards are always like that, though. Follow lies and find truth, go south to reach the north, stand on your head to see things right-side up. I think working magic just messes with their heads."
"It'd be easier if I believed that, O Sage of Toads. Master Khoros was far too clear-headed, alas." The tineroots were spicy, with an earthy undertone and dusted with salt. "There's a lot of gods that promise justice or vengeance and no few that promise both; hard to sort them out. Chromaias is one of the obvious ones, the Three Beards, Myrionar, Odin, the Triad… But we're followers of Terian, always have been, so I went to the Hall of Light here."
"Main temple of Terian? That's a big building. Pretty, too. Liked that big statue, but that fuzzy light around the head makes your god hard to see."
Tobimar laughed. "You're not supposed to be able to see His face, you silly. Anyway, I prayed and then asked the Lurali there for guidance. She meditated and then said that my path could not be guided, for I must make the path my own."
"Oh, ouch, that was useless."
"Not actually." He grinned as he saw Poplock squint one eye shut and warp his face in an expression of incomprehension. "It took a little bit, but I looked at it again from Khoros' point of view. I had to make the path my own. That meant not following the same path the others took."
"But," the little Toad said, still puzzled, "they took all kinds of paths, from what you said."
"Right. So that meant I had to figure out what they all had in common. What were they all doing at the same time?
"So I went out for a walk, to clear my head, after a while – and as soon as I got ten steps out the door, it struck me like the very light of dawn: that was the answer."
Poplock gazed at him with a dour expression for a moment. "What was the answer?"
"They were all looking. They were all searching. Trying to find something on this huge world by chasing around after it."
The Toad blinked, then bounced suddenly. "Oh! Oh! So you had to start your search by stopping the search!"
"Exactly! Just like when you're trying to think of the answer to something, and it's almost there but you just can't quite get it, so you stop thinking about it… and then suddenly it comes."
Poplock grabbed a fried beetle-grub from his own miniature plate and chewed on it thoughtfully. "Still, you couldn't just sit down and wait for the answers; they never came to your country, and it hasn't been moving much."
"Right." Tobimar leaned back. "So the question was… how could I work the angles of Khoros' advice? How could I both not seek, yet make sure I was still seeking?" He looked at Poplock to see what he might come up with.
The Toad sat still for a few moments, still chewing. Then he bobbed slowly. "By doing some kind of job that would keep you on the edges of everything strange and dangerous, yet make you respected enough to get access to records that aren't easy for ordinary people to reach."
"And that job would be…?"
Now the Toad grinned. "You followed those hints of justice and vengeance. Bounty hunter with a code, of course. Justiciar in training, or adventurer looking for steady work in a city. And I guess that brought you to that Mazakh stronghold."
"You've seen it clearly, Poplock. There aren't all that many Lords Justiciar, and with the law in the State being mostly composed of 'Don't cause trouble' in different ways, people usually try to settle problems more directly. Oh, if you want to anyone can go in and see the King himself, but the cost could be high, depending on what happens. There's always a market for a trustworthy investigator who's good with blades and able to deal with magic too."
"Oh, no doubt, no doubt," the Toad agreed, with a comically raised eye-ridge, "but how exactly do you convince people you're trustworthy to begin with? That's how any good faceturner makes his living, you know, looking trustworthy. But anyone with the money and resources to hire a good Adventurer or investigator usually isn't going to be that easy to run the turn on." He spoke with the air of someone who – having spent the last couple of years unseen and underfoot throughout the City – had come by this knowledge with experience.
Tobimar grinned, pushing an errant strand of his black hair back into place. "True, but most of them won't put a Starheart on deposit with the Nomdas of Terian, or offer to pay for a truthsaying with anyone the client names."
Poplock blinked in surprise. "No… no, I don't suppose they would. Especially not that last bit about the client getting to name the truthsayer. So what about the Mazakh?"
Tobimar shook his head. "That one was supposed to be pretty simple. One of the khallit – Maridras is her name – came to me and asked me to find her eggs; two had been stolen and she and her mate had a clutch of only three. I really only had to find them and, if they were still viable, they'd take care of the rest. If the eggs were… unrecoverable, well, they might have had some more work for me, or maybe they'd just have gone straight to the real Justiciars then.
"Well, even in the First City there's friction between all types; out-and-out prejudice and so on is forbidden, but behind-the-scenes infighting, that kind of thing, goes on all the time. And there's at least two of the races I know of that have a real taste for mazakh eggs."
"Ooo! Ooo! I know those too. The Iriistik and the… oh, what do they call them… the Rohila, the Artan-that-aren't-Artan?"
"The White Elves?" Tobimar blinked at that. "I hadn't heard that one. No, I was talking about bilarel."
"Ogres or trolls… yeah, heard that. But the White Elves do too."
"I'll have to remember that. Anyway, I thought I had a strong lead; there's a small Iriistik nest here that's a colony for the Gold Mother up north, and I picked up some rumors they'd been asking around for eggs. Some mazakh will sell their eggs if they're not fertilized, or even if they are and more hatchlings would be a problem, though you almost never see that with the khallit – there's too few of them to afford to shrink the population much. I narrowed it down to a Gray Warrior who was seen in the area, and I cornered him last week and after I proved I could probably beat him, he recognized his nest-value lay in survival, not in maintaining secrets.
"So you can imagine how puzzled I was when he said he'd arranged to steal the eggs, but not for him. For some other mazakh."
Poplock shook his head slightly. "Right, that makes no sense. Khallit stick together, and the True People – the regular mazakh – wouldn't keep eggs of khallit at all, they'd destroy them on the spot. Figure they're cursed or something."
"That's what I thought. But the Gray was very certain of what he said, so I started some really careful investigations of the local mazakh, and sure enough I found a couple people who remembered hearing about something like that."
Poplock finished his drink and used his rear foot to scratch behind his head. "HmmmmMM. Well, you know, there were some pretty nasty necromancers securing that place, and unborn souls…"
"Exactly what I started guessing at after a while, especially after I talked to people in the area and managed to find one common thread in the whole thing. The queries and contacts all started with one particular mazakh and I was able to pinpoint which one when this old Dwarf –"
"Better not let Odin's Children hear you use that word!"
"I've heard what they call us. They can handle the word 'Dwarf'. Anyway, this old greybeard fighter had seen 'that sneaky hissing lizard', as he put it, and remembered a mark on his upper arm, three very thin lines like scars. With that hint, I managed to track him down, found out that he was acting as a sort of fixer or arranger for his group, tracked him down, and… well, that's how I got into that mess."
Poplock looked thoughtful, almost as though he was trying to think of something. "Something about that… well, it'll come back. Anyway, now what are you going to do, Prince Tobimar?"
He gave a slight smile. "First I'm going to have to go to my clients and tell them what I've found out. I don't have too much hope their eggs are still viable; if they're using them for what I'd guess, they probably would use them right away. Then…" He looked at Poplock. "We need to do something about your problem, actually. That's way more important than my quest. After all, mine's been waiting twelve thousand years."
"With that logic, you'll never finish it," Poplock pointed out with a mocking bounce. "But you're probably right. I'm really feeling uneasy about that old demon; he's had a lot of time. But what can we do? No one listens to me."
Tobimar Silverun sat up a little straighter. "Maybe not, Poplock. But I've made quite a few connections since I've been here. The combination of those with the results of this investigation, plus the importance of what you've got to tell them… I think it just might get us in to see Justiciar T'Oroning himself, and I've been wanting to talk to him ever since I got here!"
"Well, in that case," the little Toad said, "Let's finish up with this meal and get moving!"
The glowing-dark figure of the King of the Black City gazed once more out of the mirror-like surface before it. "All is nearly ready?"
"A few final… adjustments, Majesty," it answered, leaning back comfortably in the carven chair with subtle padding. "Credit where it is due; Voorith has worked wonders in the last few years. If anything, he has greater resources now for his part than he would have had without the interference of the Golden-Eyed."
"Have you traced that agent?"
It shook its head. "Not an agent. As is so often the case, a would-be adventurer who proved to have the talent. Which as you know makes him rather difficult to trace; he has the favor of Blackwart upon him, yet none of the power of the gods."
"You are certain?"
Ah, the common mistrust and concern of all at such a time. The figure's smile seemed open and cheerful, yet the room seemed somehow to dim, as though the brightness of the smile drew in all light. "Certainty is for fools, Majesty… as I believe you know well. But I even risked the Cards for a hint."
The glowing eyes widened and then the ebon-glowing head bowed in acknowledgement. "Well enough done, then." Kerlamion knew the Cards in question; how they made no errors, showed the truth, but if used beyond a very, very limited amount, would give increasingly misleading answers which required ever more caution and cleverness to interpret properly. Unsurprising, of course, as they were meant to serve higher and brighter destinies, and resent being turned against their own.
"And did the Cards offer any other insight?"
"The little Toad may well prove an impediment in the future, but not immediately. Alas, my friend, our true opponent is the same as always, and he has set more than one set of plans into motion. More than that I dared not attempt to see, not now."
The hiss of tormented air was the only sound for several minutes, air that shimmered with the same terrible blue-white radiance as Kerlamion's eyes and then vanished within the blackness that surrounded him. "What of the other components of the plan?"
"All appears nearly ready. And yours?"
The smile of Kerlamion did take the light from the room, leaving only the glow of his monstrous eyes and the blacker-than-black half-circle of soulless mirth. "Very soon. Months only."
There was a knock on the door of its room, a door almost never approached by any other than itself, one never to be approached save in true emergency. It raised an eyebrow. Fascinating indeed. This is unexpected. "Majesty… I must go."
No questions were asked; the King of Demons knew it would not leave so abruptly without reason. The mirror went blank, to ironic silver reflecting only the one seated at the desk. It turned, then. "Enter."
The man who entered was tall, in shining armor of silver edged with black and red. He bowed deeply, dropping to one knee. "Forgive me for the intrusion."
"Forgiveness depends upon reason, my friend. If your mission is urgent enough, then forgiveness is inevitable. Tell me of the urgency."
"We… have a problem with Silver Eagle."
"A problem?" It frowned. This was not the time for problems with the Saints. "Be more specific."
"He has begun… asking questions. Moral ones. Nothing too obvious – he is a clever man, sir, very clever – but it is clear that he suspects all is not as it appeared on the outside."
"Aran," it said softly, and Condor shrank back at the use of that name, so familiar and thus so very dangerous, "Aran, my friend, this seems to me far too swift. We have procedures, requirements in place for how you all must conduct yourselves, how the … adoption of a new Saint is to proceed, how to guide them slowly but surely into acceptance of their new position. So how, exactly, is it that he is suspicious so soon? Has someone spoken… out of turn?"
Condor was pale behind his helm, and the figure could hear him swallow, smell his sweat, feel his fear. "Someone… may have said something."
The smile vanished from the figure's face and it took a half-step forward, looking coldly into Condor's eyes. "Do not play games or seek to protect your comrades from me, little toy Saint. Who is it that gives you your powers, allows you to trick people into believing you remain consecrated to the impotent Balance? Now who spoke, and what did they say?"
The hesitation gave it a likely answer; only one or two of the false Saints would be in any way so dangerous that Condor would risk even a moments' pause. "Thornfalcon. It was Thornfalcon. I do not know exactly what he said – I was not present – but I suspect it was a hint as to the potential benefits of our position."
It could scent the truth, and that was unfortunate. "It seems I will have to speak with your brother Thornfalcon. Fortunately it is yet early, and it is well known that new Saints are tested with risky missions. Thus so many of them die in the first year. Arrange it, my friend."
When Condor did not move immediately, it realized there must be more, and its eyes narrowed.
"Forgive me again, sir… but it may not be so simple."
"How so, Condor?"
Condor took a breath so shaky that the figure felt a faint twinge of excitement and perhaps… not fear, but nervousness. Truly it must be something of…
"Today… while he was with myself and Shrike… we came upon a small family, travellers, set upon by doomlocks." It nodded; doomlock spiders were extremely dangerous creatures that sometimes travelled into Evanwyl from Rivendream Pass. "We of course drove the things off, but afterward… before either Shrike or myself could begin, Silver Eagle began healing the victims!"
The figure stood still for a moment, then gave a faint chuckle. "A true believer, a man of faith… and chosen. Yes, that must complicate things a bit. Still, you should be able to deal with him."
"Sir, you have not directly met him yet. As far as I know, you have never watched him."
"What I have watched would surprise you, Aran. Yet I will agree I have seen little of this new addition. Are you implying he is… formidable?"
"I think he might be able to beat any of us. And if he runs…"
Yes. He might well escape. And that would not do at all. He is not quite the proper choice, not in the position he would need to be in order to fulfill my final goals here. A pity.
"I will … consider this problem. I may have to deal with it myself, I suppose." It nodded slowly. "Aran, unless he seems to suspect you directly, it may be well to respond to him in a manner that indicates that … perhaps… you might be of like mind, giving you a chance to suggest he keep things quiet until full evidence is gathered. In the meantime… send me Thornfalcon."
Condor bowed and left, clearly relieved. A few moments later, the slender form of Thornfalcon entered; his scent carried a slight nervousness, but nothing like that to be sensed from any of the others. We are, in some ways, rather alike. Given his interests, this is hardly surprising.
"Thornfalcon, I have been told that you may have prematurely indicated the corruption of the Saints to our newest and most innocent recruit."
Thornfalcon bowed low. "It devastates me to confess that yes, I may have been a bit… overenthusiastic, in a manner which might have reflected oddly upon my normal image."
Of course. "A conversation of the ladies, I would suspect. Yes?"
"You … know me well, sir."
"Very well indeed." It turned, then whipped out one hand, so fast that even the fastest of the Saints barely registered he had moved before he had yanked Thornfalcon clear of the floor and hurled him across the room like a sack of empty clothes. The clang and clatter of metal echoed through the stone-carved chamber as Thornfalcon tumbled to a halt, fetching up against the far wall with a bruising impact. Even as the deceptively slender Saint started to rise, he found the figure already standing over him. "Your impulses are not to become my problem, Thornfalcon. I had thought I had made that abundantly clear when first we discussed your… goals. Now it appears they have become my problem."
There was fear now, self-centered, and caution. "We can deal with him if we have to."
"Perhaps, perhaps… but young Aran is not so sure, and while you have many admirable qualities, Thornfalcon, modesty has never been one of them. If young Silver Eagle is nearly so formidable as his father, you might not kill him fast enough. I cannot afford mistakes at this time."
The Saint finished rising and looked apprehensively at the figure before him, letting his hand drift slowly to his rapier. "And so…?"
"So I will let you live… with a warning and a demonstration. I cannot afford two deaths in the Saints close together; this one will be too soon, and another at the same time? Questions would be asked. But it seems likely I will be forced to act directly, Thornfalcon, and I very much dislike this. Not due to laziness, you understand, but due to the dangers of being discovered. You, unlike the others, know much about what I am. Enough to want to become like me."
Thornfalcon stood still, not daring to move now; he knew much of his life now stood balanced on a razor's edge, and this was not the time for careless speech. Overall, it approved. Thornfalcon had always been something of a potential risk, but he was proving reasonably stable.
"I will take care of this problem, Thornfalcon. And I may … may, I emphasize… still be willing to give you that gift, make you one of us… but only if you are an exemplary, nigh-perfect servant from now on. One more mistake, Thornfalcon. One more, and I will decide your positive qualities are simply not enough. But I will do you a favor and make it easy for you to remember."
It reached out, and fingernails lengthened, glittering like crystal needles in the shuddering lamplight. Three talons flicked gently outward, and there was a chiming screech.
Across the polished, invincible silver-and-brown armor of Thornfalcon, armor which had retained that untarnished and unblemished luster for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, was now a trio of hair-thin scratches. "Look at those carefully, Thornfalcon, and remember what I could do to you. Now go, and be grateful I still may have use for you."
Thornfalcon backed out, bowing, nearly running to leave the room before it changed its mind.
It turned, pacing, thinking. But it was also smiling. A true Saint. Why, I haven't killed one of those in centuries…
And we begin to see how Kyrie actually will be brought front and center...