As the ship appeared on the horizon, bells in Landinium began tolling. Runners had alerted the city hours before that the vessel carrying the Guardians of Shining Hope was almost to port, and now that the bells had begun their toll, people began making their way to the docks to witness the heroes that had saved the city from the Diodane war make their way back home.
The docks were covered in cold water as the grey clouds above misted down cold rain. Autumn was deep and most of the leaves on the trees had long turned colors and dropped to the ground, leaving only the cold pre-winter wind and a drab landscape. The ocean itself was slate gray, and the waves that washed to shore sung a faint dirge; an event that had begun a couple weeks before hand and accredited to the strange happenings that afflicted the world that year.
Along the rocky shore, fungus had begun sprouting between the rocks. Capped with red, they sported small fleshy mouths which emitted the dark sounding song. Attempts at removing the fungus only ended in frustration as the creatures returned a few hours later, apparently from nothing but sand.
People crowded onto the planks of the dock while the ship grew nearer. Standing at the front of the boat was a tiny figure that looked more like a small child. Her pink hair flowed freely in the breeze as she gripped the wooden rails and stared with determination at her home city.
Standing next to her was a young teenage boy with dark tan skin and golden hair. His arm was in a sling, and he was lightly dressed despite the cold wind and the falling mist.
Men scrambled up the rigging of the vessel, drawing the sails down to slow the approach and within moments it drifted into the harbor and threw mooring lines at the dockhands, who secured the ropes against large metal mooring hooks set into the dock.
The people surrounding the dock were very excited as the gangplank was lowered down. The gnome came down first, her tiny shoes clicking against the damp wood. A spider-monkey sat on her shoulder, peering at the crowd. Behind her walked the youth and a gith dressed in what appeared to be golden leaves. All walked as if they were in some pain. None carried any expression on their faces at all except for exhaustion.
The crowd parted to let the three pass as ship-hands began to unload cargo from the boat. It only took a moment to register on the faces of many as to the contents of the cargo. Solid wooden rectangular boxes were being unloaded one by one. There were five in all, each the same size – that of a person.
The procession walked somberly through the crowd and past the dock gates as the bell towers continued their toll. What had been a moment of triumph and excitement for the people of the city had quickly turned to sadness, for while their heroes had returned, many had returned home in a box.
“Tis the life of an adventurer saer.” Said one of the ship-hands carrying a box as he walked through the crowd, addressing no one in particular. “Fame and glory aye they receive, but in the end the dangers will see many in a box like this.” The man’s companions carrying the box gave him an evil look, and he fell silent.
Folks lined the streets watching the procession pass. Up the streets it went, through the warehousing district and through the gardens, all the way to the center of the city where the palace stood overlooking all. From there, the queen watched patiently from atop a turret, dressed in heavy fox fur and with a face lined with worry.
As the returning heroes entered the palace courtyard, the queen entered the palace to receive them, removing her furs and calling her attendants to the throne room.
Maddie, Shanti, and Gold Talon entered the palace as the guards opened the main doors for them. Maddie made a passing glance back as she watched the ship-hands take the boxes containing her friends to a different part of the palace as directed by the guard.
The interior was quite chilly and cold drafts howled through the walls. Torch light illuminated the passages as the three entered into the grand throne room of Landinium; a place that was not unfamiliar to them.
The queen was standing near the two thrones. She was dressed in a white gown and had a string of pearls about her slender neck. Her face was as cold as the stone that made the castle up, which was something that had not changed since their last encounter.
Standing next to her was an older man dressed in dark blue robes who was bereft of any hair atop his head, but had a long and pointed grey beard that reached down toward his belly. The court physician, Maddie recalled, and she nodded to the man who nodded in return.
At the corner of the room stood three dwarfs. All looked as beaten and worn as the three Guardians had been, their armor dented and cracked and their faces covered in bruises. One of the dwarves was missing half of his beard and hair atop his head.
“It gives me pleasure to see that you have returned, champions of the realm.” The queen said in a flat and icy voice. Her face remained expressionless. “The dwarven company from Caendun has also returned last night.” She nodded toward the dwarves who grumbled something incoherent.
“Did you find the object of your quest?” The queen addressed the room. There was a moment of silence. Maddie looked up at Shanti who handed her the silver piece of the rod that was recovered on the Isle of Heroes.
“Aye. The Iron Company was able to recover the piece of the rod that ye bade us find, though our losses were great. Fifty dwarfs were slain and fifty more laid out injured, I only have twenty or so able bodies remaining.” One of the dwarfs said, a dour look on his face. He reached into a pouch and pulled out another silver rod that looked similar to the one Maddie held in her hand.
“What happened Simon?” The queen asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Dragon ilk and a great red beastie is what happened. We were ambushed along the pass of Erethas by an army of em, and the red that was leading them was bigger en any dragon I’ve ever seen in me life.” The dwarf commented gruffly, before grinning. “We took the blasted bugger down finally. Even got me a new shield.” Simon chuckled as he indicated the polished red dragon scale shield that he held in his left hand.
“We honor our end of the agreement and we consider our oath to Landinium fulfilled now yer highness. Take yer rod with our blessing and we will await payment per our contract.” Simon walked up to the queen and presented the rod, which she took in a slender white hand.
“You have done well sir dwarf. Thank you for your aid. Your oath is indeed fulfilled.” She nodded her head, and all three dwarves nodded back and with a click of their heels turned and left the room. The queen turned her gaze toward Maddie.
“And you? Have you recovered the piece of the rod held within the palace of Zith?” Maddie walked up to the queen and handed her the fourth piece of the rod. The queen took it in her other hand and smiled.
“You have all done well. Though I see that this adventure was not without its loss. I have heard of the deaths of your friends. Tomorrow there is to be a feast in honor of the paladin Bashir and of your deeds and losses before his burial. As to your other friends, there will be several higher ranking clerics present who should be able to restore their lives.
“I would not ask of this except that the kingdom is in dire need and heroes seem to be running in short supply.” The queen’s mouth was tight lipped at this. “Bashir is to pass on for his time has come and his body torn. Your friends, however, have hope still.”
“Death seems so paltry a thing.” Maddie said. The queen looked down at the gnome and nodded her head.
“Indeed.” She looked up and regarded Gold Talon for a moment, appraising the youth. “And who is this? I do not recognize him.” The queen asked, her eyebrow raised.
“I am Gold Talon your highness.” The youth said, bowing his head.
“You are a dragon.” She returned cooly. Gold Talon looked up and he shared the same look as both of his comrades.
“How did you know that?” Maddie asked.
“Dragons have an aura that is felt. I felt his when he entered. It has been some time since I have been in the presence of a gold. Your assistance to my kingdom is appreciated then, Gold Talon.” The unease that the party felt dropped slowly, and the queen regarded it with a look of small humour.
“We can discuss this later. For now you need your rest. In the meantime…” the queen bundled the two pieces of the rod in one hand, and walked over to a small table behind the thrones. She opened a small drawer and produced the two pieces of the rod that had already been assembled.
With all of these pieces together, she walked over to the party and handed Maddie all three components.
“These are safest with you all. We have had two attempts to break into the palace and steal these while you have been gone. One of the thieves almost succeeded. I don’t have to tell you how important it is to keep these safe.” The queen leveled the last sentence heavily.
“No highness. We understand.” Maddie said. “I will work on assembling these pieces tonight. When are we to reconvene?”
“Tomorrow after the feast. We will meet in the dungeons. I have something of interest to show you.”
The queen dismissed the three, who bowed and made their exit. As they were walking out of the palace and onto the street, Maddie made the comment “That was odd that she knew you were a dragon. I’ve never seen anyone be able to pick up on that so quickly.”
Gold Talon nodded. “Nor I. But that is, I think, because she herself is a dragon…”
The arch-wizard sat in the stone basalt throne gazing at the entrance of his chamber with interest as two figures entered. The first was a silver draconic. It carried a familiar helmet in its taloned hands: a polished black helm bearing five dragon heads in the semblance of Tiamat.
The other was a lithe and sinuous woman dressed in blue silks. A white cloth belt tightened the silk at her waist, leaving her desirable form open to scrutiny. Her hair was done up in a pile atop her pretty head. It was almost as blue as her cloth and nearly matched her icy gaze from blue eyes that pierced like arrows.
“Arch-wizard. I have been sent by the queen to go over our next plans. It would seem that your choice in champions has failed you.” The woman said with a sardonic look of amusement on her face. The draconian tossed the wizard the helmet. It sailed through the air and was caught easily by the man.
“Dresh has failed.” He said simply, looking down at the helmet. It stank of oil and had a heavy metallic stench associated with it.
“Indeed. It would seem that these Guardians of Shining Hope are more of a threat then you had given them credit for. Such a common trait in villainy these days.” The woman said, standing before the wizard. He gazed at the helmet for a moment more before setting it atop a table next to his throne. With a fluid gesture he indicated that the woman sit in a chair close by, and she did so.
“The queen is worried that these so called heroes will put a stop to our plans before we even have a chance to launch them. The chaos-bringer must be brought here. Of this, all things depend.” She said, reclining back and crossing her legs casually. Her voice held the same casualty, as if she were talking about the impending rain carried in by a summer storm.
The arch-wizard stood and walked behind the table by his throne, pulling a pair of goblets from a shelf and producing a crystal decanter that held a golden glowing liquid. He pulled the crystal stopper and poured, offering her one of the goblets. The woman took the offered goblet and took a drink, smiling as she did so.
“Skardenaigh. I have not had this in many years. Where did you procure a bottle? It is quite rare.” She purred.
“I have my ways emissary. Now, what does the queen wish of me.” The arch-wizard drank deeply from his goblet and sat back down on his throne.
“First and foremost, the Rod of Law is now over halfway completed. It seems that its completion is now not a matter of if but when. Of course, that was until I personally intervened and found something for you.” The woman nodded to the draconian who produced a small wooden box which he gave to the arch-wizard.
His eyes widened as he opened the box and pulled out a small silver piece of metal, no more than four inches long.
“It was held in a vault atop the Ringing Mountains and guarded by a silver dragon named Braez. At least that’s what the creature said before I tore his jaws off so that he could not speak any longer.” She smiled and drank more from her goblet.
“This is …” The wizard sputtered.
“Yes. A piece of the Rod of Law. The only way the Guardians of Shining Hope are going to assemble that rod now is to take a piece from you, arguably the most powerful spellcaster on the face of this rock. I assume that an arch-wizard of your power can take care of something as trivial as guarding a small bauble?” The woman drained her goblet and set it atop a small table near her chair. “Have you located the other two pieces?”
“I had located one months ago. It has been secured in a place that will be very difficult for our heroes to find. The last piece was located in the Shadowfell, and I have sent Dezma to recover it.”
“You hold a lot of faith in your minions wizard, yet you send them to do important tasks by themselves? You are not dealing with one or two heroes of the land, you are dealing with a party that has recently slain a champion of Tiamat, rebuffed a powerful elder dragon, and dispatched an entire company of soldiers. I recommend that you up the ante a little.” There was silence for a moment as the arch-wizard regarded the woman for a moment.
“I have the power to call kingdoms under my command should I want…” he began. She quickly raised a hand and cut him off.
“That’s not good enough. It’s time. Time to open the chaos gate. It is time to wage war on this world and clear away our enemies for good.” The arch-wizard narrowed his eyes at this.
“Emissary, the rod of chaos is not yet charged. Doing so now may cause the gate to collapse in on itself and take this whole mountain with it.” He argued.
“The gate will never be opened if our enemies manage to assemble the rod and destroy it. You have had months to charge it. The queen wants the gate open now. This is her command to you, and ultimately the command of the chaos-bringer.” She stood to her feet, looking down at the wizard. He sneered and stood up as well.
“As you wish. We will open the gate…”