In the common room of the small inn, a long table next to the fireplace creaked, its thick wooden frame stained and scratched from decades of use. The grey wood was polished smooth where it wasn’t marred by thick grooves – either natural or carved there by patrons. Seven figures sat at the table, with a variety of dishes and tankards scattered about upon it. The barmaid swaggered by, filling the upheld empty cups from the over-and-under dual cask she held upon her shoulder.
The inn, called the Red Rooster, lay on the outskirts of the northwest quarter of Banner, perhaps three miles outside of the city. It served the traders who passed by on their way to and from the town, parking their caravans either just before entering the city or departing on their next journey. Tonight, only one modest caravan was present, which was heading out past the Sword Weld.
Amidst the noise of the almost crowded room, a discussion was being held among them. A Shadrim on the end of the table pulled up a thick sack, loosened its drawstrings, and began extracting items to lay upon the table in view of all of them. Several books were extruded, as well as a small number of other trinkets and a scroll tied with blue ribbon.
As the last of the books was pulled from the sack, a grizzled human sitting up the table set his tankard roughly down, spilling a little ale on the table. He looked at the spill with mild dismay for a moment, as if wondering how to preserve the lost beverage. After a second, recollection stole over his face and he re-focused his attention down to the book that caught his eye.
“Whatcha got down there? Pass that one up here, let me have a look at it,” he motioned at the leatherbound set of lacquered-plate pages. The tome made its way up to him, whereupon he sat back with it, unlatching and spreading the pages apart. The pages gleamed with the yellowed age of ivory.
The others watched as Deimos continued to remove a few more small things from the sack. At last, he stopped, looking into the dark hole. “I’ve still got the gems from the landshark’s hide, and that small bag of fragments from Thog’s chain. Oh, and the big eye statue. Don’t think it would be too good to pull any of those out here right now.”
The others looked at the remaining tomes. “Those are mage’s gear, I don’t think any of us can use those spells,” Sered gestured at the two books sitting on the table. “Best save them, we can either barter them for something useful later or sell them.” The others nodded agreement.
The Eladrin with the black eyes sipped from a cup of deep red wine, frowning a little at it as he set it down. “So. Here we are. I’ve gotten you out of Banner and on your way, my role here is done. I certainly hope you all were worth it, as I’ve now probably broken my own cover. Which, I’ll point out again, was fifteen years in the making and not without some measure of effort.”
Karac belched loudly, and Azrael shielded his plate quickly to avoid droplets of dwur-spittle to interfere with his dinner. “Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it already, elf. I think some of us even thanked you for helping get us out. Here,” he pulled a leg off the chicken and tossed it down the table, where it landed with a greasy splat in front of Dust’s place at the table. “Thanks again.”
"My point,” Dust said, while gingerly lifting the chicken and tossing it into the fire, over the shoulder of Dray, who was still lost in his book, “was that now we’re out of Banner and pointed in a direction, what do you wish to do? We can hardly just walk till we’re tired. I wish to keep in touch with Addaweyr, so we know where to meet up or return. So – to lay low, do any of you have any proposals?”
Azrael swallowed and washed the food down with a gulp of beer. “I still wish to return to Vor Kragal – there’s a lot I can learn there, and for some reason I feel that I have unfinished business there.”
Sered nodded towards him. “While I understand your point, I don’t think that’s the best choice here.”
Deimos shrugged. “Last I checked, wasn’t there an army going to come back and march past there on its way to Banner? If I remember right, we aren’t exactly on speaking terms with that gang.”
Azrael nodded. “Yes, that’s right. Which is why I think we should part ways temporarily. This business is my own, and I would not wish to force it upon any of you. While I would be glad of your company, I understand you might not wish to come along.”
Sered frowned a little. “You sound as though you have your mind made up already.”
Azrael was expressionless. “I do, and I did when we left Vor Kragal the first time. I’ll rejoin you, don’t worry. We’ve done our bit for the Jessil Kerith now, and I have to pursue this. The Cinderspire remains intact, I have to assume there are other repositories there. I have to learn as much as I can about this prophecy of mine,” he sipped at his glass, “Or I’m afraid what I don’t know will kill me.”
He set the glass down. “Besides, given events as they stand, it might be safer for the rest of you to not have me with you for a little while.”
Morin finally added to the conversation. “I can’t argue with that logic, but that doesn’t mean I like it.”
Azrael shrugged, “If it helps at all, I am sorry for this. As I said, I’ll rejoin you.”
“This is all very touching, really,” Dust said, “but that doesn’t answer what the rest of you will do.”
Sered set down the fork-full of food he was about to eat. “I’m sorry, but we haven’t decided yet. And what is it to you, anyway? Unless you have a suggestion, what’s your point?”
“Actually, yes, I have a suggestion.” Dust swirled the wine in his glass before downing it and signaling the barmaid to bring more. “As I made clear earlier, I have earned my Collar from the College of Morvrey, even if I choose not to grant them my allegiance.”
Sered ate the food waiting for him, but his eyes didn’t leave the Eladrin’s face.
“Several others of the College are also assigned here, nominally to aid Hesrith in establishing his new demesne. One of them, Jerrault, also known as ‘The Preserver,’ has abandoned his station and left. I wish to pursue him.” He lifted his cup, and the barmaid poured it full again before sidling off to another table.
“Why?” Deimos asked.
“Because one does not simply abandon one’s post, as I above most should know. We – the Morvreyans, that is – consider it a killing offense. He’s earned himself a death-mark as surely as I have, but he’s obviously not working for the Jessil Kerith. That means either he’s working for another faction which we aren’t aware of, or he’s gone completely rogue. If it’s the former, we can learn who the faction is, and if it is the latter, he’s vulnerable to capture and questioning.”
“When did this fellow take off?” Deimos leaned in, shoving the two books towards the center of the table.
“About two days ago.”
“And do you know anything else about him?”
“He has always had a penchant for necromancy…and fire. Even as a candidate he showed great talent towards those aspects of the arcane. He’s an arrogant and driven bastard, really.”
Karac muttered, too loudly to be anything other than intentionally overheard, “Gee, that’s unique among mages, sure.”
“He also has had a long history of taking great pride in his animations. I remember him telling me that some day he was going to kill a dragon simply so he could have it as his mount once he’d reanimated it. Used to use the phrase ‘What’s more trustworthy than a body whose persona you’ve created yourself?’”
Deimos looked startled. “You were that close to this man?”
Dust glanced over at him. “What part of ‘I won my Collar from the College of Morvrey’ did you not understand?” He drank some more wine, and continued. “He also used to say ‘never let a good corpse go to waste.’ Even used one, perhaps two, to assist him in graduating and winning his Collar. He should be put down like a dog, but he’s still more useful alive, for now.”
Sered squinted over at him. “This sounds like a little more than simple utility.”
Dust straightened in his chair. “I try not to let my personal matters interfere with duty.”
Sered shook his head and repeated, “This sounds like a little more than simple utility.”
Dust looked him in the eye. “I said I try. Sometimes, as fortune has it, the two happen to come to common purpose.”
“Why are you so hot for this fellow’s head?” Sered wasn’t convinced.
“What he did relative to me is not relevant, nor is it something I wish to share. Suffice it to say I have cause to assist you in this.”
Sered shrugged and nodded. “Fair enough, your reasons are your own. I would be more comfortable knowing them, but cannot force them from you.”
Dust set his cup down. “You are correct.”
Karac broke the tension. “If you two are done with your little tiff, what the hell made this guy break ranks? If he’s taking on a death-mark from the Morvreyans, that’s pretty serious stuff. What could have convinced him that this is a good idea?”
Dust shrugged. “I don’t really know. From what I’ve been able to piece together, he and some companions had been digging around in an old mausoleum at about the same time that you all had entered the Library. He found something there, and that seemed to be his trigger.”
“He found something? What?” Another belch bubbled up from Karac’s innards. Azrael flipped foam from his mug at the unruly dwarf.
Morin just grinned. “Trust me, Shadrim, you’re better off with him letting it out up top than down below.” Azrael contemplated this for a moment, then leaned well back with his mug in hand.
Dust continued: “What he found looked to be a piece of jewelry, a neck-piece. I only saw it briefly, during one of our summary meetings. He had it covered with a silk scarf, but I caught sight of it when the scarf was blown aside in a breeze. It looked like a solid torq of silver or platinum, capped on either end with a ruby or garnet about the size of the end of my thumb. The gems were carved to look like faces, staring at each other.”
"Well, that’s creepy as hell,” Dray spoke up from behind the ivory plaque he was reading from. “Did it look anything like this?” He set the book on the table and rotated it around, so Dust could see the image engraved on the page.
“Yes, actually, it did. That looks quite like it.”
“Hoboy, still creepy. Got a case of the willies here, and lemme tell you, I don’t like it.”
Azrael leaned forward a bit to look down the table at him. “Mind telling us what it is that’s bothering you?”
“Oh sure,” Dray swallowed half his tankard with one go. “That,” a meaty finger planted itself on the picture in the book, “…is the Torq of the Crucible, the only relic to emerge from the Earth’s Boil after the vengeance of Amsha Arom created the Deadweld.”
“In common, please?” Sered looked impatient.
“This book,” Dray held it up again, “…is a history of Amsha Arom, who was quite probably the worst dragon to ever terrorize the earth. According to this, just after the fall of Bael Turath and Arkhosia, Amsha Arom – a gigantic red dragon who was a child of Verrigarrax the Terrible – made a pact with Orcus at the urging of Doresain himself. She became a vampiric dragon, and destroyed pretty much everything she ever laid eyes on. From what it says here, a mercenary band named the Lilies of the Valley…”
Karac pulled his mug away from his mouth. “Who the hell names their mercenaries ‘Lilies of the Valley’?”
Dray looked over at him. “Don’t ask me, sounds kinda pansy to me.” He waited a moment. “Dullards. No one gets my jokes. Anyway, these Lilies, they apparently kicked the crap out of Amsha Arom, and put her down up in the Sword Weld. Where she fell, the earth buckled and upwelled into a small hill named the Earth’s Boil. The Lilies made that their new home, built some kind of fortress on it, and lived there for about ten or twenty years, until something suddenly popped and no one heard from them again. Apparently it’s now surrounded with some kind of fog, deadly to living things, called Deathmists. The Torq made it out with one of the last people to leave, and disappeared shortly after he died.”
He drank the rest of his beer and signaled the barmaid. “Anyhow, I can say this much, there is a section of the Sword Weld called the Deadweld. I grew up near there, I remember being told a bit about it. Never went there, though.”
The others remained silent. Dray spoke into the lull: “Still, gives me the creeps. You just found this a couple days ago then?”
Dray leaned back. “Creepy.”