The Drawing of Three

Chapter Three - Part 1

The Flight

The gunslinger dares the truck’s hood first, shuffling on his hands and knees to reach the dangling ropes. He raises himself up on all fours, makes a half-leap for one of the leads, and deftly snatches one from the air. Jake rolls onto his back, his nimble fingers working quickly to secure the carbiner to his gunbelt.

Linus leans from the passenger door, making a couple fruitless swipes at the lifelines. He quickly abandons manual retrieval in favor of a surer bet, extending the reach of his hands with a psychokinetic manifestation. He plucks one line, then another, from thin air, drawing them in until he can grasp them safely with his actual fingers. The summoner clips one of the leads to the belt holding up his khakis before passing the other line to Kelraji.

Kel buckles himself in as well and clutches his precious items to his chest. The roar of the cargo plane’s engines increase in pitch as the lumbering aircraft begins to climb, putting tension on the ropes. The monk pushes Linus out of the door, setting them both dangling uncomfortably from the seats of their pants.

At that moment, the pier runs out, sending the truck arcing out into space. The three men pendulum wildly through the air, thudding into each other as they swing. They look back to see Shane and Thomas hanging safely behind them. Thomas has the biker’s laser looped over one shoulder.

Their ride continues to climb into the air as the Land Rover splashes down into the Hudson, bobbing once before beginning its slow plunge to the depths. Looking up, they can see the shapes of uniformed men drawing them in hand over hand. They watch the city retreat behind them as they dangle, the pier and its surroundings shrinking to a scene in miniature as they do their best not to look directly down.

Just as they reach the lip of the plane’s rear bay, Jake spots a massive shape above the skyline, like an airliner, but absent navigation lights. An anonymous voice calls out from the deck above. “Fuck, look at the size of that thing.” Another voice: “. . .Somewhere downtown, maybe Union or Washington Square Park.” The huge shape rapidly descends behind the buildings as gloved hands grasp them and pull them onto the cargo plane’s floor.

The five men stumble to their feet, unbuckling and taking in the plane’s interior. It is gargantuan, like the belly of some mythical monster, dimly lit and filled with equipment and people. Three large armored vehicles occupy the bulk of the space, their heavy treads ratcheted securely to the floor. The walls of the plane are lined with bucket seats, and above them various containers are strapped higher up on the ribcage-like structure. People mill about them, taking sidelong glances at the newcomers. The uniformed soldiers tidy up the fast ropes and buckle into the seats closest to the bay door. Behuniak takes a seat as well, striking up conversation with two of the troopers. Shane shakes hands with two other men, one an incredibly tall man in ornate blood red robes and golden armor complete with a baroque peaked helm, the other a huge fellow sporting a large grey beard, and wearing nothing more than simple leather clothing and a huge fur pelt. Shane and these two men disappear along one corridor, speaking in hushed tones.

The bay door closes inexorably on oversized pistons, but before it shuts completely the three get a glimpse of a massive plume of flame rising from where the flying shape went to ground, creating a mushroom cloud of black smoke and fire. The men barely have time to consider it before the blonde-haired woman snaps her heels in front of them and salutes smartly. She wears the same uniform as the other soldiers, though a saber and pistol hang at her waist, and officer’s chevrons decorate her sleeves. “Greetings. My name is Slyvia Dagonhart, Lieutenant of the 42nd War Pigs.” Her voice is cold, hard, emotionless and professional. “I don’t know how much you’ve been briefed on this mission, but I have been assigned to orient you and see to your needs. Information, equipment, training, introductions to my men or the rest of the Cabal, medical attention,” she raises an eyebrow at Kelraji, “anything you need. According to my employers, you three are to be acting commanders throughout the campaign. Our flight should take approximately four hours. Please avail yourselves of anything we have to offer, and prep for landfall.”

Jake Chambers hits the deck of the plane and stumbles; it takes all he’s got not to let the sudden rush of adrenaline take his legs out from under him. Trying to calm his beating heart, he shakes out his jacket and checks the guns; his revolvers are there at his hips, and his shotgun is gripped in one white-knuckled fist. He looks down to see that some of the shells have spilled from his brass bag; no matter, he probably wasn’t going to get a chance to reuse them anyway. Father, guide my hands and heart so that no part of the animal will be wasted. He wonders what Elmer Chambers would think to see him “fast-roping” into a moving plane alongside a knight in shining armor carrying a light-cannon. Being an advertising executive didn’t get him out of the office much.

He looks around the cabin, at the military austerity and precision of it, and notes the positions of the soldiers and their movements. He sniffs the air, and smells oils and fumes from the plane, gunpowder from the soldiers, grease and sweat on the vehicles bolted to the floor. He looks Slyvia Dagonhart up and down, and reaches out with his sixth sense—his ghost sense—to ascertain her true nature. “Hile and well met, dinh Dagonhart. I am Jake Chambers of New York. Before we begin our journey—what was that dark shape looming over the city? And if we are truly availed of your information, I think some true orientation is in order. Where are we going? What will we seek when we get there and what part does the Book play in all this?”

Linus, having been heaved aboard, appears to be doing his best to imitate a puddle. His arms are splayed out and he lies on his back, his chest heaving in and out. His eyes search the ceiling of the bay as he tries to process the intensity of the last few minutes.

He turns his head to look at Jake as he speaks to the Lieutenant, then returns his attention to the ceiling.

“Fuck fuck fuck,” he mutters to himself, and begins to haul himself to his feet. His first plan of action is to find that laser, the rest of the mess be damned.

Kelraji holds his items close to himself, and then moves to the side of the plane. Setting down his gear, he turns around and nods.

“Dagonhart, if we are commanding officers, whatever that mean, I need some things. A large backpack and three sets of clothes. I will need these repaired or replaced, and I will need my injuries tended to, preferably with magic and then bandages. I would also like some water to drink and to know where the bathroom and beds are.”

The man points out his damaged armored jacket and melted auto-picker, separated from the rest of his gear, then sits down to look over what remains, finally examining and attempting to divine the nature of the items he has received from the hags. His most precious item remains covered and rests on his lap, and the picture recovered from the biker sits on top of it.

The summoner gains his feet, steadying himself momentarily against the bulwark, seeing double in his hyperventilated state. Groggy images of the armored knight dangling beneath his feet above the open water with the laser rifle over one shoulder swim into his mind. He feels as if he can recall the Crusader adept going around the corner to his right while Linus was lying on the floor.

Lieutenant Dagonhart listens patiently to Kelraji’s demands before gesturing to a handful of the soldiers. A Hispanic human, an elf with electric blue tattoos on his neck and scalp, and a dwarf with a large brown beard snap to their feet and fall in beside the uniformed woman. “This is our medic, PFC Rodriguez; Specialist Taengele, our battlemage, and Gunnery Sergeant Thacco, munitions and wargear. They’ll see to your needs.”

The elven soldier steps up first, looking Kel over skeptically. “Drek, look at you. Wrong side of a flamethrower or something. Hold still, this is gonna tickle.” The battlemage holds his hands out and closes his eyes, breathing deeply as rippling waves of blue energy begins to radiate from his fingertips. He lays hands on the monk’s shoulders, his face becoming a mask of concentration, and Kel’s skin begins to prickle and sting. After a few minutes, the elf steps back, his face even paler than before. Rodriguez pats him on the back. “Okay there, compadre?” The elf shrugs him off. “Yea, I’m fine, just a little manaburn.” He trudges off to find his seat on the far side of the plane. [You have been healed for 3 boxes of damage.]

The medic kneels before him next, producing a white kit from his pack and disgorging its contents. An automated voice begins to speak in formal tones as he opens the plastic case of his medkit. “Please state the nature of your medical emergency. It appears your patient suffers from burns to his upper dermis along the torso and arm region. Begin by applying a disinfec—” The voice cuts short as the solider pulls the battery from the device. “Dios mio, shut the fuck up.” The man patiently applies disinfectant, aloe and moisturizer to Kel’s skin before wrapping him up in a clean set of bandages. “Okay, you’re good to go. Taengele’s spell cleared up the worst of it, give it a full day of rest and you should be good as new.” [You will heal the remaining 2 boxes of damage if you rest uninterrupted for an entire day. The length of the plane ride will not be enough.]

Rodriguez clears out, leaving Kelraji with the dwarf. He strokes his chin thoughtfully. “I ‘eard what you asked the Lieutenant for, unfortunately, I’ve been told to keep supplies pretty tight, as this is an extended vacation, if you will.” The stocky little man guffaws to himself. “The backpack we can do, some basic skivvies as well, no problem. Your jacket’s fucked though, proper-like, ain’t no repairing melted trauma-plates. This thing,” he takes the auto-picker in his thick fingers and deftly cracks open the melted case, “yup, see, ‘yer wiring’s all melted together in one big glob. Copper on the motor is slagged too. Sorry chummer, try not to get caught on fire next time.” He hands the useless junk back to him. The dwarf gestures toward the heart of the cargo plane. “Come on, I’ll get you what you need, and you can take a load off in one of the APCs.” They move off down the corridor to the right, passing a few more War Pigs and Behuniak, who has resumed his conversation with Taengele and Rodriguez. The Crusader nods to him as they pass. “You’re looking better already, brother.” The dwarf hands him a military bag which matches the mercenaries’ own, and three sets of shirts, boxer briefs, and socks, along with a canteen of water. “If you want to lie down, the bench seats inside the transports make half-decent beds. You can get in through the rear hatch there.” He indicates to a miniature door on the back of one of the vehicles. Further down this corridor, an elderly looking man sits by himself, dressed in an elaborate high-collared greatcoat. He muses somberly to himself, slowly turning a skull-tipped walking cane between his fingers.

Dagonhart addresses Jake’s questions last, tolerating his gaze with detached professionalism. The gunslinger’s ghost sense tells him little—she is mundane, just another sleeper. The only person who bears the Touch among her men is the elven battlemage. Behuniak, bedecked with enchanted items, threatens to drown out the other magical signatures with his presence. Deeper within the vessel, other awakened presences can be faintly felt. The military woman nods hesitantly at the gunslinger’s odd way of speech. “I will do my best to answer your questions, though it may be better put to the people in this strange group. Everything I know about this mission I learned from my briefing papers: We were contracted by one Renzo Espallier, on behalf of his organization, the Cabal of the One Book. He provided me with a set of documents written by a Professor Cain, which, to speak freely, reads like a complete fairy tale. But ‘yen is ’yen, and I’ve seen some strange enough things, so we signed on.”

Sylvia Dagonhart rests her hand on the pommel of her scabbarded saber before continuing. “According to the Professor’s papers, this Cabal is an ancient order of magicians which has been looking for this one specific book for generations. Supposedly the book carries unspeakable power. Now, they’ve actually managed to find the text, so their next move is to translate it. Apparently, only one man on earth can read the damn thing, and he lives on a magical piece of land which is, get this, an island that transcends space and time. The only way to get ourselves onto this island is to be sucked toward it, or something like that, and only three people on earth are so sucked, if you will. I imagine you three are the three, if any of this is real. My Pigs and I were hired to escort the three of you, with the book, to this mystical island, and then across it in search of the translator. Mr. Espallier said to leave the collection of the three and the book to the Cabal, as long as we could provide transportation. We subcontracted out this mammoth bird, as well as these three troop carriers, and low and behold, you guys actually arrived.” She leans in conspiratorially. “You look like you have half a head on your shoulders. Can I ask you, off the record—do you believe it? Do you think this book can do what they say it can?”

Kelraji smiles, and thanks the armorer for his time and expertise. He carefully packs his remaining items into the new bag, impressed with its quality of not being cheap synthetic crap, and wonders if it is flame retardant, and if he’ll forgive the mage a second time. He hopes for the first and prays for the strength to do the second. As he muses, he finds himself sifting his way through a litany of hand gestures. In no hurry, he mutters the appropriate phrases to accompany the gestures, and enjoys sitting for the few minutes that the process takes.

When he finishes, he realizes he still hasn’t gotten answers about his magical items, and looks around for Behuniak. Surely someone who wears as many magical items must know something about identifying them, or at the very least know someone who does.

Linus tries to steady himself. His vision is cloudy about the edges, and he is suffering from a righteous surge of adrenaline. He closes his eyes for a moment and reconnects with the fire spirit he has left behind, releasing him with a whispered thanks.

Continuing to hold himself up, he probes astral space for the remaining presence of his watcher, trying to observe what has happened to the city.

Kelraji looks up from his meditative state to locate the Crusader adept. He easily spots Behuniak inside the dimly lit cabin casually chatting with the battlemage and medic who recently tended to him, his plumed helmet resting on one armor-plated knee.

The summoner glazes over, undoubtedly exercising his unique talents.

Jake thinks for a second about Slyvia’s question, tapping his worn leather boots on the rumbling floor of the cargo plane. “I do not ken the true nature of the book, but I do believe that a force larger than ourselves directs us through this place. ‘There are other worlds than these’, words from another life that may yet ring true in this one. I would look on your papers from Professor Cain, if they are available. In the meantime, I believe I have some business with Gunnery Sergeant Thacco. I need to replace some of these.” He holds up some of his spent .45 Long Colt brass. “Some shot shells would be appreciated as well.” He drapes the shotgun over one shoulder like a transient’s poke.

Sylvia Dagonhart curtly tips her chin upward. “I believe I have hard copies in my mess bag. I will retrieve them for you, if you wish. If you’ll follow me, I’ll have Gunney Thacco see to your munitions.” The cold woman leads Jake around the right-hand side of the first tank, continuing to speak as they walk past a clump of mercenaries conversing with the armored knight. “As for that large flier in the city back there, well, I’ve only seen trideos of them, but it sure as hell looked like a dragon to me.” The gunslinger and Lieutenant Dagonhart pass the Indian man along the narrow defile without a word, coming to a burly dwarf counting socks. “Gunney, this man needs .45s and twelve-gauge. As much as he needs. Remember soldier, he’s your CO.” Dagonhart nods to them both and ducks through a hatch on one of the vehicles, disappearing into its shadowy depths.

Thacco digs into a long chest tucked beneath the seat and produces several boxes of heavy pistol rounds and shotgun shells, both buckshot and slugs. He holds them out to Jake. “Take what you need, sir. Most of my boys carry Predators, but I like a heavier round myself.” He draws an odd-looking pistol from his belt, a solid-bodied piece with a wooden foregrip and a large scope affixed to its ventilated rib. “Got my Thompson Arms chambered in .45, so you’re in luck. I’m sure a discerning fellow as yourself can appreciate its craftsmanship.” He holds the weapon out for Jake to inspect. As the gunslinger nonchalantly looks the weapon over, he catches a glimpse of the soldier sitting next to him on plane. He is a pale white man, unremarkable in his features, but there is something about his face which give Jake a sense of déjà vu, as if he were looking upon a long-lost family member. The man sniffs his nose loudly and crosses his arms, clearly dozing off in his seat. His kevlar vest reads H. DEAN.

Two seats down, Behuniak pauses his conversation to take Kelraji’s proffered items into his hands. He lays aside the laser rifle sitting in his lap and looks over the simple silver bangle and golden earring, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “You have a taste for expensive things, my friend. These are rare items indeed. I will try to learn their enchantments.” He slips off a lobstered gauntlet and slides the bangle over his wrist. He passes his other hand over it slowly, his eyes glazed and far off. After a moment, a smile crosses his lips. “Ah, a fine item, if a little useless these days. An elegant piece of armor for a more civilized age. This is a bracer of arrow snaring. Still carries the imprint of its previous owner, though—a rather unholy individual, if I’m not mistaken. Somehow, I doubt you bought if from her.” He hands the bracer back and takes the earring next, slipping it onto one of the many piercings along the edge of his pointed ear. He considers it for a minute before handing it back. “An earring of thorns. Another fancy trinket. You’ll have to tell me your source.”

The artificer takes the wand last, giving it a few practice swipes. “This, however, is a truly stunning specimen. Ancient, and steeped in history it is.” He passes the stick beneath his nose, smelling its length. “Cypress, I’d wager. Oh, it speaks.” He cocks his head to one side, holding the wand to his ear. “It has a patron. . . Damballah is his name. This is a powerful instrument, capable of capturing spirits and channeling their powers for the wielder. This one will need to be bound before use, and not by one such as us. Those other two are simple enchantments, though; you may exchange them at will.” Thomas hands the wand back as well before leaning forward to whisper something to Kelraji, only barely audible to him over the roar of the engines.

The summoner continues to stand unsteadily at the rear gate, staring numbly at the blank wall.

Linus waits for a long time, reaching out again and again to his watcher. He begins to think it has been lost when finally the spirit responds, reestablishing their faint link. From the being’s primitive consciousness he receives a stream of confused images, all tinged with emotions of fear and confusion.

The watcher had been faithfully combing the streets for the enemy rigger when the massive flying form came down from the clouds. He sees still images of its massive shape descending into the center of the city, its gargantuan lizard-like body supported by huge sweeping wings which claw at the air. On the astral plane, the monster practically gushes with magical strength, its aura and signature unlike anything the summoner has ever before witnessed. As it reaches a patch of green in the middle of the city, it opens its great maw to shoot a roiling stream of flaming liquid down into the park below, emitting a piercing scream as the entire four-block area is engulfed in billowing flames.

Kelraji nods to the man, ignoring the question, as if he had never heard it.

“And what do they do? Their names are of interest, I suppose, but no real value to me.”

He furrows his brow, and adds, “Tell me of this Damballah, and its workings, and perhaps you will find out more about my charge.”

Kelraji and Behuniak exchange a few words under their breath, then the Crusader leans back in his seat and returns to a normal volume again. “Yes, of course I can explain in more practical terms. The bracer of arrow snaring allows the wearer to catch missiles out of the air. A common enchantment when my order was young, these days it seems more decorative than practical. You never know when it could come in handy though.” [This item gives the wearer the missile parry adept power at level 1, or adds one to the wearer’s level if they already possess this power.]

Behuniak points to the earring. “A thorns enchantment makes anyone who hurts you in hand-to-hand combat suffer the same wound they just inflicted. In practice, though, the backlash isn’t as severe as the original damage. Still, it’s a useful item, and could give you an edge over a weaker opponent or if you’re outnumbered, especially for one who seems as prone to being hurt as you. I’ve actually made one of these myself, for my father. He had a penchant for getting into trouble as well.” [The earring of thorns inflicts damage to anyone who wounds the wearer in melee combat, equal to the number of boxes of damage actually inflicted on the wearer, either physical or stun. This damage is resisted normally, but armor does not apply.]

Thomas continues. “The wand of Damballah is able to trap a single spirit within itself, then allows the wielder to use its powers as if they were his own. A difficult item to use, but it could be very powerful in the right hands.” [The wand of Damballah is a force 5 magical focus which must be bonded with karma and time. It may only be wielded by a being with the conjuring skill. As a complex action, the wielder may trap a spirit up to force 5 within the wand. If the spirit is not in the wielder’s service, he must defeat it with a banishing test in order to capture it. Once captured, the wielder may use any of the spirit’s powers as if he knew them as spells, suffering drain normally. The force of the powers may not be greater than the force of the captured spirit. The spirit may be released with a free action, but if it is not in the wielder’s service, it will generally be hostile upon release. The spirit held within the wand does not count against the wielder’s maximum number of unbound spirits.]

The artificer scratches the stubble on his chin. “As for who or what Damballah actually is, I have less concrete information to give you. I have studied world religions, and I recognize the name from Voodoo—a particularly dark art practiced in Haiti and parts of the deep South. Shamans of this variety are strange indeed. I’ve read they sometimes allow spirits to posses their own bodies when summoned. Damballah is one of the Loa, a species of their false gods,” here Behuniak touches the heavy cross hanging at his neck and shakes his head. “He is their god of spirits, represented by twin snakes. When he takes a host, he speaks in hisses, as a snake might. Some say Damballah’s voice can be heard in the sounds of a roaring fire. An evil object, to be sure, though I suppose a thing is only as evil as the task to which its owner puts it.”

Kelraji thanks Behuniak, whispers to him once more, and then dons the bracelet, placing the earring back on his finger before asking,

“Wait, it works here still, yes?”

Then, he stands, wanders the airliner, taking in the sights, and finds Linus. When he comes across the mage, he hands over the wand, explains how he thinks it works, and adds a single caveat.

“It has to be water, and we should both pray you never have to use it on me.”

With that said, Kelraji heads to his makeshift bed, not noticeably worse than his old, also makeshift bed, but certainly more secure.

“Thank you James. It is an old weapon, and not of this world in more ways than one. Should you wish to see, to touch the weapon, I will require your help in finding my own way. Should you learn anything of my order, the sustainers of Agni, who must perform the yajna of rebirth, I would be eternally grateful. In addition, any information about any artifacts from the early 16th century Mughal era would be met with much appreciation.”

Jake hands the gunny’s weapon back and takes up a box of the .45’s. He begins to insert the heavy bullets into the bands around his waist until all 48 slots are full again. The hollow points, now numbering only 18, line the back of the gunbelts. He takes another box of the normal rounds and dumps all 24 live slugs into his emptied brass bags, unsure when he’ll be able to rearm again. He checks the last compartment in the belt, a small leather bag the size of a fist, hanging off the crossed bands in the back. 12 silver bullets and 11 exploders. He hopes to find the silver bullets a whimsical precaution—the sorts of beasts for which those rounds were made are the ones best read about in bad fantasy novels, not met in real life.

He racks the shotgun and fills its magazine. Putting a dozen more slugs in the heavy outer pockets of his armored jacket, he pats himself down and tests the weight of his new munitions. He nods to the gunnery sergeant and follows Kelraji into the belly of the APC. Glancing at the sleeping Indian, he finds himself wondering for the second time that day what drives the man, which specters from his past give him such bloodlust and how it has brought him here. He worries for himself, too; such a ka-tet as theirs is forged only in times of violence, where a strong arm can triumph over a sharp mind. Shivering in the high-altitude air, he does his best to dismiss the thought, but it chases him in his dreams even as he lowers his peaked hat over his eyes and drifts to sleep.

Linus emerges from is reverie with a start as Kelraji thrusts the wand at him. He looks down at the strange device with some skepticism.

“A thing like this… ill gained as it is… I wonder that I should use it. Perhaps I can bend it to my will, or perhaps make it useful in my experiments. Ah! I nearly forgot, I must have this man take a look at the locket I acquired. Many thanks.”

He walks a few paces towards Behuniak, then turns back to Kelraji.

“We should speak more of our plans, of what is to come. Forces much much greater than our own have brought us together, and perhaps we might find the common thread that has bound us in this venture. I’ll return as soon as I have identified this item.”

The summoner travels unsteadily down the narrow corridor to take a seat beside the heavily armored ork as Kelraji and Jake step into the claustrophobic interior of the APC.

Behuniak takes the silver pendant and casually loops the fine chain around his neck, breathing deeply. He opens his eyes after a moment and nods. “A banishing focus of moderate strength, useful against warp-spawn and the like, if you have the gift. It’s a true magician’s focus, so you’ll need to complete a binding ritual before putting it to use, like that wand of yours. As an artificer, I can aid you in the art of binding, as well as creating any new enchantments or items, given the right ingredients and a proper forge.” [This force (2) banishing foci adds 2 dice to any banishing tests made by the bearer. Must be bonded before use. In Behuniak’s presence you may add his Artificer dice (4) to any test made to bind new items.]

Thomas takes the pendant off and holds it up to the light to inspect its face. He throws the locket’s latch, revealing the miniature image within. “Oh,” he mutters to himself. “I believe I know this woman.” He strokes his chin thoughtfully. “This is Miriam Darkwater, an elven noble from Europe someplace. Sweden, perhaps. I met her at an auction there.” The ork shrugs and hands the pendant back. “I. . . won’t ask where you got it. Worth keeping, to be sure. Just let me know if you need help bonding them.”

Behuniak turns to resume his conversation with the mercenaries, then notices Linus’ laser rifle lying on the seat beside him. “Ah, I brought this thing up for you. Tsk, brings back bad memories, if you ask me. Never liked guns.” The armored Crusader hefts the cannon and drops it into Linus’ unsteady hands.

Sylvia Dagonhart emerges from the shadows of the cargo hold and marches to the APC where the other two lie. She ducks into the vehicle, a cramped, dimly-lit hollow lined with spartan benches and hand loops. The mercenary finds Kelraji sitting on one bench, with the gunslinger laid out across the other. She taps the brim of his hat twice with a roll of folded documents before laying them on his chest. “The papers you requested, sir. Keep them if you wish.” The Lieutenant turns on her heel and finds her way out of the transport.

Linus fingers the locket, as well as the want, testing their power against his. He ponders the implications of binding them to himself. The wand is a tempting focus, and is particularly well suited to his arts. But the darkness that inhabits it is corrupting, and unbecoming a follower of the Fire Bringer. His path lies elsewhere. Purity of thought, cleanness of logic, clarity of deduction. He must banish the darkness. The wand shows potential, and may yet be turned to his cause, but for now it must remain unbound. Days, perhaps weeks from now, when he can access his lab again, he may more carefully probe its depths and bind it to himself. For now, he will bind a focus that was offered him as a gift. Come to him with pure intentions, he senses that it will serve him well.

“No matter, I will bind this focus… the locket. It was given to me by a girl in trouble, with purity of heart and intention, and I would more soon have its forces bound to my own than this wand of questionable origin. Perhaps at a later time we can discuss the merits of its deconstruction or binding.”

“Behuniak, your knowledge is certainly impressive. Have you, be any chance, read any of my more recent manuscripts? Maybe it is too much to ask… they have been little publicized….”

Behuniak shakes his head. “I’m afraid I haven’t come across your work in my studies, though this speaks more to my ignorance than your renown. My expertise lies in the world of enchantments and rare items, and rarely strays beyond such subjects. I would welcome the chance to hear some of your theories, however. Knowledge is a weapon, as true as a gun or blade.”

He gestures forward with a large, calloused hand. “Come, let’s set that item to use.” The summoner slips the locket around his neck and turns his mind to the task of bonding, methodically dismantling the hermetic inscriptions wrought upon the focus by its previous owner. Linus looks up to see Thomas cupping both hands close to the locket, as if he were warming his hands by a fire. The scientist immediately senses the artificer’s formidable talent augmenting his own, unraveling the focus’ old bonds and preparing it for him to make his own impression. The process, which would have taken Linus several hours on his own, is completed in a mere twenty minutes or so.

Behuniak leans back and rubs at one of his protruding canines with his thumb. “A fine piece, indeed. The Darkwaters are a proud bunch, and quick to anger, but their taste in enchanted items is as refined as their blood.”

Linus thanks the artificer and turns away, already sensing the presence of the locket upon his chest, freshly invigorated and eager to protect its new owner from the spirits of the nether. He finds the blonde-haired military woman standing by the hatch leading into one of the armored vehicles, her hands clasped behind her back. “Your companions are resting inside. You’ll find space on the floor and a bedroll if you would like to do the same. I will rouse you all when, and if, we have reached our destination. Please let me or my men know if you need anything else.”

Linus drifts over to the APC, suddenly overtaken with fatigue as the adrenaline seeps out of his system and into his bladder. Which, as it turns out, is remarkably full. He hunts around for the head on this strange ship, takes care of business, and then shuffles to take what he hopes will be a restful slumber.

The three men pass into a fitful half-sleep, too exhausted to process the dizzying sequence of the night’s events. They manage a few hours of grey, dreamless fatigue before the hatch slams open, spilling yellow light into the cabin of the track. [Your stun damage recovers.]

The Lieutenant’s voice echoes throughout the metal box. “Wake up, boys. Land ho. Get to the cockpit once you’re on your feet.”

The three adjust their clothes and wipe the spit from their jaws before shambling out into the open cabin. They pass through the narrow corridor leading to the front of the plane and duck through a low hatch into the cockpit.

The relatively large space is packed with various characters both familiar and new, all gazing out through the windshield and murmuring to each other. The view is ocean and clouds as far as the eye can see, save one body of green on the horizon. Thomas Behuniak claps Kelraji on the shoulder as they enter, exclaiming loudly. “That’s it, we’ve made it! Just like he said.”

The island rapidly grows in their field of vision as the plane bears down on it, filling the breadth of the cockpit window with its terrain, a craggy coast of harsh cliffs and thick wild grass, with stands of pines scattered across it all. Rays of morning light break through the fast-moving clouds above, dappling the scenic landscape. To the left-hand side, the coastal hills even out, forming a flat, even plain of golden grassland.

Upon closer inspection, the prairie lands appear to be populated by a modest settlement of primitive structures. The pilot sitting in front of them rolls the massive plane gently to the left, bringing their nose steadily about. She yells to be heard by the huddle of people assembled in the forward cabin. “The bird is hitting the halfway mark on fuel. We need to bring her down soon if we want to have enough for the return journey, and she needs a fair bit of runway.” She points to the wide expanses of grass. “That field has our name on it.”

The village becomes more and more detailed as they draw closer. The majority of the structures are simple, single family affairs, with a few larger buildings scattered throughout, alongside some plots of agriculture and oddly-shaped livestock. In the center of it all a modest holdfast stands on a raised spit of earth, its walls carved from roughly-hewn stone.

As the assembled group looks on, two shapes emerge from a stable-like structure, slowly rising into the air on large wings. The flying creatures appear to have humanoid mounts, though it is difficult to with certainty at this distance.

Kelraji, unimpressed with the relatively small interlopers, merely nods.

“I’ll need another armored jacket, if the one I had is unrepairable. Otherwise, I will be meditating and resting. I think i’ll be able to feel us land. If we have, as I suspect, crossed the Wheel to another reality, we will all need our senses about us.”

Jake is a little more concerned with their new airborne company than the Indian, and squints down at the flying objects with his eagle’s eyes, trying to get a better handle on what they are.

Shortly after leaving, Kelraji returns, holding ash-smeared binoculars and with a small cloth-wrapped package tucked into his pants. He puts the binoculars to his eyes, trying to identify the newcomers.

“Just kidding. You people are so serious all the time. There’s nothing meditation can prepare us for that actions can’t. Plus, how often do you cross between worlds?”

The dwarven mercenary trundles into the rear of the plane at Kel’s request, mumbling good-naturedly, “Burr aye, I’ll rustle up a spare combat jacket for yer.” The monk’s joke elicits nothing more than a few raised eyebrows from the gathered people. Shane finally responds with a brief chuckle, though whether he is laughing at the joke or the utter silence which follows it is unclear.

The assembled men and women watch as the riders draw steadily nearer, flying in disciplined formation and heading straight for them. Some make out their details sooner than others, but in the end everyone assembled has a clear view of them as they swoop past the nose of the plane. The winged creatures are something out of a child’s fantasy novel, sinister-looking reptilian beasts nearly twice the size of a horse with tough, leathery skin and a wicked set of teeth and claws. Their forelimbs are broad, bat-like wings, while their hind legs are atrophied and tucked in for flight. An aerodynamic lizard’s head sits on a thin neck, matched by a long, snaking tail. A series of spines begins in a crest upon the creature’s head and runs the length of the beast’s back and tail.

The riders, too, appear mythical and Tolkienesque, clad in dull silver scale mail with plate across their chests. Their heads are topped with elongated conical helmets, and they clutch slender lances flying purple pennants matched to sashes tied about their waists. From their belts hang short-bladed swords in scabbards and an exotic weapon which looks like a hybrid of pistol and crossbow. Both riders are perched on saddles strapped to their flying reptile mounts, which are also lightly barded in plates of dull steel about the face and torso.

Both riders pass by the plane’s front window, seeming to inspect her occupants in equal measure. For a beat they are nowhere to be seen, then a startling thump sounds from above. The people inside look up to see the taloned foreclaws of one of the giant lizards clinging to the upper canopy, screeching loudly and cocking its head to regard those assembled with one cold, reptilian eye. The mounted man leans from his saddle and tamps the butt of his lance twice on the thick glass before bellowing at them in an incomprehensible tongue, striking their ears as harsh and overly sibilant.

Inside, the tall man clad in blood red robes and golden armor removes his own peaked helmet to reveal immaculate elven features, his face slender and impossibly handsome, framed in fine golden hair which is meticulously braided to the shoulder. He snorts indignantly. “The savage speaks a crude Sperethiel, though nothing like I have heard since the fifth dawn.” The elf’s eyes narrow. “The brute says he bears a message from his lord. Well, we’ll see about that. Get that thing off our plane, you backwater ape.” He raises a manicured hand and points a single finger at the rider, his forehead creasing with concentration.

Behuniak steps forward and pulls the elf’s arm down before he can act. “Come Vontarion, that’s no way to treat an ambassador. I thought you were supposed to be the cultured one. At any rate, the old man’s instructions were clear. The three must choose if the book is to be read.”

The red-robed man puts on a disdainful frown and looks down his perfect nose at the three men. He sighs. “Very well, choose away. I shall act as translator. It will amuse me to see these brutes put your heads on pikes.”

Linus is startled by the proceedings and is still wiping the sleep out of the corners of his eyes as events unfold. The excitement of first contact with a new culture, something he would normally revel in, is quenched by a thin trickle of adrenaline that is already leaking from his adrenal glands.

“So, I suppose the natives are restless then?” He laughs nervously. “Perhaps we should tell them that we come in peace?”

He looks over at his companions for confirmation.

Jake nods. “Seems like the wise thing to do; after all, we have them outgunned and outnumbered. Can we land this thing on that field down there? Would we be able to get back off the ground in a hurry?”

Kelraji nods absently, still looking over the emissaries.

“Do we come in peace? Why are we even here? And I don’t mean that metaphysically. What is our reason for coming here, and where are we planning to go? If they’re opposed to us, then we don’t come in peace. Do we need to land here, or can we just go on further? I’m sure they have parachutes or something. What we need to do is establish where is safe and where isn’t.

So, where is safe?"

Linus’ eyebrows twitch.

“Metaphysical or not, perhaps it is a good question either way… Certainly we must show these men respect, but let them know that we need to land the vehicle immediately. Vontarion, if you would, could you please communicate our need as travelers intending no harm, but in need of safe haven? It may be the case that these men and their lot have knowledge or resources that we will require. We must be appraised of this before open hostilities, certainly that is clear… brutish though they may be.”

After hearing those around him discuss, Kelraji speaks again, tired of the chattering.

“Enough. What do they want? Why are they here? We might as well hear them out. Ask them if they want to come inside. What is that saying you people have? Keep your enemies closest?”

The red-robed elf acknowledges the group’s decision and looks back up at the warrior on the exterior of the canopy, gesturing toward the rear of the plane and yelling a clipped phrase in Sperethiel. The rider delivers a swift jab to the sides of his mount and disappears once more from view.

The throng of soldiers and mystics migrates to the back of the plane, letting the three newcomers lead the way. They stand safely back from the breach as the massive rear gate slowly drops open, the mercenaries to one side, uneasily checking their rifles, and the Cabal on the other, muttering conspiratorially amongst themselves.

The ramp completes its descent, revealing a brilliant blue sky dotted with immaculate white clouds. Wind gutters crazily through the opening, buffeting all aboard and whistling in their ears. The two lizard riders cruise easily in the their wake, keeping pace with the cargo plane using steady sweeps of their wide wings. The leader spurs his mount forward, standing confidently in the saddle as his beast comes to an unsteady landing on the ramp with a clattering of claw on steel.

The lizard’s hunkered form fills the entryway, blotting out the bright morning sun. The envoy alights gracefully from his perch and takes a single step into the cabin, his mount hissing threateningly behind him as he inclines at the waist to execute a slight bow. Straightening again, he removes his pointed helm to reveal an elven face, pale of skin with hair of darkest raven pulled back in a tight ponytail, his expression stern and business-like. His jet-black eyes calmly scan the assembly before he speaks, addressing the three, as they stand farthest forward, and apart from the other two groups. “Se’seterin. Celese im cirolle faskit-ti raegh. Veresp’kra tesrae, a daron estial medaron’te.”

The elf called Vontarion frowns. “He says, ‘we have entered the territory of his lord. If we do not leave at once, we must pay homage at his court in exchange for our trespass, or they will tear our vessel from the sky.’” The haughty man scoffs derisively. “Push this one out of the plane. The rest we will deal with once we land. Honestly, these savages make demands of us?”

All eyes shift to the three men in the center of the crowded hold. The messenger from the island regards them with practiced detachment, his hand resting on the pommel of the sword at his waist.

Jake sees hands tighten on weapons, eyes looking to them for the word to open fire—“Hold! Hold your weapons, all of you.” The swordswoman has named him commander of these people; it was high time he made use of his rank. “Stay yourselves. This one is an ambassador, and we shall observe the proper respects.” He doffs his hat with one hand and sweeps it in front of him, bowing low with one foot outstretched. “Hile, aven kal. We come in peace.” He stands with open arms, palms up in a gesture of friendship. “We would like to treat with your lord, and will gladly pay homage at his court.” He glances sidelong at Vontarion for a translation.

Linus appears skeptical of the whole proceedings, but says quietly

“Indeed, perhaps these people know the lay of the land, so to speak.”

Then to the other Two of the Three, quietly: “I remain befuddled about our mission here… now that we have rested from that fight we would do well to discuss our plans… though we no longer have so much free time.”

Kelraji nods, and takes a step towards the emmisary, just enough to bring himself within whip range, but not close enough to cause alarm.

“We don’t need to whisper any more than they do. They don’t speak English. And plan what? We know now what we have to do, for the next few hours at least. When we know why they’re here, maybe it’ll help us figure out why we’re here. No need to plot and scheme pointlessly.

Dwarf, do you have parachutes with your armor and backpacks?"

Jake looks worried. “You don’t intend to… follow them out that door?” He looks warily out at the rushing air and clouds trailing off the plane’s tail section as they steadily lose altitude.

Kelraji smiles mischievously, then chuckles to himself.

“That would be quite the sight, wouldn’t it. No, That is not my intent. These men fly in the air on giant lizards in heavy armor. What happens if the lizard sneezes?

There is no quicker way to ease tensions than to make a genuine offering, out of concern for safety. I’m going to give these men parachutes, and have one of the War Pigs demonstrate."

Linus looks appalled. “If you think I am going to climb on the back of a half-dragon, or whatever those things are… My God if my life hadn’t been in danger I wouldn’t have even grabbed the skyhook… It’s just a lot to ask of…. I am a scientist for God’s sake, not an acrobat! I mean really!”

He looks at Jake for support. “I mean really!”

Back at Kelraji. “Really?”

Gunney Thacco pushes his way to the front of the mercenary squad, stroking his beard nervously. “Aye, the bird’s got ‘chutes alright, enough for the lot of us. Givin’ ’em away like presents though, seems a little dangerous, if fer example we were to need ’em. . .” He trails off, looking up at Sylvia Dagonhart nervously.

The woman’s expression remains stern and professional, as always. “You’ll outfit them as they see fit, Gunney. You know your orders.”

Shane calls out from the other side of the plane, thumping the flank of the box-like track closest to him. “This one has jump-jets if you’d rather do the drop in style. It’s a Striker—me and dad kitted it ourselves,” he says proudly. “Made space for four passengers in the back, plus the driver and gunner up front.”

Vontarion shakes his head slowly as the others carry on, finally addressing the foreign emissary dismissively. “Llay’asta, to-sarsa. Hang raegh resp.”

Something like malice flashes in the dark-haired elf’s gaze as he listens to Vontarion’s Sperethiel. He spits a single word, “llay’ar,” before bowing again, turning on his heel, and leaping astride his lizard in one practiced motion. He dons his helmet and sits expectantly in his saddle, waiting patiently for someone to dismiss him.

Linus watches Vontarion and the rider emissary, and thinks for a moment. Suddenly and idea enters his mind.

“Vontarion… your interpreting is… superb of course. Thanks, many thanks for that. But would you, before this rider leaves, ask him if he would grant me the gift of contact… a shaking of hands. Perhaps he would be willing?”

Linus walks slowly, respectfully, towards the emissary and lifts his hand, outstretched. It is an offering of welcome, though he strives not to be so assertive with the gesture as to be demanding.

“Tell him that I wish to communicate with his mind directly, though he has every right to refuse.”

Vontarion raises one flaxen-haired eyebrow. “Ah. . . as you wish.”

He addresses the silver-armored warrior. “Cele imiri’te, nage?”

The anachronistically-garbed elf looks down on the summoner for what feels like a century, seemingly weighing the odd request. At last, he leaps back down to the deck. He steps closer, removing his helmet and one finely-mailed glove. His eyes burn like black diamonds, and Linus can see intelligence and violence in equal measure behind the soldier’s stare as he extends his bared hand.

Jake’s hands creep imperceptibly towards the guns slung across his waist. His sixth sense picks up a jangling kind of lively aura from the summoner; maybe it’s just his imagination, or maybe some unseen hand guides him. To the gunslinger, an air of tension has wafted through the plane’s cargo area. He remains ready, just in case.

Linus in a moment of concern nearly steps back from the man, but then, realizing that this is more likely to stave off battle with these people than cause it, pulls in to the man’s stare and, boldly, grabs his hand.

“Be one with my thoughts, Rider.”

Kelraji, waiting on the parachutes, nods appreciatively and steps just within striking distance of the emissary.

Thacco trundles back to the center of the cargo hold, clutching three backpacks to his chest. “The parachutes, sir. Got as many as you need. I can show you how to use one, if’in you don’t know.”

Linus takes the elf by the hand, opening a mental link between them with a carefully formulated exertion of his magical energies.

Immediately, a great rush of sensation washes over him as the consciousness of this utterly foreign being interfacing with his own. Although it is clear the other man is thinking in his native elven tongue, Linus can clearly understand the thoughts running through his mind.

A cacophony of sensory data and emotion washes over the summoner all at once, giving him some brief glimpse into the other man’s existence as they first make contact—in the beginning, he is chasing his younger brother through the halls of his birthhome; then he is flying through the sky on the back of a cin’slazar for the first time; followed quickly by a still image of his wife on the night of their chal’han, their hands clasped together over the bloody grip of the ceremonial knife. Still more memories come, flashing past like quicksilver—the day of his knighting, the faces of his cin’estial as they gear up for patrol, the view of the great citadel sweeping out beneath him as he soars past, and then darker memories, laced with feelings of uncertainty, hatred and loss: the night the myrmid came, swarming over the citadel’s ramparts in one undifferentiable mass of black-armored soldiers, the screams of his men as the insect-riders tear them apart, the cry of the battle-horn as it sounds retreat.

Just as quickly, these distant memories are replaced by images of recent events—memories of this morning, breaking his fast in the barracks as a farm slave runs in from the countryside, babbling about glowing way-stones and an outlander who had stumbled through the gate. Then a call to action, and everyone is outside, pointing skyward at a shining metal beast breaking through the clouds above the Grey Sea.

Linus can see the elf’s eyes widen as he experiences the same phenomenon, but in reverse, seeing the life of Linus Templeton in the space of a heartbeat—opening his first chemistry set one early Christmas morning; the color of Catherine’s eyes the first time they meet; pulling the heavy acceptance envelope from Duke University out of his mailbox; the birth of his daughters; his first true fight on a shadowrun back in North Carolina; and finally, the image of Shane’s truck falling into the river beneath his dangling feet, a mushroom cloud of smoke and fire rising from the New York city skyline.

The elf’s inner voice sounds clearly in Linus’ mind. “How is this possible? You are male, yet you practice the witching arts. What strange place do you hail from, outlander? How come you to the Misty Isle?”

Kelraji nods to the sergeant, unwilling to take his eyes off the men, and waits for their business to complete before introducing his.

Linus, pleased that the elf’s emotions appear to be drifting into the realm of fascination and surprise rather than anger and suspicion, responds.

“I am on a mission I know little of, except that it has chosen me rather than I it. Your ways are likewise foreign to me, but I recognize in them the patterns of a great elf that has been forced to walk a difficult path. You have seen my memories, and know that I serve the Fire Bringer, and am also charged to carry a burden for enlightenment of the people. Let me show you the events that brought me here…”

With that Linus revisits and carefully replays his conversation with the old man, now almost certainly slain.

“Now you know as much, or as little, as I, and know that we mean you no offense and no harm. We have no association with the myrmid, and I suspect they may be mutual enemies on our mission. Will you offer us haven, and let us land our steel flyer? We welcome the chance to speak to your leader, but this machine flies off of a power source that is limited, and it must land soon.”

The elf pays careful attention as Linus recounts his tale. The summoner can tell the man is carefully considering his next act, mulling over this new knowledge within the guarded recesses of his inner consciousness. Appearing to have made up his mind, he speaks. “You seek Telen’oeran, the Scholar on the Hill. Our dancers sing of him when they recount the history of our people.” Images from the man’s imagination flash between them, first of a castle cut from grey stone and shrouded in mist, then of a solitary figure laying supine upon a solid stone block, arms crossed over his chest, his face shrouded in shadow. “He is the ruler of this land. The dancers say he formed the mountains and the sea at the dawn of time, and spread upon the earth grass, beast and raen.”

The elf’s dark eyes narrow. “So too do they sing of your book, and the power it wields. They say Telen’oeran and the tome are as one, like night and day—where one goes, the other must follow.”

“I believe your tale,” the emissary concludes. You may land your sky-whale upon our ground—I will see to your safety. Once you land, you will hold counsel with Mer’veloth, the lord of my people. He will want to hear your tale, and will demand recompense for the privilege of our haven." Another vision flashes across Linus’ mind, this time of a seated figure casually slumped upon a throne of iron and stone, his shoulders draped in a cape of purple velvet. He rests his head on one closed fist, brooding to himself as a leopard-spotted creature dozes at his feet.

The elven messenger withdraws his hand, bows slightly to Linus, then turns on his heel to leap once more astride his flying lizard. He digs his heels into the beast and draws on the reins, causing the creature to release its grip on the cargo ramp and fall backwards into space with a reptilian hiss.

The beast regains control with a few strokes of its leathery wings and joins formation with the other rider. They wheel away from the plane, picking up speed as they begin a lazy downward spiral towards the grassy plains which stretch out far below them.

The course of their flight has brought them directly above the settlement, revealing a bustling town built with materials and techniques reminiscent of medieval times. People can be seen flowing through the cobbled streets, appearing like ants from their high vantage point.

Jake turns to the nearest soldier, shouting over the roar of the wind, “Go to the cockpit and tell the pilots to land safely wherever they can!” Turning to Slyvia, “Dinh Dagonhart, I need two of your squads in these APC’s and ready to move out when we hit ground—one squad remains behind with the crew and equipment! We’ll show them homage, but I’m not marching into this place-out-of-time without back up.” He looks to the other Two, and nods silently. ‘Time to get ready. Ka-mai, I hope you can keep yourself under control, for all our sakes. The summoner will be needed to play his part too, I’m sure.’

inus, as if from a daze, jerks awake.

“Perhaps you would like to know what I have learned before making orders, Jake. I have seen into the emissary’s deepest intentions… and they reveal a severely cautious but benign intent. These people are in a way sorts of refugees, and they fear invasion from the outside. One bitten twice shy, I believe the saying goes?”

“So yes, we should land, but please let’s be cautious with mobilizing these vehicles. We may need them soon, but certainly not for our encounter with Mer’veloth. Though, I must say, I am hesitant about the nature of this lord of theirs. Though his emissary had a noble spirit, I always question the character of those who have had opportunity to be corrupted by the throne.”

“To be quick… these people know of the one we seek, whom they call Telen’oeran. I am not sure of his true nature, but he appears to be a sort of ‘man on the mountaintop’ of apparently considerable astral power. It is difficult to know from their descriptions, but he is hailed by the emissary as a sort of living God”

“We will certainly want their services in locating this man, and perhaps in overcoming obstacles that may appear. I wish I had been given more time to elucidate their legends and iconography surrounding this figure, but to be sure they know more than we do, and it seems that our arrival was foretold…”

Jake considers this for a second. “Hmmm. You may be right, Linus. That’s good information; let’s reconsider.”

He turns back to the lieutenant, “Dagonhart, forget the APC’s and halve the escort. One squad will come with the three of us into the village as bodyguards. We will also require the use of your glammer, wherever he may be, and Vontarion, to translate. Behuniak and yourself are free to attend us but I leave that decision to you.”

Kelraji shrugs, nods to the gunslinger, and gets himself a sly grin.

“What are we waiting for? Dagonhart, please make it clear to your men that when we land, they are to treat the three of us as emissaries. Better to meet as equals than invaders. Also, Sergeant, our escort will carry the parachute gifts. Take the opportunity of gift-giving to observe their soldiers and weapons. If things go wrong, I expect your men to be fully prepared.”

“Somebody get me a flying horse.”

Kelraji chuckles to himself and shakes his head as he returns to the APC to gather his things.

Linus, likewise gathers himself, tagging after Kelraji.

“Excellent, yes, excellent thinking about the gifts. Though I suspect such a gift should be presented as an offensive weapon… rather than a protective safeguard. These people are proud and may see any suggestion that a parachute would ever be needed as an affront.”

Then in a whisper:

“You don’t think that Vontarion was bothered too much by my circumventing his translation, do you? As you can tell, mindlink it gets the job done very quickly. Very quickly.”

Then suddenly switching subjects:

“Perhaps it would be prudent for me to summon an astral companion to go with us? Do you think that would be seen as agressive? I’m just thinking out loud, you know.”

Kelraji shakes his head.

“How about we land first? Even if they bring swords, we have these giant tanks. I don’t see how a spirit would help.

Why don’t you go ahead and tell me and the cowboy what you know in private while we land?"

Kelraji heads towards the APC, meandering, looking around the plane.

The cargo freighter rolls implacably to the right, banking in for descent as the rear hatch rumbles closed once more. The pilot’s voice blares through the plane’s speakers. “Hang on, we’re in for some chop.”

Lieutenant Dagonhart snaps Jake an easily salute. “My men will be ready. One question, sir—what is a glammer? I’m not familiar with about half the words that come out of your mouth, this one included, but I have a feeling it does not describe any of my troops.”

Behuniak thumps an armored fist against his breastplate. “You have my shield.”

“I do not serve this woman,” Vontarion scoffs, sweeping his silken cape across one shoulder. “Yet I deign to join you. For the common good,” he adds insincerely.

Thomas takes a step closer, gesturing to two men near the back of the crowd. “I would be remiss not to point out two members of the Cabal whom you have not met. They have talents you may find useful.” He gestures to an older man draped in a high-collared longcoat. Heavy armor spans his chest, and he wears some sort of mechanical brace on both legs. “Renzo Espallier,” Thomas informs them. “A Spanish aristocrat and something of a Jack-of-all-trades. I know little about him, other than that he financed the entirety of this expedition.”

Thomas introduces the second Cabalman, a stout, heavily muscled brute dressed in simple leather clothing. He is armed with nothing more than a standard-issue kevlar vest, a brutally long knife, and a wood-bodied old-era rifle. A heavy ashen pelt hangs over one arm. His face is creased and weathered, and framed by a crazed white beard. “And that is Russ Gault, an adept following the Way of the Beast. An excellent tracker and outdoorsman, as well as an expert on the local terrain. Apparently he’s been here before.”

The Crusader adept steps back. “We are at your call, my brothers. It is a great risk to walk directly into something so unknown. My heart tells me there will be death.”

Linus calls out to Jake from the edge of the APC:

“Listen Jake, we really should all get on the same page here, perhaps we can have a quick chat about our plans? Best that we not be giving contradicting orders when we are on the ground.”

Jake holds his hat down with one hand as he ducks inside the vehicle. “Apologies, comrades.” I think it best that we go on a short mission to meet their leadership. No displays of force, just as ambassadors. I’m sure we’ll be… safe." He rests his hand on the butt of his father’s gun.

Kelraji nods.

“Of course we’ll be safe. That’s why we’re bringing armed guards and a group of powerful and heavily armored attendants.

Look, one of two things is true. Either they’re dangerous, and we should bring everything we have, or they’re not, and we don’t need anything but the three of us, and maybe the translator. There is no middle path here. I know if someone is pointing a gun at me, the size doesn’t make me feel any more or less offended. So, do we bring our ‘guns’ or not?

And another thing, Linus, mind read the translator. Why is he so dismissive of these people, and why should we trust him?"

Linus looks at Kelraji with befuddlement and then chuckles.

“If I could mind read just anyone at any moment I would happily do so. But the link I use requires consent, and Vontarion is hardly a willing subject.”

“And I think the answer is, quite simply, that we’ll be safe. That the emissary even allowed me access to his mind is first evidence of this, moreover he will certainly be relaying to his command that we are the fulfillment of some ancient prophecy, whose details I was not quite able to elicit before our contact was broken. Frankly I think bringing armed escort would put us in greater danger than to going alone, given the signal it might send.”

The floor of the APC takes on a new strain of vibration, accompanied by a hydraulic whine as the landing gear descends. Muffled shouts and clanks can be heard from without as the expedition prepares for landfall.

Linus, not waiting for his companion’s response, turns to the side and whips his lighter out of his pocket, deftly flicking it alight a the same time. He closes his eyes for a brief second, and blows across the top of the flame, causing it to dance, while his free hand runs through the smoke.

Linus inscribes a diminutive summoning rune in the air, breaking the seal with a token offering of flame. He performs the simple incantation easily, as usual, yet what comes through the from the other side surprises him. The watcher materializes without permission, its ghostly image flitting about the interior of the armored transport. Instead of the usual minor elemental, a tiny human figure has emerged, wearing a simple light green tunic and sporting a set of fairy wings.

The little sprite checks its surroundings with a bored expression, completely unimpressed by what it sees. It flutters inches away from Linus’ nose, a judgmental expression on its tiny face. “It is men that call me so? Hmph. I do not know your tribe.” The little androgynous creature buzzes in circles around the summoner’s head. “What business have you with the fey, outlander? Oh! Do come to save the king? Say you’re here for the king!”

Linus jumps back away from the thing, his chin receeding into his neck as he leans backwards away from it.

“I’m here for the king?” he tries. “Let’s go with that… sure… fine. Look, uh, listen I am quite sorry but you’re not quite what I was expecting.” he looks quizzically at the newly summoned tinkerbell.

Kelraji frowns.

“Try again. That doesn’t look like the last one you summoned.”

Jake intervenes. “Wait! This little one might simply be the form of such spirits in this place. Let’s hear what it has to say to us.”

He addresses the little light ball, “What’s happened to the king, faerie?”

Kelraji frowns, and reaches for Linus’ lighter.

The sprite flits inches in front of Jake’s nose. “Our king! The fairy king has gone missing! The whole Feywild is in chaos! Some say he was captured by He who Sleeps! Others say he put on an evil piece of armor, and it turned his heart to stone, and now he wanders the Merkling Wood in the dark of night! Oooooo. . .” The fairy waves its hands about in front of Jake’s face for added effect.

Kelraji grabs Linus by the wrist and applies pressure to his tendons, easily dislodging the lighter from his pitiful grip. The tiny spirit emits a squeaky cry of indignation and begins zooming about the monk’s head, screaming and throwing punches at his face with immaterial little fists. “You stay away from him, ya creep! He may be a wuss, but he’s still my master for another four hours!” Firecracker-like bursts of light go off in distracting proximity to Kel’s face as the watcher exercises the full power of its fey magic.

Another high-pitched hydraulic whine reaches them as the cargo plane’s flaps extend, followed by the roar of propellers reversing thrust.

Linus’ quizzical expression remains on his face as he looks at Kelraji

“Wuss indeed, but give back my lighter you fanatic! Creature! Stop attacking him! This is our almost-undoubtably-lunatic friend of ours.”

“Creature what is your name and why do I not have access to the element of fire?”

The fairy somersaults gleefully through the air, all aggression towards Kelraji suddenly stricken from its simple mind. “My name is Gurp-Gurp! But most fey just call me Gurps.”

The sprite matches Linus’ confused expression. “What do you mean, you don’t have access to fire? You called for a watcher, not an elemental. That’s why you got me, Gurp-Gurp! The feychildren are the denizens of call for any minor summoning here. It’s our right as natives to have first heed to the offerings of the Otherverse. I took yours cause you seem interesting, although I prefer milk and honey over a bit of fire. It was nice though. Rustic! I heard in other lands there are watchers who aren’t fey! Is that true? Is it possible? Do you have one with you? Is it better than me? Can I meet it? Oh, no one would ever believe me if I did!” Gurps falls over backwards with an elated sigh, emitting a trail of sparkling dust behind it.

The deck beneath their feet rocks violently as the plane thunders into contact with the uneven earth. The three hold tight to handrails and straps to keep themselves on their feet as the cargo plane rumbles to an ungraceful halt.

Kelraji flicks the lighter on, blows through the flame, gestures for Linus to make another watcher. Disappointed by the distracted scientist, he shrugs and moves on.

Handing the lighter back to Linus, Kelraji stands, secures what he’s taking with him, and heads out the door of the APC.

Linus is ponders this, while accepting his lighter back without a thought.

“Gurps! Fascinating, fascinating! And you say that you populate this place? My goodness there’s something really interesting going on here. Of course there are all kinds of theories of locally induced heterogeneities in the astral realms, but I have never seen a demonstration of it that was so… so… conclusive!”

“Alright Gurps I’m going to try something… I don’t know that it will work but let’s just give it a shot and see what happens… usually my watchers aren’t so vocal as you, this is actually quite enjoyable”

With that Linus pulls out his lighter again and… concentrating deeply on the flame, pulls an image of another watcher form into his mind. Carefully, he attempts to pull it through the flame from the elemental planes, uncertain of what to expect.

The summoner deploys another rune of watcher summoning, once again passing his offering of fire through the center of the circle. He watches with rapt attention as a being bursts through the opening. This one is another fairy, a little bigger than the last, and equipped with a miniature set of buckler, half-helm and spear.

Gurps gasps. “Toot-Toot! Yeah, it’s a fairy party!”

The second sprite manifests as a ghostly half-image on the physical plane, brandishing his small fairy weapon at unseen enemies. Portions of his hair and tunic are singed a sooty black. “What was that all about? One minute I’m on my way to the Otherverse, the next I’m fighting some Underdark flaming-ass monkey!” He glances around. “And no milk? Is this guy serious?”

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Crusher

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