The Drawing of Three

Chapter Three - Part 2

Splinterhold

The three’s attention is drawn back to reality by the sudden, novel silence which pervades the armored personnel carrier. The plane’s engines have been cut. Jake and Linus follow Kelraji through the carrier’s door, finding the interior of the hold bustling with activity. The rear gangway lowers, revealing a majestic field of golden grass and gently rolling hills. In the distance, waves can be seen crashing up against a rocky bluff, a foaming white-green sea stretching out beyond it to the edge of the world. The pleasant smells of wet grass, healthy earth, and far-off seawater reach their noses.

A procession of elves rounds the bend in front of them, galloping in uniform double ranks. The vanguard consists of lightly armored knights riding vicious, raptor-like steeds, followed by a single wooden carriage yoked to four more of the bipedal lizards.

The mercenary Lieutenant stands waiting for them on one side of the ramp with four of her soldiers around her, patiently watching for further instruction. Behuniak and Vontarion are at the foot of the ramp already, their heavy helmets concealing their faces.

A single male elf emerges from the carriage as it rolls to a halt, stepping confidently out on light feet. His features are similar to the emissary’s—a sharp, pale face with dark eyes and straight black hair drawn back into a ponytail. He wears a simple leather vest over a woven purple shirt, with loose canvas pants cinched about his waist by a purple scarf. A slender rapier hangs at one hip, with a matching dirk on the other.

The dark elf begins to walk towards the plane at a decidedly nonthreatening pace.

Linus looks to Gurps and whispers:

“Sorry about the milk, but do you know who that guy is?” pointing at the elf approaching them.

Jake shakes the brass in his bag absentmindedly, like a handful of deadly coins. He looks out to the newly-arrived emissaries, their strange mounts and carriage-house, taking them in, sizing them up. He looks for evidence of modern weapons or technology, but sees nothing at the moment.

Turning back to his companions and their two new guides, “Let’s not wait on ceremony, I want to greet these people peacefully, and from there parlay with their leader. Gurps, Toot-Toot, you can tell us all about the Fay king after we’ve dealt with our new guests.”

He walks out the APC and down the ramp, drawing level with Vontarion and Behuniak. “Vontarion, please announce us. Try to be nice about it.”

Kelraji hisses as they approach the group.

“I’ll ride with the emissary. No safer place.”

The red-robed elf sighs, clearly still of the opinion that translation is a task far beneath him. He calls out a phrase of Sperethiel to the approaching swordsman, who answers in formal tones. He inclines his head and sweeps one arm in the direction of the carriage door.

Vontarion brushes his cape aside and starts toward the antiquated vehicle. “He’s inviting us to their little stone hut. Come, let’s get this over with, before the stench of dinosaur droppings overwhelms me.”

The fairies flutter around Linus’ head, tittering to themselves. Gurps whispers in Linus’ ear, “never seen the guy, but I don’t spend much time on this plane. By the looks of him, I’d say. . .” Gurps squints at him with audible concentration. “Definitely an elf. He’s big, too, that’s for sure, like you. But he’s no outlander, I can tell that. Sheesh, is this what passes for earthwalker fashion these days? I wouldn’t be caught dead in that vest.”

Kelraji shrugs, and walks toward the emissary.

“Translator, tell them I will ride with their emissary in the coach, as will you.”

Linus follows along, fairies in tow.

“Me three!” He marvels at the raptors, while doing his best to maintain maximum distance from them.

Hrrm." Jake just grumbles to himself thoughtfully, still trying to determine whether these newcomers are dangerous or mean them harm. Slipping on his shades, he follows his companions towards the raptor-drawn carriage.

The three follow Vontarion into the carriage. Jake’s practiced eyes sweep over the welcoming party, hunting for something amiss, a glimpse of technology or deception to clue him in that this is all some sort of elaborate plot. The lizard-riders, numbering roughly twenty in all, are equipped in a similar fashion to the first elf they encountered—simple plate armor over shirts of scale mail with matching pointed helms covering the face, belts hung with curved swords and pistol-gripped crossbows, and a lance gripped in one hand, flying a purple pennant which matches a sash wrapped about the waist. The lizards themselves bear saddles with high pommels and utilitarian barding, nothing more than a shaped plate to protect the head and another over the creature’s chest. One of the creatures snaps viciously at Linus as he passes, making him jump nervously.

The carriage, too, does not appear to be hiding any secrets. It is an elegant enough design, its body sweeping in a wide arch from front to back, giving it the appearance of a boat on wheels. The vehicle seems to be crafted from the pine which grows abundantly in the foothills beyond the grassy plain, constructed largely with all-wood techniques, using dowels and box joints to hold it together. The only metal appears to be on the undercarriage, where it has been used for suspension and to house the axles.

Upon close inspection, the soldiers’ equipment is in worse shape than one might expect, almost uniformly nicked and dinged in various places, with some plates of armor still bearing holes and small rends. The new emissary, by contrast, is clearly of a different class than the cavalry, as his clothing is of a decidedly finer cut, the steel of his rapier and matching dirk polished and immaculate.

The gunslinger checks the man’s person carefully as he passes him to board the coach, and catches something unusual about the shape of the heavy leather bracers he wears over each forearm. They are clearly a bit bulkier and thicker than one might expect from a simple piece of cured hide, and indeed, Jake marks two holes worked into the body of each, like the shafts of torpedo tubes on the bow of a submersible. As the swordsman sweeps his hand out to gesture them into the waiting carriage, Jake spots a loop of metal protruding from the bracer into the man’s palm, positioned so that the wearer might tug at it with a finger when he closes his fist. The gunslinger wagers it to be some sort of concealed claw, or even a dart-launcher, if the designer were especially pert.

The three men climb into the rear of the carriage, allowing Thomas, Vontarion, and the swordsman to sit in front. Sylvia and her mercenaries find space where they can on the outside of the coach, standing on steprails and clinging to the roof. Kelraji catches Vontarion shooting daggers at him from across the cabin, his expression full of venom at the slight of being called ‘translator.’ [Your relationship with Vontarion Do’Urden has decreased to -1.]

Their ride takes them through the grassland on a simple dirt track, providing a majestic view of the gently swaying grass stretching out before them, backed by pine-covered hills. Beyond this, the foothills rise into proper mountains, sprinkled with snow and wreathed in fog and cloud like a Transcendentalist’s oil painting. An exotic insect, looking something like a cross between a dragonfly and scorpion, lands on the windowsill, only to be chased away at spear-point by Toot-Toot.

Their journey brings them swiftly to the town’s entrance, their progress slowing as the vanguard works to shift the gathering crowd. Village folk pass by their windows, staring in at them with rapt curiosity. They are uniformly of the same ethnicity as the soldiers they have so far encountered: fair-skinned, with pointed elven ears and eyes and hair of a brown so dark it skirts true black. They wear simple clothes of roughspun fabric, stiff dresses in muted tones for the women, and for the men plain trousers and high-collared shirts with buttons running up the side of the body. Their homes and communal buildings all seem to have been built recently, and all at once, as they are built of hastily sawed slats with foundations of artlessly mortared stone and roofs of thatch or shingle. As they weave through the streets they do their best to size up the community, guessing that the population may be something in the range of one thousand elves.

At last, they draw up to the holdfast at the edge of the town, another quickly-built structure which stands overlooking the town on a small hill. The stones composing its walls are large and sloppily quarried, forming a modest wall around a central keep. They disembark and are ushered through the outer gate before being brought to the front entrance. Large purple banners displaying what looks to be an eye pierced through with a dagger decorate the walls. Stout wooden double-doors are swung open to admit them, but one of the guards holds out his hand as Vontarion approaches. They exchange a few words before the blonde-haired elf spits on the ground and turns away in disgust. “The mongrel tells me that highborn elves are not allowed in his lord’s castle. Clearly these people do not remember the age of legends, else they might realize they should all be dead by now.”

The procession carries on, absent their translator, passing through a modest dining hall to enter what must be the lord’s throne room. The walls form a large circle, and are hung with tapestries and lit by sconces bearing guttering torches. All along the walls sit men and women of noble stature, wearing fine garments and sipping from fluted cups. The center of the room is occupied by a large fire-pit piled high with smoldering embers, around which prances a troupe of gaily-clad dancers. At the opposite end of the room stands a throne atop a raised dais. An elven man sits there, his hair worked into a dozen heavy braids which fall over the luxurious purple robe draped over his shoulders. His features are fair, handsome yet brooding, and still bearing a touch of youth. The throne is flanked by two standing figures, one a beautiful woman, tall and full-figured and clutching a slim staff tipped with a massive red stone, the other a hunched, frowning old man who wrings his hands and casts anxiously about. At the lord’s feet is a large feline animal, with a leopard-spotted pelt and sabertoothed fangs.

Kneeling at the foot of the dais is another man, his presence somehow more curious than everything they have seen thus far. It is a human, his form gaunt and malnourished, displaying every rib clearly, his skin smeared with weeks of grime and soot and practically covered in vicious scars. His cheeks and eyes are sunken, his brown hair and beard crazed and matted with twigs. Heavy iron shackles bind his wrists and ankles, and he shivers uncontrollably despite the warmth of the chamber.

As the three enter, with Behuniak and the mercenaries behind them, a hush falls over the room. The dancers quickly stop their play and rush off to find seats. A guard gives the human’s chain a tug, and he speaks in a quavering British accent, not bothering to rise from his knees. “I am Arthur Glass, slave to this man, Mer’veloth, lord of these people. As his lordship will not sully his tongue with foreign words, I have been designated your interlocutor. He believes you are trespassing on his land, and demands payment for the privilege. Speak freely to me, as none here know the Queen’s English, save you and I. I suggest you appease him, if you want to live through the night.”

Linus’s eyes open wide to the man in chains. In a rare moment of care and prudence, he scans the room, and assenses the aura of the strange staff carrying woman.

Kelraji looks around the room. He’s not close enough to anyone to be dangerous, but they were allowed to bring their weapons, so they’re safe so far.

“Linus, it would be rude not to greet this man the way you met the last messenger, right?”

“Panchama, this man will touch your mind, allow him in. Tell your king that we respect his boundaries, and ask him how he performs the horse ceremony with no horses.”

Jake blanches, and says assertively, “Hello, Arthur Glass. I am Jake Chambers of New York and these are my companions, Kelraji Sivihara and Linus Templeton. These behind us would be who brought us here, Thomas Behuniak and Sylvia Dagonhart.”

The gunslinger clears his throat apologetically, “Please excuse Kelraji, he has a certain way with people. If you don’t mind, we have some questions for your king before we pay him homage. First, we believe we are brought here by fate, on a quest of importance for an item of great power. Should the call of destiny bring him to lend us aid, we would be most appreciative. Second, we would gladly leave his land, but the craft that brought us here can only be used to take us home again, and we mean on staying. We are glad to pay him homage, when we deem it fair and reasonable.”

Privately, Jake thinks to himself, ‘May as not come out with the whole of it. Fate lead us here, and will lead us out again.’

Kelraji frowns for a moment, unused to compromise. Then he launches into his companion, talking quickly, with more than a hint of his accent coming through.

“Before we know what, we need to know why. Do you also come from a land with castes as clear as those here? We deal with a Kshatriya, surrounded by the same, attended to by Brahmins. We were brought here past the Sudras in the town and the Vaishyas in the fields. The human is a fifth, untouchable, outside the system. Can’t you see the split? This lord’s kind are simple. They always want one thing. To stay on top. If we know why he’s in that seat instead of someone else, we know exactly how to appease him. I want to know how he got there, but if you feel your questions are important as well, they can be asked after he answers mine.”

Kelraji takes a deep breath, and visibly calms himself, looking back at the lord.

“How did this come to be your land? What ritual makes it yours, and yours alone?”

Linus merely looks around… clearly he is slow to absorb their new surroundings and is a bit off kilter.

Linus flips the switch in his brain which brings on his astral sight, nervously assensing the elven lord and his counsel. It is hard to make out much from across the spacious royal chambers, but the woman is clearly a powerful sorcerer. Confident strength radiates from her being, a crimson concoction of arrogance and spite. Even gazing upon the staff in her hands makes the summoner feel irritable and violent.

The sabertoothed leopard at the foot of the throne lifts its head curiously when Linus shifts onto the astral plane, sniffing in his direction with its triangular ears perked. The cat’s eyes glow like emeralds in Linus’ awakened sight.

Arthur Glass listens dutifully as they converse, the weight of the iron band around his neck seeming to drag him bodily to the stone floor. He responds when they finish, his British accent coming on stronger after hearing the post-colonial slant of Kelraji’s English. “If by that anthropology lesson you mean to say he owns slaves, then yes, it is true. They are in many ways a feudal people.” The guard holding his chain gives it a fierce yank, pulling the frail man onto his side. Glass rights himself wearily, shuffles to the edge of the dias, and mumbles to the dark elf lord.

Mer’veloth begins to speak in Sperethiel , his tone calm and deliberate. Though he does not yell, his voice fills the walls of his throne room. The assembled host of nobles and servants comes alive with excited murmurs as he finishes his sentence.

The enslaved man turns to address the three. “My lord says: I rule by right of birth, strength, and victory in chal’han se. I will tell you your task in due time, but first I must have answers. My scouts tell me the webway portal at the edge of my territory glows with fresh life, and cannot be closed. The next thing I know, you arrive in your skyship. Tell me, outlanders, what business have you with the rift network? Will you close them, or do you plan on stepping through?”

Kelraji nods as the slave speaks. Without turning to his companions, he begins cycling slowly through hand gestures with his left hand.

Muttering softly to himself, Kelraji’s brow furrows, and he works his own way through the situation

“The wheel certainly does turn. But to cross through realm so easily…Surely…”

Looking up, to the lord, Kelraji speaks louder, directly to the elf.

“The ritual, and the birthright, they are important. It is good that you are the real ruler in this land, free from imposters.

You shall have your tribute, as is your due. As we are tributaries here, are I granted the rights of the court? We three are hungry, tired, and in your debt. Surely one with such impressive surroundings has an outlying estate to house visitors that we can dwell in while we pay you your due."

Demurely, Kelraji keeps a straight face, filled with expectation, as he speaks, trying to convince the lord that this is custom where he, Kelraji, comes from.

Arthur Glass nods, and leans in once more to translate. The dark elf lord idly inspects his fingernails, flicking away some unseen speck of filth before responding. To their untrained hears, it sounds as if impatience is beginning to pervade his speech.

The slave shuffles forward to deliver the response. “My lord welcomes you to lodge in his keep, your right as honored guests. He does insist on hearing what you know of the portals, however. It has been. . .” Arthur trails off, lost in some unseen memory. “Ah, it has been many years since they were last active. Their opening is always a portentous thing in this land, so naturally the elves are eager to know how it is you’ve done it.”

Jake nudges Kelraji. “The book. Show them the book.”

Kelraji glances at the gunman, shrugs, turns to him, and whispers,

“You explain it then, all I know is it’s a book I can’t even open, much less read.”

Kelraji takes out the book, begins to unwrap it, and says, his eyes locked on the lord,

“We have come as representatives of a cabal of mystics. My esteemed companion will answer all of your questions to the best of his abilities. He knows everything I know and more.”

He holds the unwrapped book out to Jake, still facing the lord.

Jake takes the book gingerly, feeling the unnatural pulse of powerful magic beneath his fingers. He holds the book up so the assembled eyes can see it clearly. “This is the item which has brought us to your land, and we know as little about its operation as you do. We are not even able to open it, much less comprehend its purpose or power. Nor do we know of your webways; if they are the means by which we arrived in your land then they were opened for us, not by us. If you have sorcerers or diviners, perhaps the magics of this land will shed light on the book’s purpose, and what ties it may have to the opening of the portals.”

The gunslinger half-turns to look at his assembled entourage, scanning the faces for the dwarf who had traveled here before. He needs to know what the man knows about these people and their webway.

Jake looks behind him, passing his eyes over the faces of those who have come with him to the dark lord’s court. He sees the expressionless faceplate of Thomas Behuniak’s plumed battlehelm, the petite features of Sylvia Dagonhart framed by her short blonde locks, as well as her squad of mercenaries, the swarthy medic Rodriguez, Taengele, the elf bearing ice-blue tattoos across his bald head and neck, a hulking troll with a single bionic eye who clutches a Franchi SPAS-22 scattergun to his chest, and finally, an unassuming white male who stands to one side with a bored expression on his face, wiping his nose absentmindedly. Jake recognizes him as the soldier seated next to him on the plane, and once more the strange feeling that he is gazing upon an old friend or relative strikes the gunslinger’s mind. Nowhere to be seen, however, is the stocky, bearded man called Russ Gault. Absent instruction, it seems Behuniak decided not to invite any more of the Cabal than were specifically asked for.

Jake turns back to see an expression of pure awe spread slowly across Arthur Glass’ dirt-stained face. “It can’t be. . .” he mutters to himself, suddenly forgetting his place and station. His attending guard quickly jogs his memory with a backhanded strike, sending the poor man reeling once more. Dutifully, he picks himself up and kneels by his master’s throne, whispering to him in hushed tones.

The dark elf lord rises slowly to his feet, sweeping aside his heavy purple cloak with one gauntleted hand while gesturing to Glass and his attending sorceress with the other. He crosses the chamber with deliberate steps, his features underlit by the smoldering embers of the central firepit to give him a menacing, skeletal appearance. The sorceress strides after him, her long legs flashing through the V of her black satin dress. Glass trails them both, head and back bent in servitude.

Mer’veloth stops scant paces from the three men, so close his heavily perfumed scent fills their nostrils. His night-black eyes meet each of theirs in turn, sizing them up, his gaze undeniably pugilistic. As he shifts his attention to the book the dark elf’s expression shifts to one of greed and unfettered entitlement. He jerks his head at the sorceress, her beauty somehow even more striking up close, and she steps forward to pass her hand over the leather-bound tome in Jake’s hand.

The sorceress’ eyes widen, then narrow as she draws away. She brushes back a length of Mer’veloth’s hair to whisper in his ear. The dark lord listens, nods, then opens his mouth. The three are amazed to hear English come forth, his accent thick and strange as only the accent of a native Sperethiel-speaker could be. “This is book of Telen’oeran, man who sleeps in the gray castle. Long is his sleep, but now outlanders come, with his book, and the webway wakes again. Maybe Telen’oeran also wakes.” The dark elf lord pauses to consider briefly before continuing. “Book will be trade for outlanders in my realm. This is my price.” Mer’veloth holds out his hand to Jake, his mouth set in a hard frown.

With deliberate motion, Jake hands the book back to Kelraji, where he supposes it will be safest. The Indian man is a maniac when provoked, and after all, they are certainly not going to give up their only tie to their world in exchange for staying in this strange one.

“I apologize, Mer’veloth, we cannot part with this book. We are bound to it by fate, and for you even to attempt to take it from us would be futile; I’m not certain we could give up the book even if we wanted to. This quest is ours and ours alone. You will understand, of course.” His hands slide to the grips of his cannons; he concentrates inwardly and achieves the heightened senses of a gunslinger facing down a duelist under the Mid-World sun. The lord and his sorceress will have two new holes in their faces if they make a wrong move.

Kelraji shoots a scathing frown at Jake before attempting to diffuse the situation. Being out in the cold for so long in the last world has made Kelraji far less attached to returning and the concept of righteousness

“Gunslinger, the lord does not intend to take the book, he just wants access to its power. He knows that the book itself is useless in its current form. He wants to ensure that we stay safe while we help him unlock the book. Make sure that you understand what is being offered before you make your choice.”

Linus chips in before anyone can respond:

“Kelraji what you propose is absolute madness! This man of course warrants deference, but the book must remain in our possession. Surely it is obvious to him that we are as priests guarding a sepulcher, though we would be honored to… serve… his court.”

The last bit is said unconvincingly as Linus looks at Arthur Glass’s wretched condition.

Jake looks Kelraji in the eyes as he continues to hold the enchanted tome out to him, trying to gauge if he believes the words coming from his mouth. As usual, however, the Buddhist monk and any intentions he might be harboring are completely lost to Jake. Kel seems to be trying to incriminate some deeper meaning to him, but the gunslinger cannot decide whether the Indian man is ready to slice him in half or surrender the artifact himself. Despite his words, Kelraji neither offers the tome over, nor moves to put it away in his pack.

Mer’veloth waits patiently for each of them to speak, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. When Jake’s hands drop to the grips of his revolvers, the room fills with the rustling of holsters and the muted gasps of womenfolk. The gunslinger’s mind drops into a deathly chill as he lays hands upon his father’s gun, the battle fever of his creed gripping him like the winds of ka. [Jake’s reaction increases to 9 for 6 turns.]

Every man in the room is on his feet, a dozen silver-plated guards and nearly thirty nobles. The soldiers brandish elaborate heavy crossbows at their heads, each one cocked and loaded with an iron-tipped bolt. The bowguns appear to have some sort of drum magazine built into their elegantly crafted bodies.

The courtesans draw slender bow pistols from robes and belt-loops, miniaturized versions of the rifle-sized repeaters and gilded in self-conceited patterns of silver and gold. Even the dancing troupe draws knives and punch-daggers, their troubadour masks leering at them in an unsettling manner.

The lord casually raises one hand, causing the assembled throng of dark elves to lower their weapons as one. “You would kill me, outlander? Then what? Fight through two hundred armed men? No, outlander, no. Do you think I have never seen gun before? Have never felt the kiss of black powder?” Mer’veloth smiles a twisted smile and begins to pace, still addressing Jake Chambers. “You should listen to your friends, mon’keigh. I do not like threats.”

The dark elf takes a few strides, his expression one of deep thought. “But I am not robber, outlander. As this one says, there are always ways to serve. . .” He turns to face them, spreading his arms. "We have a saying, my people. Te semerathrsa, suasthra. It means, ‘Do not watch the first arrow, but fire again.’ If at first we do not succeed, we try again, yes? If you try to kill me, I will flay all flesh from your bones. But I do not think this stops you. No, I see zathien in your face.

“Here is second arrow: You will travel North along the narrow pass until you come to fortress built into the side of a mountain. This was home, before we were invaded, sacked and cut down as we ran. Now it is infested by humans like you. Myrmid.” The dark elf practically spits the name, so overwhelming is his spite. “Get me back my castle, and you and your skyship are welcome on my land.”

Kelraji, momentarily distracted by his utter failure at a language he thought he knew, snaps back to the situation at hand, and rewraps the book as he speaks.

“If your court alone could kill all us, how are supposed to win against those you can’t? You must have a plan for us, or you would not send us, and all that we possess, to danger.”

Jake holds a hand out to steady his dark-skinned companion, and looks around the circular room, at the suddenly raised weapons. I can’t dodge all of them. Jake removes his hands from the wooden grips at his waist but remains on high alert. If I were alone and free to move, I could make a dash for the door, but he is right: there are too many and I have a responsibility to my ka-tet. Linus would not stand a second of this barrage, and Kelraji is already wounded. We need to leave this evil place.

“Calm, Kelraji, calm. I do not think force of arms is what the Lord had in mind. Mer’veloth, if one of your number will show us this Northern pass, we are glad to serve in this matter.” Getting out of this chamber and out of your town is our foremost concern, though.

Jake thinks on what they have just learned. For one, they know the hand of fate is yet at work in this place; they got out of the Lord’s chamber alive, and with new direction. Their quest, it would seem, is right on track. Second, they know why the elven village looks so hastily-assembled and ramshackle. Third, they know there are humans in this land.

I will have to speak with Kelraji about the importance of the book. He does not seem to grasp its role in bringing us here, or why it may be that we must lay down our lives for it. It is as important as any of the three of us; indeed, it is almost the fourth member of our fellowship. We cannot leave it behind.’ He waits for the lord to give them their leave.

The dark elf grins maliciously. “A change of heart. Your species shows promise yet.” He beckons to the swordsman from their carriage ride. “Tis, my first sword, will accompany you on travel.” The fencer from before steps forth from the crowd of lordlings, his hair still pulled back in a simple ponytail. The man forms a claw across his chest and bows in salute. “Mis’aris, raegh.”

Mer’veloth turns his back on them once more and stalks back to his throne. “As for how, this does not concern. You have stood before me and kept your skin; already this distinguishes you.” Arthur Glass flinches.

The dark elf takes his throne. “Treat with Myrmid queen, put the hive to siege, burn them out from within, perhaps? Many are the paths, but you need only one.” He flicks a speck of dirt from the arm of his marbled throne. “And none begin here, I think.”

The dark elf first sword regards them expectantly, a passive curiosity on his face. He speaks a single, uncertain phrase of near-English. “Tis shows the rooms, outlanders. . . if wanting.”

Kelraji finishes wrapping the book, placing it once more in his supply pack.

“Tis, show us our rooms, I am tired. People, we can talk in our rooms, we have taken enough of the lord’s time.”

The blademaster inclines slightly at the waist, directing them to the large double doors leading out of the throne room. Excited chatter fills the chamber as the clutch of outlanders make their exit, fading out as the heavy doors swing shut behind them.

Tis shows Behuniak and the War Pigs to one wing of the stone keep, what looks to be a barrack hall prepared for their temporary stay. They continue on down the torch-lit corridor, coming to a plain wooden door where the hallway bends. Their dark elf guide opens the door to reveal a simple stone room occupied by three rough-hewn beds. The mattresses are stuffed with nothing more than wild straw from the grasslands, but it looks clean and fresh, at the least. The floor is likewise strewn with fresh rushes, and a modest fire crackles healthily in a small fireplace at the foot of the beds. A three drawer dresser stands beside each bed.

Tis waves over two more slaves, both male, one a deeply-tanned human, the other an exotic-looking ork, both wearing nothing more than loincloth and shackles. Though their skin is marred here and there by scars, they look to be in good physical shape, a far cry from the condition of Arthur Glass. “These are to serve,” Tis explains. “Man hears the manspeak, this one only Orzet.” The first blade delivers a backhanded strike to the ork, who does not even flinch at the blow. “This one not so useful.”

He turns to leave, adding only, “Instruct Tis at the leaving,” before closing the door.

Linus mutters under his breath, seeming to emerge from shock.

“This is a staggeringly violent place.”

“Sir,” he says, addressing the man. “Please, what is your name? We have much to learn of this place and its customs.”

Kelraji smiles an exasperated smile at Linus, and mutters.

“Yes, some of us do.”

“Slave, we need food.:

Turning once more to Linus, the monk speaks, instructing Linus.

“They’re not real people, they’re outcasts, untouchables. It is their life. Perhaps in rebirth, or another realm, they will be more. But here they are slaves. Treating them otherwise makes a mockery of the whole system. And you, one who knows so much about science, should know to respect systems.”

Linus replies, unsmiling and serious:

“The systems of science are immutable, sir. This system is like a prairie waiting to be reborn in fire.”

He breaks Kelraji’s gaze.

“But perhaps I am in over my head. We need food and rest. But there is much I can learn when we get the chance, by direct query of these people’s minds.”

“So, your religion of physics accounts for magic, for summoning, and for other realms, as mine does? I never said immutable, but you should know what it is you deal with before you attempt to change it, scientist. Althought…”

Confrontation fades from Kelraji’s brow and mouth.

“Yes, what do they know? Tell the slave who speaks no English to come here.”

The human slave stares at Linus with dull, lifeless eyes as the summoner asks his name. In response, the man simply opens his mouth, revealing a scarred lump where his tongue once lay. A raspy, desultory wheeze escapes his throat.

At the mention of food, the human turns to his orkish counterpart and brings his hand to his mouth, giving the universal sign for eating. Without acknowledgment, the ork steps out of the small sleeping quarters, returning in a few minutes with a tray of food, small lizards skewers barbecued in some spiced rub and a stack of flatbreads, still steaming from the oven. In his other hand he holds a pitcher of mead which fills the room with the scent of alcohol and barley. He sets food and drink on the small table by the fire and steps back, awaiting further instruction with a vacant expression on his face.

In Linus’ eyes smoulder with rage seeing the stubby tongue. He slowly approaches the man with a hand outstretched. Anger and fear mix in his mind and his adrenal glands surge forth with adrenaline as he realizes the sorts of experiences he may be about to see.

“In all men’s mind there burns, even in some shadowy corner, the fire of life. Take my hand, slave, and let my flame join yours. I am a servant of an inferno whose light can fill even the darkest alcoves.”

He holds his arms out expectantly, hopefully, fearfully.

Kelraji, aware of what’s about to happen, sits at the table, takes a giant bite of a flatbread, and cocks his head at the lizards, before hefting one, sniffing it closely, before setting it down and going to his pack to retrieve his combat knife, over which he pours mead and scrapes the blade clean before cutting one of the small creatures from the stick and attempting to eat the food.

Looking up for a moment, he calls over

“I’m also needing non alcohol drink.”

The monk eats quickly, watching the others for the outcome of the mindlink.

Jake sits down to eat with Kelraji, taking a smaller portion of bread and a lizard skewer. He sniffs it tentatively, then takes a bite of the roasted flesh around the ribs. “I would also like some water.”

For his part, the gunslinger is rested and ready to go, but he has noticed that hunger, fatigue and thirst do not seem to affect him like they do the others. He can use the time his companions are sleeping to clean his guns and take a security check of their quarters.

The slave backs away as Linus walks slowly toward him, arm outstretched. At the mention of fire, the slave’s eyes dart down to the numerous scorch marks covering Linus’ jacket, then to the Kelraji, the flesh of his neck and arms still raw and singed beneath thick bandages.

The slave mutters in fear, the sound of a dying toad or a fish out of water, then turns and bolts from the room, the jangling of his shackles rapidly retreating down the hallway.

The orkish slave continues to stand still, staring off into nothingness. Jake and Kel’s request for water goes unheeded or uncomprehended.

Kelraji tentatively sniffs the spiced lizard kebab, watching skeptically as Jake munches away. The meat is devoid of any smells of rot, decay or poison. In fact, it smells pretty delicious, full of some curry-like spice and something sweet and savory like onion. Having the food so close to his nose awakens a deep hunger within him as he suddenly realizes he hasn’t eaten for almost a full day.

Kelraji, so long removed from genuine curry that it twinges in his soul, ravishes the poor lizard, crunching through the tiny bones when needed, and hastily eats his fill, pausing for bites of flatbread when the spice creeps up.

Gasping for liquid, the man frowns at the slave, and attempts to communicate, as best he can with crude sign language, that the mead is unacceptable, and he requires something else.

Linus pulls his hand back, a look of utter befuddlement on his face.

“Huh, well… that didn’t go as I expected”

He looks at Kelraji and Jake.

“You know, the Germans used to have a saying about this kind of situation. I forget the beginning of it but the punch line is … Oh I remember: In beer there is wisdom, In wine there is… damn wait no that’s not right I think the wine had the wisdom. Well forget it, my point is that drinking water can give you Cholera in a place like this.”

He looks at the Orc.

“I don’t suppose you want to join the mindnet? Hmm?”

He holds his hand out loosely. It’s a half effort, really.

Jake, encouraged by the tasty food and fairly certain that their newfound overlords aren’t trying to kill, poison or ruin them, takes a sniff at the mead. Talking around a mouthful of curried lizard, he looks at Linus, “You know, I don’t think you’re going to get very far with that—look at their clothes, their faces. These ones have been slaves for a long time. What will we find out? They were captured and taken against their will by their cruel elven masters? No, I would be more interested in finding what the humans that took their castle have to say about the elves.”

He turns to Kelraji, “I get an uneasy feeling about these ones. Did you see the way Mer’veloth was looking at the book? He knows something about its power that he is not sharing. We should treat with these elves for as long as we have to, but don’t forget: anyone who would take the book from us is the enemy. It may be that we have no true friends in this land.”

Kelraji nods understanding and continues to eat.

“Your words are different from most. Yes, he will try to take book. For friends, if you had any in New New York, that was one more than me. We can’t stop him here anyway. I am hungry, hurt, and tired. Tomorrow, we should leave and never come back. But today, we’re in no spot to do anything. Except eat, sleep, and maybe die. I just hope we don’t have to do the third one.”

The man grins stupidly at Jake for a moment, proud of his pitiful joke, awash with grim humor.

Then he coughs, looks angrily at the mead, and frowns deeply.

“Still need water. Where do I get?”

The ork tenses slightly as Linus reaches out for him, the animalistic response of a creature with a heavy-handed master. The slave takes up an unusual stance, bending at the knees and hunching forward, letting his shackled arms dangle in front of him. Thick slabs of muscle ripple under olive skin as he sways gently back and forth, then relax as Linus backs away.

The slave acknowledges Kelraji’s pantomime for other drink and returns with an earthenware jug sloshing with cool, clear water, which he places on the table beside what’s left of the flatbreads.

Kelraji pours himself a nice glass of water, drinks it down in huge gulps, then pours another. With the second glass, he moves himself to the fire in the center of the room, and pours a small amount of water over each hand, washing it ritually. Then, removing his shoes and armored jacket, shoos the remaining slave from the room, intent on locking the door and getting some sleep.

The ork willingly steps out, resuming his ready position in the hallway, his expression vacant and lifeless. The solid wooden door closes with a satisfying click. Another wave of fatigue washes over Linus and Kelraji as the rigors of the past 24 hours settles into their bones.

Kelraji shuffles to the bed, intent on sleeping once more. Perhaps restfully for once. He piles his valuables next to his head, and hides a few under the makeshift pillow. The book he places against his stomach under his shirt, and he tries to sleep.

Linus sits at the table, exhausted. He stuffs some lizard into his mouth, then throws some water down after it. He chomps absent mindedly for a moment, pondering the absurdity of the state they’re in. For a moment, he ponders whether his com could possibly work in this place. Realizing that this idea, too, is probably absurd, he shuffles over to bed, wrapping himself in his thick coat before closing his eyes and going off to sleep.

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Crusher

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