Jake eases the wooden door of their small stone bedroom closed and turns around to find both Linus and Kelraji awake and sitting upright in bed. Both men are breathing heavily, and Linus’ face is stricken with fear, his skin coated in a thin sheen of sweat.
The first fingers of dawn poke in through the slit windows along their walls, adding the sun’s early light to the cozy glow of the fire dying in the hearth. Jake holds what looks to be a roll of leather in one hand, with drawings clearly visible on one surface.
Jake latches the heavy door and turns to his companions. “We’ve just had a visit from our friend, Arthur Glass. He took it upon himself to come to us in secret and ask for help escaping this place; he’ll find us after we’ve left this place for our next destination.”
The gunslinger kneels and places the patch of leather in his hands on the ground, smoothing it out to reveal that it is a hand-drawn map, crude but serviceable. Jake points to each feature as he talks about them, “Here is where we are, Splinterhold, near the western coastline. Our destination lies to the northeast, through the Narrow Pass and surrounded by the Iron Mountains. Arthur said there may be an underground shortcut located on the south coast, at Deeproad-by-the-Sea. But there will be danger. Giants roam the land, and the castle has been taken by the Myrmid, humans who ride giant insects into battle. We have our work cut out for us.”
Jake keeps silent about his ordeal during that restless night’s sleep. The look on Linus and Kelraji’s faces is enough to tell him they endured similar torments during their midnight travels. If this night were any indication, they have many and more disturbing trials ahead.
“It is dawn. I suggest we get our gear from the ship, assemble our escort and head out. I have some more questions to ask and preparations to make before we set off; we might not return for some time.”
Kelraji laughs to himself before speaking, wiping the sleep from his eyes, then rubbing his shoulder. He knows he slept, but he’d be a liar if he said he felt any better.
“Giants huh? How giant? Nevermind. I don’t want know. No giants seems like a good starting point to me. I say we go straight East. What’s at that cove?”
Linus wipes sweat from his brow. He is shaken, badly. He does not feel at home in his new skin, or… is it his old skin. “I once dreamt I was a butterfly…” he thinks to himself…
The jewel held power. It was a battery of its own kind, driving a device of tremendous power. The dwarves had fashioned it into a kind of mechanism, a channel for that power. But how. How could that be done.
But there is all of this commotion. Surely he should do something more productive. Stand, perhaps.
Linus shuffles to his feet. He looks over the shoulders of the other men to look at the map.
“Am I wrong in thinking we are committed to disposing of the Mermid? I don’t intend to be presumptuous, but it rather seems we are outmatched by these elves. Despicable as they are, surely they would be a good ally in this strange land?”
Thinking again, he lands on a different thought.
“Though… it seems the sort of thing they would have done… themselves… perhaps that is a sort of suicide mission.”
Kelraji nods absently as Linus talks, searching the room for food. A restless, sweaty night and a body full of aches tend to make a man crave protein and salt. His wits begin to return, and he offers his unrequested opinion.
“Perhaps it is. If the castle belongs to them they will take back. The taking is not our business. Perhaps they will return, perhaps not. We owe them nothing, no lives, no tasks. We should leave. Soon.”
Kelraji glances over the table, seeing what there is to eat. A few half-eaten rounds of flatbread remain on one plate, and a bit of meat remains on the skewers of lizard meat, though the dark red sauce has dried overnight into an unappetizing film. The spiced mead remains largely untouched, and a few gulps of water sloshes around in the bottom of the other pitcher. The three small dressers by their cots remain unopened, though it seems unlikely anyone has left any food in them. The adept notes with pleasant surprise that, though his muscles ache still, the burns on his skin from the previous night hardly hurt at all anymore.
Hunger begins to creep into Linus’ thoughts as well, though Jake remains stoically unencumbered by bodily needs.
A trill, avian noise sounds in the morning air, though the party suspects the culprit is more likely scaled than feathered. The sounds of the city waking up reaches them from beyond the walls, cartwheels rumbling and villagers calling out greetings in their strange and foreign tongue.
He’s almost certainly never heard of Maslow, but Kelraji would make the man proud with his insistence on first things first.
He eats the remaining flatbread and drinks the rest of the water, using the first splash to wash his hands in what appears to be far more ritual than hygiene.
Having eaten, the adept tunes back in to the discussion at hand.
“Time to go. What is your decision?”
Jake looks reproachfully at Kelraji, the empty plates, and then back at Linus. Jake is not hungry, but the scientist looks like he needs a large, black coffee and some breakfast. Unfortunately, it seems neither are forthcoming at present. “I think we should take this morning to finish our preparations and head out with our guide around noon. I suggest taking the proscribed route up the Narrow Pass, if for no other reason than it will allay suspicion in our guide. We can strike out eastward later.”
“As for the dark elves, they are almost certainly going to stab us in the back after we have outlived our usefulness. The Myrmid also seem less than hospitable. Linus, you are right that taking the castle seems like a suicide mission. However, if we are to get Mer’veloth’s aid with the tome, we need to at least go through the motions of helping him. Perhaps we can trick the elves. Or, perhaps the Myrmid know something about the tome they are willing to share. We also may be able to play our enemies against each other in this, then side with the winner. For now, that seems the most likely route to success.”
Jake stands and pockets the map. He sweeps his coat back dramatically, baring his revolvers. “Let’s waste no time on ceremony. There’s work to be done.”
Linus likewise has wolfed down his food, silently, lost in the theoretical concerns rather than the important decisions before them. He is slightly startled by Kelraji’s exclamation. Now that his bodily needs are met, he offers a reply.
“I am at you two gentlemen’s disposal. Jake your plan is sound, so far as I can tell. If you’ll forgive me for saying so I am completely beyond the bounds of my ken. I am worried, too, that I may not be of use to you both on this journey, though I will make every effort. My strength lies in calling the powers of flame, and as of yet I appear to be drawing forth only oddly mannered pixies. Let’s disembark to our ship, certainly, and gather our allies. Would you begrudge me some moments of privacy back at the … shall we say the “mothership”? I will study the astral signatures of this place, and see what powers remain at my disposal."
The three exit their room to find Behuniak and the mercenaries coming down the hall toward them. The Crusader is still in the process of buckling his armor on, and looks groggy indeed. “Good morning. I see you all slept about as well as I did. I think that spiced lizard may have given me nightmares.” The ork shrugs and adjusts a pauldron. “What we will do now? I can radio Shane to come pick us up in one of the APCs, or we can stay on if you have business in the city.”
Kelraji furrows his brow momentarily at the joke, but then relents and smiles.
“No business, radio now, we will go.”
Cocking his head like a slightly confused dog, Kelraji continues to boorishly talk over the others.
“Behuniak, when you fight, do you turn blows with your weapon, or your armor? When we return to the plane, we should fight.”
Linus rolls his eyes.
“Kelraji you do realize that medkits recently became a finite resource, do you not? Bravery is no vice, but perhaps we should save it for these Myrmid creatures”
Turning to the armored warrior.
“Behuniak I am curious… you had unusual dreams as well. What did you dream of. I …” He laughs. “I had the most bizarre dreams about being a dwarf! Can you believe that? I won’t bore you with it, but it was disturbing to say the least. Although it did give me an interesting idea about a sort of astral energy focus, perhaps a fixed form crystalline lattice. I’d always conceptualized an astral generator as a sort of bioreactive ‘soup’, but now that I think of it…”
He begins to ramble, though it seems he may be talking to himself more than the others.
Kelraji looks at Linus with fury in his eyes for a moment before settling.
“No more limited here than New York. I think they heal in this land too.”
Not waiting for Linus’ question to be answered, Kelraji begins tracing his steps back to the entrance of the massive building.
“Supplies then, I will show you.”
A few steps down the corridor, he stops, points a finger sternly at the nearest trooper.
“Find Arthur. Tell them we need him to translate for us. Go.”
The closest mercenary is a massive troll, his thick skull laden with curling ram’s horns and a vacant, shit-eating expression. He stares down at Kelraji with his oversized eyes, one organic, the other clearly cybernetic, watching him nervously for several prolonged minutes. The tattooed elven mercenary finally steps in to pull the troll along by one arm. “Come on Big K, I’ll help you run the poor bastard down. I speak a little of the local dialect myself.”
The rest of the entourage heads out of the castle, their way pointed by the occasional wordless gesture of a dutiful servant. The artificer dons his battlehelm and begins to speak into the integral comm as they stride through the torchlit stone corridors. “Shane, come in. We need you to pick us up inside the city with a Devil Rat, over. Do you read?”
Every comm, radio, and wifi-capable peripheral in the hallway crackles to life as one, projecting the technomancer’s voice without prompting. “Loud and clear, Tommy boy. I have our hub routing signal through the Striker, getting close to a mile radius on our personal network. I can triangulate your comms for vector and range, but I’m not getting any satellite data. And it’s freakin’ quiet out here. Too quiet. We’re the only ones on the grid right now in this whole zone. Freakin’ spooky.”
Behuniak sighs. “Only to you, Shane. Get on the road, and maintain radio silence. Please.”
They emerge into the glaring light of early morning, holding their hands up to give their eyes time to adjust to the sudden brightness. The air is cool and alpine, with wafts of salt from the nearby sea. There is a brisk chill to the weather, but not entirely uncomfortable, and promising to warm by afternoon. The inner courtyard of Mer’veloth’s castle greets them, bustling with folk just starting their day. In one corner lies a well-kept forge and smithy, in another corner what looks to be a storehouse, with men and women already going to a fro with sacks of food and supply. Behind them, built up against one wall of the inner castle, stands a modest stable, with what look to be a dozen or so separate stalls, most of them housing horse-sized bipedal lizards, already crowded into one corner of their enclosure to bask in the morning sun.
The three turn back to find the two mercenaries emerging from a side door, accompanied by Arthur Glass and the first sword Tis. Tis has replaced his court clothes from the previous day with a practical suit of dull steel scalemail along with riding boots and gloves. Around his neck is wrapped a cloak which shimmers and shifts in the light, seeming to capture and reflect the colors of his surroundings to provide an uncanny level of camouflage.
Arthur beams adoringly at the gunslinger before catching himself. “Ah. . . your men tell me you require supplies. Mer’veloth does not customarily permit outsiders to frequent his stores, but Tis has graciously offered to cover your expenses for anything you should need in the market.”
The dark elf bladesman smiles and sweeps his hand in the direction of the front gate, where a bustling market does indeed seem to be taking place beneath a forest of makeshift tents and stalls. “I make gift, for sharing of road,” Tis offers.
Jake nods in affirmation. “Very well. Thank you, Tis.” He begins to stride toward the market, gesturing for Tis and Behuniak to accompany him. “Tis, how many days’ travel is it to the castle in the Iron Mountains? Is it dangerous? What kinds of supplies do you suggest we purchase at market?”
“Behuniak, will the APC’s make such a journey over open terrain? Are they fueled or electric engines—and do we have the means to replenish them should we run dry? Also, weaponry. I assume we can pack what ammunition we have, but what about heavy artillery? We are potentially storming a castle—do we have explosives, gas, anything for use against such an intimidating foe?”
Almost as an afterthought, “And, when we get back to the ship, there is a soldier in your employ named Henry; don’t ask how I know his name. I will need to speak with him privately. And he is coming with us.”
The party sets out through the front gates of the castle to wade into a bustling market taking place in the heart of Splinterhold, the elven residents swarming through the stalls and cornershops in one homogeneous mass of dark hair and pale skin. Many of the higher-born denizens only glance at them with benign interest, but the common stock has already begun to form a circle around the conspicuous outlanders, gawking at their guns and their otherworldly human features, their rounded ears and earthen skin tones.
Tis waves his hand irritably at the gathering crowd, shouting in harsh-toned Sperethiel. The city folk certainly seem to both know and fear the first sword, for peasant, slave and noble alike part at his command. He strides alongside the gunslinger, hands clasped behind his back. “Two weeks by ride, double this by leg, if we stay the road. Is small danger in pass, big danger in iron mountains. We hold the southern lands, giants control the rockland in narrow pass, and Myrmid the woods and mountains of north.”
He stops at a vendor to examine an array of caged, hawk-like lizards, each bearing a long, snaking neck, brilliantly-feathered wings and savage claws. "The giants—danger small. Sneak by at night, or chase off at day. It needs only to scare them with boom or the numbers. Myrmid, these we must watch. If it will hold speak with them, or straight to war, this is the choice.
“For the buying, have food, mounts, steel for the warriors. As many crossbow bolts as one can carry, yes? But this should not concern. Here, the man will do it.” Tis waves dismissively at Arthur.
Behuniak hangs his helmet on his belt and does his best to answer Jake’s questions, his attention severely strained by the stalls hawking medieval arms and armor. “We’ve got two Devil Rat APCs and one Striker light tank, both based on the same chassis, but obviously serving different purposes. The APCs have remote turrets with MGs, and the Striker has a light cannon and a co-axial autocannon, like a proper tank.” The Crusader grins at the thought. “They run on multipurpose engines, preferably jet fuel, but anything from fossil fuels to vegetable oil should work. I believe they carry enough to operate for about two weeks of normal use.”
Thomas leans in conspiratorially, glancing at Sylvia and her mercenaries standing watch across the street. “As for what sorts of munitions we have, or who this Henry character is, you’ll have to talk to them. Renzo is the one footing their bill, and I’ve seen enough mercenaries in my day to know who they’re really going to be fighting for when drek hits fan.”
Kelraji listens to the talk of the ornately armored artificer with mild interest, but it quickly fades.
“Arthur, you know how far it is. Get us enough food for there back. Get me the good armor that doesn’t slow me down, for the arms and shoulders. And what this about mounts?”
“Tis, where is nearest shrine or temple? It would be wrong to journey with no offering.”
Arthur raises his eyebrows, apparently surprised that a man from the 28th century could so easily adapt to the concept of slavery. “Ah, yes. Of course. I will have the provisions brought to the front gate, and I will see to your armor. As for the mounts, the elves ride a variety of lizard beasts, as I’m sure you have seen. The flying ones are rare, and take a great deal of training and bonding to ride safely, but the more equestrian variety can be ridden with only a little practice, if they are well trained. There is also a heavier and much larger breed, though they are used as pack animals and for tilling fields more than riding. Shall I procure you one? Enough for the group, and anyone else you might meet on the road, perhaps?”
Behuniak frowns thoughtfully and rubs at an enlarged canine with a mailed thumb. “I don’t think you’re going to be able to find bracers or pauldrons around here that won’t slow you down, I hate to say it. Not with your build. The idea of riding instead of taking the tanks does make some kind of sense though. It will be much easier to go unnoticed through the countryside leaving footprints instead of giant tracks and blasting our giant turbine engines everywhere we go.”
As the artificer talks, Tis appears to be wrapping up a transaction. The merchant bows deeply to him, one hand held over his heart like a claw, as if he were trying to gouge his own flesh with his fingertips, then opens a cage and produces one of the feathered serpents. Tis takes the creature and places it on his shoulder, where it sits with a hiss and a rustle of feathers. The first sword regards Kelraji with bemusement. “Never has an outlander sought to worship in our halls. Two temple we are having, for Khaine, god of blood and war, and for Slaani, of lust and passion. If you wish to see, I will take. It should be good to be in favor before the leaving, yes?” The dark elf strokes the head of his new pet and feeds it a scrap of lizard meat from his belt.
Kelraji bows slightly to Tis, speaking politely and a bit deferentially.
“The favor is always good. What offering is appropriate to give Khaine? Accepts blood? Can I bring animal? Slaani I will not go, Khaine will be enough. Will you come with?”
Looking back to Arthur, brow slightly furrowed, Kelraji sounds a little annoyed.
“Enough to get there and back for all. Food yes, animals too. Go.”
Kelraji turns again to Behuniak,
“Good to know. Maybe we will find something on our way?”
His pieces said, he prepares to pay his respects wherever Tis leads him.
Arthur bows to Kelraji once more. “Very good, m’lord. I’ll see to it at once. Can I be of service to anyone else?” The slave glances at Linus, Jake and Behuniak, who shakes his head disapprovingly.
“I’m set for now, thank you Arthur,” the ork responds.
A wry smile crosses the first sword’s lips. “Khaine takes all blood. Best to give yours in temple, enemy in battle, yes? Come, I will take.” Tis and Kelraji make their way west toward the sea, leaving the others to finish their business in the market.
Kelraji follows the bladesman through the winding city streets, moving steadily towards the sounds and smells of the ocean. The common folk are torn between deferential salutes to the first sword and outright rubbernecking at the swarthy outlander, but in the end everyone clears the way as the man and elf pass.
After perhaps ten minutes of walking they reach the coast, a craggy bluff overlooking the sea. Kelraji looks over the edge of the cliff to see waves crashing on sharp rocks far below him. He spies a small cove where a series of jetties have been erected, housing a dozen elegantly crafted longships, their sails furled and oars stowed.
Tis points to a modest structure of stone and rough-cut timber built right up to the edge of the cliff. Streaming banners of blood red cloth fly from its pointed rooftops. “The house of Khaine. Follow.” They pass through the front door to find a single large room with circular walls. A statue dominates the far corner of the space, made of rough, hastily carved stone. It is an elven warrior, armored in full plate and a pointed helm which hides his face. He holds one hand out in front of him, which has been carved and painted to appear as if it is dripping with blood. In the other hand he grasps a large, double-edged sword.
Pews line the walls, all facing the center of the room, which is taken up by a simple ring outlined with stone blocks and filled with dirt. The whole thing feels more like an arena than a place of worship. As if to add to this effect, racks of weapons line one wall, displaying every type of armament imaginable—swords, rapiers, glaives, poleaxes and spears, flails and maces, and even a leathern cat o’ nine tails terminating in vicious metal barbs.
A red-robed elf emerges from the torchlit gloom, his head shaved bare to reveal a lattice of scars running across the surface of his body. He bows deeply to Tis in the typical claw-handed fashion, muttering his respects in Sperethiel. Tis turns to Kelraji. “Giving blood will do, but Khaine likes more his servants to dance Chal’han. This is dance of dominance for my people. To dance Chal’han for Khaine—no armor, any weapon, victory to first blood.” The first sword gestures to the dirt ring in the center of the room. “It is said, Khaine favors the bold. Are you bold, outlander?”
Kelraji smirks for a moment, impressed with the setup. He was aware of the martial yoga practiced by many sects. He was even aware of the ritual violence and killings that had taken hold in ages past and once again in India. He found himself drawn to this, this place, this idea, this action.
“To first blood, yes. Is proper to fight you, or another? But first, you must understand my way too. I do not fight with fear, not with anger, not even with courage. For me, movement, action, is desireless worship. I do not fight to kill, not even to win. I fight to give praise to She Whose Head is Severed, Prachanda Chandika. Win or lose, all fighting, all violence, if with the right mind, is my praise.”
A wry grin spreads across Kelraji’s face, and he attempts his signature stellar joke telling.
“Perhaps it was Khaine who did the severing, yes?”
Kelraji begins to stalk the walls, waiting for Tis to answer, hefting the weapons, and trying to make his choice. The whip would be the most obvious, but perhaps the flail’s motion is most similar to his chosen weapon. Surely, the monowhip would be a poor choice, not least because ‘first blood’ was not a realistic option with it.
Tis mutters something to the priest and moves to one corner of the ring to prepare. He speaks as he takes off his shimmering cloak, scale mail and other equipment. “You spar with me, of course. I also seek favor of blood-handed god. What you speak—battle without emotion, without fear, this is our ideal as well. Zathien, we name it. To fight with death in the heart.”
The now topless blademaster strides to the weapon rack and selects a simple saber, then moves to one end of the dirt circle. He takes two practices swings, then assumes a ready stance, his stance wide, muscles loose. Scars pattern his pale flesh as well, though they appear to be born from war, not ritual: puckered rings on his chest from an arrow or crossbow bolt, long gashes at his neck and shoulder from a nearly-fatal blade, and a deep set of gashes in his arm which look like they were made by the mandibles of some unreasonably large insect.
Kelraji peruses the weapon rack, finding two whips, the cat o’ nine tails with its multitude of barbed tips, and a more traditional whip bearing only one tail, though this one also terminates in a vicious bit of jagged steel. The cat o’ nine will cause more damage if it hits, but the regular whip will be much easier to control.
A handful of smallfolk have begun to filter into the arena, excited by the universally entertaining promise of bloodsport.
Excited shouts come from the direction where Kelraji and Tis went some twenty minutes ago, west toward the ocean. Townsfolk begin to rush down the street toward the excitement, as if there were some celebrity sighting or the promise of a good fight. Behuniak looks around for a translation, but Arthur has already went off on his duties, and the mercenary elf is on the other side of the market standing watch.
Removing his own armor, then his shirt, Kelraji matches the eldar. Loosening his shoulders, Kelraji ensures that his vajra remains clipped to his right hip. He does not know these people, and moreover, he does not trust Tis. Should the fight begin in earnest, he has no intention of losing.
removing the single tipped whip from the wall he attempts few moves, cracks the head a few times to get the weight, and moves to the priest. He presents the weapon, and bows slightly, waiting for his own blessing.
Receiving it, he steps to the edge of the ring, before asking Tis one final question.
“What rules? First blood wins, staying in the ring yes? When starting?”
He looks around the crowd, though he is not surprised to see them gathered.
Tis nods, his usually mischievous expressions replaced now by a look of placid calm. “Yes, staying in the ring, first blood wins.” He begins to pace slowly around the ring to Kelraji’s left.
As always, the adept’s preternatural reflexes allow him to make the opening gambit.
Kelraji advances, begins to circle left, then tries to sneak a lash under the guard of Tis, bringing the tail up through the thigh, hoping to contact the haunch or tender midsection.
Tis, perhaps overconfident in his status as first sword to the dark elf lord, charges forward to meet his attacker, choosing aggression over perfect defense. He spins his saber into the path of the whip as he moves, managing to catch the leather against the flat of his blade, but Kelraji expertly draws the whip backward, causing the barbed tip to gouge a deep gash into the swordsman’s thigh as it returns.
The elf growls under his breath, sounding more surprised than pained, frustrated at being so easily bested in front of his people. He lowers the tip of his sword and scowls at Kelraji. “Well struck, outlander. My blood brings you Khaine’s favor.”
Kelraji draws the barb back, and moves to hand the whip to the priest.
“First blood is not normal for my fights. To death, then maybe even. Maybe even you win, but I do not think that you can do so. Maybe we will have this again, but not to first blood, but last. Same result, I am sure, but then we will know.”
He smiles genuinely at Tis. His forward insults lost on himself, as he views them merely as confidence and opinion. Tis may not take kindly, but that’s not Kelraji’s fault.
“Now, please, I will pray at alter, then we return. Unless you want bite again…”
Kelraji bows to the priest, and to Tis, and looks for an alter to make his own offering at.
Jake stands by their only friend in this land, a little embarrassed that Kelraji would put him out so quickly. He tries to remind himself that castes are a very different thing in the Indian’s home, that social strata were very tangible and concrete, much like this new world. It still makes him uneasy.
“I will come with you, Arthur. I’d like to see what kinds of food are preferred by these people. Lead the way.”
Interrupted in their browsing of the bazaar, Jake looks up in the direction of the commotion. He casts a knowing glance at Linus. “Come on, Templeton. We both know how our friend can get sometimes. Let’s make sure he hasn’t offended the locals in any significant manner.”
‘We really need to keep an eye on him,’ Jake thinks to himself. ’He’s like to get us all killed just by being himself in this place. No tact or social graces on that one.’ The gunslinger’s pace quickens as the noises grow louder.
The priest bows solemnly in return, and shuffles off to begin sweeping the dirt ring smooth. Kelraji wanders over to the large statue of the bloody-handed god as the townsfolk begin to file out of the temple, muttering to each other in disappointed tones.
Though only the larger statue of Khaine is immediately visible from the main room, upon drawing nearer there are actually six smaller statues lining the walls of the altar’s alcove, each only a few feet tall. They all depict dark elf warriors in various poses, each accompanied by props and animalistic features which distinguish one from the other. Unlike the main statue, these ones are finely carved, though they are crudely and sometimes unevenly attached to their bases.
The adept inspects each in turn—the first statue depicts a crouched figure, holding up punch daggers on each fist like the pincers of a venomous insect. A set of spider’s legs extend from his back to reinforce the effect. The second is another insect-based warrior, wielding a sword and bow pistol, his helmet curved forward like the tail of a scorpion. Next to him is a female figure, also brandishing blade and hand bow, though the visage of her helmet is twisted into the face of a screaming woman. Fourth comes a male draped in the scales of a dragon, complete with helmet made to look like a dragon. He wields an arcane gun made of tubes and cylinders, its true purpose unclear. The last two statues are decidedly noble figures, distinct from the insect warriors on the other side of the room—a woman raised up on one leg, with feathered wings splayed out behind her, and a man wielding a full-sized crossbow, his helmet crested with a mohawk of hair like that of an ancient Greek warrior.
A handful of candles burn at the base of each smaller figure, with many more at the feet of the principal deity Khaine. There is also a wide basin at the foot of each altar, all coated with the coppery residue of dried blood. A small stack of new candles stands in the corner of the alcove, along with an oil lamp to light them by.
Jake, Linus, Arthur and Thomas wind through the streets, following the handful of commoners who are running in the direction of the commotion. They reach the western edge of the city, which ends abruptly where the earth meets the sea at a jagged cliff face. They glance over the edge to see waves crashing against the coast far below them. A small dock has been constructed, harboring a handful of elegant longboats. Out across the mist-veiled sea, the faint outlines of a distant shore can be seen on the horizon.
The attraction seems to be coming from a temple built right up to the lip of the cliff, a modest circular building constructed of rough-cut timbers and stone like the rest of the city. Whatever was happening within, it seems to have already run its course, as smallfolk wander out of the entrance with dejected looks on their faces.
Behuniak speaks up as he takes in the coastal view, his voice uncharacteristically soft. “Linus, I was going to tell you about my dream as well, before Kelraji cut us off. Mine was no farcical journey, but a nightmare born of the recent past. My father gave his life two weeks ago to secure the book from our enemies. We tried to save him, his apprentice and I, but there was nothing we could do. I watched him fall to his death from the roof of a skyscraper, just tumbling through the air like a little doll. I see it every night when I sleep. See him. I only hope. . .” The ork brushes a hand over his cheek. “No. The world is as God wills it, and my faith is my shield. The book will find its place, and us with it.”
As the crusader finishes, Tis the first sword steps out from the temple, his face a mask of barely-concealed anger and frustration. He is straightening his shirt and cloak as if he had just gotten dressed, and blood runs freely down his right leg from a gash in his thigh.
Jake warms internally at the sight of the maddened elf—their hosts they may be, but the gunslinger gets the feeling that it is a relationship of convenience for the elves, rather than true beneficence. It is good that Tis and Kelraji have become such fast friends.
Jake approaches the first sword at the entrance of the temple. “Is everything okay, Tis? We heard the noise and came to make sure. Do you need help with Kelraji?” Jake cocks an eyebrow at the wound in the elf’s leg.
The dark elf scowls. “No, outlander. It was only the sparring, to win Khaine’s favor. Next time we are having blows, it will be Kelraji needing your help. This is promise.”
The feathered serpent on Tis’ shoulder squawks as if to emphasize the point as he stalks off toward the center of town without another word.
Jake catches Arthur smiling quietly to himself as he stands submissively to one side, awaiting further instruction.
“Kelraji must have taken it easy on him.. that elf is lucky to still have all his limbs attached. Arthur, what can you show me about the elves’ ranged weaponry? I don’t suppose they have powder guns, but a large crossbow might be handy if ammunition starts running low.”
Kelraji takes a candle from the stack, moves to the alter of the scorpion hooded warrior, and sets it on the ground. He then moves to the oil lamp, bringing it to the candle, and lights the offering. Something about the weaponry made it seem a safe choice. And the helmet interested him. He muses that the scorpion’s strikes are much like his own.
The candle lit, Kelraji looks for Tis or the priest, to ask his question.
“Is blood the offering? Whose?”
Linus holds back during the exchange, and speaks with Behuniak.
“As God wills it. Perhaps. The clockwork ’verse rolls forward, and we with it. Whatever masters we serve, I suspect we will all give something of ourselves before this book finds its proper home.”
He looks to Jake:
“Yes, ranged weapons would be wise.”
Then to Arthur:
“I wonder… are there any practitioners of the magical arts within the city walls? Perhaps individuals I could talk to about the odd eddies in the astral currents that might cause my Watchers to have so much…. personality.?”
A chill runs down Kelraji’s spine as he lights the candle, a religious touch not unlike his experience with his own gods.
He looks about the temple, now nearly empty save a few lingering worshipers and the priest. Tis and his equipment are nowhere to be seen.
The priest listens respectfully to his question, but offers only a passive stare in response, the best he can do given the language barrier between them. Kelraji thinks he might hear the voices of his fateful companions coming from outside the temple.
Kelraji waves the priest away, then surreptitiously nicks the lower part of his right palm with the vajra cord, allowing a few drips to hit the basin before applying enough pressure to halt the flow.
He rapidly cycles through the mudras and few vedic prayers he believes would be appropriate. Gods all speak Hindi, right? Even if they don’t, perhaps the Zen practitioners were on to something. Maybe it’s just the actions that matter. Either way, he felt better, safer, protected.
Finishing the motions and quiet mutterings, he walks outside, to the gratingly polite tones of Jake, and the confused and confusing verbal ejaculate of the scientist.
Behuniak nods thoughtfully at Linus’ words, acknowledging their wisdom and truth.
Arthur steps up, eager to be as helpful as possible. "Yes, the elves are accomplished craftsmen, especially when it comes to their crossbows. I’m sure you’ve seen them around. They’ve devised an ingenious clockwork system, whereby they can store a half-dozen bolts in the drum built into the body of the weapon, each accompanied by a loaded spring which is powerful enough to cock the weapon every time the mechanism is advanced. This allows them to shoot without having to stop and re-draw the bow every time. Very impressive, really. They can also make it in pistol form, though this one obviously isn’t quite as powerful, and holds less bolts.
“We can certainly buy you each one. I need to stop by the smith’s quarter anyway for Kelraji’s armor. As for magic, I know that for whatever reason only their women are capable of awakening, and of them a scarce few. The sorceress Zan’esu will surely know the answers to your questions, but I’m not sure she’ll be willing to speak with you. They are a very xenophobic race, none more so than her. There are also the harlequins, those masked entertainers you saw last night in Mer’veloth’s throne room, but they are secretive in the extreme, and keep entirely to themselves, even among the elves. You’ll probably be better off seeking your answers elsewhere. There is no shortage of magic on this island, and I hear of a few traveling spellweavers whom you might be able to question. I know of one man, Nod, who often frequents the southern portion of the island.”
Just then, Kelraji wanders out of the temple, looking pleased with himself.
Kelraji steps out to find Linus and Jake conversing with Behuniak and the slave Arthur Glass.
Arthur gives the adept a look of thinly-veiled disapproval before continuing. “I have many things to buy—lizard mounts, crossbows and armor, and food. Will any of you join me? I have a feeling we should get started before Tis’ generosity runs dry and he closes his tab.”
The crusader nods. “Shane will be here soon. I will go to wait for him by the keep.”
Kelraji smiles at his companions.
“The aspects of the divine span all divides. You should all consider making offerings as well.”
Kelraji starts off after Behuniak.
“I do not need a crossbow. I will go with you for armor.”
The three follow Arthur back to the marketplace, where Behuniak already stands waiting, conversing with a few of the mercenaries.
They pass first through the bustling grocery hawkers, where farmers and cattle herds from the surrounding area have come to sell their daily take. Womenfolk and kitchen slaves swarm through the stalls, haggling and inspecting at every turn. Arthur presses through the crowds, given deference and express attention by the shopkeeps when he is recognized as a slave from the castle. He buys several great bushels of grain, a large stack of dense biscuits wrapped in leaves, an assortment of alien-looking fruit, and a big package of lizard meat, already salted and cured for the road ahead. He sends serfs laden with their goods back to the castle gate before moving on.
The four humans in a strange land pass out of the market proper to head south, where the residential buildings give way to large storehouses and stables. They go to the largest of the stable yards, where Arthur does brisk business with an elven man, his clothing clean yet somehow still imbued with the omnipresent scent of reptile leavings. A half-dozen of the lizard mounts are led out of the stables and toward the center of town, already saddled and bridled, and the three are relieved to see that they seem docile and well-trained.
They come last to what must be the armorer’s quarter on the east end of town, the air suddenly filled with the ringing of hammers and the whooshing of bellows. Along one street the craftsman’s goods are displayed in modest stalls, each wall hung with steel in every form imaginable.
Arthur directs them to two stalls in particular. The first is filled with crossbows of every make, from simple one-shot hunting models to ornately decorated handbows meant to be worn by nobles and highborn. Arthur speaks a few words to the merchant, who pulls several weapons from the walls, a full-sized repeating crossbow and a matched pair of pistol-sized repeaters, all of them appearing to be of solid construction, practically-minded yet artfully crafted. He leaves Jake here to ponder his options.
The slave brings Kelraji to a neighboring stall, where armor of all types are displayed, shirts and leggings of chainmail, scalemail and leather as well, the heavier of which have been studded with small circles of metal. Along another wall hang armor plate for every possible area of the body—full and half helms, gorgets, pauldrons, breastplates, cuirasses, bracers, gauntlets, greaves and boots. Shields line the back wall, including nimble bucklers, standard varieties in kite and teardrop shape, and even a massive tower shield.
Lastly, Arthur brings Linus to a curious little side-alley which takes them to a plain little shop. They pass inside to find a cluttered space filled with all sorts of strange trinkets: animals paws, teeth and claws, exotic flowers, herbs and roots, glass jars containing a plethora of disgusting and unidentifiable pickled remains, a handful of musty tomes, and almost anything else that might be considered magical to a non-magician. A wizened old woman sits in the back, presiding over a glass case with a few impressive looking items, an ivory horn, an unbelievably large scale, and a single feather colored with dazzling yellows and reds. Linus is surprised to see that there is actually a collection of legitimate lodge materials here as well, chalks made with the proper minerals for drawing runes and wards, candles in a variety of colors, and most importantly, fire-salts for consecrating the mana conduits of the interior hexagrams.
Kelraji takes note of all of the offerings in the armorer’s shop before moving on to the magician’s store. He’s never had to many options in his entire life. He thinks back on the legends he has heard, of how the best way to minimize damage was to not get hit. Hanuman, Arjuna, even Krishna himself certainly advocated nimbleness over hunkering down. He would have to, quite literally, weigh his options.
The store full of baubles and trinkets nearly blows the poor man’s mind. He’s seen, in his life, perhaps two dozen such trinkets. One he’s owned for nearly a decade, and still keeps with him at all times. Another two he found last week. On each rack, each shelf, are enough to boggle his earth-bound mind. Only by constantly reminding himself of the legends and vedas can he keep his cool. He tries act slyly, keep his cool. He wishes he’d been more of a pickpocket than a thug in his past. Too late now though.
“Arthur, ask woman what she has that would impress Tis.”
He then drifts out mentally, considering his options as he plays mental dress-up, trying to match the look of Bhima, or perhaps Nakula….
Arthur hesitates, almost too afraid of the adept to express his opinion. “Are. . . are you sure you want to buy him a gift? It is Tis who is paying for all of these things, after all. The best present might be your own frugality, especially considering goods you don’t even need for the trip.”
He pauses, thinking further before responding in a harsh whisper. “Unless. . . oh, it is very dangerous to steal from a talismonger, sir Kelraji. You must be either a very good thief or a very great fool to attempt such a thing.”
Kelraji shakes his head slightly, returning to his senses and the present.
“You do not get my question. Just ask. Tell me. No danger, I promise.”
Kelraji returns to pondering his options. Perhaps two sets would make sense. No, Arthur’s complaint made sense, even if it wasn’t strictly relevant. He would need a buckler to go with his suit. and then perhaps he would weigh the tower shield and see if the scale mail fit. He considered dropping the mail for a fancy helmet and boots. He smiles to himself as he ponders becoming the first Indian gladiator, then frowns when he realizes he would almost certainly not be.
Arthur nods, seemingly reassured to some degree that he is not dealing with an absolute madman, and heads over to converse with the wizened hag at the counter. He returns after a few minutes of conversation. “She says the first sword is not a terribly material man, in contrast to some of the other highborn. Nor is he entertained by magical baubles. The only thing the woman could think of was that he is a known poisoner. Rumors hold Tis helped Mer’veloth to overthrow the previous lord many years ago by poisoning his blade during a ritual duel. She offers to sell a few vials of her most potent toxins, if you have an interest.”
Kelraji nods as the man talks.
“That is good know. Thank you Arthur. Tell her I thank, but will not buy yet.”
Kelraji’s not a genius, but he knows well enough to not buy poison in the open, and it doesn’t take a genius to realize that poison does not make a great gift.
Kelraji glances around the room once more, frowning at the now identified and, to his mind, useless trinkets. He shrugs, and meanders back to the armorer, intent on purchasing a set of scale mail, stained blood red or crimson if possible, and a buckler and a tower shield. He would have to see about modifying them to show his chosen deities, new and old, but having them would be enough for now.
He also hoped his companions would hurry with their preparations, he was eager to move on, to explore, and to seek what was lost.
Linus wanders, first fingering some scale mail. Laughing to himself at the comical absurdity, he tries some of it on, and trying to fit his lab coat over the ensemble. If the set fits, he will make his purchase, then explore some of the magical goods he’d hoped to acquire.
Back in the arming stall, Jake looks over the crossbows with an impracticed eye, appreciating the craftsmanship that goes into the weapons before him but not fully understanding their purpose. He selects the larger repeating crossbow and shoulders it, admiring the weight of the wooden weapon, looking down the quarrel the shopkeep hands him and finding the sight straight and true. He checks the internal workings—clockwork springs and gears surround a cylindrical, rotating magazine whose action both feeds and resets the main mechanism. It is truly a thing of precision and beauty: the lathes are decorated with silver filigree, and delicate ebony scrollwork runs along the stock. Jake turns the weapon in his hands and is disturbed to find that the front stirrup is decorated to resemble a laughing, evil face—a demon, or perhaps a god of the dark elves.
Despite this, he decides the crossbow will be a worthy addition to his arsenal and calls Arthur over to accept it for their journey. He reminds the slave he will need quarrels and quiver, then heads off to find Kelraji and Linus, eager to get their journey underway.
Once Arthur and Jake have finished, Kelraji relays his desire for a buckler, scale mail, and a kite shield. He gives specific instructions as to their look, to be completed as quickly as possible. Then he moves on with Jake to find the wayward sciencer.
The three congregate by the smithy’s market stalls, examining their wares like children in a hack n’ slash trideo game. The fletcher gladly sells Jake the repeating crossbow, stepping around the counter to demonstrate how the mechanism works, the fastest way to change out the oversized magazine, and how to bash the weapon with the flat of his palm if it jams. He then show Jake how to reload a spare magazine, a time-consuming task involving standing it on its end to draw back each of the six springs in turn before loading the quarrels. Finally, he shows the gunslinger how he can load and fire individual bolts like a traditional crossbow should the need strike him. He hands the weapon over, along with two spare magazines and an even forty bolts, eighteen loaded into the mags leaving twenty-two to be split between two sturdy leather quivers.
Next door the armorer attends to Linus and Kelraji’s needs. A bellow boy emerges from the soot and smoke of the workshop to help Linus try on a shirt of scalemail. The summoner tries to fit his armored lab coat over the bulky hauberk and nearly collapses under the weight, his arms sticking out like an over-bundled tot on a winter day. The apprentice lad topples over with laughter at the sight, clearly not used to fitting scholars for war. The head smith finds his way over to clout the boy in the head for his impudence, and offers to strip the armor plates from the lining of the lab coat so that Linus might retain his signature garb.
Kelraji stays on with the armorer as Linus heads off to talismonger’s, receiving his own scalemail shirt, a rounded bronze buckler with a vicious spike in the middle for improvised strikes, and a stout kite shield. The armorer explains that it will take him the rest of the day to stain the scale and work heraldry onto the shields, as well as make the modifications to Linus’ coat, but he could have it out to their campsite by the next morning.
Arthur accompanies Linus to the magic shop, perusing the overwhelming array of baubles and trinkets, most of them lifeless mundane junk meant to attract the superstitious and true believers. He does manage to locate plenty of serviceable materials for creating lodges: chalks, fire-salts, candles and geologic crystals with which to inscribe the complex hermetic diagrams necessary to channel his natural powers and ward away probing astral entities. There are also plenty of trinkets to be used as the base of an enchanted focus, though none of them are crafted from the precious awakened ore known as orichalcum. In the summoner’s experience, it was usually better to craft one’s own telesma than to use ones made by the hand of another magician.
Linus keeps the splint mail, but does not wear it. He imagines dire circumstances that may make it a necessity, but he hopes they will not come to pass. Exploring the magicians shop, Linus’ eyes go wide. He nearly grabs Arthur with excitement.
“These are good materials… Perhaps not the highest quality, but certainly usable. I’d like to purchase some, these fire salts especially, but I know neither the price nor your willingness to pay. I may need to build a lodge, at some point, though the thought that we will be in this country for that long pains me.”
Arthur nods knowingly, his expression darkening. “I’ve been on this cursed island for eight years, and slave to the elves for six. You cannot imagine how I long to see London once more.”
The poor man spends a few minutes negotiating with the hag, eventually coming to seemingly agreeable terms. She hurries around the shop, collecting a variety of the lodge materials into an old leather satchel before handing it off to Arthur, who gives her a few coppers in exchange. She clamps one of the crude coins between two of her crooked teeth, grins wickedly, and wanders off to scrub a bit of dried blood from the ceiling with a dirty mop.
Linus and Arthur return to the main drag of the smith’s quarter of town to find Kelraji and Jake checking over their new kit. The sun sits at high noon above them, throwing a pleasant warmth onto the adventurer’s shoulders to counter the brisk chill coming off the ocean.
Arthur Glass glances thoroughly about, ensuring they are free of eavesdroppers before speaking in a low whisper. “I believe we have concluded our shopping, my friends. Now I have a favor to ask of you—will you tell me when you plan on setting out? Jake has promised to free me from slavery, and I think it best that I sneak out on my own and meet you on the road. But I’ll need to know when you plan on leaving so I can time my escape. Will you be leaving today, or stay on for a day or two?”
Linus gives Jake with a wary and skeptical glance.
“Jake, I worry that you might have brought us fully over our heads. But I say we leave today. This city fills me with dread, and I want to be away from town before practicing my magics.”
Kelraji nods as the sciencer talks, for once content to let the man speak.
“He is not our slave. You steal from the elves who give freely to us? Was gift crossbow and armor not enough for you? Why is it ok for you to steal, but not for them?”
He looks back at the scientist, and nods.
“We can go back to plane, but I have armor to pick up tomorrow. We can set out in the morning. Besides, we already waste half today, maybe more.”
Linus bites his lip. His discretion fails,
“You pick odd times to show gratitude, sir. I suppose there is some reason in this. Arthur knows the lay of the land, and could be invaluable to us in our mission. Any I have never seen someone so worthy of our help, given his wretched treatment by these… well I don’t want to say it… these less than courteous folk.”
And… he thinks to himself, it will be nice to have at least someone around who would like to get back to civilization.
Kelraji seems a bit puzzled by this sudden display of spinal fortitude from the skinny one.
“Are you no thankful for the help we have received? They do not treat you like this slave, yet. You will provoke those who have help us most so far? You would risk your life, your freedom, for this man you do no know? No. Enough, you know nothing of their culture, nothing of their ways, and nothing of sense. It is suicide to steal this man. You think they will not follow, will not hunt us? Do they seem like they will just give up once leave town? No. They will chase. They will find. And for what? A man you do not know? Is he even help us? Too much risk. Not acceptable to me.”
“I’m not stealing anyTHING, Kelraji, he is a person and asked for my help, and we’re not taking him for our own, we’re setting him free. It was my decision to help him since he helped us, so I will take full responsibility for him.”
Jake is a little disappointed that his decision to help the slave isn’t being supported by the group; these are smart people from modern times, they should be well past this barbaric line of thinking. Anyway, he suspects that Arthur will be very useful down the road, if they can keep him safe from Tis. Jake hadn’t thought about hiding the slave from their dark elf guide until this point. He suspects that arrangement will go badly for the elf.
“Let’s head back to the ship for the rest of the day. I think the APC has arrived.”
Kelraji nods, assenting for now.
“Very well, we must make choice, but does not need to be now. We eat, rest, decide, sleep, and leave when armor and lizard rides are ready.”
Linus considers kelraji’s argument, and Jake’s.
“Indeed, this bears further discussion. But I absolutely must get to work testing my powers in this strange land, and the safety of the ship is the best place to do that. Lets be on our way.”
Arthur stands silently by as the three discuss his fate, staring sullenly at the earth. His breathing is rapid and labored beneath the thin scrap of cloth covering his shoulders.
The slave leads them back to the center of town to find the Devil Rat APC idling noisily at the edge of town. Shane Dieyette’s torso protrudes from the cupola at the head of the transport, taking in the sights of the elven city with the effected nonchalance of teenage youth. Behuniak stands by with the squad of Warpigs at the rear of the vehicle. Their six riding lizards are nearby, each laden with provisions, their leads tied off to the hitching post of an unused market stall.
Tis approaches as they arrive, wearing a fresh pair of riding pants. He exchanges a few words with Arthur before addressing them, glancing over their new armor and weapons. “Outlanders, glad it makes Tis to see you with things in order. Slave tells of tomorrow for the leaving. This is good. I will come to you with lizards on the morning.” The first sword dips at the waist, flashes a wry grin, and turns on his heel to stride through the castle gates.
Arthur smiles uneasily to them, unable or unwilling to meet Kelraji’s eye, and follows the highborn elf without another word.
The party files into the Devil Rat, the nine of them filling the interior of transport, and take the bumpy ride back to the landing zone in stony silence, each man and woman lost in their own thoughts.
Shane pulls the APC into position with the other two tracked vehicles and drops the rear hatch. They disembark to find the clearing around the plane has been worked into a serviceable staging ground in their absence. A half-dozen military tents have been erected, their flaps tied off to reveal their interiors. Some have been lined with cots and personal effects, while others contain stores of munitions, fuel and field rations. A modest kitchen space has been constructed as well, a few folding tables with various pots and pans, complete with a big pot suspended over a fire circle. Two of the Warpigs are busying themselves about the fire, dicing and stirring, their features swarthy and decidedly Indian.
A little way off, Vontarion Do’Urden sits cross-legged and motionless on an exposed bit of rock. The air around him shimmers with energies barely visible. A giant stone golem composed entirely of boulders and rocks of all sizes patrols in a slow circle around the seated elf. Its plodding stone feet have already worn a perfect circular rut in the dirt.
Beyond the campsite, fields of golden grain wave in the late afternoon breeze. Stooped figures move about the landscape, working the earth. Some are peasant elves, others clearly slaves from other races, orks and brown-skinned humans with shackles about their necks and feet.
Russ Gault, the outdoorsman dwarf, can be seen approaching down a narrow trail through the crops, having perhaps come from the stands of snow-dusted pine in the foothills to the north. Renzo Espallier, the elderly statesman and financier of the Cabal, can be glimpsed brooding within the cavernous interior of the cargo plane. A man who looks like he might be Shane’s father is tooling about on the roof of the Striker light tank, wielding a comically large spanner. The three mercenaries not cooking or emerging from the APC with them are gathered around the entrance of one tent, cleaning rifles and sharpening oversized bowie knives.
Kelraji wanders over to the two Indian men, if for no other reason than they might speak his own language, and it has been long enough that he could use some practice. With no other priorities, he bides his time, trying to formulate a convincing enough case to leave behind the slave. His misfortune need not become their own, at least not yet.
Property of: Russ Gault
Travel journal vol. 52
Day 1 on the island. We have somehow made it here without going through a portal, just like Mathus said we would. Have landed on the southern peninsula, a region unknown to me from my previous travels here. Still, it is strange to be back.
The three men drawn by the book’s unwavering power have already taken charge, leading a contingent in to meet with the civilization inhabiting this area. I have not been chosen to join them, which is for the best. Cities and dungeons are no place for an adept of the Beast.
Day 2. I went for a morning patrol of the land surrounding our camp. Nothing unusual to report. Standard pine forests, game trails and a few hunter’s snares. The smell of the earth and air remind me of the war. Vontarion returned sometime in the night.
The expedition has returned, bringing with them news and some new equipment. Lt. Dagonhart debriefed: Our three have promised the feudal elf king their help in his battle against an enemy civilization. The elves know of the book. A noble from the elven society has been assigned to accompany us on the road. I grow suspicious of their motives.
Finally had a chance to speak with some of the drawn this afternoon. I demonstrated to Jake Chambers the use of a crossbow, and answered a few other questions for them. They plan to ride at morning, and bring me with them, along with two of the mercenaries. It seems a sound enough plan.
A local farmer asked us to investigate the disappearance of her livestock. The trail was inconclusive, and the others did not choose to follow it. There was talk of ‘werewolves.’
Day 3. The noble came at dawn, making us seven. We rode at early morning on the elves’ reptilian steeds.
We met a bard on the road, who played an odd little game for the exchange of a few magical trinkets. The human Chambers won an old five-shooter off him.
We came upon a second man on the road, apparently a slave who is known to the three. The noble wanted the man’s head, but they talked him down, offering to aid in the elf’s plot to backstab the current ruler in exchange for the slave’s life. The slave has joined us on our journey north. I will write more when we stop for the night.