The Tyrant of Kepala
Book 1, Chapter 1
“YOU!” the two rogues, Rodrigo and Zerkanti, shouted at each other as the cell door slammed shut. The three other figures in the dirt-floored room looked at each other in bafflement. With only a small barred window near the top of the cell and cold stone walls, the place looked like a hole that people would never emerge from alive.
“You two know each other?” said the young red-haired girl incredulously. “How can you two know each other?”
“It’s a long story,” said Rodrigo. The bravado the young man was used to upholding was severely hampered by the fact that he, like everyone in the cell, had been stripped of his usual finery and given only a burlap smock to wear. His humiliation was nearly as palpable as his surprise at seeing his former dark elf traveling companion.
The muscular man across the room stood up, ignoring the conversation going on, and began to pound on the cell door. “I demand to see your captain!” he shouted. “My name is Brehon Veld and I demand to see him that justice be done upon him!”
To his surprise the cell door opened. The answer Brehon received came in the form of a steel-gloved fist that smashed him in the face, knocking him to the floor. The door slammed, and they heard muffled muttering from the guard about the provincial ancestry of the man he had beaten down. The five strangers regarded each other cautiously.
Outside the door, they could hear the guards speaking to each other. “How can it possibly be her? She’s been dead for over ten years,” said one.
“That’s what the Dal is coming to find out,” said the other.
“She’s coming? A Dal is coming here?” said the first voice with obvious trepidation.
The voices moved down the hallway and faded away.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we need to get out of here,” announced Rodrigo.
“And how are we going to do that?” jabbed Zerkanti.
“I don’t know, but you are going to want to be far, far away from here if they’re bringing who I think they are.”
“The Hollow Men?” said Brehon, rubbing his head and rising to one knee. “Bring them on, I’m not afraid.”
“If they’re bringing who I think they might, you will be afraid. The Hollow Men will be the least of your worries,” said Rodrigo as he searched in vain for a weakness in the stones near the doorway.
Zerkanti, the dark elf, regarded the young red haired girl with a quizzical eye. “You look familiar. You look like the girl on the coppers,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m sure a lot of people say that,” Rodrigo’s red haired companion said, shifting nervously.
“IS that you?” Zerkanti accused.
“No! My name is Jane Flaxen. And how do you know him?” the girl asked, pointing an accusing finger at Rodrigo.
“It’s a long story,” she answered.
“Were you two… coupled?”
“NO!” shouted both rogues at once.
“We have a professional association,” said Rodrigo. “You know. My work.”
“I don’t like your work,” said Jane.
“Will you all shut up? If we need to get out, we’re getting out!” said Brehon, rising from the floor. He let out a guttural grunt and threw himself in a charge at the door. His body made a wet slapping noise as it impacted with, and failed to move, the door.
“You’re not going to budge it, you ass!” scolded Rodrigo. Brehon threw himself at the door again, to no effect.
“We’ll see about that,” said Brehon, and he readied to throw himself again. Before he could, they heard the sound of a commotion outside. The guards were shouting, and in front of the high slit of a window, they witnessed the unlikely sight of a flaming hay cart flying past the window. It collided with the storefronts across the street, and the air was filled with the sounds of screaming people and a crackling fire that was catching. The guards outside the jail could be heard shouting for water to put it out.
Outside the door of the cell, more shouting was heard, followed by two screams, the sounds of two bodies hitting the floor, and then silence. The door swung open, and the figure of an elven woman wielding a bow peeked her head through. “Come with me if you want to live,” she hissed at them.
The five strangers stood there staring silently, dumbstruck.
“Let’s go. NOW!” shouted the elven archer.
Five burlap sack-clad figures snapped to attention, shook off their surprise, and followed the cloaked figure of their rescuer out into the night. As they fought the fire that threatened to consume the local haberdasher’s shop across from the local jail, the people of the village of Arrain did not turn to see the fugitives make their egress. They slipped around the corner and off into the night.
They made their way north through the winding alleyways of the town. Taking momentary shelter in the darkness, the fugitives stopped to catch their breath. “Stop! Where are we going? And who’s the girl with the arrows? Why did you break us out?” gasped Rodrigo.
“My name is Tala Ravenwood. I tracked a military convoy here that had been taking slaves in a nearby village. I was about to free the poor bastards when I saw you lot being taken in. What are you doing with the girl from the coppers?”
“I’m not the girl from the coppers! My name is Jane, I’m just a girl who cleans out the inn.”
“If that’s the case, ‘Jane’, what does one of Kotu’s captains want with you, then?”
“That little bastard will want us all dead, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let him get away,” said Brehon in a loud haughty voice from the end of the alley.
“Keep your voice down, you flat-headed simpleton,” shot Rodrigo, “you’re gonna get us thrown right back where we were. Besides, what’re you gonna do, beat him to death with your burlap toga?”
“What if I do?” challenged Brehon, turning to move toward Rodrigo.
“Stop it all of you, they’re going to hear!” Tala hushed them in a loud whisper.
Rodrigo looked at the elven archer with an amused smirk. “You just lit half of the street on fire and now you’re concerned about subtlety?”
“You’re not in there anymore, are you?” she said.
From the darkness down the alley, a voice said in a hushed and desperate tone, “Little Star! Little Star.”
The red haired innkeeper girl peered into the darkness with a look of disbelief on her face. She moved toward the voice.
“Wait!” shouted Rodrigo, moving after her.
Out of the shadows stepped two figures, one a skinny and good-natured looking man, the other an enormous, dour looking mountain of a fellow. Rodrigo stopped in his tracks. The young girl broke into a run to embrace the two figures and let out a giddy laugh of relief.
“Cally Fiddle and Fat Bill! What are you doing here?”
“Fiddle and Fat Trading Company, m’lady, at your service,” said the skinny Cally Fiddle. “Went into business on the road after the Hunter’s Moon. Best not to be seen too long in one place given our previous employer, but it’s a fair game. Not quite like working in the royal kitchens, but at least you get to see the world. We were sure you were dead! How did you manage to survive?”
“This one here got me out,” she said, motioning toward Rodrigo.
The young man snapped out of his look of amazement and focused. Going into a deep bow, he began his well rehearsed introduction, “Yes, sir, yes indeed. I am Rodrigo Sahasi Rath, highwayman, overdone, and lucky one, at your service…”
“You’re quite haughty for a man wearing a sack,” said Zerkanti.
“Best to get ‘em off the street, eh?” grunted the towering Fat Bill.
“Right, right you are, Billyboy,” said Cally Fiddle. He motioned to a covered provisions cart next to him. “Princess, if you’ll step this way, please…”
“Princess!” said Zerkanti, Brehon, and Tala at once.
“I knew is was the girl from the coppers,” muttered Tala.
They piled into the tight cargo space of the wagon, and the tarp was thrown over them. They heard their two benefactors climb onto the driver’s bench and snap the reins. The wheels creaked and rumbled over cobblestones as they turned onto the street. In the darkness, the blaze that was now consuming the eastern end of the town cast an orange glow on their faces. They looked from one to another, sizing each other up in the hush of their escape. They all, save Rodrigo, looked to the red haired girl in a deadpan stare.
“Very well,” sighed the girl, “My name is Gia Corin. Daughter of King Jory Corin. Sole heir to the Corin Dynasty and sole survivor of the Hunter’s Moon Massacre. There, are you happy now?”
The tarp was pulled back to reveal a tent that contained a rich bazaar, lit by oil lamps in the night. The room was full of an infinite variety of exotic cloths, finery, tools, traveling gear, and even weapons. The ever-animated Cally Fiddle ushered the group of fugitives off the back of his wagon and into the tent.
“How did they find you?” came the voice of Fat Bill, a wall of flesh on the far side of the tent.
“The young captain wearing the Tyrant’s mark made us,” Rodrigo said. “Grabbed us before we had a chance to skip out. The Hollow Men grabbed us and that was that. Good thing the elf with the fire fetish showed up when she did.”
“Half-elf,” corrected Tala.
“Is there any chance you could get us something to wear a little more dignified than these rags?” Gia said coquettishly to Cally Fiddle.
“Our wares are at your disposal, your grace! Please feel free to take for yourself whatever would bring you comfort, Little Star. I’m just grateful to see you alive.”
“Excellent,” said Brehon, moving to grab a blue tunic and breeches from a nearby stand. He was interrupted by the slap of Fat Bill’s ham-sized palm on his shoulder.
“Princess gets what she likes. You lot have to pay,” said the giant man.
“But surely we can work out some sort of deal. I know people from here all the way to Zelaad that would make your trade a whole lot easier,” said Zerkanti.
“There’s an old saying,” said Cally Fiddle, “‘A lady in a burlap sack has little to barter with’.”
“And who said that?” asked Tala.
“Me,” said Cally Fiddle, casting a knowing eye at Rodrigo. “Now kindly find a way to pay up, or kindly find yourself removed from my place of business.”
The group turned to face him, and all eyes were on the young rogue, now cutting a dashing figure in the well-appointed outfit of a wealthy traveler.
“You’re kidding me,” he said.
“Princess gets what she likes. You lot have to pay,” repeated Fat Bill.
Young Rodrigo sighed defeatedly and moved to the large man, taking him aside. He whispered into his ear for a moment, and the two men exchanged a knowing nod.
“Don’t let ‘em leave yet, back in a dickminute,” grunted Bill. He opened the tent flap and was gone into the night, lumbering toward the edge of town.
The band of unlikely allies began to search among the wares of the Fiddle and Fat Trading Company, and began outfitting themselves. Rodrigo, already clad in lithe merchant finery, found a short sword, two daggers, and a light crossbow, as well as a box of tools useful for the picking of locks and forgery of documents. Zerkanti found simple garments, but draped herself in a bandolier of daggers and found another light crossbow. Brehon selected the gaudiest blue cloak and tabard in the entire establishment, and hefted a broadsword and a battle hammer onto his back, securing his feet in heavy leather boots. Gia Corin picked up no weapons, and only selected a simple yet pristine set of robes for herself. The only other possession she selected was an amulet that bore the coat of arms of House Corin.
“Glad you found that, Little Star,” said Cally Fiddle. “Nobody wants to be seen with it anymore. They’re afraid to show any sign of the old kings. Can’t even trade in the old coin anymore. Only right you should have it.”
Gia held the amulet to her breast and said under her breath, “I’ll make it mean something again.”
A tweeting sound was heard overhead, like a nightingale, but somehow more sonorous. Every head in the room turned to the top of the tent. It was Tala who first spied the source of the noise.
“Up there,” she pointed, and the red shape of a tiny dragon was seen by them all, clinging to the top flap of the tent.
“Dammit all!” said Rodrigo, reaching for his crossbow.
The little dragon fixed its eyes on him, hissed, and darted back the way it came before the rogue could get a bead on it. Zerkanti uttered a curse in elvish.
A moment later, down the street came the clatter of their captors men marching gracelessly down the street. In the distance, the voice of their captain could be heard shouting at them. It was indistinct, but his berating tone, combined with intermittent bursts of his high, cackling laugh, removed any doubt as to the identity of their pursuer from everyone in the group. Zerkanti peeked her head out of the tent flap and out into the dark. “It’s him, alright. The bastard that took me in.”
“I have a score to settle with that little bastard,” said Brehon, rising to his feet and marching straight toward the tent’s entrance. Every other member of the group instantly turned to him and raised their hands, trying to restrain him as silently as possible.
“Let me go,” said Brehon through gritted teeth to Zerkanti. “I have justice to deal upon that worm out there, and I’ll be damned if I let a scrad bitch get in my way.”
A hush descended over the group as the barrel-chested man and the dark elf locked eyes. “Call me a scrad again, you musclebound fool,” Zerkanti breathed icily.
Behind him, Gia laid a hand on Brehon’s shoulder and made a gesture. “You should calm down and go sit in the corner,” she said, as an inexplicable twinkle washed over her eyes. Brehon looked at her with a quizzical look on his face for a moment, and as though under someone else’s control, obediently moved to the other side of the room and sat, folding his hands in his lap.
“Useful, that one,” Tala said from the far side of the tent. She was peering through a small hole in the side. “They’re making their way down the street. They’re going to be here in a minute. Funny boy in the shiny hat is not much of a leader, though, methinks. He really took you all down?”
“He had the benefit of surprise,” said Rodrigo, dryly. “Get ready.”
Rodrigo readied his crossbow and aimed at the tent flap. Zerkanti took up a position by the flap’s side. An eternity passed as they waited.
The rough and scarred head of an infantryman poked through the tent and locked eyes with Rodrigo. The rogue pulled the trigger on his crossbow, but the only report he heard was the twang of his bowstring snapping. “Gods below!” Rodrigo shouted.
Gia sighed and raised her outstretched finger, and a ray of crackling icy air raced toward the intruder and struck him in the chest. The man gasped and clutched at his chest, but before he could fall to the floor, the dark elf woman had pulled him inside the tent and thrust her dagger into his throat. A rattle escaped the unlucky soldier as he breathed his last.
Outside the tent, they all heard the bellowing of Fat Bill, “Get away from my property!”
They peered outward to see the gargantuan man grabbing a second soldier by the top of his head and flinging him to the ground like a child’s doll. Fat Bill grunted and looked to Rodrigo.
“Left you fifty of the King’s, pretty boy,” said Bill as he tossed a coin purse to the rogue. He looked to Gia. “Good luck, Princess.”
The mountainous man broke into a loping run down the alley beside the street and vanished from view. The party inside the tent looked to one another. Brehon rose from his reverie and walked to the center of the room. To Gia, he said, “You tricked me.”
Rodrigo cocked his head, ready to deliver a clever retort, when a wave of something sick and awful swept over the tent. The skin of everyone in the party began to crawl, as Brehon, and Rodrigo, dropped to the floor, convulsing. Brehon clutched his fists to the side of his head and began to scream, “Father! I’m sorry father! I can’t do it, Father! I can’t!”
Rodrigo began to swat at the air. “Get them off me! Get them off me!” he shrieked.
Tala and Zerkanti shared a knowing look and peered outside once again. At the end of the street a vision of horror stood before them. Two of the Verower Villilar Kotu’s terrifying Hollow Men stood beside a figure in black. The figure was feminine in shape, but twisted and spindly, and emanated an air of utter dread. The metallic figures of the Hollow Men raised their iron gauntlets toward the tent in a pointing gesture as they walked forward with a clanking, awkward gait.
The two elven women turned to Gia, who was trying to shake Rodrigo out of his hysteria. “I think she’s here for you,” Zerkanti said.
A dark and serious look came over the young princess, and she raced to the door, holding wide the tent flap as she grasped the amulet that bore the crest of her house. She locked eyes with the dark witch in the street and uttered one word: “Sleep.”
The dark woman staggered back onto her heels and fell to the ground, unconscious. Tala and Zerkanti again shared a look of surprise, but then broke from each other into action. As Zerkanti moved inside to wake Brehon from his torpor, Tala raced across the street and leaped to the second level balcony of the boarding house across the street. She perched like a bird of prey on the railing and raised her bow, arrow nocked. Sighting the closest of the Hollow Men, she aimed directly at the center of his back. She let her arrow fly and it streaked through the night, striking the armored soldier squarely in the back, piercing his armor, but the sentry neither made a noise of pain nor turned to acknowledge that he had been hit. Tala gasped in shock.
Inside the tent, Cally Fiddle reappeared and shouted at them incredulously, “What are you still doing here? Get out of here! Run!”
Brehon began to regain his wits inside, as Zerkanti started barking orders to her companions. She motioned to Rodrigo and Brehon. “You two, get out there and hold the smashers off! I’ll get these two out of here. Meet you by the eastern edge by the green line. Move!”
Rain began to fall as the men charged from the tent, straight at the armored warriors. Rodrigo drew his rapier and thrust it straight at the breastplate of the nearest Hollow Man, but to no avail. His sword was deflected off of the armor with a high ringing sound. Looking tiny next to the imposing frame of the silent warrior, the highwayman froze in shock. The Hollow Man raised his gauntlet and struck Rodrigo hard in the face, and he fell unconscious to the mud at their feet.
Brehon strode confidently out into the rain, readying his warhammer as he went. The second Hollow Man turned to face him as the young warrior stepped close and swung the hammer at the armored sentry’s head. His blow connected, and the Hollow Man’s helmet rang like a sea bell, but the blow did not move its target at all. Brehon’s eyes widened as the Hollow Man reared back with his broadsword. Brehon ducked as the killing blow swung over his head, and he pivoted away. From above them he heard Tala shouting, “It’s no good, they’re not going down!”
The cloaked archer loosed two more arrows that rang harmlessly off the armored forms of the Hollow Men, and then abandoned her perch. She vaulted off of the balcony and landed sure-footed on the street, breaking into a sprint. “Grab the fancy man and get out of there!” shouted Tala before disappearing down a side alley.
Behind the armored hulks, the dark form of their commander stirred from her induced slumber. Sensing that this fight was unwinnable, Brehon grabbed Rodrigo from the mud and hoisted him to his shoulder and broke away from the Hollow Men, following Tala down the darkened alleyway.
At the far edge of town, the band of fugitives reconvened near the low wall of an outlying farm. The sky was lit bright orange now from the fire that threatened to consume the entire western half of the town. The screams and commotion of the people of Arrain carried on the wind as they fought the fire. Closer, at the high point of a street near to them, they heard the familiar voice of the enemy commander berating a subordinate. His high, piercing tone complimented the cruelty in his words.
“How could you? All you had to do was keep six people in a locked box! Four of them were even women! And then I ask you to find them before Dal Emreden comes and you can’t even do that!” the commander scolded.
“Sir, we were just doing as you asked… and the fire, sir…” stuttered the sergeant. His words were interrupted by the snap of what sounded like a slap across the face.
“You think I’m going to take the fall for your stupidity? I… Will… NOT!” said the commander, punctuating each word with a fresh open-handed strike. He ended his violent beratement with the cackling, howling laugh that they’d all begun to loathe.
“Hey, knuckle-dragger,” Zerkanti said in a hushed tone to Brehon, “what is it with that little man in charge of the bully gang? You seem to have a history.”
“First of all, you’re welcome for rescuing everyone,” Brehon snorted as the rest of the gang groaned under their breath. “Secondly, his name is Quinneth Vask. The little worm killed my father and destroyed my home. Last I saw he’d sold my kinsmen to the Slaver’s Guild, and he has something of mine that I intend to recover.”
“Quinneth Vask? Are you telling me that petty tyrant is the son of Duke Narcis?” said Rodrigo, still rubbing his head where the armored soldier had struck him.
“The same,” said Brehon.
“House Vask has been rising again ever since the fall of Kepala. You’d figure the favorite son would have a better job than errand boy,” said Tala.
“Errand boy to retrieve some important cargo, I think. Are we not going to talk about how firetop here can put people to sleep with words and conjure fire and ice out of thin air?” asked Zerkanti incredulously, looking to the demure figure of Gia Corin. Slowly and one by one, everyone turned to look at the fugitive princess.
Gia’s face twitched slightly as she seemed to mull a thought over in her mind. After a beat, she spoke, “I’m sorry to have involved any of you in this. It’s not your charge to see me back into hiding. We should all go our separate ways. I’ll wish you well.”
“Just a minute, Princess,” Brehon said, puffing out his chest, “if you’re the girl on the coppers, people are going to keep recognizing you. You’re going to need help. Now, since I am clearly the most qualified person to…”
“Quiet!” hushed Tala, suddenly snapping her attention to a farmhouse in the distance. “Don’t you hear it?”
“Hear what?” asked Gia.
“The music! The music is back!” said Tala, joyfully. Grinning ear to ear, she turned and broke into a trot through the field toward the deserted-looking farmhouse.
The rest of the group shared a hesitant look. Finally Rodrigo spoke. “Well, she did break us out of the pen. She’s either gone mad, she’s onto something, or maybe both. The way today’s going, I think I’ll give her some company.”
The rogue turned and ran after the archer. One by one, the rest of the group followed suit. Upon reaching the farmhouse, they reunited with the beaming Tala. She held a finger to her lips and gingerly opened the door. The group entered and saw the soft glow of a single candle illuminating the interior chamber, and suddenly they all heard the soothing sounds of a balatier’s strings. Inside the room, a handsome middle aged man dressed in performer’s clothes plucked the strings of the balatier, and hummed a melodious tune.
“Brinco!” exclaimed Tala.
“Hello little one,” the bard said to the ranger. “I see you managed to find the last of the Corins.”
Gia entered the room and nodded to the man, “Hello, sir. Are you the one I should thank for not being in chains this evening?”
“I merely gave someone a nudge in the right direction. Your freedom, all of you, is surely your own to credit. Now the question is how you are going to stay free. Cat’s out of the bag that the Copper Princess yet lives. Can’t hide her in plain sight now, even if they’re not using daddy’s money anymore.”
Zerkanti came forward. “I’ve heard tell of an observatory in the hills north of Arrain. Could be we take shelter there for the night. If you could point us in that direction…”
Brinco raised an eyebrow, “Hm. Dark of flesh, dark of heart, and dark of direction. And you think finding an astronomer to point you to a star that will guide you is your answer, little Silvermane?”
“It could, but… wait, how did you know my…”
“There is indeed an observatory off in the mountains to the northeast,” Brinco the Bard interrupted. “If you find your way there you may find your way elsewhere. Any route, it’s as good a port in the storm as any. And a storm is coming, children. A storm to shake the heavens indeed.”
The bard rose to his feet, bowed at the waist, and snuffed the candle between his fingers. He picked up his balatier and began to pluck as he exited the room. “It might behoove you to stick together. You never know who might be looking at this time of night for the heir to the throne.”
He rounded the corner out of sight, and Tala and Zerkanti immediately followed, but when they entered the next room, Brinco was nowhere to be seen.
“Well, that’s great. We’re just supposed to traipse off into the wilderness? What’re we supposed to do about eating and not getting eaten?” groused Rodrigo.
Tala Ravenwood fixed a determined look and marched outside. She let out a quick series of whistles and held up her arm. When the other four followed her out the door and into the field, they watched an owl alight on the ranger’s forearm. Tala spoke to the owl in a hushed tone, as though she was sharing a secret with a small child. She giggled, and the owl hooted. Then the bird spread its wings and flapped silently off into the night.
Tala turned to the group with a twinkling in her eye and said, “It’s a good night’s walk this way. We’ll be in the hills and to safety within the hour. Let’s get out of here while we’ve still got the dark on our side.”
“Oh good, that doesn’t sound foreboding at all,” huffed Brehon.
“Stow it, blockhead,” sniped Zerkanti. “Some of us do better in the shadows. You heard the lady, move your ass.”
As Brehon fell into line behind the elven women, Rodrigo and Gia shared a look. “Do you think we can trust them?” Gia asked.
“Myself, I’d trust them to the end of the world,” said Rodrigo.
“Yes, but how far off is that?” asked Gia.
After an hour of slogging through fields, fording streams, and crashing through brambles, the fields gave way to foothills. The foothills gave way to woodlands, and the woodlands soon found mountain terrain underfoot. After climbing uphill in the dark for half the night, they reached the treeline. When they broke the edge of the wood, they all saw it at the same time. At the top of the highest peak, a structure stood with a high dome atop it, and emanating from the top of the dome, shooting off at an angle into the sky was a shaft of ghostly light. It shone on the bare rocks and snow around them and presented a clear path forward.
Single file and in silence, the travelers walked forward toward the beacon. After another hour’s walk, it became apparent how colossal the observatory actually was. It perched atop a high peak like a giant bird, scanning the skies for prey.
They came to a large, reinforced wooden door within a prominent arch at the base of the observatory. Tala walked forward to inspect the door, but before she could, the door opened of its own accord. Inside, sconces containing candles flickered to life and illuminated a winding staircase that ascended up beyond their view. First Tala, then the others, stepped inside and began to climb the steps. As they went, more lights appeared to show them the way ahead, coming to life on their own. At the end of their climb of nearly one hundred steps, they came to another door. This door, too, opened on its own.
Beyond the stairway and past the door, they came to a room of immense size, at least a hundred feet wide and fifty feet tall. In the center sat the gleaming apparatus of an enormous telescope, its clockwork gears spinning in well-oiled harmony, aiming the lens in the oculus toward new targets in the heavens.
“What is this place?” breathed Tala.
From high above, the kind voice of an old man came down. “Well, I didn’t think you would be the first to arrive.”
Zerkanti and Brehon entered the room to see Tala standing in the center, looking up. “Show yourself!” she barked.
From a balcony in the center of the massive dome of the room, a figure shuffled into view. It was an old man clad in a simple robe, with an ornate scarf wrapped repeatedly about his neck and shoulders. He moved with a vigor that belied his apparent age. “Yes, yes, hello!” he said as though inviting in long lost relatives from the cold.
Zerkanti shook her hands in frustration and shouted up to him, “Are you the astronomer?”
The old man adopted a puzzled look for a moment and chewed on his thumb “Astronomer, hm? Well, if astronomy is a thing I do and doing astronomy makes one an astronomer, than it’s an astronomer I shall be. Something tells me you’re not here to find your fate in the stars though, are you, my beauty?”
Finally Rodrigo and Gia Corin entered the room, rolling their heads back to take in the immense apparatus of the telescope. “Oh, the little star herself,” said the old man. “Maybe I don’t trust my own eyes, but I’ve watched you come all the way up here, and yes, yes, it is you, young Gia. You’re alive! You’re the very image of your mother.”
“My mother? You knew my mother?” Gia said, struggling to believe what was happening.
“Your mother was a queen, she knew a great many,” said the old man. “But I had the honor of introducing her to your father.”
“Enough with the double talk, old man, who are you?” blurted Brehon.
“Well. He’s a moody one, isn’t he,” the old man said to no one in particular, then to the group, “Please, please, come in, come in. You must be starving. Come in here.”
The old man motioned to a door on the far side of the room which in turn opened of its own accord. Inside was a table covered in food and wine. The group turned to move and was surprised to see the old man appear suddenly behind them, ushering them into the room.
“Yes, yes, please, come in, sit. Eat!” he said, motioning to the feast before him.
“And to think I was in jail this morning,” mused Rodrigo, who was the first through the door.
The group sat and wearily ate, but found themselves immediately refreshed and energized by the food before them. A soothing music filled the air, and they found themselves filled with calm as though their worries had been effortlessly removed from them. The trials of the day seemed a distant memory. The old man entered the room at last and began to address them.
“My young friends, we have much to discuss. Destiny has unfolded to bring you here, and you must answer its call. I do suppose you want to know who I am. Very well, I will tell you. I was once called Master Izar Harea, and I was the foremost wizard of King Jory Corin’s court. We grew up together, Jory and I did. When he ascended to his throne he so trusted me that he asked me to sit by his side in the early days of his reign. And so I did, working my art to bring benevolence to the lands. He valued my ways so much that he implored me to seek out and train students in my ways and bring them up to know our traditions and use their power as I have used mine.”
His face darkened, “But my greatest triumph was also my most heartbreaking failure. The brightest star in my firmament, a Serif named Kotulo Bakalo, entered my tutelage and had a meteoric rise to the very top of my disciples. He could see the strands of magic that connect every part of all the worlds together, and could weave them like threads on a loom. But he was not satisfied with merely gaining wisdom and doing good works. He wanted power. Power and power and power. He craved it like a man slaking his thirst on salt water. The more he had, the more he wanted. I tried to show him the way, but he withdrew from my teachings. He fell under the sway of some sort of dark lord from beyond our known world, and spoke with him in secret. This hideous presence twisted his mind and gave him the power he wanted, but only at a price. He began to use the lives of others to bolster his strength, sacrifices to feed his insatiable hunger.”
“I went to confront him when he was readying to use his profane ritual to trap and steal the life of an unborn child that would be a conduit to immense power. You, young Gia,” said Master Izar, raising an open palm to her. “You were that child whose power he so desperately wanted to consume. I do believe you have seen some of that power come to pass this very day, have you not?”
The princess nodded her head in amazement.
“Hm. Yes. Yes, I had to confront him,” Izar continued. “I had to put a stop to this madness, but when I did, he slipped away from me, running like a bandit into the night for Kepala never to see the Serif again. He went to the east and disappeared. I had to tell your father, and he was furious. I begged his forgiveness, but I could see that in my blindness, I had harmed my dear friend more than I could bear. I left his service and wandered the provinces as an outcast until I came upon this place, and swore that I would simply witness what was to come to pass. My involvement in the world, my action, had led to the most unimaginable of consequences, and I could not stand to be part of it any more. And so I took up my vigil here.”
“And you’ve just been sitting here for decades?” asked Brehon.
“On the night of the Hunter’s Moon, I stood here and observed it. I watched in horror as it happened. But the bloody tyrant Verower Villilar Kotu had a familiar air about him. I stretched out and touched his mind, and there he was, the old Serif I had tutored and then cast out years ago, reborn as a scourge to reap vengeance upon the kingdom that had raised him. My old student had become the conqueror. But with his armies and his Seven and his iron grip on the land, what could I do but wait? For when I saw a young girl with the seeds of power within her take flight from the massacre, I knew there was hope. I could see a way back.”
“But what can we do against something so monstrous?” asked Gia.
Master Izar looked to them in turn. “Little Star, you will be the one who lights the way, and leads us out of the long black night. And your friend. This ‘Rodrigo’… he has strengths and talent that not even he knows.”
“I do?” said Rodrigo, through a mouthful of roast chicken.
The master looked to Brehon, “You, my boy, have the courage of legend coursing through your veins. Wodan would be so proud he would split his seams if he could see you now.”
Brehon’s jaw dropped. Izar turned to face Tala. “Young ranger, you feel this world flowing through you, and your hunt is only just beginning. You will guide these companions of yours to their destiny, as you have been guided to yours. By a friend.”
“I’d say she fits the bill quite nicely!” came an unmistakable voice from the center of the observatory. Tala shot to her feet and dashed to the door to see the silhouette of the bard relaxing against the apparatus of the telescope.
Tala couldn’t contain her wonder. “Brinco, what are you doing here? How did you get here ahead of us? Why didn’t you just come with us?”
“I have my ways, Ravenwood, and you have yours. I’ll trust you to know which is which,” said Brinco, and he began to pluck a tune on his balatier as he ambled off to another room on the other side of the observatory.
“And what about me?” said Zerkanti impatiently to Izar. “I come to you seeking…”
Izar held his finger to his lips and winked at the dark elf. From his sleeve, he produced an ebony box with the image of a hand holding up two fingers inset into the top. Zerkanti eagerly grabbed the box and stole it away from view.
Master Izar looked up to address the group, now all on their feet. “Make your way to Sira Zelaad. Those people know what it is to fight to be free. Show those people what it’s like to be free again.”
Sira Zelaad, the great city on the edge of the wastes. The city that resisted siege after siege, and was only conquered from within when the Empty One seized the crown. The far, far city of Sira Zelaad, on the edge of the world, was where they were being drawn.
“Yes, yes,” sighed Izar, “but I am an old man and I tire easily, so I will take my leave of you now. Please feel free to make yourselves comfortable. I can already hear the bard mixing drinks in the canteen.”
The old master shuffled from the room and down a hallway, closing a door behind him. Zerkanti and Rodrigo joined Tala in the room on the far side of the great observatory. Brinco the Bard was indeed mixing drinks within.
“I just have a question that I forgot to ask you before,” he said to nobody in particular. “How did you do it? The dark hunter and her tin men, I mean.”
“A combination of Gia’s persuasion and us running away. We didn’t beat them, you know,” said Rodrigo.
“No, no, I mean how did you even survive? That was Dal Emreden, of The Seven. True, she was the least powerful of them, but you lot are nowhere near her league. And now that they know the Copper Princess is alive. Well. Now they’ll all be coming,” Brinco mused as he slid a cup of something delicious smelling and frothy to Rodrigo. “All of them.”