The Tyrant of Kepala
Book 1, Chapter 6 - The Children of Rebellion
They moved on a hidden path alongside the main road, far enough back to hide their movement in the dense treeline, only rejoining the road when forced to cross a bridge or when the underbrush became too dense. After a day’s walk on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of road they came across such a bridge, and their guide, Pic, became agitated and began to rapidly chatter to Tala.
“He says we near one of the ‘big camps of men’ and that he can go no further. I think he’s afraid of whatever’s ahead,” Tala said. Pic let out a whine of agreement. Echo tilted his head and raised an ear.
“It’s got to be Greybay by now,” said Rodrigo. “It’s the only town of any size near here.”
Another flood of chatter from Pic came as he urgently pulled at Tala’s tunic. She translated, “He says that he smells death on the wind, and that he cannot stay. He says he wants to go home.”
Pic ran to Gia’s feet, prostrated himself, and made a few deferential gestures. He then lifted his head, let out a faint whimper, and then ran off the way they had came. The slight framed lizardkin disappeared into the brush and vanished from view in the blink of an eye.
“Slippery little thing,” said Wallace. “What do you think he was on about?”
“I don’t know, but we’re definitely crossing into stranger lands. Look…” said Zerkanti. She motioned toward a sign post near the foot of the bridge that had upon it the familiar handbill that vilified Brehon and Rodrigo as bloody outlaws, offering rewards for their capture. This one, however, was different. Over the entirety of its face was stenciled in crude charcoal the double-pegasus sigil of the House of Corin. All of them stared at it in disbelief.
“Someone is out there on our side,” said Brehon, taking the handbill from Zerkanti, then passing it to Gia.
“That’s our house’s crest, all right. But what does this mean?” wondered Gia.
“It means that the plan to keep you hidden is rapidly going pear-shaped,” said Rodrigo. “We should’ve kept to the shadows and not joined up with a traveling circus that trumpets the words, ‘Come see the fugitive princess! Claim a great prize if you can abduct her alive!’ How do we ever go back to a normal life?”
“What’s a normal life? Changing my name twice a year and toiling in a tavern’s kitchen while we quake in fear of The Seven finding us one cold night? Running forever? Watching that bloody monster squeeze the life out of our land until we’re all dead?” Gia plaintively shot, tears welling in her eyes.
“Well, more like The Six now,” corrected Zerkanti, “and life in the shadows is not without its charms.”
“A life of ignominy is not life at all,” Wallace said. “It was the will of Severance that we found each other. It’s by her graces that we’ll see this land set to rights.”
“Again with your superstitions. Talk about a life in the dark. Why not just stand in a circle and pray for a dragon to rescue you,” Zerkanti snorted.
“Don’t taunt The Stormbringer, Zee. You never know if he’s listening,” said Tala.
Zerkanti raised an eyebrow at her kindred and let out a laugh. “I didn’t expect this from you, Ravenwood. Going to get fitted for a brown robe, are you?” she jabbed.
“Just because you have feet of clay doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t see the truth, scrad,” said Brehon, a giant smirk plastered across his face.
Before either of them could react, Wallace and Rodrigo had flanked Brehon and were holding his arms, and Tala had wrapped Zerkanti in a bear hug as soon as she wheeled around to lunge at Brehon’s goading face.
“You two will cease this ridiculous baiting, and come to order!” Gia shouted, her voice booming with an unnatural resonance. Everyone else stopped, dumbstruck by this display of force from the little princess. “We’ll never find peace if we fight each other. We need to stop fighting each other!”
“You’re right, Your Highness. I’m sorry,” said Brehon in a slightly saccharine tone as Wallace and Rodrigo loosened their grip on him. “I shall serve you faithfully.”
Tala’s grip on Zerkanti loosened and the dark elf turned her back on the rest of the party without a further word. She continued down the path in silence. The others followed in resignation. Tala ran ahead, her faithful Echo by her side, to join her.
“I’m sorry for that, but you cannot be so easily baited by that walking pile of meat, Zee,” Tala said in a hushed tone.
“You don’t know me, Tala. You don’t know what I’ve seen and what I’ve been through,” Zerkanti muttered through gritted teeth.
“Couldn’t I? You think I can’t see another woman who has had to make due for herself in a world that hates her because she’s different? You think that because you wound up far away from your own kind the world owes you something? Why do you think I went into the wilds and made every tree and furry creature my friend? Same reason you took safety in the shadows, Zee.”
Zerkanti met Tala’s inquisitive stare, “You never saw your father torn apart by an angry mob, shouting ‘Kill the dirty scrad’, did you?”
“No, Zerkanti. I never knew my parents at all,” Tala said.
Zerkanti broke her stare and looked off into the distance. “At least you have a version of the world that makes sense out here in the wild. At least fate didn’t leave you in the service of hateful men who would twist your work into being forced to kill good men for the profit of the bad.”
“Every corner of the world is savage in its own way, Zee. You just have to find the place in the savagery that makes the most sense to you,” said Tala. “You need to make a place where you belong. Show it the red in your tooth and claw if it doesn’t just roll over for you, but don’t sink your fangs into the ones who would defend your back.”
“Like that blockheaded buffoon back there sucking up to the Copper Princess?” Zerkanti said with a hint of a smile.
“Can you believe him?” Tala laughed. “I think he fancies himself some knight of legend that can slay monsters to live in fame forever.”
Both women shared a giggling laugh.
“And all of that strutting! I don’t think he’s figured yet that her heart belongs to the fancyman,” Zerkanti laughed hysterically.
Tala suddenly stopped laughing, “Wait, the princess and the fancyman? They are… they have… they are doing… But I thought you and the fancyman had some sort of thing, the way you two bicker with each other?”
Zerkanti also stopped laughing. “Oh, Tala Ravenwood. You may know every twig and scurrying creature from the Spur to Mera Rece, but you know nothing of love. The fancyman is an occasional work associate of necessity, nothing more. But look at how he protects the Copper Princess, and look how she comforts him when he gets a scratch or a bloody nose. Her heart is his, and his hers. Whether they admit it or not, they’re as intertwined as an Elderwood’s roots.”
“I told you I preferred the wilds. All of… that sort of thing just makes my head hurt.”
Zerkanti shrugged. “Even the birds have their mating dances.”
Tala reflected on this for a moment, then said, “Do you think the Copper Princess will be what they hope? Do you think that she’ll save us? Can she stand up against Kotu?”
“I don’t know. But it seems that god of bad jokes that the superstitious pinkskins continue to credit with our follies has a truly wicked sense of humor. Do you suppose that…”
Zerkanti was interrupted by Echo racing slightly forward to the top of a hill ahead of them. He turned back to the two women and whined cautiously.
“Echo sees something, best to get out of view,” Tala warned.
Zerkanti turned back and waved a signal to Rodrigo, who in turn silently waved a command to the remainder of the group. They hurried to the side of the road and crouched.
Huddled in a group together, Brehon held the handbill retrieved from the post that bore the Corin sigil as a defiant mark in charcoal. He looked at it carefully, and his lips moved slightly. “Commander Wallace. This sign here. Is this supposed to be us? I recognize my name on it, but this is not me in the likeness.”
Wallace, Gia, and Rodrigo looked at Brehon in puzzlement for a moment. Then it dawned upon Rodrigo. “Yes, mighty Brehon, that is your name, and mine, on that bill there. Methinks that the artist, whomever it may have been that made this likeness, had not but the descriptions of the vanquished and the freed men to go off of. Would you like me to read the rest to you?”
“I can read it as good as you, fancyman!” snapped Brehon. “I was merely wondering to the commander why we were made to look like such ferocious beasts.”
“They want the people afraid of us, Brehon. They wouldn’t be afraid of a kindly face like yours, so they made you into a bloody monster for mothers to quake over in the night,” said Gia, grinning.
“What does ‘indecent exposure’ mean, Your Highness?” asked Brehon earnestly.
“Well, you see, in certain sectors of polite society…” Wallace began. The old soldier was interrupted by the two elven women and the wolf returning to their position in a rush.
“You all need to see this,” said Tala, motioning to the top of the hill before them.
They moved as one on cautious steps to the top of the hill. As they all in turn saw the sight that Tala had reported on, they fell silent. Gia was the last to see it, and when she did, gasped in shock. Beyond the hilltop, in a line beside the road, three high gibbets stood, and from them by their feet hung three naked bodies on thick ropes. As the band of ragged adventurers drew closer, they saw the unmistakable skull and bolt of the Mark of Kotu carved into their flesh, emblazoned in a red mockery of a breastplate.
“Take them down,” commanded Gia, gravely. Wallace and Brehon obeyed, and set about cutting down the bodies.
“Looks to me that the Tyrant doesn’t take well to whatever it was they were up to,” Rodrigo said.
“I have a fair idea what they were up to,” said Zerkanti. She pointed to a sign on burned wood atop the center pole.
“What does it say? I can’t see,” said Gia.
Zerkanti turned to the red-haired princess with a resigned look. “It says, ‘This is what happens to rebels’.”
They entered the town of Greybay with little fanfare, approaching from the western road. They slouched like road-weary pilgrims in a staggered line, trying to attract as little attention as possible. Seeking shelter and warmth for a change, they headed toward the center of town, where they hoped to find the refuge of an inn or a boarding house.
As they neared their destination, the population on the road began to thicken, and curiously, all were moving in a common direction away from the town’s center. The steady stream of villagers appeared to diverge off the main road onto a fork that split away from the town’s center. In the distance, they heard the indistinct words of a man’s voice, loudly delivering what sounded like an animated speech.
Tala motioned to the group and they gathered in a loose bunch on the side of the road. The townsfolk continued to walk past, paying them little attention. “Well, I, for one, am curious,” said Rodrigo, breaking the silence.
“Probably best to hide in plain sight as we go,” said Wallace. “We show up at that inn alone and it’s bound to draw attention.”
“As you like it, then. Let’s see what the fuss is about. Zee, Tala, scout ahead and keep your heads down,” said Gia.
Tala and Zerkanti shared a look, and in unison grinned as they made slightly exaggerated bowing gestures. They turned away from the group and fell in with the direction of the crowd. A moment later the others followed suit, ambling along with the foot traffic of the crowd.
The distant words being shouted started to become more distinct as the two elven women returned to the group. “Looks to be some sort of preaching going on up ahead. He has the attention of the crowd, whoever he is,” said Zerkanti.
“You there!” Brehon barked at a plain-looking man walking past. “Who is speaking up there?”
“That’s old Morgant Hill up there!” said the man. “He’s been in town for days talking up some mad chatter about the fall of The Empty One and the Corins still being alive. It’s the most excitement we’ve had in months.”
The man walked on, and the group returned to a huddle. Gia regarded them all one by one. “We’re going to see what he’s saying,” she said.
“Highness, I don’t think it’s best if we…” Wallace began in a low tone.
“Sir Wallace Tilian, when I asked you for your fealty I did not also ask you to second guess every decision I make. Now turn yourself around and go forward. I should like to hear the words of this Morgant Hill,” Gia said in a clipped and firm tone, her eyes icy and serene.
Wallace nodded sharply and turned about-face, moving purposefully through the crowd. The others followed in his wake. In the distance, the words of the speaking man became clear.
“…and it was by the grace of Rha’hema herself that she was spared his merciless slaughter on the night of the Hunter’s Moon! The goddess sent a divine messenger to spirit her away from the danger at the palace on a winged horse, and the messenger cast a spell on her, making her invisible for ten years! For ten years she traveled around Kepala, and her tears fell upon the ground and gave life to the earth, and she became an instrument of Severance’s will!“ Morgant Hill said in a loud and commanding voice from a small platform at the head of the fairground where the town’s people were gathering.
“He certainly is pious,” Zerkanti snorted.
Brehon looked to Rodrigo. “So now you’re a magical divine messenger, are you?” he whispered with a hint of spite.
“Watch yourself, good sir. You never know,” Rodrigo grinned back.
Morgant continued, “And you may say, ‘oh, old Morgant has gone mad again,’ but I tell you, NO! No, my friends! I have been informed in visions, in prescient dreams that the Copper Princess, Gia Corin, lives!”
The old man held up one of the old dynasty’s coppers that bore the face of Gia Corin. A slight murmur rippled through the crowd. “Her father’s treasurer should have thought this through,” said Brehon to Wallace, who immediately shushed him. Gia sank back even further into her cloak.
Old Morgant’s speech reached a new level of excitement. “She lives! She lives and she comes to reclaim the seat of her father! She will bring the light back to this land! The black sun of the Tyrant shall be banished forever and we will be free again, my friends! You will see! I know that she has gathered about her six vigilant protectors who wear the magical armor of Arkon and bare their teeth at the Hollow Men. For to them, they are not the invulnerable sentries of doom that we fear! No! They laugh at them and knock them to the ground as easily as you would knock over a bully’s beer cup after too many drinks!”
A laugh came from the crowd, but it was suddenly cut short. “Now what?” asked Gia of her taller companions.
Brehon could easily see over the heads of most of the crowd, and turned back to report. “Your Great Voluptitude, it appears the soldiers of the Imperator have made an appearance.”
“He’s right,” Wallace agreed, “I count three, no, four regulars and two of the big shiny smashers.”
“Hollow Men,” Tala said, her hand coming to rest on her quiver. “We may be in for more than we bargained for.”
“All they’re doing is standing there,” said Brehon.
“Yes. For now,” said Rodrigo.
Morgant’s voice was rising as the regular troops began to approach the platform. The old man paid them no heed. “Even now they travel through the land, breaking the chains of the slaves that have been taken from their homes and sold into the evil hands of the slavers! They will not rest, I tell you! They will not rest until the slavers are cowering at the feet of those they held in bondage, and the whip will be upon them!”
A cheer came from a portion of the crowd, and the tall imposing forms of the Hollow Men rose between old Morgant and the crowd. “That, my friends, is why we must resist! We must resist, and show the Copper Princess that hope is with her! That we can see through the lies of The Empty One and we know that he is afraid of her! And we will see our good family restored!” the old preacher exclaimed. He pulled one of the handbills bearing the exaggerated visages of Brehon and Rodrigo from his cloak. It was similarly besmirched with the charcoal double-pegasus. A gasp came from the crowd.
Morgant Hill was now shouting, “We shall display with pride the flag of our beloved family and give the cold platinum of the damned back to Kotu until he chokes on the….”
The old preacher was interrupted as the Imperial soldiers reached the platform and seized him. One bound Morgant’s wrists, while another threw a sack over his head. The crowd began to wail and boo as the old man was hauled away.
Brehon’s hand went to his sword’s pommel, but Wallace placed a hand over his. “No, son. No fighting now.”
“Yes, sir,” Brehon said quietly, relaxing his hand.
“He’s right. We can’t fight them with all these people here. At best they’ll get in the way, and at worst, they’ll be slaughtered,” reasoned Rodrigo. “We’d do best to wait this out. See where they take him.”
“Why do you want to do that?” Zerkanti asked.
“So I can get him to shut up!” Rodrigo said, his eyes widening. “He’s waving a very conspicuous flag and giving us away. Hear you nothing that I say, my dear dark lady?”
“Like it or not, we’re now in the business of protecting the weak, fancyman,” said Gia, a sparkle in her eye. “If we don’t defend those who can’t defend themselves, what good are we?”
“Good enough to stay alive,” Wallace said.
“Just living isn’t good enough, Sir Tilian.” Gia said again with an air of seriousness. “We must have something to live for.”
“Right. I do believe I can be of assistance. Make yourselves inconspicuous, my friends. You too, Brehon,” Tala said. “Off we go, Echo.”
The sylvan elf and her lupine companion turned and made a quick course to the exterior of the crowd, vanishing into the treeline. The band of adventurers shared a moment of awkward silence, and then began to loosely mill with the dispersing crowd. The Hollow Men were herding the crowd away, back toward the direction of the town. Wallace led the way, falling into the crowd, and the others followed, keeping their heads ducked and their cloaks up.
From the treeline by the roadside came a whistle. Tala beckoned them from the cover of the shadows. Zerkanti broke from the crowd to join her, and the others soon followed.
“They’re taking him to some sort of camp on the outskirts. It’s looks well guarded. Heavy weapons,” Tala whispered.
“Then we shall bring our stiffest resolve,” said Brehon, earnestly raising his chin.
“Let’s see if we can use our wits before that resolve winds up leaking out of us all over the ground, hm?” said Zerkanti.
Silently, they followed Tala away from the fairground and into the woods toward the edge of town.
In the cold light of the greater moon, Echo came bounding back through the underbrush and fixed Tala with a serious eye. “We can approach, but keep in cover,” Tala said. Echo turned to retrace his steps, and Tala followed. After her, the others followed as well.
They skulked through the trees in darkness beside the main road until until they came to a small bluff overlooking a clearing. They took cover at the treeline and peered over the edge. At first, they saw a semicircle of stone fortifications, with several campfires scattered around the clearing at the foot of each.
“They have a garrison out here, away from the town? Who builds an unfinished castle here?” wondered Wallace aloud.
“Keep your voice down! And it’s not a garrison. Look closer,” Tala said, pointing to the base of the nearest structure.
As Wallace strained his eyes in the dim light, he saw it. The stone fortifications were sitting atop large stone wheels. “Are these… do they move?”
“The Zelaadi Juggernauts,” said Zerkanti, sharing a knowing look with Rodrigo. “I’ve heard of these, but I’ve never seen one in person. The free traders of Sira Zelaad use them to transport valuable cargo. They’re supposed to be invincible on the open roads.”
“War machines?” Gia asked.
“Not so much war machines as shelters that get you from place to place,” said Rodrigo. “I’ve seen them on the open road exactly twice. They move quick. Just fast as you like, over the roads or open fields or whatever else they see fit to cross. You get one of these big bastards moving at a clip, there’s nothing short of a Titan that could stand in its way.”
“But what are they doing here?” wondered Brehon.
“Juggernauts mean cargo. Cargo that Old Ash doesn’t want fooled with,” said Rodrigo.
“I’ve never known the Zelaadi to get so cozy with the Tyrant’s brutes like this. Those are military camps down there. Look at how they’re laid out,” Zerkanti observed.
“You’re right,” Wallace confirmed.
“That old man must be down there, yes?” said Gia.
“Yes,” said Wallace. “They’re most likely taking him away to be killed. Not before they torture him for whatever they can get out of him about us, though.”
“But what could he know about us? He’s just a crazy old man who likes to put on a big loud-mouthed show,” said Brehon.
Rodrigo was pensive. “You saw the Corin sigil all over those handbills. He had one. For all we know he’s the one putting the mark of old Jory on all of Kotu’s paper. Any rate, I’d rather we ask him a few nice questions over a friendly drink than have him go screaming to his death about where we are and what we’re doing. I, for one, want to find out who’s out there spreading the good word.”
“Fancyman has a point,” said Tala. “He’s going to give us away if they get a chance to work him over.”
“Right. Pinkskins follow us, and keep it quiet. Time for a closer look,” Zerkanti said. Without a further word, she and Tala turned and descended into the clearing, graceful and soundless as cats stalking prey. At a distance, the others followed, moving slowly and deliberately to keep quiet in the night.
Wordlessly, Tala pointed at fresh tracks in the mud before the third Juggernaut in the circle of five. The tracks betrayed two men dragging a third. They nodded to each other, this is the one. Like fog rolling in, the two elves made their way toward the third towering stone vehicle, keeping to the edge of the clearing. On the far side of the Juggernaut, the interior of the semicircle was lit by a distinct campfire for each vehicle, and each vehicle was separated by fifty yards of distance. Two imposing Hollow Men stood at the edges of the closest camp, and two sentries sat by the campfire. As they drew closer, they eavesdropped on the guards’ conversation outside the forty-foot-tall mammoth.
“I don’t know that I like this,” said the first.
“What does anyone care what you like?” said the second.
“We were told that this would be just a regular post looking after a convoy, and sure, these beasts are hard to argue with for keeping safe, but I’m not sure about the cargo.”
“What do you care? Are any of them yours?”
“No. I mean, not that I know of. But don’t it make you feel funny? Like this ain’t altogether right, you see what I mean?”
“Look,” said the second, more quietly, “it’s not up to us. We didn’t cause this, and we didn’t round the little bastards up either. We’re just here to keep ‘em safe. Think of it like that.”
“Safe for now, but then what?” said the first.
A set of footsteps was heard descending the wooden ramp that led to the high doorway in the side of the Juggernaut. “Enough with the squawking, you two,” said the voice of the third. “The Captain is up there having it out with the crew and he won’t want to see you slack when he’s done.”
The third returned up the ramp to the interior of the towering behemoth.
At the treeline, the others joined Tala and Zerkanti. Zerkanti made silent hand gestures to indicate the disposition of their foes to Rodrigo. Two inside. Two on the ground. Two Hollow Men standing watch.
A moment later, from out of the black of night stepped a dark figure: a woman cut from the same horrifying cloth as Dal Emreden, covered in ornate armor with two twisted swords strapped to her back. As she entered the light of the campfire, the midnight blue skin of her face became clear. She was drow. Zerkanti cringed at seeing the first of her own kind in years, and not living free, but in service to the Tyrant.
As the woman approached, the two sentries scrambled to their feet and snapped to attention. The dark woman fixed her gaze on them and spoke. “See to it that he is restrained and subdued, but unharmed. He has an appointment with The Breakers, and I will not see him spoiled before they can have their way with him.”
“Yes, Dal Askatzea!” said the first of the sentries. Both men saluted. Without any further acknowledgment of them, she turned and stalked off into the night, toward the next campfire.
The Seven, Brehon mouthed to Zerkanti. Zerkanti held up seven fingers to answer him, but then took one away. The Six. She smirked.
“Quick and quiet, nobody hears, especially that bitch. Watch for me,” Zerkanti hissed to Tala, motioning to the twin Hollow Men at the edge. Tala nodded once in agreement and plucked two of her silvered arrows from her quiver. They sent a calming cool wave through Tala’s hands and up her arms, as though rewarding their wielder for their impending use. She nocked both, and drew.
“Wait, let me,” said Gia quietly, but with a hint of excitement. The tingling of her energy coursed through her hands and toward the soldiers, and they gently lowered to the ground, drifting into a calm torpor. Then the surge of magic reached beyond Gia’s limits, and she gasped as she felt herself losing control. Rodrigo put an arm around Gia to steady her, and pulled her to the rear of their ranks.
Zerkanti slithered into the campsite, and darkness came with her. She rose silently behind the two soldiers who were now lost in the entrancement of the firelight. She struck like a viper, first snapping the neck of one, then a split second later, the other. They collapsed onto the hard, cold ground, clutching at their throats as the breath of life left them. The Hollow Men stirred, but before they could react, two snaps in rapid fire rang out as Tala’s arrows found their mark. The pop and hiss of the armored sentries signaled their demise, and then the cacophonous clattering of them falling in pieces to the ground brought a hush to the ambient noise of the night.
From inside the looming Juggernaut, the indistinct shouting of an irate human officer was heard. Rodrigo nodded to Brehon, pointing to the ramp. The two men ascended, followed by Wallace.
A confused-looking man in an Imperial captain’s uniform appeared and regarded the three men on the ramp of his craft, followed by another subordinate soldier. “What is… who are you?”
Rodrigo spoke first. “Good sir, I am an accountant, and I am here to balance your books.” Then Rodrigo was on him, going for the captain’s throat. Brehon and Wallace quickly rushed and overpowered the other, knocking him out. Rodrigo quickly throttled the captain into unconsciousness, then returned to his compatriots.
“That’s all of them, I think. Relieve them of their uniforms, and we’ll see if we can put our drama skills to use,” Rodrigo said with a smirk to the group. “Get them to the rear of the camp.”
The Imperial uniforms were removed from the incapacitated sentries, and Gia, Zerkanti, and Tala donned them, concealing their faces behind the shrouds of their helmets. Rodrigo took the captain’s uniform, the dashing look of its sash and canted parade cap suiting his demeanor.
“What about those?” Gia asked, pointing a thumb at the piles of armor that were once the two Hollow Men.
“I’ve got an idea,” said Brehon. He moved to one of the disassembled sets of armor and began to don it. Surprisingly, it fitted to him with ease, bonding to him almost as though it wanted to cling to him. “Wallace! It works! It’s working!”
Wallace moved to the other pile of armor and began to fit it to himself, and similarly he settled into it with ease. The two men exchanged a look of satisfaction. “It feels… very good. Powerful!” said Wallace, pulling the visor over his face. Brehon nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
“Right, you two. Look, the others are packing it in for the night. Time to play along and see if we can get this old man freed,” said Rodrigo. Around them to either side, the other camps seemed to be breaking and folding up into their respective vehicles.
The sextet entered the Juggernaut through the ramp, naturally falling into a marching order based on the ranks they had assumed: Rodrigo in front, Wallace and Brehon bringing up the rear in their imposing suits of armor. The interior of the massive machine was larger than a well-appointed house, and every bit of it was built of sturdy wood and stone, hardened for war.
They ascended a short set of steps and saw a figure sitting at a lone seat, facing away from them. The glow of a pipe being lit betrayed the extremely small size of his frame. Without turning, the figure spoke in a creaky, yet bemused voice. “You can take their wardrobes on, but you’re not fooling anyone with those outfits, you know. I hope you weren’t planning on hijacking me.”
The chair whirled and its tiny occupant revealed himself. “Overpowering the Kotu stooges and putting on their clothes, then walking uninvited onto my rig. Yes, it does look like you’re up for trouble. Are you up for trouble?”
Rodrigo was taken aback for a moment by the wizened gnome before him. “Er, we are the relief crew, and we shall be…”
“Oh, spare me the chicanery,” said the gnome, waving a hand dismissively. “Besides, you’re not going anywhere in this rig if I don’t want you to. I’m bonded to deliver this cargo so I have to, no debating about it. So you’re trying to smuggle the Corin girl, are you?”
“He’s onto us!” Brehon said, reaching for the massive blade of the Hollow Man armor.
“Brehon, don’t!” Gia said, putting a calming hand on his shoulder. She removed her helmet and stepped forward. “Who are you, and what’s your cargo, sir?”
“Hmph. My name is Hieronymus Pettibone Makinista Bonaldo Catgut Kratakask. And my cargo is a heavy brow and a fat coinpurse, methinks.” He shook his head.
“I don’t like him. He’s too small,” Wallace barked from inside his helmet.
“And you’re too loud, you dullard!” Hieronymus shot back, regarding him with a jaundiced eye. “You’re too short and far too mouthy to make anyone believe you’re one of the smashers. Amateur!”
Wallace took an aggressive step toward the ornately dressed gnome, but Gia held up a hand and stilled the old veteran.
“Please, good sir. Your cargo. What is it, and where?” she said.
“Below.” He motioned to a companionway leading to a lower deck.
Rodrigo followed the stairs down and saw a slotted door in the deck beneath him. He grabbed the handle and slid it back, and immediately gasped at the sight. Below him in the hold, surrounded by an iron cage was the revelator Morgant Hill, a dozen young children dressed in rags huddled around him. They all gazed back at him silently.
Rodrigo quickly ascended back to the command deck with fire in his eyes. “You have children down there! Children! Is this a slaver caravan?”
“No,” said the gnome. “They’re being transported to the capital because of their ‘special abilities’.”
“What sort of abilities?” asked Gia.
“Your sort, I’d imagine,” the gnome sighed. He snapped his fingers, and the fleeting glamour of a spark danced away from his palm.
“We need to free them. Give me the key!” Gia demanded.
“There’s no freeing them. That miserable commander of theirs has it, the dark one. Even if you could get it away from her I doubt you could open it. Spooky powers all over!” Hieronymous mused, making wild gestures with his stubby arms. “You’re better off biding your time anyway. I’m not going to have you making trouble for me here, so you may as well eat. Gazkar! Bring the grub!”
“Right!” said a similarly diminutive voice from another part of the craft. A moment later, another gnome, similarly ornately appointed but darker in hue appeared, lugging a kettle of savory-smelling stew.
The gnome deposited the pot in the center of the deck before the gnomish pilot and regarded the band of disguised rogues. “So I supposed you killed the guards, eh? Fine. I want nothing to do with it. Goodbye!” The gnome called Gazkar quickly shuffled below decks again. Rodrigo followed him.
“Just tell us how to free them, please!” Rodrigo said, intercepting Gazkar on the way down.
“You’ll want to wait till there’s motion before you try making a break. If you want to make a break,” the dark gnome said. “We don’t give a beggar’s toss about the Tyrant’s military, but we don’t want to see a slaughter on our rig. Been enough killing for one day as it is. You know what’s good for you, you sit tight and keep your lips buttoned till the convoy’s on the move. Don’t start a war on our watch.”
From the other side of the hold, a pile of laundry erupted into the form of a third gnome, wildly flailing his arms, “Ah! I dreamed I was being eaten alive by five crocodiles!” The gnome cast his bleary gaze at the adventurers. “Who are you? Oh, so you killed the guards, eh?”
“Why don’t we look like guards?” Rodrigo said with exasperation.
“We can smell the difference,” said Hieronymus.
“You can?” Brehon asked incredulously.
“We’re gnomes!” all three of them said in unison.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Gazkar said, “allow me to introduce our illustrious weaponeer Brambutt Gartholomew Gerald Dezertirane. You may call him Brambutt.”
“You may call me Brambutt,” Brambutt repeated with an awkward flourish, waving away several of the rags in which he slumbered.
“And this is the aforementioned Gazkar Fack,” said Hieronymus.
Gazkar Fack nodded curtly. “I keep it rolling.”
“Brambutt, what kind of weapons is this Juggernaut equipped with?” asked Wallace.
Brambutt grinned and waved his fingers, a shower of electrical sparks dancing away from his hand. “Oh, my boy, this rig has no weapons… we are the weapons. You don’t think these things run on goodwill and firelogs, do you?”
The entire Juggernaut shuddered with a magical aura.
“The camp breaks at dawn. I suggest you stay in character,” said Gazkar.