The western road from the city of Centuria was often referred to as the "Slave Miner's Road" by the many travellers who frequently use it. This was due to its unsavory reputation in the past of being the road used by slave traders and their trains of chained slaves making their way to the mountain mining settlements to the west. It is said that the road itself was formed when the ground was worn down by hundreds of shuffling, shackled feet, and that travellers at night could sometimes hear the ghostly wails and clanks of chained feet of those who had perished upon the road. Fortunately, slavery had been deemed illegal since the reign of Sovereign Vallance I, and hence the only travellers on road these days were mainly traders of the non-humanoid-commodity sort.
Still, the road was busy enough for Tomas and Kievan to easily travel upon unnoticed. Despite his initial plan to leave for the mountains early the next morning, Tomas had spent half the day going around the city of Centuria to "pick up some supplies" as he told Kievan. One of the things that Tomas had purchased was a pack-mule; a mean-tempered, stubborn beast that Kievan had named "Trodder" after the mule had bad-temperedly tried to stomp on his foot as he led it out from its stables. Trodder was to be part of their guise as travelling peddlers, an easy tale to tell anyone whom they meet.
And so later that day, the two rogues and one surly mule set out from the city, blending in with the many travellers and traders leaving and coming into the city. They spent the rest of the day travelling on the road, barely speaking to each other. Kievan had gotten used to Tomas's silent nature, and occupied himself by obversing fellow travellers on the road, or by ensuring that he was a safe distance in front of Trodder which seemed determined to take a bite out from his rump.
The further they went from the city, the denser the tracts of forest became and when evening fell, Tomas led them a little ways off the road into a small clearing surrounded by a thicket of trees. A well-used fire pit in the middle of the clearing indicated that this was a commonly used camping ground for travellers. After securing Trodder to a sturdy-looking tree branch (and narrowly losing his fingers to a well-aimed chomp from the mule), Kievan went to join Tomas who had already started the fire.
"I think you overpaid for that hell-spawned creature," mentioned Kievan agitatedly as he approached the fire. "I swear, that thing is set on murdering us in our bedrolls."
Tomas poked at the fire with a stick. "Well, at least no one will find it easy stealing anything from that mule's pack," he said. "As for murdering us in our bedrolls, that would be unlikely since one of us will be on watch tonight."
"Expecting trouble, Tomas?"
"Most certainly," replied Tomas firmly. "Malvon isn't reknown for his capacity for forgiveness. I'd be surprised if he hasn't already sent out a group to find us."
They both settled down near to the fire and ate their newly acquired rations from Centuria. Kievan finished his and saw Tomas staring out into the darkness. "Who are the White Orchids, Tomas?" asked Kievan suddenly. "Back in Necroselleum, I've heard of the Crimson Hands and the Ardanian Avengers, but not the White Orchids."
"That's because the White Orchids operate in a different circle," replied Tomas. "They do not deal with petty commoners or rogues like the Crimson Hands do. The White Orchids generally deal with wizards. It is said that even the members themselves are wizards."
"A wizard rogue's guild?" exclaimed Kievan. "Why haven't they taken over the other guilds then? With magic backing them up, no one can stop them from being the top guild."
"They operate a little more discreetly than normal rogue guilds," answered Tomas. "Upfront takeover isn't the style of the Orchids. They prefer to manipulate things from the background. And who knows, perhaps ultimately, they do run the show after all. Anyway, the Orchids specialise in smuggling illegal spell ingredients for wizards."
"Like iperculiad/i?" asked Kievan.
"Yes, although that really is more of an intoxicant than a spell ingredient. iPerculiad/i is special in the way it only affects those with wizard's blood. Some wizards claim that it even increases their spell casting powers, at the cost of an addiction, of course. A few vials of iperculiad/i is worth more than an entire crate of dragon-eye elfweed. And extremely illegal; in some city states, smugglers of iperculiad/i are executed without trial."
"Why so? If it only affects wizards, why would it be more illegal than elfweed?" asked Kievan.
"Well, probably because drug-crazed, fireballing wizards are generally discouraged everywhere," replied Tomas sardonically.
Their conversation was cut short when Tomas held up a cautionary hand. There was a faint rustling sound of dead leaves and twigs. Something was moving out there.
Kievan immediately drew his own crossbow (a grey, ashwood weapon that Tomas had picked out for him in Centuria) and silently loaded it. Tomas was already on his feet with his black crossbow at ready, his eyes trained in the direction of the noise. Gesturing at Kievan, they both backed away from the fire into the dim shadows of the surrounding trees.
The noise grew louder. Whatever it was, Kievan could hear that it was stumbling through the undergrowth towards their fire. Their crossbows were aimed at the intruder as it staggered out of the darkness and into the firelight.
It was a young man, his face and garb bloodied and torn. "Thank.. the gods," he managed to croak when he spotted Tomas and Kievan before falling down unconscious in front of the fire.
A sharp pain lanced through Kievan's arm, making him jump away swearing. He had backed into the reach of Trodder, the surly mule now contentedly chewing on a piece torn from his sleeve. Tomas moved cautiously towards the prone figure on the ground. He could see that the young man was still breathing, and bent to check his wounds.
"Ranger," Tomas stated looking at the man's garb. He turned the young ranger's face with his hand. "Arrow wound. Grazed him on his forehead."
"What's he holding?" asked Kievan, still nursing his arm. The ranger's unconcious hands were firmly gripped on a bundle of rags with broken straps that looked like they were to be slung over one's back. Prying loose the bundle from the ranger's senseless fingers, Tomas cautiously opened the rags.
There was nothing in it.
"Where is that dratted girl?" hissed Paulyn agitatedly to Lydith. The two Acolytes were standing in a dark, secluded alcove near the main Sanctuary. The night bell had sounded long ago and all Initiates and Acolytes were expected to be in their respective rooms. Lydith shuddered to imagine the consequences if they were caught for being out-of-bounds. They had already narrowly avoided two priestesses who were making the rounds that night. "If she does not turn up soon, we're going without her," declared the older Acolyte.
"She'll be here," said Lydith firmly as she cautiously looked down the dim hallway next to the alcove. "And we're not going anywhere without her."
Paulyn was about to make another hissing remark when the sounds of light footsteps headed their way. Karyn entered the alcove looking a little flustered. "Sorry, I'm late," she said. "Judith took a little longer than usual to settle down tonight. I wanted to be absolutely sure that she was asleep before I left the room. The last thing we need is word of our visit to the vaults proclaimed to half the Temple tomorrow."
Lydith heard Paulyn grunt impatiently. "Well, let's go then," she said, picking up two unlit lanterns and handing one to Karyn.
The three of them proceeded through the hallway and down the steps that led them to the entrance to the Vaults. Even in the dimness, Lydith could see the large bronze door of the Vault entrance gleam as if by its own light. Reaching the door first, Paulyn brought up the bronze key and inserted it into the key-hole in the middle of the door. Lydith took a moment to observe the carvings on the great door; they depicted the avatar of Krypta during her magical slumber that had lasted for almost five years. Surrounding the avatar were small carvings of imps and grave sprites, no doubt the artist's depiction of how even in her slumber, the presense of Krypta drew the creatures of the netherworld to her.
"What's taking so long?" asked Karyn suddenly to Paulyn who was still trying to open the door.
"It's stuck," said Paulyn, jiggling the key in its key-hole. "It won't turn."
"Here let me try," said Karyn, reaching out to the key. Paulyn appeared to be correct; the key was immobile within its key-hole. "Oh, that's just brilliant," she said exasperatedly, giving up. "We manage to get the key of the Vaults, and then we can't even turn it to unlock the door. A fine bunch of vault breakers we are."
"Maybe it's wedged into something," said Lydith as she lifted her hand and lightly touched the key. There was an audible click as the door unlocked.
The other two girls stared at Lydith. "How did you do that?" demanded Paulyn.
"Do what?" asked Lydith uneasily. She pulled out the key and stared at it. It looked no different than before. She then gave the door an experimental push and it swung open inwards slowly. Taking a deep breath, Lydith took a step forward through the entryway of the Vaults. Silently, the other two girls followed along behind her.
It was much darker in the Vaults, and once they were some ways down the short corridor beyond the entryway, Paulyn lit her lantern to give them some light. They arrived in the first Ante-chamber without incident.
"I'm going to find my ring," stated Karyn while lighting her lantern. She and Lydith headed towards the chamber they had been previously assigned to clean. They turned when they realised that Paulyn had not followed them.
"You go and find that precious ring of yours," sniffed Paulyn, holding her lantern up. "I'm going to see what's down in the second Ante-chamber." Without even waiting for an answer from them, the Acolyte headed towards the dark corridor leading to the second Ante-chamber.
Lydith and Karyn stared at her and then each other. "Once I find my ring, I'm getting out of here," said Karyn, to which Lydith whole-heartedly agreed. They entered the chamber and proceeded to search around. Despite her best intentions of helping Karyn to find her ring, Lydith could not help but be drawn towards the stack of prayer mats where they had found that mysterious lead cylinder. Lifting up a couple of mats, she confronted the cylinder again and examined it carefully.
Paulyn was right, there were hinges at the top that cleverly blended into the engravings on the surface of the cylinder. Lydith searched for a latch and found none. She frowned, there had to be some way to make those hinges work. Her fingers touched the cylinder lightly and eventually found an odd circular symbol at the very center of the top of the cylinder. Pressing it down, Lydith felt a slight depression and a jagged line cracked open. Her fingers carefully opened the top of the lead cylindrical container. Inside, the cylinder was filled almost to the brim with a murky liquid. There seemed to be something immersed in it. Lydith drew an intake of breath as she made out what it was.
It was a severed head. Without warning, it opened its eyes and screeched in her mind. iAaaaa! What did thy servant do deserve this, o King? How long must thy servant Darmanthas endure thy wrath/i The gruesome visage suddenly focused its eyes on Lydith. iA living girl? What brings thee here, child? The soulless ones are coming! Flee before they consume thee/i And with one final anguished wail, the lid of the cylinder snapped itself closed, the engravings on the lead surface squirming furiously like feasting maggots as the container sealed itself once more.
"I found it!" exclaimed Karyn from behind her, snapping Lydith out of her shock. Lydith turned to see the spectacled girl holding her ring up truimphantly in her lantern light. "I knew I left it in here! It was-"
"We've got to get out of here," Lydith cut-in, her voice shakily revealing her feelings. "Right now."
Sensing the urgency of Lydith's tone, Karyn did not ask any questions as they hurried out into the Ante-chamber.
"Lydith! Karyn! Look what I found!" called Paulyn excitedly. The Acolyte was heading towards them from out of the dark corridor that led to the second Ante-chamber, both her hands up as she carefully held her discovery. It was the most grotesque crown the two girls had ever seen; its circular band formed by two gold rib cages that met a tiny golden skull in the front. Rubies gleamed in the eyes sockets of the skull, glinting evilly in the lantern light.
Lydith heard them before she saw them. Whispering sibilantly as they glided slowly across the Ante-chamber floor, pale, ghostly figures followed the smirking Acolyte out from the dark corridor, their grasping hands reaching out towards the girl's turned back. "iStop/i" Lydith cried desperately at the floating apparitions, both with her voice and mind.
The pale figures halted, their forms wavering as Paulyn glanced puzzledly behind her. Apparently seeing nothing despite the closest figure barely three yards from her, the girl faced Lydith apprehensively. "What do you mean 'Stop'?" she demanded.
Lydith ignored her question and spoke to the apparitions with her mind. iWhat do you want/i
The figures shimmered. iFeeed.../i they crooned. iThriiist.../i They slowly crept forward. iBlooood.../i
"I said, what do you mean by-" repeated Paulyn angrily just as Lydith grabbed her by the front of her robe and dragged her forward. The golden crown fell from the surprised Acolyte's hands and clattered on the floor.
"We have to leave!" ordered Lydith to the startled Acolyte. "Now!" Without waiting for a response, Lydith pulled Paulyn along with her as they all ran down the short corridor that led to the Vault door. She held the door open as Karyn yanked Paulyn out with her. Lydith caught a brief glimpse of ghostly long fingers reaching out towards her as she pulled the great bronze door shut. With the resounding clang of the metal door, the terrible whisperings in her mind abruptly ceased.
The camp for the Daurosian contingent was large and organised. Canvas tents pitched in perfectly straight "streets" spread out in four precise directions from the central command tent; it was as if the ground had levelled itself to comply to the uniformity of the Daurosian camp. Over two hundred paladins and monks had been expended by the city of Dauros to meet the goblin threat, a sizable force that fully demonstrated the military might of the church of Dauros. Megan walked down one of those "streets", a wooden bucket filled with water in one hand as she made her way to the tent of her paladin mentor. After two years of recruit training, Megan and many others from her training camp had been selected to become squires to certain paladins who would act as their mentors for the following years. Becoming a paladin's squire was the first definite step towards achieving paladin hood, and Megan knew without a shadow of doubt that that was what she was meant to be.
Ever since she was growing up in Thistlewood, Megan knew that her destiny was much bigger than it seemed. The energetic youngest third daughter of the owner of the town's most popular tavern, Megan had watched her older brothers and sisters devote themselves to the running of the tavern under the jurisdiction of their father and mother. Her eldest brother eventually left Thistlewood to open a tavern of his own in Deepen Dale, while her older sisters remained at the tavern serving its patrons until they got married to other honest, hard-working townsfolk.
Megan knew that her parents were concerned over how very different their third daughter was compared to their other children. She had lost count of the number of times her father or one of her older siblings had given her a reprimanding knock on the back of her head as she gazed wistfully out of the tavern windows, neglecting her ale-serving duties. Or scolded her for letting the stew boil over because she was too pre-occupied staring into the fire. Megan's day dreams were always filled with the same things; of going off into exciting adventures for the Sovereign, or banding up with other interesting adventurers to hunt down an elusive monster that was terrorising the local folk. It did not help that the tavern, being popular, had frequent travellers stopping by, many bearing wonderful tales of legendary heroes who served the Sovereign. Unsurprisingly, Megan's free hours were spent re-enacting out those heroic deeds while using a stolen ladle as a sword.
Megan's constant companion those days was her best friend Lydith. Lydith was a year or two younger than Megan, but proved very intuitive for her age. Together, they had scoured the whole of Thistlewood looking for quests, like defending the pig-sty against imaginary trolls, or searching out some lost artefact for the Sovereign. Most of the time, these quests of theirs ended with one of Megan's older siblings yelling at them to return some of their gear to the kitchen, like pots serving as helmets, or an ale jug posing as the legendary Chalice of Lunord.
Megan's whole world changed one day when a group of monks arrived at the tavern to sample its famous ale. Megan had heard of monks before, and had learnt some of their hand signs from another patron. So she promptly signed at one of them what she thought was the gesture for "Good evening." The monk blinked at her, amused surprise registering in his face, and he surprised her back by saying in his own voice, "I do not think that a young girl like you should be using signs like that, let alone know what it means!" Megan's bewildered expression must have been very comical because the whole group of monks had dissolved into amused laughter as the monk related to them what she had signed to him.
"You can talk?" she said after a while, a little put off that her unofficial signing instructor had so evilly deceived her.
"Of course I can," smiled the monk good-naturedly.
"But I thought monks of Dauros took a vow of silence," said Megan.
The monk nodded. "Yes, that is partly true. The monks you refer to belong to the Order of Justice, the branch of monks devoted to the martial arts. They are quite re-known all over Ardania and because they do the most travelling compared to the other Daurosian monks, they have the greatest exposure. There are many Orders in the Church of Dauros, young one. We belong to the Order of Truth; more specifically, the Chapter of the Quill. We devote ourselves to writing down events, particularly those involving the Church. Historians, for a better term of what we are."
"I didn't know," confessed Megan unnecessarily. The rest of that night, the monks insisted that Megan wait on their table exclusively (much to the chagrin of her father who was certain that Megan would do something that would ensure the future absense of monks from his establishment) and they kindly taught her the appropriate hand signs for greeting a monk. By the end of the night, Megan had never worked so hard at serving her new friends at their table, and had never felt so happy at their praising remarks over how fast she learnt the silent alphabet. She left them still drinking and soberly discussing at their table (for all her time she spent with monks after that, she had never ever seen any achieve a state of slovenly drunkenness no matter how much they drank) and retired to her bed, completely exhausted.
The next day, her mother woke her up with a concerned expression on her face. "Your father and I want to speak to you," she told a tousle-haired Megan as the girl slowly climbed out of her bed like a rickety old woman. Mornings were never the best time of the day for her. Washing her face, she went to confront her parents, wondering what crime had she committed this time. Instead, she found her father and mother asking her questions about how she felt about the monks the night before. One of them, the one who had spoken to her first, had requested permission from Megan's father if he could invite her to join them on their way to Basille, the city of Dauros. There, he would be honoured to enrol her into the Academy of Dauros. As a Daurosian recruit, she would receive a full education of writing, reading, mathematics as well as some martial training. Megan's parents would not even have to pay for her tutelage; the cost of it would be borne by the Church itself. And if she was found capable and willing, she would be enlisted as a paladin's squire, to be trained to eventually become a paladin. Would Megan be interested in such a thing?
Megan could not believe her ears. Convinced that this was a dream, she had pinched herself in her arm several times to assure herself that it was not. Worriedly, her parents mistook her initial silent response to mean that she must have thought that they wanted to send her away themselves, and profusely assured her that they meant no such thing. But Megan's mind was whirling with wonder, her heart jumping with joy as she felt her spirit yelling, "Yes!" over and over again.
After that, everything was a blurred mix of excitement and sadness for Megan; excitement over her opportunity to become a paladin, and sadness because it meant leaving Thistlewood, her family and especially her best friend Lydith. She vowed to herself that when Lydith was a little older, she would convince her instructors to visit her home-town during one of their recruitment runs and then she would put Lydith forward as a potential recruit. With that in mind, she left Thistlewood with the historian monks and travelled to the awe-inspiring Daurosian city of Basille.
Like most of her plans, things had not gone as she had anticipated. She did eventually go back to Thistlewood with one of her instructors (a kindly Father Duncan), and she did try to put Lydith forward as a potential candidate for recruitment. However, because Lydith's mother had been a priestess (a piece of information gleefully supplied to Father Duncan by a devious long-time enemy of theirs named Sharielle), Lydith was not acceptable, and instead, Megan's group left Thistlewood with Sharielle as a new recruit. Bitterly disappointed and fumingly furious, Megan refused to even speak to Sharielle after that, which she later found out was perfectly acceptable for Sharielle as she spent her time cooing at a flattered Father Duncan.
When they had returned to Basille, Megan made it a point to make Sharielle pay for foiling her carefully laid plans. Being her senior, Megan could order Sharielle to perform certain chores. After several weeks, everyone else began to wonder over why privy pit digging duties seemed almost singularly allocated to only one recruit. Megan had decided that perhaps short-term plans had a better chance at success, and her plan now was to make Sharielle's life at the academy so miserable that the girl would plead to be returned to her home in Thistlewood. Unbelievably, even this did not work as it turned out that Sharielle could be as stubborn as a troll slime stain when she wanted to be.
Megan did not know how exactly it had happened, but a few months later after returning from a three day hike with the rest of the senior recruits, Megan discovered that Sharielle had been transferred to a different training camp during her absence. Frustrated that the girl had now escaped her clutches, Megan settled herself down with the knowledge that one day, fate would ensure that they would meet again and then, she would be able to complete her plan of Sharielle-eviction.
And then, as Megan passed the command tent on her way to her mentor's tent, fate delivered unexpectedly. She almost bumped into another squire exiting from the command tent, and it took her a moment before she could call out, "Sharielle!".
Sharielle's initial reaction was one of almost pure panic when she heard Megan's voice. But when the girl turned to face Megan, a look of smugness had covered her first emotions. "Why, hello, Megan," she said, taking in Megan's squire uniform. "I see that they must have lowered the passing grade for squireship at your training camp."
Megan smiled back, unhumourously. "And I didn't realise that they had such a demand for privy pit diggers here, Sharielle."
Sharielle's face turned as black as thunder, but before the girl could give a reply, the command tent flap opened again to admit a firm-looking paladin. Megan immediately saluted, her free hand clasping the Daurosian symbol above her heart, when she recognised the contingent commander, Paryssa the Righteous. The paladin nodded at the two girls and turned to Sharielle, "Ah, it's good that I caught you before you left, Sharielle. Could you please also bring my other map scroll case from my tent?" Sharielle nodded affirmatively and replied "Yes, Paryssa." before departing, giving Megan one last look of pure malice as she did.
Megan was impressed. And then worried. Sharielle fetching and carrying Paryssa's belongings meant only one thing; that the devious girl had somehow been made the commander's squire. She then realised that Paryssa was giving her a curious glance. "Do you know my squire, Sharielle?" asked the commander.
"We are.. from the same town," replied Megan as diplomatically as she could.
"Ah," said the commander. "Thistlewood, is it not? A modest but worthy settlement. What is your name, squire?"
"Megan," supplied Megan. "I am mentored by Luana the Just."
"Luana," stated Paryssa after a moment's consideration, "has been on many, many campaigns during her time and her wealth of experience is unmatched. Age might have slowed her sword skills slightly, but her resolve is unwavering. You are very fortunate to be mentored by her."
"Yes, commander," replied Megan humbly.
Paryssa gave Megan a nod and disappeared back into the command tent, leaving Megan pondering over her options. Her plan to get rid of Sharielle had just gotten significantly harder, and not for the first time, Megan wondered if all her plans were doomed to failure.