Veterans of the SIEGE: Birthright

A Road Less Travelled - Chapter 1

The Bard and the Mirror

PART I – THE ROSE OF THE WESTERN COAST

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It took close to a week to cross the kingdom of Talinie. From the mountainous province of Lindholme the road crept through dense forests for days, only emerging into rolling fields within a day of the coastal city of Nowelton. A ring of hills surrounded the capitol, which lay nestled beneath their gaze against the swell and crash of the Sea of Storms. The party followed the highway, now clearly marked and well kept, down from between the hills and through a pair of gates, constructed from the trunks of trees almost too massive to comprehend, which were carved with elaborate floral designs. Nowelton was famous for its gardens, just as it’s land was famous for an abundance of fertile crops and valuable timber. As the group wound through the wide streets of the city it was obvious that the “Rose of the Western Coast” was not a title the city had been awarded frivolously.

The vibrant beauty of the capitol would have to wait, however. There was still somber and grim business to attend to. While his compatriots booked lodging for the night, Isael set out to find a temple to his fiery god. Talinie was a land fervently devoted to Haelyn, though Cuiracean’s status as the deity’s son meant his worshipers were treated well. Near the outskirts of the central market Isael found a single, circular stone church whose door bore the distinctive sword and lightning bolt of his faith. Within, he found two senior brothers of his order. He relayed the tale of his journey to Newcayne, and implored them to travel to the frontier town. The priest of Haelyn who had ministered to the settlement had fled the onslaught of the orcs, quite against the tenants of his religion. There was a spiritual void in amongst the people, a void Isael should be filled by advocates for a god who would provide strength and courage to a people who clung to life on the fringes of human society. His brothers agreed with Isael’s assessment, assuring him they would depart immediately to see that the word of their god was spread to willing ears. Satisfied, Isael returned to the inn and joined his comrades in the comfort of a hot meal and a warm bed.

After a restful night, as dawn gave way to midday, the group made their way to the temple of Haelyn. It was a majestic and sprawling complex of white granite and marble, built in the old Anuirean style with massive pillars, arches, and domes. Their abnormal appearance and composition almost resulted in their expulsion when approached by temple priests, it was only after Isael produced the holy reliquary they had recovered from the watery dark so far away that they were granted entrance. Shepherded into one of the temple’s larger prayer chambers they were soon greeted by none other than the high priest, Bishop Briar. With awe and patience he heard the party give full account of their exploits in the West. The plight of the Lansings, the recovery of the sword, their defense of Newcayne, the recovery of the reliquary, the deaths of the Warmother and Hamnarabi, and the unique case of the half-orc child. They held nothing back. The high priest, so great was the depth of his gratitude that one of his faith’s lost reliquaries had been returned, consented to the cleansing of the Lansing blade and the resurrection of their fallen Khinasi friend. He was troubled by the half-orc, but promised that once the other affairs were settled he would attempt to divine the nature of whatever thing hid within the boy’s soul. For now, the party would be honored guests of the temple.

PART II – OF DAWN’S LIGHT AND DEEP SHADOWS

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The following morning, as dawn’s light bathed the city in hues of red and gold, the long procession of ceremonies began. It started with the sword, the Lansing family blade which had been cursed through its misuse in black ceremonies in crypts where Haelyn’s light could not reach. A marble baptismal pool had been prepared, it’s cool waters blessed, and the blade finally removed from the sealed chest which had been its home since it had attempted to seize control of Hamnarabi’s mind. A young priest, murmuring a litany beneath his breath to keep focus and defend himself against the blade’s will, drew it out and walked slowly into the clear water. When the water reached his waist he stopped and held the sword aloft, and stared up into the narrow oculus in the center of the dome above them. He waited there, minute after agonizing minute, until the rays of the sun finally began to stream down and touch the now still waters around him. The gathered priests took up a chant, and as they sang the young priest brought the blade downward. The water began to shimmer and glow, illuminating the entire chamber. As the cold steel touched the water it guttered and hissed as if drawn straight from the forge. Fully submerged, a roil of boiling steam erupted outward and wreathed the priest. Mercifully it was a brief affair, and when held aloft in the light of Haeyln the blade shined now that is was free of the taint which had tarnished its proud steel.

The ceremony to bring Hamanrabi back would not be so easy, or so quick. In another part of the temple an elaborate ritual had begun hours before dawn had begun to illuminate the eastern horizon. Atop a tiered platform in the center of large chantry a closed silver casket lay surrounded by dozens of prayer candles. Within it the high priest had lain the finger Eliza had brought back from the mountains, Hamnarabi’s last earthly remains. A dozen other priests, all among the highest rank within the church, ringed the coffin and were immersed in slow prayer. Bishop Briar himself, armed with the power of the recovered reliquary, lead the ceremony. It took the entire circuit of the sun, from dawn to dusk, before they were complete. When the last echo of prayer faded from the room in time to the last ray of dusk’s dwindling, the head priest stepped froward to the casket and placed his hand upon the lid. He pulled upward and then then paused to smile at the bewildered eyes of the Khinasi knight who lay within.

The reunion was joyful and exuberant. Eliza especially rejoiced the the return of her beloved cousin, hugging him so tightly he feared he may return to grave before he had even grown accustomed to life again. Dressed, fed, and sufficiently reoriented, Hamnarabi joined his compatriots in the private chambers of Bishop Briar. Though exhausted, he intended to follow up on his word to assess what threat may lay within the half-orc child. As those gathered held their breath and watched, the kind old priest knelt before the boy and stared long and hard with eyes that had suddenly become golden globes. The priest, despite his power and experience, was drained from the day’s exertions. He broke his gaze and looked upon his guests with a disappointed frown. The child itself was not possessed by any entity or creature that he could discern. There was a taint of some darkness there, but the Bishop suspected that he may serve as some sort of anchor between another world and this one. He was not possessed, but the risk would be ever present. The day was spent, and Bishop Briar took his leave as the party was escorted back to the chambers they had been given to stay in during their time in Nowelton. They could decide where their journey would lead them tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep. Only Hamnarabi had trouble drifting into slumber, he had slept enough for one lifetime already…

PART IIISTRANGE REFLECTIONS

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The conversation concerning the child lasted well past the midnight bell. While Bishop Briar had given SOME insight into the matter, it was not nearly as decisive or informative as anyone had hoped. And if HIS power could not give them a definitive answer, it was doubtful anyone else could. The problem was maddening, made more so by the affection each party member had developed over the preceding weeks. Only Hamnarabi could truly render an objective opinion, as he had already been in death’s embrace by the time the child had been liberated. The question was no longer IF the child would live, none of them could end the life of the child they had grown to know in good conscience. No matter how real the threat he might pose. Instead, the question became WHERE. Where could they take the child? Where could he be watched and not simply imprisoned? Where could he be taught control, not just kept in ignorance? Bishop Briar had offered the services of his church’s orphanage, but the party doubted that any Anuirean establishment could ever see the boy as more than the orcish side of his heritage. It was Ash’s option which the group finally settled upon. The boy would be taken to the monastery where he had been raised, amongst men and women who saw beyond race and color. A life of martial discipline could harden him against the curse he bore, and if he failed he would be surrounded by those more than capable of dealing with whatever threat he posed.

With the matter settled, the party settled down for a long night’s rest. They would make plans for the long journey back to the Khinasi kingdom of Ariya in the morning, though by what route they knew not. Morning came, sooner than hoped for, and the party gathered in one of the temple’s courtyards to begin planning, but someone was missing. Winifred, the bard, was running well behind her compatriots. In fact, no one had even seen her since they had ended their discussions the night before. Curious, Isael and Ash made their way back to the rooms which had been offered to them. Her’s was locked, and she did not answer their calls. Ash peered through the keyhole, and his jaw clenched at the sight he beheld. He leaped back from the door, spun, and launched a kick powerful into the center of the door powerful enough to blast the heavy oak of the hinges. He roared for help as Isael drew steel and followed him into the room. It was completely destroyed. Furniture had been overturned or shattered, and blood stained the torn rug in the center of the floor. Upon closer inspection they saw that the window was intact and still bolted shut, as had been the door. As the rest of the party arrived at a sprint, a dark realization came upon them. There were rents in the rug that looked as if someone had tried to use a dagger to gain purchase as they were drug along the floor. And the tears lead directly to the only object in the room which had not been utterly destroyed.

The mirror upon the wall.

Bishop Briar arrived, followed by a flock of outraged priests. Someone had defiled their holy sanctum, and they would have answers. However, when his eyes beheld the sight before him Briar sternly called for silence. In a grave voice he ordered the mirror to be shrouded, taken to an inner sanctum, and guarded carefully. He then turned to the party and drilled them with sharp questions. When was the last time she was seen? Had anyone heard anything through the night? Did she have any enemies she had spoken to them about? Were there any strange objects or trophies which they had brought with them from the mountains? As the group denied each of his questions his face became more set and grim, with a deep sigh he waved away those priests closest to the door so that he might have privacy. Alone with the party, he revealed to them his suspicion. Something had taken Winifred through the mirror, but WHAT had taken her was not nearly as important as WHERE it had taken her. The shadow realm. He spoke the words almost too quietly to hear, and a stunned silence followed.

PART IV – INTO THE DARK

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Once safely locked behind the doors of Bishop Briar’s study, the old man cautiously began to explain what he knew of the shadow realm. It was a strange plan of existence, which reflected the world as they knew it in even stranger ways. The terrain was almost a perfect match, and many of the landmarks of the mortal races existed there as well. In fact, it was mainly natural landmarks shared by both realms where gates between the two naturally formed, though such gates rarely opened to the same place more than once. Yet, in places there are memorials and landmarks which do not exist in the regular world, and other places where they SHOULD be and are conspicuously missing. Some cities stand which were ruined centuries ago, and some stand which were never built in the land as it is known today. An eternal twilight shrouds the land, and the ceaseless dark has been known to drive some of the realm’s few explorers mad when time becomes a blur. Though known tom only a few, the realm has been tentatively explored by a handful of brave adventurers and mages. Records, scarce though they be, indicate that the realm was once a place of mystery more than a place of danger. That changed however, not long after the fateful Battle of Mount Deismaar. Around this time the shadow realm became an inhospitable plane of frigid cold, with hordes of undead swarming across it. Few will chance the journey between the realms now, and those who know of its existence are loathe to discuss it.

Briar was convinced that something had reached out from the shadow realm into their own and stolen Winifred through the mirror. It was the only logical explanation for how something had so mysteriously breached the magical wards of the church, many of which he had crafted himself. The queen’s court wizard, a man with an interest in the gates between realms, owed Briar favors. He would call upon the man to open a gate if it was what the party wished. He left the group to converse, though it did not take them long to reach a conclusion. They would follow Winifred if they could, and save their friend from whatever foul thing had breached the barrier between worlds to steal away their companion. The REAL question was what they would do with the child. None of them were comfortable leaving the boy in the care of the church, but they were unsure if they would be able to make it back out from the shadow realm by the same gate they used to enter it. They settled on bringing the child, hoping that an emphasis on speed and surprise would minimize the risk. They told Briar, and as he left to summon the wizard and arrange for the ritual the group split to prepare for their journey.

In the scant few hours that followed they stormed through Nowelton in a frenzy, buying supplies and having their equipment mended. They had hoped for a few days rest, dared to dream of more, but were forced by fate to make good use of what little time they had. Weapons and armor were bought and sold, potions brewed, and rations prepared. By the time they gathered again in the courtyard in early evening they were equally exhausted to any of their days on the journey from Newcayne. With a fresh mule to haul their equipment, they followed a young monk through the marble halls of the church of Haelyn while acolytes stared in amazement at the unusual sight. Finally, they reached the sanctum where Briar had arranged for the gate ritual to be performed. The mirror from Winifred’s room stood in the center of the wide and circular area with a domed ceiling. It was surrounded by candles, each of which had been placed at a juncture between intricate lines of colored chalk, salt, and sand which formed a dizzying array of geometric patterns on the floor. Beside the mirror a middle aged mage directed his apprentices at a fevered pace in the completion of the diagrams. His excitement at the prospect of opening a gate to the shadow realm was palpable.

When the ritual was ready, Briar attempted to introduce the party to the obsessive wizard so that he might understand the gravity of their task. He brushed them aside. He was only concerned with the success of this endeavor, if they reached the other side and returned he only asked they send word of their return to him as payment. The arts of opening a gate between the shadow realm and this one was a skill known only to a few, and by demonstrating it he would ascend greatly in the eyes of his peers. The wizard knelt before a book which had been laid open on the floor for him. He did not need to view the pages however, he had dreamed of this spell long enough that each word and syllable were engraved upon his mind. His voice rose and fell in pitch and tone, pace and rhythm. His arms and fingers curled and gesticulated madly as he wove intricate somatic forms of arcane power before him. Minutes stretched out, and many of those assembled began to question if what the wizard claimed was possible. And in that moment the glass of the mirror shattered outwards.

Thousands of shining shards propelled outwards at breakneck speed, forcing everyone in the room except the wizard to cover their face and recoil backwards. It was a miracle that Hamnarabi and Ash could keep hold of the horse and mule. Yet as quickly as they were propelled outward the shards froze in the air, mere inches from tender flesh in some cases. The hall stood in astounded silence as the glittering cloud of glass twinkled and tumbled in slow motion, hanging in the air. The mirror’s frame now contained a swirling mass of black, out of which a deep cold emanated. Breath could be seen hanging in the air, and frost began to creep out from the base of the mirror and along the floor. The wizard, perspiration spotting his forehead from the force of his concentration, shouted at them to enter the portal. He could not hold it long, and even as he spoke singular shards of the mirror began to slowly drift back towards the frame. In a line with Hamnarabi at the front, the party shuffled through the swirling vortex and stepped into the shadow realm.

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