“Please state your intention to enter the city.” The two human guards stood tall, their armor glistening as snow fell from the sky.
“To get out of the cold?” Paulin wrapped his cloak a bit tighter around himself. “Come on, it’s freezing!”
“There are many freezing places inside the city unless you have a place to go.” The guards placed their hands on their swords. “Goistour is now under the dominion of Sintison. Many have fled to this city as a refuge.”
“Well, at the time we left Deldinglison, Goistour was still a border city between Elsinor and Sintison.” Paulin shivered. “Please, we’ve been on the road for a long time.”
“I’m sure you have.” The guards sighed. “How many with you?”
“Six.” Paulin nodded. “Three elves, one human, one orc, and one dwarf.”
“That’s an odd group.” The slightly taller guard stepped forward, a frown on his face. “What are you, circus performers?”
Paulin glanced back at the wagon. Most of the group was huddled under a large blanket covering the rear of the vehicle. Kisidera sat up front, next to him, draped in a shawl that she had knit herself at the last inn they stayed at.
“Of a sort.” Paulin shrugged. “Adventurers, performers. All sorts of occupations.”
“You’re wanderers.” The guard spat. “Move along, then. Sintison doesn’t have room for deadbeats.”
“Excuse me?” Paulin drew himself up, then forced himself to relax. He couldn’t reveal who he was. Not when they were heading straight into Sintison territory.
“People with no steady source of income.” The second guard elbowed his companion and shrugged. “People who are just going to drag down our society.”
“I assure you, we will be no drag.” Paulin bowed low.
“I assure you, there’s no way you can prove that.” The second guard shook his head. “Now move along.”
“Where to?” Paulin finally stood back up and crossed his arms. If these guards were going to be this dense, it was time to pull out his final cards. “Sintison is set on invading Elsinor right now, correct?”
“Yes.” The guards nodded in unison.
“Once they officially annex their chosen territory, what’s going to happen to all the people inside?” Paulin raised an eyebrow. “They’ll be given official status as new citizens of Sintison. Sintison Charter of Laws, Section 52: Governing of conquered peoples, Subsection D: Should Sintison ever be forced into a war with a nation previously allied to itself, and the subsequent war results in acquired territory, all peoples living within the new boundaries at the end of the war will be given full status as citizens. Thus, you can kick us out, but it’ll only mean that when we become full citizens in a few months, we won’t be content with the current leadership. And that could lead to rebellion, which never sits well for kings.”
The two guards paused and glanced at each other.
“Are you threatening the state?” The lead guard drew his sword. “That sounds an awful lot like a threat.”
“Not a threat, no.” Paulin held up his hands. “Please, good sirs. We wish no harm, we only want to take refuge in a city that we thought was our own.”
Distant clopping of hooves sounded in the air. Paulin glanced back at the way they had come, the cobblestone road rapidly filling up with snow. The silhouettes of soldiers on horses could just be seen, rising with their spears raised high above their heads. Paulin did his best to hold his head high as a contingent of ten soldiers trotted up, around the wagon, and stopped before guards.
“Returning men from the front lines.” A soldier with a red shoulder patch swung off her horse while the other soldiers trotted past and into the city. The woman was an aqahartis, and looked like she could easily have ripped Paulin’s head off if she had wanted to. “There will be more in half an hour’s time.”
“Of course.” The guards bowed. “We will be sure to have these scum off the roads by that time.”
The woman frowned, then turned. Her scales were flushed an icy-blue in the winter’s chill, but it seemed not to bother her. She glanced at the guards, then back at the shivering Paulin and Kisidera.
“Have these guards been bothering you?” Her voice was sharp.
“Not at all.” Paulin shook his head. “They’ve actually been quite helpful informing us what the new order of civilization is. There have been many changes since we last encountered a proper city.”
“Of course.” The woman inclined her head. “I do hope that the encounter has been educational, then. I also hope that the experience hasn’t sullied your view of Sintison forces. We recognize that this period of turmoil is rough for everyone involved, and wish to make the transition as smooth as possible. I do hope that you’ll accept my sincerest apology for any hardship endured, and I hope that you’ll enjoy your entry into the state of Sintison.”
The guards stared, open-mouth, as Paulin inclined his head in thanks. Kisidera picked up the reigns and clucked her tongue, urging the horses forward. Paulin grabbed hold and swung up into the seat next to her as the commander began to berate the guards as they clopped into the city. Sometimes, being completely helpless had its perks.
“What now?” Kisidera glanced at him. “Where to?”
Paulin glanced back and forth as they trotted through the streets. All around, the drifting snow built up on a city that looked lost and confused. The sidewalks were filled with refugees, lost and confused as Sintison swept into Elsinor. Most of the inns announced “no vacancy,” though others had criers advertising not only rooms, but baths and entertainment as well.
“Find us a pub.” Paulin finally puffed out his cheeks. “Something dark and seedy, if possible.”
Kisidera snapped the reigns sharply. “Yes, sir!”
And, with that, they were off. Fleeing the armies of Sintison by hiding in Sintison itself. They had no power, they had no privilege, they had almost no money at all. All they had was each other.
Paulin could only hope that it would be enough.
Sapphire groaned in relief as the wagon drew to a stop. She was huddled near the front of the wagon bed, curled up under the blankets along with Hesione, Garnisic, and Ondernifam. Of course, being so close to the front, she had spent most of the time listening to Paulin and Kisidera talking about things that they thought no one else could overhear. She was more than ready to be out, a fact that seemed echoed by everyone else there.
“We can emerge and fight!” Ondernifam roared as the four of them began to clamber towards the rear of the vehicle.
“No. No we cannot.” Garnisic muttered. “That’s the whole reason we’re here. We don’t want to fight.”
“Yes, we do!”
“Okay, then.” Garnisic groaned. “We want to fight, but we know there’s no way we can win.”
“I will always win!”
“Boys!” Hesione hissed. “You have heard of subtly, right?”
“I have heard of his mighty deeds, yes!” Ondernifam snarled. “He was a mighty warrior, the envy of all those around him!”
“So no.” Sapphire sighed as Hesione finally slid out, leaving her as the sole person left in the wagon. She wiggled under the blanket, shimmying to the back, finally getting a foot to stick out.
Ondernifam’s massive paw closed down over her leg and pulled her out roughly, where the orc threw her across the street. She caught a few short glimpses of snow-covered pavement before crashing into a large pile of snow that had been carefully shoveled by the shopkeepers nearby. Magic flared across her skin from her glowing ring, blasting the snow pile apart and showering several nearby travelers. Half a dozen elves turned to glare at her while Ondernifam howled.
“Orc: Four. Sorceress: Two.” Ondernifam roared. “It has been so long since we played that game!”
“Not long enough.” Sapphire muttered, then sighed and smiled. It really had been far too long since they had just had fun. She scooped up a small handful of snow with her hands, tossing it at Ondernifam. The orc ducked out of the way, roared at her, then turned and followed Garnisic into the small pub.
Sapphire just smiled and took a moment to glance around. All around her, snow drifted down in a quiet glory. It piled up on buildings, on the streets, on people and boxes, on doorframes and several small dogs dashing through the streets.
The street that they were on was small, barely wide enough for two wagons to pass each other. It curved gently, stretching out for several hundred feet in either direction before vanishing amidst the buildings. Small awnings hung out over many of the shops, providing some protection on the sidewalks, but not much. The sign over the bar that they had stopped for read “Tilted Dragon,” and featured an image of a Dragon Hunter sharing a mug of ale with one of the mighty beasts. Sapphire smirked, picturing Franclin trying to sit down for a meal with a dragon, then sighed and strode forward, entering the bar with a flourish.
Her brown dress swirled in the draft as she walked into the brightly lit and wonderfully warm tavern. A dragon-tooth chandelier hung from the high, vaulted ceiling, projecting magical flames that illuminated the main area. Further torches made from korcat teeth hung on the walls, similarly projecting their magical fire. Dozens of elves lounged around the room, drinking from flagons and kegs that seemed in abundance.
Near the rear of the room, just under one of the korcat torches, the group huddled in a small booth. Sapphire sashayed across the room, enjoying several interested glances from young men at the bar. She winked at one of them, then settled into the booth next to Hesione and Ondernifam. Across from her sat Paulin, Kisidera, and a rather annoyed-looking Garnisic.
“What’s the point of coming here if we have no money?” Garnisic muttered. “I’m hungry. The last thing we had to eat was that buck that Ondernifam chased down, and I’m still fairly certain I found a claw chip in my portion.”
“And that’s what I’ve been trying to explain to Paulin.” Kisidera elbowed Paulin in the side and held up a hand at an odd angle. “Trust me.”
A dark elven waitress wandered over, a curious look on her face. “How may I help you? You seem a bit far from home.”
“We have traveled a great distance, indeed.” Kisidera inclined her head. “The fates have shone well upon us, granting us swift feet and strong mounts. Nonetheless, we find ourselves here, alone in an alien land. We would appreciate any gifts you have to spare.”
“For a proper Apician, anything.” The waitress dipped her head. “I trust that these esteemed companions of yours are held in proper regard of the court?”
“Truly, Lord Apician, may her life be as long as the stars above, has granted her blessing to these fine and diverse peoples.” Kisidera folded her hands just above the table. “They are considered as family to the court.”
“Then I do hope that you shall find our meager supply to your liking.” The waitress bowed before scurrying off. Sapphire frowned and turned to Kisidera. Everyone at the table, in fact, seemed to be regarding her with the same strange look.
“Apologies.” Kisidera bowed. “There exists across Calsin a network of Family-friendly taverns, inns, and other such businesses designed to serve wandering Family members.”
“I’m not complaining.” Garnisic folded his hands. “It’s better than anything anyone else has been able to get us.”
Sapphire chuckled softly at the statement. The statement was all too true, and included the efforts of herself, Paulin, Ondernifam, Hesione, and even Garnisic himself.
After leaving Torsitour, the group had fled to the south, hoping to escape to Taninor ahead of the invading Sintison forces. This plan had been quickly foiled, as word flowed north that armies of dwarves had been stationed at the border cities, preventing waves of refugees from entering the country. This left them with few options: Flee to the east, potentially getting trapped between the armies of Sintison, Elsinor, and the High Families. Stay in the middle and try to weather the war zone. Or…
Or, do something crazy. Like disguising themselves as refugees and trying to make it into Sintison itself. The plan had sounded as solid as any, and they had quickly traveled west, trying to make it past the armies before the fighting got too intense. Eventually, after several delays, they had made it to Goistour, a former border city between Elsinor and Sintison. And now, apparently, entirely part of Sintison proper.
“If you like, feel free to stand up and walk around.” Kisidera shrugged. “Preparing a meal for a proper Apician member will take them some time, so you might as well enjoy the tavern while we’re here. Unless you’d just like to stay and talk about our future plans more?”
Sapphire groaned and shook her head. “I just want a nice night. Then I’ll think about plans.” With that, she slid out of the booth and gave a small twirl, puffing out her dress a bit. She vastly preferred wearing her combat robes, but it had been determined that a dress made her look less threatening. And the boys seemed to like it. With that, she turned and wandered up to the bar, where several males quickly slid aside to make room for her.
She flashed a thankful smile and leaned against the bar, glancing back and forth at the men. Most were high elven, ranging from elders likely nearing a millennium in age to strapping young lads more or less equivalent to a twenty-year-old human. One of them, a high elf with a single dark streak under one eye, sauntered over and leaned up next to her.
“You look like a proper Sintison lady.” He raised an eyebrow. “Like you know the ways of a proper society.”
“I’m something.” She flashed a coy smile. The bartender, a dark elven woman, glanced her way, flashed a smile, and pulled a mug from beneath the counter. She quickly filled it with a dark brown liquid and set it down in front of Sapphire without a word. Sapphire picked up the mug and took a drink, rather surprised to find a rich ambrosia flavor.
“Well, that was unexpected.” The boy’s eyebrows climbed even higher. “You’re with a Family?”
“That’s what I’m told.” Sapphire took another drink, enjoying the rich taste of the liquid. There were hints of dozens of fruits, oranges and apples, mangos and pineapple. There were other flavors she couldn’t identify, elven-grown plants not shared with the outside world.
“Well, then.” The boy turned away. “See you around, then.”
With that, he walked off, a disappointed look on his face. Sapphire scowled at his back, then turned back to the rest of the bar. The other men seemed to have garnered the same idea, and were rapidly turning to other topics of conversation.
“I’m telling you, it was real! Just a big bullfrog, like any you’d ever seen, but it could talk to me! Kept writing the word 'help' in big letters in the mud.”
Sapphire sighed and glanced at the bartender, who slowly wandered over and lowered her voice.
“Your host should have let you know a few things. If the guest of a Family member associates with normal elf, and the Family finds out about it, that normal elf can wind up with a noose around his neck.” She shrugged. “You might find a few guys willing to risk it, but those aren’t the guys I’d advise spending much time around.”
“Great.” Sapphire sighed and took another draught of her drink. “This is incredible.”
“It’s a Concercian recipe.” The bartender smiled. “I’m one of about twenty elves in all of Calsin who knows it. You won’t find a finer drink across the known world.”
“I believe it.” Sapphire took another drink, finishing the mug. The bartender reached to refill the container, but Sapphire shook her head. After a moment, she glanced down at her right hand. The Ring still sat there, as it had done since she freed the angels. And, as it had been since that time, it sat quite dormant. The blue gemstone was just that: a gemstone. The band was fashioned out of gold and silver, giving no indication of its sorcerous origins.
“Is there anywhere I can do some training?” Sapphire frowned after a moment. “A back alleyway or something?”
“Of course.” The bartender pointed to the rear of the tavern. “Through that door, go straight through the hallway and out the rear door. It’s just full of trash and stuff, plenty for you to chop or blow up as long as you don’t damage the building. I’ll send someone to get you when your meal is ready.”
“Thank you.” Sapphire smiled and stepped away from the bar, waving at the group as she passed and wandering out into the alley behind the building. It was just what the bartender had said, a small gap in the buildings where a large pile of bones and rotten food sat in a heap. A few rats scampered back and forth, making tracks in the falling snow, and Sapphire took a deep breath.
Slowly, she reached out through Calsin’s magical field and formed a small fireball in her palm. It was a simple matter to throw the fireball at the snow-covered pile, where it fizzled out with a hiss of steam. She launched a few more of these fireballs, gritting her teeth as she practiced using the same magical field that any and every human in Calsin could touch. As her palms began to burn, she let her connection to the field fall away.
Slowly, she took a deep breath and reached inside herself. Connecting with the flood of magic provided by the Ring was an easy task. It was like placing her hand in an ocean after letting a bit of melting snow trickle off her fingers. She smiled as the power surged through her veins, and slowly stretched out her hand. She formed the fireball spell in her mind, prepared to cast the magic in the same fashion as before.
As the spell executed, magic rushed down her hand, formed in her palm… And vanished. The entire reserve of magic flowed back to its source, deep within her, leaving her simply standing in the back alley without so much as a puff of smoke to show for it.
“Come on!” She scowled down at the Ring. “You’re supposed to be helping me!”
The ring just stared back up at her, impassive and unchanging. She sighed and shook her head. It had been the same ever since that first spell she cast with the object. Power, pure and raw, unusable in any way, shape, or form. Desperately, she reached into herself once more, crying for the power that she knew lay within her.
When it failed once more, she simply sank against the stone wall, under the small wooden awning while the snow continued to drift down. It just felt… So strange. She wasn’t lost, as she had been immediately after the Pendant abandoned her, and yet she wasn’t exactly found either. Of course, her entire life seemed that way, in a sense.
They weren’t at war, but they were. They weren’t on the run from anything specific, but they couldn’t very well stay in one place, either. There was no consistency, no certainty. And it was killing her.
All she wanted was one solid point, something that she could rest upon. As the snow drifted down from above, though… She wasn’t sure if she would ever see such certainty again.
“How long do you think we can stay here?” Garnisic leaned against the wall of the room, doing his best to look casual.
“Not much longer.” Kisidera frowned from where she sat at the large, oak-wood desk that filled a large portion of the wall of the room. “A few days, maybe. We should probably leave tomorrow, just to be safe. We’ve got a bit more time with all the war going on, but it’s still not going to be long before the report reaches Lord Apician that we’re using Family resources.”
Garnisic nodded and sighed. He didn’t want to leave, but that was the state of things now, he supposed.
After an excellent meal of pies, exotic birds, fruits, and more ale than he should have ever imbibed, the group had been welcomed into the suit designed for any Family members passing through. Of course, it had been designed for elves, not dwarves, but such was the order of things. The beds were high enough off the ground that he had to scramble to get in, the chairs left his legs dangling, it was more than a bit difficult to see out any of the windows that weren’t low-set.
That said, the accommodations were quite nice. Lavish beds, softer than any he had likely ever slept in, a steady supply of food, and a bathhouse that actually had hot water. Ondernifam roared loudly from within the bathroom, making Garnisic feel quite bad for the attendants.
After a few seconds, he pushed away from the wall and started pacing back and forth across the room. Kisidera was hunched over the desk, writing letters and doing other work that he didn’t understand. Paulin and Hesione were out and about, surveying the city and doing who-knew-what else, while Sapphire was busy throwing fireballs at whatever anyone would let her burn. It had been a week, and he was so bored.
“You do realize that if you keep stomping like that, people downstairs are going to notice.” Kisidera commented. “You don’t want kicked out a day early, do you?”
“Might be better than wasting time here.” Garnisic sighed and hopped up into a chair. Idly, he pulled his hammer off his belt and started tossing it lightly in his palms. “What do you do for fun here, anyway?”
“I’m not actually having much fun at this moment.” Kisidera tapped her quill pen on her tongue for a moment before continuing to scribble on the paper. “I am, however, using my knowledge of calligraphy to forge us official documents for when we leave.”
“Really?” Garnisic raised an eyebrow. “What kind of official documents?”
“Let me see.” Kisidera shrugged and gestured at a letter that she had hung from the wall to dry. “That one will get us a meal and a night’s stay at any inn we come to, by order of General Halsaid, commander of Sintison forces in Elsinor, in exchange for our valiant deeds assisting Sintison in battle against Elsinor. It instructs the inn to write a letter to General Halsaid with the amount of payment required in exchange for our services.”
“You can do that?” Garnisic was immediately far more impressed by Kisidera’s incessant letter-writing. “What else do you have?”
“Lots of similar stuff.” Kisidera shrugged. “Documents for horses, documents to get people out of prison, documents allowing us to arrest other people, the list goes on.”
“Carry on, then.” Garnisic winced as one of the attendants from the bathroom shrieked. Ondernifam barreled out a moment later, bent over double and howling. Naturally, he was devoid of any and all clothing, making Garnisic glance away hastily for fear of his eyes falling out of their sockets.
“Isn’t there anything I can do?” He finally just sighed and held up his hands as Ondernifam began to get dressed in the corner. “Come on, I’m so bored here. Aren’t there any dwarves around this town? Or an enchanting forge?”
Kisidera frowned and slid back, opening a drawer and pulling out a large map. Garnisic walked over to her and helped her look over a drawing of the city, both of them doing everything in their power to avoid looking behind them.
“Looks like there’s something here.” Kisidera nodded and pointed at a small symbol on the map that looked like a gemstone. “May or may not have a forge, but it’s the only dwarven symbol I see here. It’s only a fifteen-minute walk if you want to check it out.”
“I’m already leaving.” Garnisic memorized the location of the structure, then trotted from the room with Ondernifam still laughing behind with. With that, he clomped down the stairs, through the tavern, and out onto the street.
In the week since their arrival, the snow had built up into great piles of frozen water before being melted by the sun a few days later. Now, there existed only scraps of snow left, mixed in with brown ice and sludge that seemed to cover everything. Adding to the mess were less fortunate refugees, lining the streets as more and more people sought to escape the countryside. Garnisic felt a twinge of pity, wishing that he could do something to help their plight.
“My family!” A dark elf wandered down the street, wailing. “They killed my family! We were just traveling, and they killed them! Down with Sintison! Down with the king!”
Most of the crowd simply ignored the wanderer, as any sort of action against Sintison was likely to prove deadly. Sure enough, before Garnisic had walked out of sight, soldiers had already appeared to arrest the man. He continued to scream as they hauled him away, cursing his new overlords and boldly declaring that they would fail. Garnisic just snorted and continued to stomp away.
From there, he followed the map in his head, making several corners and traveling deeper into the city. As with most cities in Calsin, the closer he got to the center of town, the more built-up the city became. Buildings were stacked upon other buildings, eventually walkways began to appear to allow the residents of the higher apartments to wander back and forth without having to be bothered by such things as stairs.
Eventually, he rounded the last corner, coming into view of the wall that went down the center of the city, dividing Sintison from Elsinor. Or, rather, he came into view of what should have been the wall. Instead, the wall was only about half-standing, as a work crew smashed the wall with sledgehammers and hauled the gravel away in small carts. Garnisic frowned at it for a short while before shrugging and continuing to walk down the sidewalk, towards the commotion.
Nearly to the wall itself, his destination could now be seen quite easily. A sign hung from a doorpost, a simple wood plate with a blue gemstone painted onto the surface. The door was a remarkable four and a half feet tall, more than short enough to prove comfortable for a dwarf. Garnisic felt a smile break over his face as he grasped the handle and slowly stepped inside.
Almost instantly, his smile grew. Immediately upon entering, he found himself in a stairwell that led down into the ground. He let the door fall shut behind him and began to trot down the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. The stairwell curved softly, slowly driving deeper and deeper. Finally, after nearly ten minutes of walking, he found himself facing a small wooden door. A feeling of excitement pulsed through his body as he slowly stepped inside.
“Welcome!” A cheer shook the room as he let the door fall shut. Dozens of dwarves, true and proper mountain dwarves, all raised their mugs of ale from various tables before turning back to their conversations. A dwarf in a suit of engraved armor stomped over, holding out a hand.
“Welcome to the Shining Stone, the last true bastion of dwarven civilization north of the mountains of Taninor. You look like a lost a weary traveler in need of some proper Husisic Ale!”
Garnisic’s mouth watered, and he nodded while pulling out several coins. He tossed them to the man, who waved at him to follow. He quickly found himself seated at a low bar with a tankard of ale in front of him and several more dwarves seated on either side.
“We don’t get many visitors around here.” The armored dwarf walked behind the bar and gestured upward. “Especially now that Sintison’s trotting around up there like they own the place.”
“According to them, they do.” Garnisic took a draught of the ale, enjoying for a moment the thick, gravely taste flowing down his throat. “Guess they’ve never heard of the Usic Charter.”
“I imagine not!” A rather drunken man next to him slapped him on the back. “I say, you’re a riot!”
“It’s kind of you to notice.” Garnisic nodded at the man and held out his hand. “Garnisic.”
“Horiris.” The man shook the hand. “I say, you’re from the Isic clan? I haven’t met one of you guys for decades!”
“You knew one of my clan?” Garnisic smiled. “Who?”
“Lady Cirisic.” The man smiled. “Oh, she was lovely! A beauty to behold. We were wed on a night when the Internal Flame boiled and burned, flinging its fiery stone to the heights of our fortress! We were-”
“Probably just as drunk as you are now.” The bartender reached across the bar, grabbed Horiris by the scruff of the neck, and head-butted him with enough force to send a resounding crack throughout the room. “Back to your room!”
Horiris just laughed and stumbled away, tripping over several chairs on the way. As he vanished, the bartender smiled and held out his own hand.
“Garnisic, you said? Good to meet you. I’m Barnikol, and this here is Fresoric.” He gestured at a black-robed dwarf to Garnisic’s left. “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in joining our little community here?”
Garnisic shook his head. “As appealing as it sounds, I’m just passing through.”
“Are you traveling with any fellow dwarves?” Fresoric’s mouth twisted up into a thick grin. “Any women? Anyone you could bring for the rest of us, eh?” He elbowed Garnisic in the side, jarring him rather suddenly. Garnisic laughed, but sighed after a few moments.
“No dwarves, no.” He shrugged. “Actually, I’m with three elves, a human, and an…” he coughed and flashed as disgusted a face as he could make. “An orc!”
Barnikol and Fresoric howled with laughter, while Garnisic just grinned. Oh, it was nice to be back in a true dwarven setting. After a few seconds, Barnikol wiped the tears from his eyes and sighed.
“Well, then. Since you’ll not be staying with us, could I in any way interest you in our services? We have a fully functioning community here. After that first ale, you’re welcome to purchase anything you need from the bar, or pick up supplies from our storehouse. You’d be welcome to rent a room for the night, visit our gaming rooms, anything we have available!”
Garnisic frowned and stroked his beard. “Do you have an enchanting forge?”
“Alas, we do not.” Barnikol shook his head. “We attempted to procure one from the Aprisol, but were denied permission to connect with the Internal Flame in such a way. We do, however, have several portable forges approved for general use, if you’d like to purchase one.”
Garnisic scowled. The Aprisol was a small order within the hierarchy of the true Dwarven religion who determined which enchanting forges could be built where. The mention of their name was a not-so-subtle reminder that he had utilized a number of forges in recent history that likely hadn’t been confirmed. Which, naturally, was considered a rather serious sin. He breathed a quick prayer asking forgiveness, then nodded.
“How much for the forge?”
“For a kindred soul… One hundred gold pieces.” Barnikol nodded firmly.
Garnisic snorted. “For a hundred pieces I could buy a shop with a proper forge and still have enough left over to bribe the Aprisol to let me use it. Thirty pieces.”
Barnikol’s jaw dropped, and he leaned backwards as if having been punch. “Good sir, you wound me with your words. I did not think you thought so little of your fellow dwarf as to try and rob us! Eighty pieces.”
“You are the one who wounds me, trying to make a beggar out of a weary traveler.” Garnisic shook his head. “Forty.”
“Come on, Barnikol.” Fresoric slapped the table. “We bought those forges for a few scarce copper tokens. Sell it to the man for forty, we’ll still be making a fortune.”
Garnisic scoffed. “Thirty, then.”
“Forty, and not a copper less.” Barnikol pointed a finger at Garnisic, then turned and scowled at Fresoric. “You’re killing me here!”
Fresoric just laughed and wandered away while Garnisic reached into his pocket to pull out the money that Kisidera had given him from the Family’s treasury.
Several hours later, he stumbled back up the stairs with a sack filled with enchanting goods, several more bottles of ale, and a few vials of dried mushrooms, salts and minerals harvested from various mines around Calsin, and far less gold than when he had entered. When he reached the top and stepped back onto the streets, the cold wind howled around him, and he felt an odd twinge in his heart.
Visiting the shop had been… Nice. He hadn’t seen another proper community of dwarves since his exile. For the first time in years, he had truly been around his own people. And yet… And yet, it hadn’t quite felt like home. As he started walking down the street, his steps didn’t hesitate. He didn’t feel called back to the strange group of dwarves. He only looked forward, back to the tavern. All he wanted was to meet back up with his friends, keep moving and keep running.
Maybe that made him a bad mountain dwarf. Maybe it just meant that he had been out of touch for far too long, but… After decades of wandering Calsin by himself, the previous year of fighting angels and traipsing across Elsinor had been nice. And, in that moment… He realized that he wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
“Well, then.” Paulin puffed out his cheeks and nodded down at the map on the table. “I think it’s settled.”
“You’ll be leaving?” The waitress set several plates of steaming nectar rolls on the table while picking up their older platters. “I hope it’s nothing we’ve done?”
“Your hospitality has been more than welcome.” Kisidera smiled at the woman. “I can assure you, we will speak highly of your name to other members of our esteemed family.”
“Thank you, my lady.” The waitress curtsied and walked away, leaving the group alone once more.
Paulin let out a long breath and slowly reached down to the map, moving several small totems that he had intentionally set up in places they weren’t intending to go. If the Family did ever show up, they wanted to be gone without any sort of a trace. Kisidera sat across from him, with Ondernifam sitting next to her. Hesione sat just next to him, an odd look on her face. Paulin sighed and leaned across the map.
“Alright, with that out of our way, where are we planning on heading?” He shrugged and gestured at the map. “They think we’re running down into Tifingor, so we can’t that way. We could head into Donenrot, or we could try to head north? What do you think will be the safest?”
“North.” Hesione leaned forward and placed her finger on the Northern Ocean. “If we head deeper into Sintison, we’re just putting ourselves at risk. If we head north, we can travel through the seaside colonies and make our way back down Sintison’s western border.”
“Why would it be bad to just head deeper into Sintison?” Kisidera shrugged. “Now that we’re past Sintison’s borders, does it really matter?”
Paulin gestured at himself. “If anyone were to recognize me, it could be a tiny bit of an issue. I’m formally exiled from Elsinor, but that really doesn’t mean much as far as the average citizen is concerned. If people start trying to buck off Sintison’s rule, I could serve as a focal point for that resistance, whether I wanted to or not. I’m a risk that they couldn’t let live. You too, Hesione, especially now that Lord Apician knows that you have royal blood as well.”
Hesione scoffed. “I’m mottled, you know that.”
“Why yes, I do.” Paulin nodded. “The vast majority of the population doesn’t, though. If Lord Apician were to distribute your image as an heir, no one would bother to check. You would serve as a perfect pawn for the families, a slave to their will under threat of exposure.”
Hesione scowled down at the map. “You really make this no fun, you know that?”
“I’m your older brother. It’s my job to make things not fun.” Paulin sighed and closed his eyes. After a few moments, he nodded. “North it is. If we leave the main roads, we should be able to use common trails to make it up to Dindriir. Once we’re there, it shouldn’t be hard to make it to the sea.” The thought of the ocean brought a small smile to Paulin’s face. “And I do have to admit, that sounds nice.”
“What sounds nice?” Garnisic stumbled into the room from the back alley, a massive sack slung over his shoulder. “Staying here?”
“Not so lucky.” Paulin flashed a small smile. “We’ve got the wagon stored out back, you walked right past it. Go get loaded up, we’ll roll out first thing in the morning.”
Garnisic muttered softly under his breath, then turned and clomped back out. Paulin watched him go, then turned to the group at the table. Hesione and Kisidera both looked at him expectantly, while Ondernifam stuck a claw in his mouth to pick something out of his teeth.
“Any of you have more packing to do?” He nodded at Kisidera. “You’re ready, right?”
“I’ve got everything loaded in the secret compartment, yes.” Kisidera nodded. “You could search it with any type of magic you want, no one is discovering those letters.”
“Good.” Paulin turned to Hesione. “And you?”
“As long as the option’s open, I’m stealing a few bars of soap from the baths before we take off.” Hesione shrugged. “Other than that, I’m ready. My clothes and rags are loaded up.”
“Then I think the only person left is Sapphire.” Paulin frowned. “Does anyone know where she is?”
“Last I saw, she was sparring in the square a few blocks from here.” Hesione nodded at the door. “Do you want me to go get her?”
“Please.” Paulin nodded and slid from the booth. Hesione stepped out as well, strode through the tavern, and swept out the front door. With that, Ondernifam stood up as well, nearly knocking the table over, and climbed over Kisidera to land on the main floor.
“I will go pack as well!” He announced, then stomped out the rear door. A few moments later, Garnisic’s started yelped rang through the air, and Paulin chuckled.
“Oh, this is something.” He sighed and glanced around. “Morale hasn’t been this high since before I met you. Possibly since before they met me.”
“It’s a nice place.” Kisidera agreed. After a moment, and made a face and giggled. “Oh, Lord Apician would kill me if she knew what we were doing.”
“I’m pretty sure she would kill you for half the things you’ve done since leaving the Estate.” Paulin smirked, glancing back and forth to make sure that none of the waiters or waitresses were nearby. They weren’t, and he breathed a sigh of relief. “Including all those letters.”
“Oh, I got more than the letters.” Kisidera grinned. “I was able to get into their treasury. I left all the gold alone, but I was able to borrow a few sleeves of ravstone.”
Paulin’s jaw dropped. “They had ravstone here?”
“Indeed they did.” Kisidera smirked. “I’ll see what price I can get for it once we get to Dindriir. Should be enough to keep us moving for awhile longer. I’d be able to get even more for it if we could make it to Donenrot, but I assume that’s out of the question.”
“Same issue as before.” Paulin sighed. “If Hesione or I are seen, we could expose the entire group to risk.”
“Yeah.” Kisidera stuck out her bottom lip and leaned forward. “You do know that we don’t have to travel with them, right?”
“Yeah, I know.” Paulin rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess… I just…”
He sighed and glanced down at the half-eaten quail on his plate. It was a conversation that he and Kisidera had been having for weeks now. She didn’t understand why they couldn’t just split and run. And… Well, he couldn’t understand how he could. In some ways, it made sense to just leave. He had almost no connection to any of them except Hesione, and it really made more sense to break ties with his former lover/sister. And yet, he found his heart drawn to them.
“I’m still going to get you down to Notirot.” He affirmed and looked back up. “I promise.”
“I know.” Kisidera tapped her foot against the floor. “But we could get there so much faster! I promise we could!”
“You’re only sixty-eight years old.” Paulin raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got lots of life ahead of you. Trust me, you don’t need to be worrying about time yet.”
“Or, and hear me out on this.” Kisidera held up a finger on each hand. “I do worry about time now. Then, when I’m old, I’ve already done everything I want to do, and I can settle down in peace.”
“I’m really fairly certain that’s not how that works.” Paulin sighed and ran his finger across the surface of the table. After a few seconds, he shrugged. “Well, we’ve only got tonight left. Want to take a swim in the baths? Might be the last chance we get to do anything like that for awhile.”
Kisidera smiled. “I’d-”
“Guys!” Garnisic charged into the room, a terrified look on his face. “We’ve got to go. Now.”
“Really?” Kisidera sighed and started to stand up slowly. “What happened? Ondi go and start a fight with a bunch of soldiers?”
In answer, a loud roar rattled the windows. Paulin groaned, and Garnisic nodded wordlessly.
“Alright, then.” Paulin nodded and charged forward. If the law came to the tavern, the group would be recognized, and that would be the end of things. He ran out the back of the tavern to find Ondernifam facing off against six soldiers in the small alleyway. Kisidera followed him, with Garnisic standing just behind them.
“Whoa, there.” Paulin held up a hand and slowly approached Ondernifam. “You’ve had a little too much to drink. Why don’t you calm down and we’ll just head back inside.”
“Are you crazy?” One of the soldiers barked. “This thing is a monster!”
“I am the worst of the monsters!” Ondernifam roared. “I will lay waste to Calsin!”
“You’re just antagonizing him.” Paulin sighed. “Come on, just back away, and we can forget this ever happened.”
“Oh, no.” The soldier shook his head. “He punched me intentionally. He’ll hang for his crimes!”
Even while the soldier made the bold proclamation, Paulin could see his sword quivering in the air. The fear certainly seemed founded, as the prospect of hanging like a criminal apparently didn’t sit well with Ondernifam, and he leapt forward to smash a massive fist into the man’s head. As the soldier crumpled, the other five soldiers rushed forward.
Paulin just sighed and turned around, whistling softly to calm the horses that he had already hitched to the wagon. He had suspected that they would be forced to leave early for one reason or another, and had done his best to ensure that they would be ready. As they stamped their feet nervously, Paulin climbed up into the seat while Kisidera climbed up next to him. Garnisic scrambled into the back, obviously aware of their plan.
In front of them, the alleyway quickly filled with blood as the obviously drunk and inexperienced soldiers lost their first and final battle to an enraged orc. As the last soldier dropped, Ondernifam turned and sprang into the bed of the wagon in one leap.
With that, Paulin clucked the reigns and shot off into the night. It took mere seconds to exit the alley, at which point he sent the cart racing around the corner and down the street in front of the tavern. Hesione and Sapphire looked up as they raced by, and Sapphire cast a quick spell that lifted them up and into the safety of the fleeing vehicle.
None of them said a word as Paulin raced the cart through the city, though Sapphire switched out with Kisidera and began using her magic to scan the streets ahead. She would make gestures with her hands, directing him to drive one way or another, ensuring that they avoided the patrols.
And thus, in the dead of night, they sped across the now-open border wall, through the city, and out the other side into the wilderness and growing darkness. It was impossible to know what was happening behind them. It was impossible to know if forces were already on their trail, or if the murder of six drunken soldiers wouldn’t even be discovered until morning. Nevertheless, Paulin wasn’t particularly keen on finding out.
Once more, they were racing off into the darkness. Once more, they were facing complete uncertainty and no clear path before them. Once more, they were together as they faced unknown and unfathomable darkness.
And, all things considered, Paulin wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
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