Endings And Beginnings
26 Calistril-27 Calistril, 4715
Koman was dead. That fact was indisputable, but the remaining Scions still had a job to do. The funeral barge was approaching, the smoke from its deck thickening, and Boris was still somewhere on board, presumably with Ulf Gormundr. Yannus solemnly draped Koman's cloak over his body, and then the companions boarded the kayaks and paddled out to the drifting long ship. They tied their kayaks to the bow and climbed aboard. Quickly, Yannus crossed to the burning coal bag and removed it from atop the oil flask.
"We need to move fast," he said to the others. "If this ship doesn't go up in flames soon, we're going to be getting a lot of Ulfen company."
They crossed to the pried-open hatch and peered down into the gloom below.
"Boris!" Yannus called. "Can you hear me?"
There was no reply...only the distant sound of clinking chains.
"Check that," Yannus instructed Haroldo, pointing to the shrouded body resting on the funeral pyre.
Haroldo crossed to the pyre and flung back the shroud. Beneath it was a wooden mannikin.
"Fake," he said.
"Well, I guess we have no choice but to see what's below," Yannus shrugged.
One-by-one they climbed down into the hold. It was positively claustrophobic by the time they all squeezed in. They could see through the various funerary treasures to the mast amid ships, but beyond that was a strange, rolling mist.
"Boris!" Yannus called again.
"Help me!" a voice called from somewhere in the mist. It was not Boris, but the accent was Varisian. Possibly Chelaxian? "There's a zombie in here! Watch out!"
As the voice faded, the sound of chains and heavy footsteps drew closer from the mist.
"There!" Kelda shouted, pointing. "I see something!"
Without waiting for an answer, the Ulfen woman drew her blade and charged towards the fog where she saw a shadowy form lurking. She swung at the figure, but her blade was caught and turned by the head of a great axe. Then, stepping out of the shadows, Snorri Stone-Eye short-hafted his weapon and buried the blade in Kelda's shoulder. She cried out, not only from the pain, but from horror as she felt a small piece of her soul leached away through the weapon.
Piotr, now able to see their opponent, conjured a cloud of black dancing motes around Snorri's head. The undead captain batted at them, annoyed, but then a blast of light exploded around him as Yannus hurled his own magic, hoping to blind his one good eye. When the light faded, however, Snorri born burn and scorch marks, but his vision did not seem to be impaired, as evidenced by the fact that he struck Kelda again, driving her almost to her knees. Then Haroldo was there, the big man's own blade hammering into the undead Ulfen. Piotr capitalized on the distraction by hurling an orb of fire at the draugr, but Snorri strode right through it, unmarked. Kelda scrambled to put some distance between herself and the captain, but she was too slow. Snorri's axe came down one final time, and Kelda did not rise again.
Mazael stepped up to support Haroldo, and Shalelu, her bow stowed and a short sword in her hand, moved in to flank. The three of them struck repeatedly at the draugr captain, but could not bring him down. Snorri dealt a pair of withering blows to Haroldo in turn, and though bleeding and pale, the blood-rager did not give ground. He raised his great sword and brought it down on Snorri Stone-Eye's neck. Finally, he collapsed, sea water and putrescence spilling out on the planks.
They found Boris where he'd fallen, unconscious but stable, with the winged great helm resting on his head. He was disoriented after they revived him, but quickly got his bearings. Following the cries for help deeper into the hold, the companions found a very odd creature bound hand and foot...and tail. It resembled a human-sized ape, but its eyes were obviously intelligent.
"Thanks the gods!" the creature exclaimed when it saw them. "I thought that monster would be the end of me! Please, set me free!"
"Who...what...are you?" Yannus asked.
"My name is Neko," the creature replied. "I am a vanara."
"And how exactly did you come to be in this situation?" Yannus pressed
"I am...was...a circus performer," Neko said. "Perhaps you've heard of us? The Hellknight's Tent of Endless Pleasure, Leisure and Recreation, out of Cheliax. No? Anyway, we travel the region often, but not long after we came into the Ulfen lands, we were set upon by raiders. I fear the circus was destroyed, and most of my companions killed or scattered. I was taken captive and placed here as some sort of offering to that vile...thing! Please! Free me!"
"Enough talk," Boris grumbled as he drew a wakizashi and sliced the vanara's bonds.
"Thanks you!" Neko gushed. "You saved my life! Among my people, that means I owe you a life debt!"
"Whatever," Boris shrugged.
At that moment, a loud 'whump' sound came from the deck above, accompanied by the smell of smoke. Quickly, the companions ran for the hatch and pulled themselves back topside. The wooden bier had become fully alight and burned brightly at midship. Beyond it in the water, the heroes could see the kayaks that brought them there cut loose and drifting out of reach. Tied off at the stern of the ship were two large canoes, into which a group of six black-clad, masked figures were quickly clambering.
"We need to move!" Lucian shouted.
The oracle followed words with action, running full speed across the deck, and straight through the spreading flames, heedless of the burns he suffered. He closed the distance with the ninjas quickly, and was among them before they could react. Yannus, realizing that Lucian had just likely signed his own death warrant, followed after, but not before casting a spell of protection on himself to shield him from the fire. To everyone's surprise, Neko was the next to move. The monkey-boy leaped effortlessly over the fire, landed briefly on all fours, then leaped again, soaring over the heads of the startled ninjas, and landing nimbly in one of the canoes.
"Hmph," Boris snorted. "Boris can do that."
To prove his point, the goblin got a running start and hurtled the bonfire. He landed in a full run, then dodged and rolled among the legs of the ninjas before reaching the bow railing, and then hopping into the canoe next to Neko.
"Well done, Master!" Neko grinned.
"Boris not your Master," Boris scowled.
The ninjas may have been taken aback by the boldness of their quarry, but they recovered quickly. Two of them ran to the bow, unlimbered short bows, and began firing at Neko and Boris. Two more closed in on Lucian, trying to force him over the side of the boat, while the final pair flanked Yannus, one of them driving a wickedly pointed stake-like weapon into the priest's belly. Then, a flash of light and glitter exploded around three of the ninjas, temporarily blinding them. Yannus glanced over his shoulder, and nodded his appreciation at Piotr. He nodded again, this time at Shalelu, when a pair of arrows sprouted from the throat of one of his assailants, sending the ninja tumbling over the rail.
Haroldo, Kelda's body slung over one shoulder. lumbered like an angry bear across the deck of the barge. As he ran, he allowed his rage to fuel him, unlocking his latent magic, this time in the form of fire resistance, as it rose. He barreled through the flames and through the ninjas, leaping into the canoe with Boris and Neko, setting it rocking dangerously. Behind him, Lucian, being pressed precariously close to the rail by his two attackers, turned and jumped, landing clumsily, but safely in the second, empty canoe. He then turned, drew back his bow, and fired a deadly shot into one of the blind assassins, dropping the ninja instantly. Yannus struck another of the blind killers, and as that one spun away, groping, Neko, now with a bow in his hands as well, fired three arrows into him, killing him. Boris shot the last of the blind ninjas, killing him as well, leaving only two still standing. Shalelu and Lucian combined their arrows to slay one, while Yannus, with an assist from Piotr's magic missiles, took down the last.
The flames continued to spread, and now pieces of the deck began to collapse. Yannus heaved three of the dead ninjas into Lucian's canoe before following himself. Mazael pulled a flask from his belt pouch, drank it, then lifted into the air, taking flight. He flew to the canoe with Lucian and Yannus, and they tossed him a rope up. He then towed the boat around to the bow of the barge, allowing Shalelu and Piotr to climb aboard. With everyone safe, the companions paddled their vessels back to the shore of Spear-Shaker Point.
Beneath their masks, the dead ninja were all Tian, both male and female. The only identifying item on them was a small, jade statue of a raven that each carried.
"This just gets better and better," Mazael growled. "First we got vikings trying to kills us, and now ninjas! And we still haven't found the sword or the actual viking we're looking for!"
"We have more immediate concerns," Yannus said quietly as his eyes fell to the bodies of Kelda and his brother. "Kelda never mentioned family here in Kalsgard, other than her fellow raiders. She was a brave and honorable companion, and I think we should lay her to rest in the Ulfen way."
"What? Burn her and all her gear up on a boat?" Mazael snapped. "Seems a waste."
"We'll remember that if you ever get killed," Lucian smirked.
"Yeah, you do that, knife-ear," the war priest sneered.
"What about your brother?" Piotr asked Yannus.
"We're taking him back to the caravan," the priest replied. "We can use the power of the Seal to resurrect him."
"Wait!" Lucian cried. "If we do that, if we open the Seals warding box, then we risk exposing it's location to the Five Storms!"
"Wait, lemme get this straight," Mazael chuckled and shook his head at Lucian. "You get all weepy and bent out of shape about taking potentially useful gear off a stranger we met on the road, but when it comes to doing something meaningful for one of our own, you're gonna cry foul?"
"I'm just saying," Lucian sighed, "that we need to consider all of our options, and the risks involved."
"The only option," Yannus said with a note of finality,"is to bring my brother back from the dead if we have the power to do so. We will, of course, discuss this with Ameiko, but I feel certain that she'll agree."
They secured Kelda and her belongings in one of the canoes. Then, after stacking it high with driftwood, they set it ablaze and pushed it out to see. So passed Kelda Oxgutter.
The Scions then made their way back to the gates of Kalsgard, whereupon they were immediately stopped by the city guard.
"What's all this then?" one of them said, indicating Koman's body slung over Haroldo's shoulder.
"He's my brother," Yannus explained. "We were traveling up the coast when we were set upon by an enormous crab."
"Sounds like a shark-eater," the guard nodded. "Fair amount of them in these waters."
"Show him, Boris," Yannus instructed.
Boris dutifully hauled a hunk of crabmeat as large as he was out of his pack.
"We managed to slay it," Yannus said, "but not before it killed my brother."
"Dangerous outside the city walls," the guard said soberly. "You have my sympathies. Where are you taking him?"
"To our caravan in the Bone Quarter," Yannus replied. "To prepare him for burial."
Koya was grief-stricken when she saw Koman's body and heard what had transpired. Sandru was grim-faced, but silent.
"We will use the Seal," Ameiko suggested immediately, even before Yannus had a chance to suggest it himself.
"I had hoped you would say as much," Yannus said, gratefully. "Though I know you are aware of the risk."
"If I am not willing to make sacrifices for my friends and family," Ameiko replied, "then what is the point of making this journey at all?"
She brought out the warding box and opened it, exposing the Seal. She drew it forth and rested it upon Koman's chest. It pulsed once with emerald light, and then became dormant again. Nothing changed. Then, each of the Scions gasped as their eyes rolled back in their heads, overcome with another vision. This time it was of Koman, standing in a sun-drenched, wooded glade, a peaceful smile on his face.
'Continue the journey, my friends,' he spoke to all of them. 'I'm staying behind. Know that I have no regrets, and you have my blessing. Go with Desna, and may the road rise up to greet you.'
The vision faded, and they all knew implicitly that Koman was well and truly gone.
Koya was understandably saddened, and disappointed, but she respected her son's decision. As was the Varsian way, his family, Yannus, Sandru, and herself, would divide up his possessions. For his part, Sandru took only the wayfinder Koman had found in the dungeons of Brinewall. The kami-possessed sash that Koman had worn was now inert, it's spirit departed. Koya said she would prepare him for his final rest, but that she would wait to bury him until they were back on the road again, as was the practice among Desnans.
The following morning, with no other leads to follow, the Scions headed back to the Jade Quarter and the shrine of Shellyn. That was where Uksahkka had told them to meet her after they had rescued Ulf from the funeral barge. The fact that he had not, in fact, been rescued was beside the point. There were few options. Neko accompanied them, having attached himself to Boris, and with nowhere else to go. As they made their way through the crowded streets, they could not fail to notice the ubiquitous ravens that followed them everywhere they went. At one point, Mazael glanced over his shoulder.
"Don't look now," he said, "but I think we picked up a tail. He's been with us for a few blocks now, hanging back and trying to look inconspicuous."
"Don't worry," Boris smiled. "Boris handle this."
"I'll come with you, Master," Neko said excitedly.
"Stop saying that!" Boris snapped. "You no come. Boris very sneaky."
"I can be sneaky too!" Neko hopped up and down. "Please take me with you! Pleeeeaaase!"
Boris sighed and grumbled. "Fine, but if you get Boris in trouble, Boris will be very unhappy."
"Boris," Yannus said, "remember, we don't want to cause a scene. We are trying to go unnoticed."
"Don't worry," the goblin grinned, "nobody see Boris unless Boris want to be seen."
Boris and Neko dropped back through the crowds and made their way around the block, trying to get behind their follower. As they rounded the last corner, they spotted him just a few yards ahead. It was a boy, Tian, not more than a teenager. Boris eased forward, slipping a dagger from his belt as he went. Neko's eyes went wide when he saw it, but he said nothing. When Boris reached the boy, he placed one hand on his shoulder, and pushed the tip of his blade gently against his back. He felt the boy stiffen.
"You be good boy, now," Boris whispered in his ear, "and tell Boris why you following his friends."
"Please," the boy said, fear in his voice. "Don't hurt me! The hooded man...he paid me to follow you and leave notes!"
"What man look like?" Boris asked. "Where you leave notes?"
"I never saw his face!" the boy said. "I swear! He told me to leave the notes under a specific barrel on the docks!"
Boris was silent for a moment, then he withdrew his dagger and put it away.
"Good boy," he said. "Now you do something for Boris. Boris pay you gold to keep putting notes under barrel, but you say Boris and his friends leaving town. Going south to Sandpoint to bury other friend. Ok?"
The boy nodded furiously.
"Boris trust you, boy," the goblin said, "but Boris also know if you not do what you say. Run home now."
He released his grip on the boy, who promptly vanished into the crowd.
As they traveled deeper into the Jade Quarter, the Scions passed a blind beggar on a street corner. In and of itself, this was not unusual, as the neighborhood was full of such unfortunates, but as they walked past, he called out.
"They know who you are, and are coming for you!"
Yannus held his hand up for the others to stop.
"What do you mean, old man?" he asked. "Who is coming for us?"
"I do not know," the beggar shrugged. "This is what I was told to say."
"By whom?" Yannus asked. "You're blind. How could you know to whom you were to deliver your message?"
The old man shrugged again. "I was only told to wait for someone who smelled like cabbage. Then I was to deliver that message. He paid me two coppers."
He shook the coins in his bowl for emphasis.
"Cabbage?" Mazael looked confused.
Boris sniffed the air, then turned towards Piotr. He leaned closer and sniffed at the sorcerer's robes.
"Boris smell cabbage," the goblin announced.
Piotr looked skeptical and sniffed under his arms.
"I don't smell anything," he said.
"You no cook," Boris said.
"And you're not blind," the beggar added.
"May I see your coins?" Yannus asked the man
He held his bowl up, and the priest examined the pair of coppers.
"Minkai," Yannus said.
Finally, the Scions turned the corner onto the street where Shellyn's shrine lay. Suddenly, the sounds of screams and the crashing of tumbling masonry rolled down the street over the normal noises of the crowd. Ahead, above the press, the shrine slowly swayed and collapsed into the street, dumping the facade of stone and mortared brick on those unfortunates below, resulting another wave of screams of pain and fear. As the companions watched in horror, some...thing stepped out of the wreckage. It was twice the size of a man, and twice as broad, but appeared to be entirely made of earth and stone.
Mazael and Haroldo were in motion as the twangs of Neko's and Lucian's bows sounded from behind them. On the heels of those arrows, streaks of glowing missiles flew from Piotr's hands. When the blood rager and the war priest reached the elemental, they began hammering it from both sides, sending chunks of debris flying in all directions. Suddenly, one pile driver-like fist from the behemoth smashed down on Haroldo, sending the big man staggering back. Yannus was there to take his place, however, stabbing with his glaive. The creature shuddered under the steady barrage, and eventually crumbled. As it fell, however, it abruptly vanished into thin air. Piotr quickly began to scan the area, knowing what this meant: the elemental had been summoned.
"There!" he shouted, pointing towards a nearby rooftop.
The others followed his gaze, and just caught sight of the large, blood-feathered raven as it took flight and disappeared over the roof line.
"We have to find Yin-Po!" Yannus cried as he rushed into the wreckage of the shrine.
It didn't take much searching to find the old priest. He was unconscious, but seemed largely uninjured. Yannus laid his hands upon him, infusing his own divine power. Slowly, Yin-Po's eyes fluttered open.
"What happened here, Master Po?" Yannus asked.
"I...I'm not sure," the old man said, sitting up carefully. "An earth elemental appeared out of nowhere and attacked. I was caught off guard and could not stop it."
"Where is Uksahkka?" Yannus asked.
Yin-Po's eyes grew wide as the younger priest helped him to his feet.
"She...she was in the safe room," he said, "behind the shrine! Come, we must see to her safety!"
All of them rushed into the alley in back of the ruined building. There they found what had obviously been a hidden door, but it had been smashed in from the outside. Within was an empty cellar. There was no sign of violence, but Ukshakka was nowhere to be found. A search of the room revealed only one clue: a large, black feather lying in a corner. It was much too large to be that of a normal raven, or even the large, blood-feathered raven. Another mystery.
"Now what?" Mazael asked. "We've got no sword, no guide, and now no vharki girl."
The others all looked at one another, none of them having a ready answer. Suddenly, all eyes turned to Boris.
"What?" the goblin asked suspiciously. "What you looking at?"
The he felt it. The elaborate Ulfen helmet he'd been wearing ever since he'd found it on the funeral barge was moving. It's wings were flapping, and it rose slowly off his head. It hovered in the air for a moment, and then flapped over to Mazael and settled upon his brow. Then, as if things could not get any stranger, the helmet began to speak.
"Greetings fellow Travellers," it said in a high-pitched, melodic voice. "I am Helgarval. I am an agent of the Desna, a cassisian angel. I was summoned to this plane to serve a powerful priest of my Lady, but my master met an unfortunate end. Since then, I have been attempting to do good deeds while I am stranded here, so that my betters may take notice of me and return me to my home in Elysium. In my years here, I have learned of the presence of a group of evil creatures in Kalsgard known as oni. These beings are part of an organization known as the Five Storms, and their agents here are part of a guild of thieves and assassins known as the Frozen Shadows. In turn, this group hides behind the facade of a powerful trading consortium called the Rimerunner's Guild. The head of this guild is a woman named Thorborg Silverskorr. Her close associate and advisor is a local spellcaster called Goti Runecaster, and he, in turn, has a certain familiar...a blood-feather raven. Do you see?"
"I believe we do," Yannus smiled grimly. "How did you come to be on the funeral barge?"
"I learned that Snorri Stone-Eye was also affiliated with the Rimerunner's Guild," Helgarval replied, "so I stowed away on his ship to try and find more information, but I became trapped there. When your little goblin friend came aboard, I was at first suspicious. When I saw how bravely he fought, however foolish it may have been, I did what I could for him. My divine aura protected him from the draugr, keeping it from killing him outright."
"Talking hat save Boris?" Boris asked, bewildered.
"Indeed," the helm answered, "but I cannot stay with you. This one is also a follower of Desna, and so my path lies with him if he will have me."
Mazael smiled wickedly.
"Welcome aboard, partner!" he laughed.
"Well," Yannus said to his companions, "I suppose we have a guild hall to investigate."