Hocus, Scythe, and Wicklow arrive in Gripp in the early evening after a three-day stagecoach journey from Dimplow. The three of them take a large room in the Delia Arms. They have brought Heraklese Polychronakos with them, and give him enough money to get himself a room in a nearby, but less expensive, establishment.
Back in Dimplow, Heraklese told our heroes that his father is not rich, although he is a coffee grower, and that he himself was on the run from the law in his home state in Phthisk (also known as Issikoss). Although he is a free man, he has no money, and he speaks no Weilandic. Our heroes are of a mind to give him enough money for a few weeks lodging, and leave him in Dimplow. But Heraklese persuades them otherwise. He wants to work for them. He wants to be a junior partner. At first they laugh at him, but he is persuasive.
"There are any number of things I can do to help you," he says, and he lists a good number of them.
And so he is with them in Gripp.
Visit the Three Aces Summoning Agency office in Gripp. They have an office there to serve the wizards of the Vatzit University. There is one man in the office. He says he was warned that three men matching their description, and giving their names, would be coming to pick up a bridge. But he does not have their bridge. The bridge will be delivered to him at Rockwell's Conjunction, which will occor on or around the third of May this year. The conjunction is two day's ride up the road to Weiland. He will be going up there to receive the bridge himself from a courier.
Another name for this conjunction is "Clarus-Doras One", or CSDR1, being the first conjunction between Clarus, a Free World, and Doras, and Open World, that the Gods discovered on Clarus. Hocus deduces that the bridges cannot be coming through the Rockwell Conjunction because all summoning bridges must pass through the Olympian Standard Bridge on Eldrich. But it appears that the bridges, for some reason, are not being delivered to the agent in Gripp, but rather to the conjunction. They can see no reason why this would be the case, but they do not ask the representative about it.
Train in the gym, and practice. Hocus and Heraklese teach Latin to Wicklow and Scythe. Heraklese gets friendly with the bar maid in the Delia Arms, and finds in her a good teacher of Weilandic. After a couple of days, Heraklese is working behind the bar at Delia Arms. His Greek and Latin are useful with foreign guests.
Hocus, Wicklow, and Scythe take stagecoaches to the Meadow Inn, near the site of the imminent Rockwell Conjunction. Heraklese has already gone on ahead with Trixi, the barmaid, with a group of young people from Gripp, to watch the Celesti arrive. There won't be much trading at the conjunction, because it connects to the open world Doras, but a Celesti is always a fine spectacle.
Archery, fine food, croquet, and cards at the Meadow Inn.
There are a dozen open-sided canopies in front of the conjunction. The watchers stand around the entrances. Perhaps a hundred sight-seers wander around, or just sit and watch. Their camps are at the edge of the large clearing in which the Celesti has landed. Occasionally, travelers emerge from the Celesti, and wait for a stagecoach, or ride to the Meadow Inn. Heraklese has joined our heroes as approach the canopies looking for the Three Aces representative. A woman and a boy emerge from the Celesti. They have come from Doras. They start walking towards the canopies, and then jogging. They have one suitcase each, and it appears that they would move faster if it were not for their burdens.
One of watchers shouts, "Get away from the celesti! Dragon coming through!"
Even the watchers start to run, and almost everyone else nearby does the same. Our heroes stop and stare. What will happen next? Heraklese is in front of them, and he stops too, but does not turn around. The celesti sits peacefully in front of them, forty of fifty meters in diameter, and ten meters high.
The conjunction convulses violently. Something long and sleek shoots out of the entrance. Even as our heroes try to make out the shape and features of a dragon as they have seen them drawn in pictures, they are deafened by the blast of its passage through the confined space of the conjunction.
The dragon, for they assume this is what they saw, leaves a trail of dense black smoke behind it, and the wind of its passage rips the canopies from their moorings and drags them high into the air, along with paper, tables, and ropes. Heraklese disappears beneath a canvass sheet, and numerous other people, too slow and with their backs to the debris flying towards them, are struck and wounded, or simply thrown to the ground by the wind. Our heroes, unable to hear, watch the smoke settle around them, and drift across the clearing. Pieces of paper flutter to earth. A wounded man opens his mouth and cries out, but they cannot hear his voice.
Wicklow, Scythe, and Hocus help the wounded and shocked. The woman and boy they saw emerging from the celesti are nearby, helping too. Later, when everyone's hearing has recovered, the woman introduces herself as Sallinis, and her son as Dushkin. She is around forty years old, and he says he is eleven. They are looking for someone to escort them to their home. She does not hesitate to tell them of her need, and when Scythe talks to one of the watchers, a white-haired fellow with pale skin and sun-glasses, the watcher asks Scythe to take care of the boy and woman. He gives Scythe his card, and says the watchers will owe them a favor if they see Sallinis and Dushkin safely to "where they want to go."
The card gives the watcher's name as Kalikan Drakonin. Scythe recognizes his name from stories he read when he was a boy, in the Amazing Adventures magazine.
Our heroes, Heraklese, and the woman and her son sit down around a table with a pot of tea, and talk. Sallinis tells them she is pleased with the way they helped the wounded during the crisis, and would like to hire them as her escort. She offers $10,000 Olympian, and another ten thousand on arrival. When our heroes agree, in principle, she tells them that they wish to go to Diamantis, a city state on the North-West coast of the Satian Sea, with population ten or twenty thousand people. She says that the present ruler of Diamantis is King Ortophus. He deposed and exiled his brother Gallinis fifteen years ago. Gallinis was Sallinis's father. He died two years ago. Dushkin is the rightful heir to the throne, and the people of Diamantis have grown weary of Ortophus.
"He is a cruel tyrant," Sallinis says, in Latin, and Hocus translates into Weilandic for Scythe and Wicklow.
"And you are taking Dushkin home to claim the throne?" Hocus says.
"Perhaps. But we need protection. It is possible that, even now, we are being watched by Ortophus's spies. I wish to leave immediately."
Before accepting the job, Wicklow makes it clear to Sallinis that, if they are to escort her, Sallinis and Dushkin must obey them in matters of safety and escape from pursuit, should such be necessary. She agrees.
Leaving immediately poses a problem, in that our heroes are here to pick up their Three Aces summoning bridge, and the bridge is not here yet. But Heraklese says he will stay at the conjunction and wait for it, then catch them up. Take a stagecoach to the nearby town of Bolney, where Hocus gives Heraklese a walkie-talkie with sibilant membrane.
Set off for Gripp. Heraklese returns to the conjunction. Stay the night in the hotel owned by Trixi's uncle Jake.
Arrive in Gripp and take two rooms, one for themselves, and one for Sallinis and Dushkin in the Delia Arms. One of our heroes is in the room with Sallinis and Dushkin at all times. Sallinis changes clothes and bathes behind a screen.
Heraklese tells them through the walkie-talkie that he has the Three Aces summoning bridge, and he's coming back to Gripp immediately. They decide to wait for him.
Take Sallinis's gems to a jeweler. He values them at 120 gp, so our heroes are pleased with their first payment.
Waiting for Heraklese to arrive.
The royalty stay in their room, despite Dushkin's protests that he wants to go out and explore the town.
Heraklese arrives and gives them their Three Aces Summoning bridge. He tells them that a man came into Jake's hotel asking after "a woman and a boy, travelling with three men." Jake said yes, the party left that morning, the morning of the 17th May. Heraklese heard Jake's story on the morning of the 19th May. Jake described the man as having "brown hair, blue eyes, a beard, and in his late thirties."
We note that Heraklese, after four weeks of near-constant study, is fluent in Weilandic, and can translate from Latin into Weilandic for Scythe and Wicklow when they want to talk to Sallinis and Dushkin. The two royalty make no effort to learn any language, but speak their Latin with full verb conjugations and correct grammar. Sallinis occasionally corrects Heraklese and Hocus's Latin, and smiles at them while she does so.
There is a man in a cloak standing under the eaves of the building opposite the hotel. He has a beard, brown hair under his hood, and weathered skin. Hocus and Scythe approach him. He has a foreign accent, and thanks them for lighting his pipe. Hocus notices that he has blue eyes, but would place the man's age at nearer forty-five than thirty-five. Hocus asks him if he has seen much conflict on his voyages.
"The sea is always in conflict with herself," he says.
Heraklese tells the man that they have been watching him standing out there all day.
Buy copper perforated cases for bridge rings. Buy maps of Weiland and Satian Sea and seal them in a tube. Hocus carries them. Determine that there is a stagecoach to Drakhma every few hours during the day. Ming al Rokhgwaith lands his griff on the roof of the Delia Arms and takes a room. He receives a lot of attention in the dining hall that night.
Take stage coach towards Drakhma. At lunch stop, Sallinis and Dushkin are splattered with mud by another coach. Dushkin is angry, but Sallinis remains composed. The first thing she does when they reach their hotel for the night is change. She appears to have four changes of clothes in all, to Dushkin's two changes.
Our heroes decide that the best way to lose their follower is to launch a balloon. Sallinis concedes the point, and in the early morning a farmer takes them in his wagon to a field, where they can launch their balloon. The sun is rising when the balloon is ready.
But Sallinis refuses to step into the basket. Wicklow, through Heraklese, tells her that, under the terms of their employment, she must do as they ask. She argues that there is no need for the balloon. A ship will be fine. The balloon is more dangerous than any possible pursuer. But Wicklow does not relent.
She steps into the balloon.
When they begin to ascend, she is white in the face and crouching down in the basket. Dushkin looks over the side with enthusiasm.
Hocus is using a 6-hr variant of the Balloon spell, one that can lift 400 kg. Today they have a slow 4-kph breeze out of the south-east. They fly low over the trees for an hour, in order to stay out of view of a terrestrial follower. But when they come over a hill and nearly bump into a church spire, they ascend to a thousand meters.
That evening they land gently in a field belonging to the hospitable Sir Kronin, who puts them up for the night and feeds them, as well as telling them about all the battles he has fought in hereabouts in his younger days.
SE'ly 20 kph for seven hours, stay night in tavern. Sallinis is used to the balloon now, and enjoys the ride as much as everyone else.
Balloon to coast, walk into town and stay in the best hotel they can find, although it is not a comfortable one.
Find a boat on its way to Godiva, and set sail. Drop anchor at Rapmouth, but stay the night on the ship.
Arrive Godiva, find a hotel, and reserve passage on a wool-trading boat bound for Troka, just south of Diamantis. Sallinis tells our heroes that her "allies" live in the south of Diamantis, and will be waiting for them, "God Willing".
Embark. Sallinis suffering from sea-sickness.
Approaching Troka, they see a frigate following them. It flies the Diamantis colors, and when it draws near, after an hour or two, it shows flags ordering the captain of the wool-trader to stop and be inspected.
The captain suspects that the frigate is looking for his passengers, because such a search is unusual. After a few words with our heroes, Sallinis goes below, gets her and her son's passports, comes up on deck again, walks to the rail, and drops them overboard. The captain shouts at her to stop, but he is too late. The passports bob in the waves.
The crew of the ship is nervous. The captain says he does not want to harbor renegades. Our heroes decide it is time to launch a balloon.
"Over the ocean?" Heraklese says.
"What else can we do?" Hocus says.
Even Sallinis agrees.
The adventurers take control of the rear deck, and spend twenty minutes making a balloon. The frigate is getting nearer all the time. When they lift off into a westerly breeze, they rise quickly to several hundred meters and pass over the frigate.
And so they begin their journey by balloon across the ocean. Hocus's spell creates foam that lasts for only six hours. To keep the balloon aloft continuously, he must prepare four such spells twenty-four hours. Preparing a spell on the floor of a small wicker basket with the legs of five other people crowded around you is not easy. Nevertheless, he manages to prepare two spare spells by night time.
The half-moon is waxing, and sets at midnight. After that, it is dark. How will they know their altitude? They do not have an pressure-based altimeter, having never flown at night before, let alone over the water. Someone is shining a flashlight down at all times, watching for the water. Hocus decides to stay up for the rest of the night. But he is exhausted.
It starts to rain, but the balloon keeps the rain off the basket.
At around three in the morning, Scythe, who is watching below, sees the waves coming up towards them fast.
Hocus begins to fill the balloon as fast as he can. The sea is only forty meters below, and they are descending quickly.
"Throw something overboard!" Wicklow says.
"Everything we have, we need," Hocus says.
"What about these suitcases?"
"No!" Sallinis says, and clutches her suitcase firmly.
Dushkin picks his up, and throws it over board without hesitation.
"Dushkin!" his mother says, "Your clothes."
"We're not going to make it," Hocus says, looking down, "I can't make enough foam."
"Tie a rope to me," Heraklese says.
"Are you serious?" Wicklow says, but Scythe has already taken out his rope. He loops it under Heraklese's arms.
"Why you?" Wicklow says.
"I'm not wearing armor."
"He's got a point," Hocus says.
"You're set," Scythe says.
The water is only fifteen meters below. Heraklese vaults over the edge of the basket, setting it to rocking violently, and lands in the swell below.
Immediately, the balloon slows down, and then begins to rise again. But one thing that Heraklese forgot to account for was the motion of the balloon in the wind, at around twenty kilometers per hour. When the rope tightens, it drags him through the water, immersing him for ten or twenty seconds at a time in the two-meter swells.
A few minutes later, the balloon has enough lift to drag Heraklese right out of the water again. He hangs limply on the rope. Our heroes haul him up. He has a broken arm, several broken ribs, and he is blue with cold, but he is still conscious and alive.
"I don't think I'll try that again," he says.
Another day drifting around over the Satian Sea, but they believe they are making some progress towards the east coast. Hocus is exhausted, and Heraklese is in pain and has a fever. The night is long and cold. Sallinis sounds like she is crying a couple of times. Dushkin is shivering and silent.
A strong westerly wind takes them over land at last, and they put down in a field at the earliest opportunity. They have a bouncy landing, but nobody is hurt, despite the speed of their approach. Hocus lets the foam out of the balloon, and everyone gets out. Even Heraklese is glad to stand up and walk around.
"Okay," Wicklow says, "We need warmth, food, and a cleric."
After packing up the balloon in its basket, the weary travelers set off along the horse-track leading away from the field, until they come to a farm house. Here they are warmly received by the farmer's wife, her children, and then the farmer himself. She sits them down in front of the kitchen fire and serves them hot pie, and he pours them jugs of ale from his own barrels.
After lunch, the farmer gives them a ride to Richdale, four kilometers away, in his open cart. Richdale turns out to be a town of one hundred houses, with one Inn, the Duke's Arms. The farmer stops in front of the Inn. They thank him and give him a gold piece for his services, which he accepts.
Toby is the innkeeper's name. He gives them two rooms, according to their standard arrangement, and in response to their questions about a local healer, he recommends without hesitation their cleric Anthony, who lives up the street, in the house next to the church.
And so they visit Anthony, who lays Heraklese down on a table in his healing room, and tells everyone else to go out, except Wicklow, who is an aspiring healer himself. Heraklese is anxious, but lies down obediently. Anthony inspects Heraklese's chest and arm. Wicklow, as it turns out, has set the arm imperfectly, although Anthony says the break is an unusual one.
"Better set like this than not at all," Anthony says. He pulls and twists Heraklese's arm, putting the bone into place correctly.
"Aaaaaaahhh!" Heraklese says, and breaths quickly and deeply for several minutes afterwards.
"Now I need a blood sample," Anthony says. He takes out a syringe and draws a little blood from Heraklese's arm.
"Back in a minute."
He leaves the room, and returns a few minutes later.
"It's going to be ten gold pieces for the blood test, and ten for the healing serum, but it will be worth it if you can afford it. He will be better in a day or two with the serum, otherwise he will be in a sling for eight weeks."
"We'll take the serum," Wicklow says.
Heraklese raises his head briefly from the table. "Thanks."
"You've earned it," Wicklow says.
They take Heraklese home and put him in bed in the adventurer's room. Wicklow brings him soup. Our heroes, and Heraklese as well, feel that they need to sit down and have a long talk with Sallinis, but they decide to wait until Heraklese is better, which should be in a day or two.
Stock up on provisions, rest, and talk. Heraklese is feeling much better, although it still hurts him to laugh. The healing serum has clearly worked wonders for his bones, which are almost healed.
Here are some of the things our heroes find themselves discussing while sitting around Heraklese's bed, out of the hearing of Sallinis and Dushkin. We note, however, that Heraklese, Hocus, Wicklow, and Scythe can converse in Weilandic now that Heraklese has learned to speak the language, and in theory their two charges should not be able to understand them. But Dushkin may understand more Weilandic than he is willing to admit, so they don't take chances.
They end up calling Three Aces and paying to speak to one of their 'research consultants', at a cost of 20 gp per hour. He is an elf, but does not give his name. He is polite, and speaks in clear, classic Latin. He speaks slowly but he chooses his words carefully, so they do not find themselves impatient.
The elf says that the main use of new summoning bridges on Clarus is to replace ones that fail, which is rare, or to replace ones that travelers destroy and discard before returning to Clarus through a conjunction. The bridges they destroy are time-shifted, and Olympian Law mandates monitoring of such bridges, or destruction. With the arrival of wizards in Olympia to make bridges inexpensively for the gods, the policy these days is to destroy problematic bridges. Consequently, the summoning agencies send new bridges, all of which arrive on Clarus through the Eldrich standard-time conjunction, to conjunctions with the open worlds, such as CSDR1.
After looking in the Olympian Public Record, the Three Aces research consultant tells them that a god called Aries owns the Diamantis temple plot, and reads them the following biography of Aries, dated 2462:
Aries: Came from Terra. Famous for his willingness live life on an equal footing with sapiens, and without revealing his divinity. He has published many essays describing his adventures on Vagor, although these are centuries old now. Recently, he was the center of attention on Olympia for his part in dominating the planet Corfu and causing the bankruptcy of the Stable Way corporation. His whereabouts are currently unknown, but his assets have been seized. The Ursian government will not reveal the fate of the many Ursian temple plots previously owned by Aries.
The population of Diamantis, at the last Census, was 23,000. Meanwhile, the Troka plot is owned by a god called Tilanyati.
The elf tells them that gods who own temple plots on Clarus grant Free-World passport to open-world citizen they designate. Otherwise, open-world citizens can buy citizenship in the Free Worlds for 500 gp, a price that includes the issuing of a Free-World passport.
They leave the researcher with the task of digging up any papers Aries might have written about his management of Diamantis, and any details of Aries's more recent whereabouts.
Discussion among the adventurers leads to the conclusion that Ortophus cannot have more than four or five naval frigates, so that sailing across the sea to somewhere like Dip would make it next to impossible for the Diamantis navy to find them by systematic search.
But there remains the possibility of spies on the coast from which our heroes intend to depart. The king cannot afford to keep spies in every coastal town, but he might have spies in all the major ports. But even if he has spies, the spy would need a space bridge to send word of our heroes' departure in time for them to be intercepted.
And so they return to the question of whether or not Ortophus has a court wizard. If he does, then the wizard will understand our hero's balloon, and be able to guess at their current position, as well as keep in touch with spies on the East coast.
Our heroes calculate that, with a population of 23,000, and tax of $1,000 per person per year, the King cannot have more than $23 million to spend a year. Perhaps $10 million might go to military spending, and half of that to the navy. With the other half spent on the army, they may have enough money to hire a few tenth-level fighters and keep a standing army of a few hundred men-at-arms.
There are three main reasons why our heroes decide that they believe Sallinis's story. First, the watcher at CSDR1 encouraged them to take the job. Second, a man-at-arms followed the party from the conjunction, and watched the hotel in Gripp. This man spoke Weilandic with the same accent they hear in Dushkin's voice when they teach him a few words in Weilandic, and he was wearing armor under his clothes, which is illegal in Gripp. Third, when the Diamatian navy came after their ship, Sallinis, who they know well by now, was unquestionably frightened by the prospect of being captured by them. And yet she wants to go to Diamantis, not flee from it.
That evening, the entire group eats together in the Inn's private dining room. The food is wholesome, the room is warm, and Sallinis awards the wine unusually high praise.
"It's pleasantly rustic." She hold her glass in front of Heraklese, and he picks up the bottle and pours her some more.
Our heroes question Sallinis closely. She does not appear to take any offence, or regard their questioning as insulting. When they ask her about Diamantis's god, she says, "My lord Alamasius's blessing is with us."
Alamasius must be Aries's alias in Diamantis.
"You talk to your Lord Alamasius?" Wicklow says.
"Yes, I have done so for some time. It was he who encouraged me to return with my son to Diamantis, and he who gives me the courage to go on, even when it seems that we will surely fall into the power of the Tyrant Ortophus."
"Do you speak to him often?"
"Of course, I pray to him for his guidance every day, and often he answers me."
Our heroes nod their heads knowingly. She must have a bridge on her, perhaps the very same bridge her father carried out with him when he took her to Doras fifteen years ago. Now she has brought it back.
"I speak to My Lord Alamasius by means of our family icon. For years My Lord did not speak to my father. But soon after his death, two years ago, he spoke to me, and has done so ever since."
Staying in the Duke's Arms, resting and enjoying the fire in their rooms, and the food. Our heroes spend a lot of time talking, learning from one another, especially Hocus, about the Gods, the Olympian Laws, and temple plots.
The Three-Aces elf tells them that Aries re-appeared two years ago, and might currently be staying in the Floating City owned by his friend Bakkus, on the Open World called Overlook. The Olympian Public record shows that Aries leased his Claran temple plots to Bakkus two centuries ago for an indefinite period, but Bakkus and he cancelled the lease two years ago. Thus, for the first time in almost two hundred years, Aries is in charge of Diamantis.
"He was back in business two years ago, and Sallinis heard from him two years ago," Heraklese says.
Our heroes recall that Sallinis threw away her passports without hesitation, in the hope that the ship's crew might not recognize her. This showed that she must not have paid the 500 gp fee for each passport if she purchased them from the watchers, and this leads our heroes to the conclusion that Aries must have granted her the passports for free, and that this confirms Sallinis's assertion that her lord is in favor of a change of kings in Diamantis.
"But Dushkin is just a boy," Hocus says, "So Sallinis will be the one with the power."
"Yes indeed," Wicklow says.
Our heroes learn that there is a small port, Sutton-on-Sea, twenty kilometers from Richdale. They resolve to go there when they feel restored to health, and find passage to a country farther south of Diamantis than Troka. They consult their maps.
"Dip should do it," Scythe says, "The Diamatians can't patrol that far south with the number of ships we think they have."
Aries wrote several articles about Diamantis, all of them over two hundred years old. The first one their Three Aces researcher comes across is a thousand years old. Aries' policy in Diamantis was to give nothing to the people other than good advice, and yet still expect from them a tithe close to 10% of their income. In this he was consistently successful, despite Diamantis' proximity to nations that received medial aid from their gods.
Go to Sutton-on-Sea in a four-horse coach, and find a decent hotel. The next day, find a boat leaving for Dip on 17th. Wait for it.
Set sail for Dip in a three-master carrying iron for the mountain dwarves.
Arrive in the evening, after an uneventful sea-journey, at Yukma, capital city of Dip. Yukma is usually referred to simply as Dip, because the country is only a small one, with no other major cities. So far as sailors are concerned, the city and the country are one and the same. The port has ten or twenty quays. A dozen large merchant vessels are tied up, and two frigates.
Buy horses, tents, and camping equipment, and start off on horseback overland towards Troka. They have six riding horses and one pack horse. First they go west, up into the hills, where the countryside is wild, open, and deserted.
A clear night, they are camping in the hills. So far as they can tell, there is nobody for kilometers around.
Ford a river. They suspect it is the Torn River, but they are not certain. Sallinis rode horses around Diamantis, but not into Troka except along the roads, and they are well off the roads now.
Looking back, Wicklow sees a rider following them.
"Is it that guy?" Hocus says.
"I can't tell."
They are on a ridge. In front of them is a wide, open depression, filled with burned tree-stumps and fresh grass.
"A forest fire," Scythe says, "Last summer. Let's get across the open as quickly as we can, and watch behind us from the next ridge."
And so they canter across the depression, crossing a swampy stream in the middle, and ascend the rise on the other side. Sure enough, the rider follows them. They send the horses down the other side of the rise, into a tall forest, and lie watching him through their binoculars. Scythe applies poison to some of his and Hocus's arrows.
"Why poison?" Wicklow says.
"If we shoot at him, we mean to kill him," Scythe says, "So we might as well use poison."
"It only makes sense," Hocus says, "If you have the poison."
He comes closer and closer, now he is only a hundred meters away.
"It's him," Scythe says.
Hocus agrees. They see the face of the man who was standing outside the Delia Arms in Gripp.
"I can't believe it," Scythe says.
"Well, it's him."
The rider looks up. He has seen some sign of them. He turns his horse and rides west, which is to the right from our hero's perspective, and hides himself and his horse behind a large rock outcrop. They lose sight of him after a while, but wait where they are until it is near sun-down.
They descend into the forest, heading north as they do so, and come to a large river.
"This must be the Torn River," Scythe says.
After dark, Hocus makes a large raft out of conjured wood and stones, and they put all the horses on it and, with the help of a conjured-wood paddle, they make their way across the river and camp four kilometers or so farther north in the forest.
That night a large bear and her two cubs come into their camp. Our hero's efforts to scare them away end up making the mother angry, and she charges. Scythe and Wicklow put four arrows into her, but she keeps coming. Wicklow drops his bow and draws his sword. It is dark in the forest, and the bear is large and moving fast. She gives a roar as she closes in upon her diminutive opponents.
But Wicklow can see her well enough to swing his sword and step aside from her flailing claws at the same time. With the full strength of his legs he swings at her upper torso, and to his astonishment, he cuts right through her neck, severing her head from her body. She collapses to the ground, and there is no noise but the crying of her cubs.
The smell of the bear's blood fills the night air.
Dushkin, now fully awake, kneels by the body of the bear with one of Hocus's magical lights. "Wow! You chopped her head off!"
"Poor thing," Wicklow says.
"It is a Great Hill-Beast," Sallinis says, "To slay one is a mighty deed, and a service to humanity."
"We should kill the cubs," Scythe says.
"Yes, kill the young before they too can kill our young."
Hocus shakes his head.
But the cubs keep their distance.
"Let's break camp instead," Hocus says.
And so they do, moving off a kilometer or two, and laying out their sleeping blankets again. It is a warm, dry, evening, so there is no need to pitch the tents.
Talking from 1 am to 2 am, and then sleep. In the morning, talk to Sallinis.
"Have you spoken with Alamasius lately?" Wicklow says.
Sallinis, they have observed, takes fifteen minutes alone in her tent in the morning and evening, when Dushkin is not allowed to join her. At these times they have assumed she is praying to her god.
"And what did he say?"
They doubt that she talks directly to Aries. He is a busy god. But one of his minions, perhaps an elf, might be talking to her.
Sallinis smiles. "Lord Alamasius said my faith would see me through, and my son."
"Did he ask any questions?"
"What my Lord and I discuss is surely our own business."
"Does he know where we are?" Hocus says.
"Indeed, I did my best to tell him."
"Does he talk to your friends?" Scythe says.
"I imagine that they, too, are devout," Sallinis says.
"Who are these friends?" Scythe says.
"My uncle, the Duke Toylandic Miastadon is loyal to the Awaglachin Family. It is to his estate that Alamasius encourages me to go."
Sallinis's family name is Awaglachin. Her father was Gallinis Awaglachin, and her father's brother, now king, is Ortophus Awaglachin.
"Your uncle on which side?" Wicklow says.
"He is my mother's brother. He has four sons, all full-grown now, and proud."
"You've met them?" Wicklow says.
"Lord Alamasius tells me so."
They pack up and set off. At mid-morning, they stop on a wooded hill. Scythe looks back the way they came, and sees, through a pair of binoculars, their pursuer a kilometer behind them. The man vaults off his horse to inspect the ground. Scythe, who has taken lessons in determining what people might be concealing beneath their clothes, believes the man cannot be wearing armor.
"He could vault off his horse in armor, I'm sure, but not like that. He must have dumped his armor to cross the river."
The man looks forward at their position, and then disappears into some trees.
Our heroes discuss what kind of man their pursuer must be. Clearly, he is an accomplished tracker. But how formidable would he be in combat? Could they take him on? They conclude that he is too skilled a tracker to allow himself to be ambushed. On the other hand, if he were formidable enough as a fighter, surely he would have closed in on them directly on the previous occasion when he had the chance? Either he is not so formidable, or he does not wish to confront them.
With this conclusion in mind, they continue north, intending to make all speed for Toylandic's estate. Sallinis says she will be able to guide them to it once they cross the river into Diamantis, which she knows well from her youth.
At noon, they look down from a forested ridge into a valley full of orchards and fields. In the center is a monastery. They stop for lunch. Hocus prepares spells. Wicklow watches the valley, Scythe watches back the way they came, for their pursuer.
Dushkin sharpened his knife, rubbing it on his whetstone, or tried to sharpen it. He tested the edge upon his thumbnail. It did not seem to be getting any sharper.
"You must keep your knife sharp," his grandfather had said, "Very sharp. A sharp knife is far more effective against an unarmored opponent. Once he feels it, he will fear it. So keep it sharp."
Dushkin stood up, his knife in hand. He looked down the slope. Wicklow was sitting there, watching the valley through his binoculars, the cuffs of his armor sticking out from beneath the sleaves of his rain coat. Wicklow had put the coat on so that the monks would not see the sun shining off the metal rings. But now his sleaves were sticking out. Perhaps they will see the sleaves. But Wicklow probably knows his sleaves are showing. If I tell him I'll look stupid.
Dushkin looked at his knife. I'm old enough to wear armor. I could stick this knife right into a man. If Wicklow was fighting someone and another man attacked him from behind, I could come from the side and stick this knife right through his armor and into his side.
"Okay," Hocus said. He was putting his rune-cards away. "I'm done."
"Do you need a rest?" Scythe said.
Scythe was at the top of the ridge, and spoke down the slope at Hocus.
"No, lets go."
Dushkin could not remember, for a moment, what they were supposed to be doing. They were going down the road to the East, away from the monastery. They were not going to talk to the monks, unless they were spoken to. When the mercenaries were talking about what to do, he had listened hard. He could understand most of what they said when they spoke Weilandic, which they did when they were talking to Heraklese. They talked a great deal, and Dushkin always listened. Dushkin had argued with his mother a number of times, whispering in their tent, about him staying up late and listening to them.
The mercenaries never shouted at one another. So far as Dushkin could tell, none of them was the leader. Dushkin was going to be a king. But they did not need a king. They talked, and then decided. Sometimes Dushkin wanted very much to ask a question, or to tell them an idea. But when he took a breath to speak, his heart suddenly beat fast, and his hands would tremble, and he would stop.
"Okay Dushkin?" Heraklese said, "Saddle up."
"We are going to walk the horses down the hill."
"That's right, kid." Heraklese put his hand on Dushkin's head.
They would need to have the saddles on when they reached the bottom. Dushkin walked to his horse. His mother sat up and put her book away. As she re-tied her hair, she said to Hocus, "Ask Scythe about our shadow."
That was what his mother called the man on horse-back who was following them. Scythe had seen him again, and then he had ridden away.
"No sign of him," Scythe said.
The tracker was somewhere in the forest around them. Dushkin looked over his shoulder before he picked up his saddle.
As they went down off the ridge, his mother slipped and cut her knee. She was bleeding all down her leg. She was nearly crying. He held her hand, but she told him to go back to his pony. Wicklow ordered her to sit down, and pulled up her dress, and pushed her stocking down. She looked at Dushkin and looked away.
"You'll live," Wicklow said. He took out a bandage, wrapped it quickly five times around her knee, and secured it with something small and shiny.
His mother stood up again, pulled up her stocking, and smoothed her dress.
"Okay," Hocus said, "Shall we go?"
"Yes," she said.
The monks came across their fields when he, his mother, and the mercenaries rode by. Hocus spoke to them and they nodded. Dushkin looked at the monastery. The monks probably had some good food in there.
They were riding on the road now. Dushkin had wanted to tell the mercenaries at lunch-time that he thought the road led all the way to the sea. The sun was behind them. Three birds took flight in the forest to the left side of the road. The mercenaries were looking around them all the time. They always did. It was not obvious, the way they did it, but Dushkin knew that if he spoke to one of them, they would not stop moving their heads, even as they answered. When they walked through the forest, they never looked down, or at least Wicklow and Scythe never did.
"Give me your binoculars," Scythe said to Wicklow, holding out his hand. Wicklow passed him the binoculars.
"What is it?"
"Something shiny," Scythe said.
Scythe put the binoculars to his eyes, and looked at the forest on the left. Dushkin looked. Had Scythe seen the birds?
A shout drifted from the forest, and moments later, seven mounted knights charged out of the trees. The sun blazed off their armor and their horses' breast-plates. The mercenaries watched them for a heartbeat or two. Scythe passed the binoculars back to Wicklow. Wicklow put them straight into a saddle bag, and looked West, behind them.
Scythe said, "We can't beat them East."
Hocus said, "The road West must go somewhere."
The knights leaped a low stone wall. Monks ran to get out of their way. The knight's horses' hooves trampled a field of young corn.
His mother shouted, "They're here for us!"
Hocus raised his eyebrow and shook his head. Dushkin was embarrassed for a moment. He looked back at the charging knights and bit his lip.
"I'm going to throw a flash at them," Hocus said.
"West," Wicklow said.
Scythe looked to their right, to a gap in the ridge leading back to the south. He stared at the gap for two or three seconds, then shook his head. "He's out there somewhere."
"West!" Hocus said, and at that instant, there was a blinding flash of light above and to the center of the pack of knights. A second later, Dushkin heard the bang. One of the knights stopped, and another lost control of his horse.
The mercenaries turned their horses. "Go!" They said to he and his mother.
Moments later, they were cantering towards the monastery. Ahead of them, the monks were closing the gate. Wicklow turned his horse off the road and across a field. Scythe was behind them, Heraklese beside him. Dushkin wiped a tear from his eye.
"Come on, kid, kick the damned thing!" Heraklese said.
Something smacked his pony's backside, and it bolted forward, chasing his mother's horse in front of him, over a wall, across a path, over a ditch. Dushkin was nearly thrown from the saddle. He grabbed hold of his reins and squeezed with his legs.
"There you go, kid! We're going to make it, don't you worry!"
They are getting ahead of the knights, who are riding heavy horses with heavy armor. They follow the road away from the monastery. The man who has been pursuing them for so long breaks from the woods to their left, and gallops after them. He is between them and the knights, but he does not slow down to join the knights, but rather urges his horse forward.
Our heroes ride as hard as they can. And after a few kilometers, during which they put a good three hundred meters between them and the knights, they enter a winding ravine. After a couple of bends, they find themselves facing a cliff wall, in front of which are two dwarf guards.
"Halt!" one of the guards says, in loud, commanding Latin.
"We seek sanctuary," Hocus says.
Their pursuer rounds the corner behind them, and stops. Wicklow, Hocus and Scythe turn to face him. They know they have only a twenty seconds before the knights arrive after him.
He throws back the hood of his robe. Sallinis cries out, "Narrassus!"
"My heart is still yours, Sallinis, even after all these years."
She says nothing.
Narrassus faces Wicklow and his companions. "I can lead you out of this trap." He points to the north side of the ravine. "There is a way out there through the trees. The dwarves won't help you."
And so they follow Narrassus out of the ravine, through a narrow gap between two cliffs. "I will stay here and delay them," Narrassus says, "You can head for the house of your uncle. I believe he is loyal."
"I won't leave you," Sallinis says.
"No," Hocus says, "We won't leave you. I'll block this gap with conjured wood."
And he does so, with a conjured wood spell he had prepared for boat-making. While he works, the knights arrive in front of the entrance to the dwarf city, and our heroes can hear both the knights and the dwarves shouting.
"Who do you work for?" Scythe says to Narrassus in Weilandic, which they know he speaks.
"King Ortophus Awaglachin, but now I have betrayed him."
"Why were you following us?"
"I will not explain that now, suffice to say that I did not know what to do, but things appear to be going well enough now. They have committed themselves, and you have escaped."
When Hocus is finished, a few minutes later, Narrassus says, "Follow me. I know the country well. They will not catch us."
Across swamps, by devious paths, and through hills by hidden passes, Narrassus leads them to the sources of the Derelictum River, which they ford easily, and then East, down out of the hills, and along the path of the river towards the Miastadon estate.
But as they pass between two shoulders of a long, forested ridge, six mounted soldiers ride down out of the trees and after them. The horses of the soldiers are fresh, and those of our heroes are tired. It does not take long for the soldiers to catch up. Scythe, Hocus, and Wicklow fire arrows backwards from the saddle, and this keeps the knights at bay. Scythe's and Hocus's arrows are poisoned. Two of the enemy's horses are hit, and begin to slow down. Our heroes get ahead as the soldiers trade horses and continue the pursuit. This time the soldiers close for combat. There is nothing our heroes can do to stop them.
Narrassus, Scythe, Hocus, and Wicklow form a line on horse-back, with Sallinis, Heraklese, and Dushkin behind. They draw swords. The knights charge with spears, then plant the spears and draw swords.
For the first time in their lives, Hocus, and Scythe are face-to-face with an enemy who means to kill them in hand-to-hand combat. It is only the second time for Wicklow. The action is far faster, and more chaotic than either had expected, but it is clear to them that they are not the only ones who are frightened. The soldiers are frightened too, all except the one fighting Hocus. He is the leader. Just before the fight, Hocus was trying to think of some use for his last spell, Scrying Eye, that might give him an advantage, but now that this man is trying to stab him with a one-meter sword, he can think of nothing else but his own protection.
Narrassus beheads his opponent, and turns to help Scythe, but in that moment, Scythe stabs his man in the neck. Scythe pulls his blade free, and watches as blood spurts from the wound. He feels nauseous. The remaining two soldiers turn and flee.
Our heroes consider stripping the corpses of their two fallen enemies, but decide not to. Time is pressing. They ride on towards Sallinis's friends.
A few kilometers later, a party approaches them on the road. As they draw near, Sallinis recognizes her uncle. They are saved.
When the two parties meet, Sallinis introduces Toylandic Miastadon, and two of his sons, and Duke Eribusmus, and one of his sons, and two other sons of nobles, all out looking for Sallinis. She and her uncle speak together quickly, and quietly. Our heroes hear Narrassus's name, and their own.
"Let us go," Toylandic says, "You are weary, I know, but let us press on to the safety of my estate."
And so they find themselves, an hour later, entering the grounds, and then passing through the low outer walls, of the Miastadon Residence. Servants show them to their rooms. The sun is setting. They talk and eat.
Heraklese shows our heroes a 100-gp diamond Sallinis gave him to thank him for his heroic deed when they were ballooning across the ocean.
"This is for saving her clothes from being thrown into the water instead," he says, "Now I would like to know. Am I a partner, in which case this diamond goes into the pot for this job, and we deduct expenses, all of which I have kept track of in detail, and then split it between us. I would be happy with a five or ten percent share. Ten percent would be easy to calculate. Or I'm not a partner, in which case I'll keep this diamond, and pay Hocus the 50 gp I owe him for freeing me from the Calipanti."
"Give us some time to think about it," Wicklow says, "But you did a great job, and thank you."
"I'll keep the gem until you decide."