The constant winds that blew in from the sea up the sheer, gray cliffs of Genmide’s east coast made the airship strain at the great, braided lines that lashed it securely to single skydock that serviced the city of Danescliff. Both the lines and the gangplank that connected the ship’s gondola to the skydock’s gantry to groan in protest.
If the ship had been of the magical variety; shaped like a sailing ship with wings, or a great spearhead and held aloft by mighty spells, there would have been magic to keep it the craft steady even in full gale. As it happened, The Destrier was a mostly mundane artifice; held aloft by an envelope of lighter-than-air gas and stabilized with extendable fins of wood and cloth. A mystic steam engine powered it propellers and ere-a and ferif arrays strengthened its superstructure, but no magic held it in place or protected it from wind and storm. It made for a less smooth ride, but a more affordable one.
Or it would have been if all the expense that didn’t go into magical flight and stabilization went into making the gondola’s innards as posh and comfortable as any palace belonging to a dwarf king of Genmide—or possibly even nicer if the rumors were true.
Phylo wondered what the famously stern and frugal kings of the mountains and hillocks of Genmide would think of the polished teak, rich, red plush and finely hammered aluminum that decorated the passenger sitting room of the gondola as he watched a light rain fall on the city through a massive crystal glass window.
The room was larger than most common rooms in the inns he’d spent his time in on his journey to meet The Destrier in Danescliff, and the only person sharing it with him was an ogre standing at the lacquered wooden double doors leading out to the gangplank.
Well over eight feet tall, the ogre was one of the plainsmen of Callen: a hardy breed and amiable, distinguished from their brutish mountain brothers by a thin pelt of green hair where the other had bald, leather skin all over. This ogre, who Phylo knew as Grengar the Shattered Tooth, was dapper for an ogre, dressed in a crisp, white lace-up shirt and pressed canvas trousers. He’d even oiled down his long, green hair—not only on his head, but his forearms and chest as well. His attention wasn’t on Phylo though, but on the skydock’s gantry.
Following his gaze, Phylo spotted who Grengar was watching. A pair of figures had emerged from the lift at the heart of the skydock’s tower.
One was obviously a hailene; lithe of body in most places but with a broad chest balanced against a pair of great, white wings that she currently kept tucked in close to her back against the cold rain. She had platinum blonde hair coiled atop her head in a complex braid that required no less than three silver pins as long as Phylo’s middle finger to support it. Short for a hailene, barely topping six feet if that, she wore charcoal gray robes with golden embroidery on black panels showing off stylized symbols for vox, the energy of the void: two nested circles with a pair of parallel lines intersecting them at the top.
Or maybe it was just that her towering companion was throwing off his estimate. The other person—Phylo couldn’t tell their gender either way—was easily over seven feet: tall even for a hailene. Assuming they were a hailene. It was impossible to tell but a decent enough guess given their mode of dress.
A coat of stark white with a pair of red stripes on the shoulders and along the floor-length hem enveloped their entire body with a hood that covered their head. The hood would have allowed their face to be seen, but said face was covered by a featureless, silver mask with not but a slit for their eyes to see by. One hand, clad in a brown leather glove that went to at least mid-forearm clutched the long handle of a wheeled cart carrying a heavy oaken trunk and half a dozen assorted leather bags and cases.
Phylo raised an eyebrow at that, feeling disappointment well up a second time in as many days. He tried to fight it down by assuring himself that the invitation never said how long the summoned parties would be at Dragonwrought or whether the island had shops or tailors to tend to their needs.
But a trunk and seven bags worth of clothes and toiletries? Even split between the pair, that was too much for anyone but the most vain fop pretending at heroism and a call to adventure. Useless as ‘Sir’ Tarnenash then. At least there was no evidence of either of these two taking liberties with hapless tavern servants or using violence when said servants disagreed with such.
The two started up the gangplank and Grengar pulled the doors open for them once they got close enough. Puffing out his chest, the ogre put on a welcoming an expression, a smile that showed off his many broad, flat teeth and pair of stubby tusks. “Welcome to The Destrier, Miss Skyshroud, Miss—“
“That is Lady Skyshroud, Lady Penelope Iyanka Skyshroud.” snapped the short hailene, stomping through the doors and swiftly invading Grengar’s personal space. She had to crane her neck to look him in the face, but she still managed to seem as if she were looking down on him. “I will have you know that I am a Reclaimant of Illium. One hundred acres on the Isle of Jahil including the castle atop Calibourne Cliffs, ancestral home of the Skyshroud family.”
Gesturing back to her traveling companion, who had only just entered the gondola, she added, “And as for her, she neither needs nor deserves announcement. The invitation came for me, not her. She’s only here because my mother and father lack the simple trust in the power of a vox master.”
She took a step back to give the other woman room to pull the cart in out of the rain.
“Now. Do secure my bags and then bring me a towel. This lout neglected to unpack my umbrella before we left that fetid inn this morning.”
The taller woman (or at least Penelope called them such; Phylo couldn’t verify) bowed her head, the silver mask catching the mage lights that illuminated the gondola’s sitting room. “My apologies, my lady. It was not raining when—“
“Excuses mean nothing.” Penelope cut her off, then shot an accusatory look at Grengar, whose green brow had knotted in both amusement and frustration. “And you. I gave you an order, now hop to it or else I will have a word with your captain and have to tossed into that drab street out there.”
Phylo could tell Grengar was at a loss for words. That couldn’t be chalked up to the alleged stupidity of the ‘savage’ races. Grengar was as intelligent as he was personable, but… well, people didn’t shout at ogres or order them about, even the people who paid them. Sane people at least. The class of people who did that was limited to those who wanted to die as red smears that had been squirted out of their skin by great force.
Had Grengar been a mountain ogre, Phylo and the masked woman would have been cleaning a fine spray of former Reclaimant off their persons by then. But Grengar was not, and so he was trying to come up with a proper response.
Being a kind man, Phylo took pity on the ogre and stood from the plush couch by the window he’d stretched out on. “That might be an entertaining discussion, Lady Skyshroud—for you see Grengar the Shattered Tooth is the captain of The Destrier. Aside from the engineers—all kobolds if you’re curious—he’s also the only crew.”
Penelope gave a look of horror. Even though he hadn’t been trained to read people, Phylo could just tell it was more for the fact that an ogre was holding such an important station on a ship she was passenger of than shame over her treatment of him.
Seconds later she put on an expression of sincerity that was as fake as a plaster mask and bobbed a quick curtsy at Grengar. “Forgive me, Captain Shattered Tooth. I’m not used to being met by the captain himself upon boarding. If you could direct my bodyguard to my cabin, she’ll put my things away for me.”
Grengar glanced aside to Phylo, silently thanking him for defusing that situation and for the chance to not be in the same room as Penelope much longer. “Of course, Lady Skyshroud.” He nodded to the masked woman. “It you’ll follow me with those, Miss Tymera, our quarters are just across from the Lady Skyshroud’s.
Tymera. Phylo wasn’t the most worldly man, but he noticed that Penelope used the Imperial translation of her family name, which would have been Vhathti in hailene-de, marking her as a western hailene, one of those who had abandoned most of the traditional ways of her people while the Tymera woman retained her old family name, hailene-de for Victorious Flight. That would make her one of the Eastern tribals, the ones most famous for being haughty bastards no one liked.
Ironic, Phylo mused only to realize that now that her companion and Grengar were leaving through the doors at the back of the sitting room, Penelope’s attention had only him to fall upon.
Her eyes raked brutally over him, taking in his butter-colored silk shirt with ebony buttons, his blue-dyed trousers of fine wool, the black fur cloak and its lining that matched the shirt. They paused on the broach that fastened said cloak, which bore the crest of the Bardic College of Harpsfell and the rarely-seen sigil that denoted what bardic path he was one.
Quick calculations when on behind ice-blue eyes and Phylo knew she was carefully weighing her next words to him based on what she could glean. Bards in general were of a certain social standing, but also fell victim to a tawdry reputation thanks to some of their more famous members. The crest marked him as a bard of some stripe he was sure she couldn’t identify and most certainly not one of the much-loved loremen who were a cut above other bards.
Then her eyes fell on the watch fob hanging from a chain attached to the black sash secured around his waist. It bore the Seal of Falling Stars and even in the highly likely event she didn’t know that specific seal, noble seals of Te’raan (or Te’rhan, there was a virtual war among cartographers and noble houses alike as to the spelling) all had the same key elements that made them easily recognizable.
That changed the cold calculus Penelope was doing in an instant and she offered him a deeper curtsy than she had Grengar. “My thanks, my lord. If not for you, I might have continued embarrassing myself before this good ship’s officer.” She held out a slim hand gloved in charcoal gray silk with the vox symbol in gold stitched on the back. “Lady Penelope Iyanka Skyshroud at your service.”
Phylo suppressed a sigh. If her behavior hadn’t already told him everything he needed to know about her, the fact that she had to mark herself as a vox master at every opportunity told him just that bit extra to prove that she was most certainly not the hero he’d been looking for.
Vox was the energy of the void. It commanded motion and energy. A skilled user could alter the magic of others, lift great weights with a spell, or even bend space itself to teleport or store items. Masters were known to move in shadow, the sway events without ever being noticed, and to bend all the other energies to their will such that they could be considered masters of all.
In short, a vox master was meant to be subtle. Advertising ones specialty in the void was the literal and sublime opposite of that.
Still, he would have to be traveling and working with Penelope, so Phylo saw no future in antagonizing her. “Phylo Valefore Penvaras—but not Lord, milady. I am a member of the house of Falling Stars, but I’m also the entirety of the House of Falling Stars. The last star to fall you might say.”
“Oh.” Penelope slowly withdrew her hand before he could take it, more thoughts rapidly flashing in her eyes. “Well I am sorry about that… what shall I call you? Master Penvaras? C-chronicler Penvaras?”
“Phylo will do.” There was no point telling her his real title or path. She wouldn’t care, and if she feigned caring, he’d have to explain it to her. He’d had to explain it to some of his tutors at the College it was so rarely taken in modern times. Everyone wanted to gain the respect of the loremen, the fun of the entertainer, or the knowledge of the chronicler or researcher.
Penelope nodded slowly. “Yes, Phylo. It has been good to meet you. If you’ll excuse me, I have t make certain my cretin of a bodyguard hasn’t jostled my luggage.” Now that she knew he was no one of real value to her, she rapidly made her retreat, leaving Phylo alone in the siting room again.
He let her go and made his way back to his couch, stretching one leg across its length and leaning back so he could look out across the gantry and out over the city again.
Things weren’t going quite as he’d imagined them. Maybe it was because he’d grown up around retainers of the House of Falling Stars; people who were drilled from birth in the ideals of honor, virtue and doing what was right before what would gain glory or wealth. He thought that the ‘heroes’ the Dragonwrought invitation had been sent out to would be like those men and women.
Between ‘Sir’ Tarnenash (Phylo knew any of the so-called Princes of Novrom could name essentially anyone a knight, but he refused to call that fiend ‘sir’ outright) and Lady Skyshroud, real heroes out in the wider world seemed to be fast becoming the stuff of myths and legends. Which meant his goals in answering the invitation to Dragonwrought were fast becoming a pointless endeavor.
The creak of floorboards and the sound of the rear door of the sitting room closing signaled Grengar’s return.
“Interesting pair those two,” the ogre rumbled, amusement in his tone at the understatement. “One won’t shut up and I doubt I could force a word out of the other one with a crowbar and the lads on the lower levels holding her down.”
Phylo nodded silently, still staring out the window. Grengar would have made a good hero if he wasn’t content to just fly the ship.
A huge hand came down and encompassed the bard’s shoulder. “Don’t worry too much, Phylo. There’s still three left to arrive. That aside, Master Kovalanthes is hardly ever wrong, even if his choices in things seem a bit… odd. Just take me and the lads? How many others would put an ogre in charge of a ship and fill her belly with kobolds?”
Kovalanthes. Master of the Isle of Dragonwrought and the man who dispatched the invitations. As far as Phylo could tell, there had been no pattern to who had received on aside from having a measure of fame or infamy outside of their home nation. Two dozen invitations had been dispatched and most ignored. Phylo had spent weeks tracking down many of those invitations, finding them delivered to corpses or former adventurers turned to idle rich by their success. A few had been too busy with previous engagements instead, and then there had been Tarnenash, who hardly deserved one.
Whatever Kovalanthes expected to get for his call for heroes, Phylo was pretty certain he wasn’t going to get it judging by what he’d seen so far. The final three, a group of Danescliff natives called the Sisters Morgenshi didn’t hold mush hope for him. From what he’d read, they’d made their name raiding the fallen halls of the dwarf kingdom whose bones were buried beneath Danescliff.
They’d used the proceeds of their delves to fund the local home for orphans—something Danescliff had in spades thanks to being at the far end of a particularly dangerous trade route—but a grave-robber was a grave-robber in Phylo’s eyes. He could already conjure in his mind the image of three cold, grave dust-covered women with dead eyes and broken noses.
What he spotted some minutes later, emerging from the same lift as Penelope and Miss Tymera had, bore not even the slightest resemblance to that image.
They were led by a halfling. There was no mistaking her for anything else given her tiny stature that was unlikely to be taller than three feet. She was swaddled in a cloak the color of fresh blood whose hood hung over the top half of her face such that it was difficult to tell how she was able to see while wearing it. There was a stylized Piercing Eye of Denaii symbol stitched in silver over where her forehead would be, but that seemed a mere decoration. Beneath the cloak, she wore a black homespun shirt and patched leather breeches along with heavy, black leather boots that had been better days.
Bounding after her and occasionally at her side was… a tall halfling? Phylo squinted. It wasn’t as if there weren’t ‘tall halflings’–really halfling with human blood somewhere in their lineage, but the woman in question was of the wrong proportions for that; too stocky, too low-built to the ground. A dwarf? She was like no dwarf woman he’d ever seen: bright red of hair in a way that nature never intended, her jawline clean-shaven of the proud muttonchops so in fashion among even outcast dwarven ladies.
She wore her hair short so it bounced about her ears with a blue-painted plaster flower worn over one ear. Her shirt was dark brown wool with brass toggles and her pants were black wool held up by bright red suspenders. The only thing that said ‘dwarf’ about her was a good steel hammer slung across her back alongside a canvas backpack.
Bringing up the rear was the real shocker among the Morgenshi sisters: a minotaur as tall and broad of shoulder as Grengar give or take an inch in each dimension. Like the dwarf, she’d dyed her hair to something unnatural: gold. Not the poetic gold used to describe blonde hair, but the actual color of the metal, twisted into two braids that hung from her shoulders, each thick enough to moor a ship.
Her massive shoulders were draped with oiled leather to keep the rain off—something the dwarf seemed to not notice. Beneath that, she wore a thick woolen shirt of faded green and a much-patched pair of brown linen pants with over-sized sandals on her feet. She’d painted her toenails emerald green. Slung across one shoulder, under the leather cloak, was a brewer’s barrel stamped with the One Dice symbol of Pandemos, god of luck and revelry. An iron rack had been bolted to the side, four tin mug hanging from it. She carried a rickety wooden footlocker under the opposite arm as easily as another might carry a pet cat.
The Sisters Morgenshi.
The mismatched trio no doubt had a grand tale about how they came to call each other ‘sister’. Phylo felt himself smile in anticipation of hearing it as they made their way up the gangplank.
Grengar pulled open the door once they got close enough. “Beautiful day isn’t it, ladies?” he asked, raising a huge hand to protect his eyes from the sting of the pelting rain.
“It is, isn’t it?” The dwarf asked without a hint of getting his sarcasm as she bounded through the door. Soaked to the bone, she nonetheless beamed brightly as she offered her hand to the ogre. “Greetings, sir ogre. We are the sisters Morgenshi! I’m Jule and this,” she stepped to the side and with one hand swept the halfling forward as she entered, pushing her front and center, “Is my big sister Lousana—but we call her Lulu. And this,” She gestured behind her as the minotaur came in, bringing up the rear. She ducked, but not enough to keep the tips of her horns from scraping noisily across he top of the door jam. Jule had the decency to wince before finishing, “is our baby sister Millicent, who we call Millie.”
The halfling, Lulu looked over her shoulder at the noise of Millie’s horns caching the door and quickly turned back to look up at Grengar. Despite the cloth covering her face, she acted as if she could see perfectly. “”Sorry about Millie, sir. She’s only come into her horns about half a year ago and they’re still growing. She sometimes can’t judge them all that well.”
Grengar gave them as gentle a smile as he could, which for him meant he kept his lips shut and his teeth concealed. “No worries. I can have the lads fix that once we’re under way. Welcome to The Destrier, by the by. I’m Grengar the Shattered Tooth and I’ll be your captain on through to Dragonwrought Isle.”
Millie returned his smile with a toothy minotaur one. Unlike the great cattle they resembled, minotaurs were omnivorous with all the slicing and tearing teeth up front that implied. Somehow, Phylo didn’t feel intimidated by Millie’s however, probably something to do with the self-conscious awkwardness with which she carried herself.
“Thank you Mr. Shattered Tooth,” she said, not meeting his eye. Jule tugged on the strap of her barrel, prompting her to lean down low enough for the dwarf to whisper into her ear. Whatever she said set a light in Millie’s eyes and she straightened up immediately. “Oh! Mr. Shattered Tooth, would you like a mug of beer blessed by the One Dice Rolling, the lord Pandemos? Jule helped brew it: we call it Stouthorn Stout.”
Jule grinned and added, “The secret’s in adding ground fasin berries to the mash.”
Grengar pretended to give it some thought, but Phylo never doubted that the siren song of free beer would tempt him. “I think I will. You’re a priestess of the One Dice then?”
Fumbling with her huge, flat-fingered hands to unhook a mug, Millie nodded, thought a moment, then shook her head. “Trying to be sir. But to tell the truth, Pa never took much with religion and Genmide doesn’t have much in the first place, so I don’t know all there is I have to do.” She finally got the mug free and filled it with stout from the barrel before thrusting it into Grengar’s hands.
The ogre took the offered libation happily and replied, “For Pandemos, I think you’ve got the most of it. Maybe take a drum around to tap out a song or two as well.” He took a long drag of the brew and hefted the mug appreciatively. “There’s a good reason everyone loves dice priests, you know?”
While Phylo watched the exchange with interest and amusement, a sense of unease suddenly dropped over him like a shroud. It came from nowhere with zero preamble and so completely that he actually gasped out loud.
This got the attention of Lulu, the halfling, who turned her covered face in his direction. “Oh. Hello there! I don’t suppose you’d like a mug of the stout too, would you?”
Still trying to identify the growing dread clawing at him, Phylo forced his thoughts away from that sensation and mustered a smile for her. Rising form his seat, he sketched a neat bow. “I’d appreciate that, thank you. I’m Phylo Valefore Penvaras by the way. I’m a bard on the path of the theurgist.”
While Millie set about filling another mug, Jule made Phylo the new center of her attention. “A bard? Like Gallavan Whitehost the Pen of Blood and Light? I have all his dime novels! Oh, this is so exciting! Do you know him?”
The mystery feeling as confounded by embarrassment. Gallavan Whitehost’s ‘memoirs’ were the invention of Gallae Houlantelles, one of his classmates from the Bardic College. While Gallae was a minor chronicler with little of note to her name, Gallavan was a dashing hero with many a thrilling and often tawdry adventure under his name. Of course the truth was a poorly kept secret back in Harpsfell, but in the world beyond…
“Not personally, but I do know of him.” Phylo lied smoothly. “You should know I’m not that kind of bard though.”
Jule gave him a blank look, then laughed the laugh of someone who doesn’t get the joke but wants to appear she does. “Oh, of course not! You’re not a chronicler, you’re a… thermos?”
“What’s a thermos do then?” Millie asked, passing Phylo his mug. “Are they like loremen?”
Phylo didn’t even feel like sighing anymore. Everyone knew about the chroniclers, who went out, gathered tales both true and… less true, and wrote about them in dime novels, gazetteers, plays and other modes of information and entertainment. They also knew of the loremen, the famed students of the world who compiled knowledge and skills to the height of their craft, becoming the most worldly and interesting of beings. And of course they knew the performers, who used the bardic craft to entertain.
Less known were the researchers, who delved into ancient or lost knowledge to delve the secrets of the past and apply them to the future, and the diplomats, who learned the art of playing people like the entertainers played instruments. But absolutely no one knew about the theurgists in his experience.
The truth was, most people skilled enough in accessing the Word and the Song, the underlying pattern that connected all creation to the metaphysical core of the world known as the Well of Souls to be any good at it tended to put their skills to use pursuing the more lucrative and lauded path of the loreman.
That left people like Phylo to hone their craft in obscurity to the point that many people didn’t even believe what they were doing was what they claimed and not some form of elaborate trickery. That’s why they were more commonly known as charlatans.
“Close enough to loremen, yes.” Phylo concealed his lie behind taking a sip of the stout. It was good; full bodied with a hint of spice complements of the fasin berries. Sadly, he couldn’t properly enjoy it because the uncomfortable feeling still clinging to him.
Observing the others over the rim of his mug, he noticed the others starting to become aware of whatever it was causing his unease. Grengar was shifting uneasily on his feet, Millie’s nostrils were twitching and she couldn’t keep her head from jerking around to look for the source of every creak and groan of the airships timbers.
One the one hand, he was relieved it wasn’t just time. On the other, nothing good came from something that could set minotaurs and ogres on edge without making itself fully known. He gingerly set his mug on one of the bolted-down tables nearby and lowered his hand to the sword at his side.
Lulu noticed this and in the atmosphere of mounting dread that was pervading the room, she shifted into a combat stance.
“Excuse me for just a moment.” Phylo knew that was worthless by way of reassurance, but he hoped that was enough to keep him from being stabbed to death. The size of halflings was misleading: many of them were celebrated fighters whose speed and ferocity were unmatched.
Grasping the scabbard of his weapon just below the sword’s hilt, he pressed his thumb against said hilt and slid the blade out of its sheath a fraction. A single gleaming inch of white metal, its surface etched and filled with fine amethyst crystals, shone briefly and then for a single perfect moment, Phylo Penvaras’s world went silent.
With skill honed over years wielding that very rare type of magical device allowed Phylo to rapidly home in on different sounds around him. He caught the heartbeats of everyone on board the ship: from the slow, loud thuds of Millie’s to the rapid fire staccato of The Destrier’s kobold crewmen. He heard the minute rustle of a handful of lone insects in the carpet, the gentle rubbing of each plank upon their neighbors, and the bubbling in the heat of the ship’s boiler.
There was nothing unusual aboard the ship, so he opened himself up to more distant sounds. There was a bird flying nearby, and two dock workers were having a conversation about where to go drink after their shift. It wasn’t until he was picking up noised at least fifty feet distant did he find what he was looking for.
It was a deep, resonating hum; the sound of insectile wings bating the air only larger than any insect that might wander freely in a city ought to be. Not only that, but there was more than one set of them. They vibrated and bounced off one another in such a way that naturally achieved a resonance with part of the Word and Song: the resonance of fear.
Source of his discomfort identified, Phylo slid more of his sword out of the sheath. Instead of individual sounds, he took them all in and in his mind’s eye constructed an image. The Destrier, its crew and passengers appeared first, replicated down to every bone and hair. The skydock followed, and then the surrounding town. And so did the swarm.
They were man-sized and roughly that shape, but with four arms and rigid exoskeletons. He’d never encountered anything of the sort in any of his studies. And there were at least a score of them, slowly rising up the levels of the skydock, using it was cover to avoid the eyes of the city watch or the dock’s workers.
While their pace was slow, there was no mistaking their destination: they were headed for The Destrier.