Year 3633, the Sixth Age, the twenty-eighth day of Spring
The morning was cold and the skies grey. Liuden’s horse’s hooves sounded loudly off the cobblestone road of Chillbreeze and echoed down the many paths.
Liuden yawned and rubbed his nose with a gloved hand. The hour was very early and it would still be several hours before Inüer decided to crest the eastern skies. The cold wind picked up from the west, blowing down the road and under his cloak. Liuden was quick to gather the thick wool garment and shivered as he closed it around his arms and chest.
Although it was well into the month of Spring the cold grips of Winter still had a firm hold on the land and it would not be until the around fortieth before the land had fully thawed. The last of the snow falls were still lingering, more so further to the north on the Northern Waste, and as the land warmed the frozen ground would turn into a muddy quagmire riddled with sinkholes and covered in clumps of brown grass.
Liuden shivered again and sniffed, silently wishing that he still had a connection to the powers of the Fog so that he might cast a spell of warmth upon himself. But that could not be helped, and in truth he did not dislike the cold weather like some. In fact he enjoyed the crisp touch of a cold wind off the Western Oceania or the Northern Waste, although right now he wanted to be warm, to be comfortable.
Liuden let out a deep sigh, sending a cloud of hot air into the pale morning air.
“Why am I here?” Liuden mumbled to himself.
With another rub of his cold nose he kicked his sturdy horse into a trot as he headed for River’s Entrance.
The city of Chillbreeze was the most western town in Gaianaus and guarded the entrance of The River that ran from the ocean inland to the great White Loch. Chillbreeze was a sprawling township and ran along the banks of The River all the way to White Loch on both banks.
Standing at regular intervals along the straight river were large stone bridges which could be swiveled apart to allow merchant vessels to travel into the White Loch and to the half dozen other towns that sat on the lakes stony shores.
Originally there had only been White Loch in the area and the towns sitting around it, but as the popularity for fishing on its pale surface increased the towns had banded together and dug the wide canal to the Western Oceania. It was a momentous feat of engineering and magickal prowess, for the diggers had not used lock gates at either the ocean or the lake end and had relied upon the skills of local Magi and talented magicks users. That was many years ago and now the strange icy-white waters of the loch gently ran many hundreds of meters to the ocean where it bled into the dark blue waves. The River was wide enough to rival the great Arbeth River that ran from the Gaia Mountains south to the city of Crydon, in Krnōrel. So wide in fact, that two large merchant ships could easily pass side by side with room to spare.
Liuden sniffed again and slowed his horse as he came upon the docks of Chillbreeze and the first bridge at River’s Entrance. Mist off the ocean hung heavily in the morning air and bright lights lined the guarded rail of the bridge. As Liuden dropped from his saddle and tethered his steed to a lamp post he looked up to the top of the tower that marked the beginning of the bridge. A golden light shone from the very top of the tower and as Liuden headed towards it a forlorn horn sounded across the waters.
Moving up the start of the stone walkway another horn sounded from across the loch in reply. Curiously Liuden moved out onto the bridge and over the railing to see a Fluyt making its way towards River’s Entrance. Glancing along the bridge Liuden spotted the Commander Heldar of River’s Entrance and the naval forces of Gaianaus.
As he headed over to the Commander, Liuden’s gut twisted uncomfortably as he recognised the woman standing alongside the man. Clenching his hand around the hilt of his sword Liuden approached.
“Captain Idunn,” Liuden greeted as he drew closer, grabbing both of their attentions. “I did not think to see you here.”
A dark cloud came to Idunn’s features as soon as she recognised him. But Heldar greeted him with a wide grin.
“Please join us Regional Commander,” Heldar bade him.
“What are you doing here?” Idunn asked irritably.
“My job,” Liuden was quick to reply as he studied the fiery woman, “What about you?”
“Nothing that concerns you,” Idunn snapped back.
“I am Regional Commander, remember,” Liuden replied with annoyance.
“Are you going to pull rank?” Idunn scoffed.
“If I have to,” replied Liuden evenly, “Why are you here Captain?”
Idunn’s full lips went tight and Liuden could see her jaw clenching.
“Apart from the fact that I work around the White Loch,” said Captain Idunn, “Lord Roht Ellengar asked me to speak with Commander Heldar.”
Another loud horn echoed across the misty waters and was replied with a different sounding one from the closing Fluyt.
“Is there something Roht is asking of you specifically, Commander Heldar?” Liuden looked to the blonde-haired Commander.
Awkwardly Heldar glanced to Idunn and then back to Liuden before he let out a slight sigh and scratched his beaded chin.
“This ship, Regional Commander,” Heldar nodded to the approaching Fluyt, “She is from Sesserrech, but Roht has granted her specific clearance to enter White Loch.”
“Why?” Liuden was quick to ask, and he looked to Idunn.
“The Fluyt carries an associate of Rohts’,” Captain Idunn explained stiffly as her brown eyes continued to watch the ship drift through the mist.
Liuden’s brow furrowed curiously, but he decided to leave his many questions there and instead see how the situation played out.
A call sounded along the bridge for occupants to brace themselves. Casually Liuden grabbed a hold of the railing just as a bell rang out which was followed by a great shudder running through bridge. The creaking of gears and clogs reverberated through the stone and slowly the bridge split in two as it swung up steam to allow the Fluyt to move through River’s Entrance.
As the half of the bridge that Liuden was standing upon touched up against the bank of the river the tall masted ship slowly drifted alongside them and came to a stop. Anchors were dropped by the rugged up crew and a plank was dropped onto the bridge at a gap in the railing.
Curiously Liuden followed Captain Idunn and Commander Heldar as they walked to greet the single figure moving from the ship.
As the person came from the ship she pulled back her hood to let her flowing bluish-white hair fall about her shoulders and face. Liuden’s curiosity only deepened as he watched the lithe snow elf approach.
“Hazeldin?” Captain Idunn greeted hesitantly causing the elf to regard them with her deep green eyes.
“No.” The elf replied simply as she moved passed their group.
“Then who are you?” Liuden asked, causing the elf to stop.
“Who are you?” replied the snow elf evenly.
“Regional Commander of Gaianaus,” Liuden pushed his shoulders back.
The snow elf laughed lightly and turned to go.
“Shall I arrest you then?” Liuden was quick to ask and the elf looked back at him coldly. “You are coming from Sesserrech into Gaianaus, and you will declare yourself and your intentions, else be arrested for espionage.”
The snow elf turned slowly to face him fully, her green eyes unblinking and causing Liuden to feel uncomfortable. But he held his nerve and his confidence was boosted by the several guards nearby who were moving to act on his orders.
The snow elf noticed the guards as well and she relaxed.
“I am Dun Hyic, return home to The Frostback,” the snow elf stated simply, “I heard war was brewing so I returned home as quickly as I could. This ship was the first out of Port Na’brath that I found.”
Liuden continued to regard the elf curiously, her reply was believable enough, but there was something about her that unsettled him.
“Do not worry about Dun Hyic my good sirs, and lady.” came a call from the ship and Liuden turned to see a wealthy man walk towards them with several men carrying large chests behind him.
“You are Hazeldin.” Idunn stated more than asked.
“Yes of course,” smiled the man wearing rich clothes, “And you must be the lovely Captain Idunn. Lord Roht mentioned that you were a beauty, but I see that is a great understatement.”
Surprisingly Idunn laughed pleasantly and smiled wide as she moved to greet Hazeldin.
Liuden’s mouth fell open slightly when he even noticed that Idunn blushed slightly as the suave-looking man kissed her hand. Shaking away his stupor Liuden looked back to the snow elf, but she was already moving from the bridge and into Chillbreeze. Concern lingered in his thoughts as he watched the snow elf disappear into the early morning mist.
“Excuse me good man.” Hazeldin said haughtily right behind Liuden, causing him to jump slightly and step out of the way. “I thank you. This way men.”
“Hold.” Liuden said irritably once he had composed himself, making Hazeldin and Idunn stop and turn to him. “Care to explain this.”
“Is there a reason why I should guardsman?” Hazeldin asked, looking surprised.
“It is Regional Commander.” Liuden growled back, “And I was speaking to Captain Idunn, not you.”
“This man is Jynth Hazeldin,” Idunn said with an annoyed sigh, “A banker from Port Na’brath who personally overlooks Lord Roht Ellengar’s accounts and investments. Prudently Lord Roht sent word for his vault to be emptied and his coffers brought to Issia in expectation of war with Sesserrech. You see this is a personal matter, Liuden. And does not concern the Regional Command.”
With that Idunn took Hazeldin by the arm and gently pulled him along.
“By your leave Regional Commander.” The hedonistic banker called over his shoulder. “Tell me Idunn, is it not better to sail into the White Loch?”
“No,” Idunn replied, “I have an squad of men waiting just outside Chillbreeze.”
The rest of the conversation became dull to Liuden’s ears as he watched the pair depart down the bridge with the men carrying the chests of gold and trained bodyguards following behind.
“I gather you did not know of this arrangement, Regional Commander,” Heldar remarked as he came alongside Liuden.
Liuden shook his head slowly as he continued to watch the departing convoy. Something was very odd about all this, but he did not know what.
A bell rang out from the tower and Fluyt pulled away from the dock. The cranking of gears rumbled through the stone and the bridge began to close.
“Shall we retire to the barracks to discuss the armada as planned?” Commander Heldar asked politely.
“Of course, after you Heldar,” Liuden motion for the Commander to lead the way and together they headed back down the bridge.
Liuden glanced into the still early morning skies and continued to wonder what that had all been about. He sniffed and rubbed his nose, deciding to push it from his thoughts for the time being so that he may concentrate on the reason why he had come to River’s Entrance.
But as he and Heldar moved into the barracks thoughts of Captain Idunn continued to plague his mind.
* * *
Inüer was just climbing over the eastern horizon, peaking through the grey clouds, His pale light stretching across the icy grounds and over the top of the buildings. A heavy mist still lingered through the streets of The Dale and only a few people were rising from their slumbers to start the day’s labors
“It is so cold.” Valianna remarked and shivered, sitting astride sturdy pony behind Vhindr. “I wish I had a cloak, casting the spells of warmth is tiring me out. Vhindr, do you have a spare one?”
Without replying Vhindr reached into his extra-dimensional pouch at his hip and pulled out a thick fur coat. Valianna was quick to kick her horse on faster to move alongside her him and eagerly take the cloak.
“Did you forget to bring your own extra-dimensional pouch?” Vhindr asked offhandedly.
“I have not finished making it yet,” his sister replied, “The last one had a fault in the fabric and all my things fell out at the Magi Guild as I was walking between classes. I was so embarrassed. And it was right in front of Lord Falkon’s youngest son and his friends, too.”
“What’s that got to do with anything’?” Kōrrin asked as he sat astride on his own pony.
“He’s really cute,” Valianna blushed and Rhalin laughed slightly.
“Still don’t get ya,” Kōrrin huffed, “If ye want a good extra-dimensional pouch ye shoulda’ got one back at the Scarred Mountains. We dwarf’s make the best ones ya know.”
Valianna laughed lightly and smiled over her shoulder at Kōrrin causing Vhindr to sigh at his sister.
Turning his attention back to the path before them the buildings had stopped and the wooden docks of the city spread out before them along the banks of the white waters of the lake. The mist drifted out across the still water causing the early morning fishing boats to appear as shadows through the cloud.
“The Fluyt’s not in yet,” Legin greeted Vhindr as he and Bel’eak waited calmly by a dimly lit lamp post.
“You beat us again?” Valianna exclaimed, her mouth falling open, “But you’re on foot.”
“Feet can run where hooves cannot.” Bel’eak replied with a laugh as he stretched his back.
“Do you know when the ship is to make berth?” Rhalin inquired seriously.
“The guy I was talking to said that he didn’t know,” shrugged Legin, “But he did say that he heard the bells of Lake’s Entrance just before we started talking to him.”
Vhindr nodded slightly and looked out across the lake. The clouds had begun to lift now and through the grey veil the shadow of tall masts loomed.
“That could be it.” Vhindr said and he urged his stocky horse on towards the direction the ship as it was heading to dock.
The others were quick to follow as he trotted his horse a few hundred meters down the wharves and to the specific jetty. Even as he pulled his horse to a stop Vhindr dropped from the saddle and wrapped the reins around the closest lamp pole.
Cautiously he glanced to the ship’s high rigging still clouded in mist and as he made his way along the wharf to where a gangplank had been dropped.
“Mornin’,” one of the sailors hailed him as he approached, seeming completely at ease.
“You hail from The Port?” Vhindr asked in reply.
“Aye,” the burly man replied, eyeing Vhindr cautiously, “Be there a problem?”
“Where is your Captain?” Rhalin asked as she stood beside Vhindr.
The sailor pointed up the gangplank before going back to securing the Fluyt at the dock.
With Rhalin beside him Vhindr hurriedly moved up the plank and onto the wide deck.
“Captain?” Vhindr called loudly, his voice echoing through the mist.
“Who are you?” the tall man asked seriously as he walked down the stairs from the helm.
“I am Commander Rhalin Ragnarr,” replied Rhalin, “Are you the Captain?”
“No,” the man replied and glanced towards the cabin beneath the helm.
“He is abed than?” Vhindr stated more than asked.
“Ye can’t go in there.” The tall man was quick to say and moved to intercept Vhindr.
“You cannot stop me.” Vhindr said harshly and pushed passed the man.
“Damn it, ye can’t.” The man blocked the way again, and Rhalin placed her hand on the hilt of her sword threateningly.
“You don’t want to mess with us buddy,” Legin remarked with a slight laugh from behind Vhindr.
“Ye don’t understand, she said no one’s to go in there.” The tall sailor replied desperately, his blue eyes wide.
“She?” Vhindr and Rhalin asked in unison.
“The elf,” the sailor said, his voice filled with fear, “She said if any one goes in there she’ll kill us all.”
“Is this elf on board?” Vhindr asked slowly causing the man to shake his head.
“She left at River’s Entrance.” Said the sailor.
“So how will she kill you?” Rhalin inquired curiously.
The man did not reply but he turned a scared expression towards Rhalin, almost pleading with her and Vhindr.
“I had enough ‘o this,” Kōrrin grumbled loudly and shoved passed the sailor, knocking him to the deck before he booted down the door to the Captains quarters.
The doors burst open, splintering apart as it swung violently inwards. The tall sailor, along with others who had gathered all gasped and cowered as a bright blue flash erupted outwards. But as Vhindr and the others cautiously approached the sailors all breathed easier.
“The smell,” Kōrrin coughed in disgust, “That’s something I haven’t sniffed in while.”
The dwarf coughed again and wiped his large nose.
“What? What is it?” Valianna asked curiously as she trailed behind Legin and Bel’eak.
“Death girl. It be the smell of death.” Kōrrin replied grimly.
“Stay where you are Valianna.” Vhindr said suddenly as he looked upon the gruesome sight within.
“I have seen a dead body before Vhindr,” Valianna dismissed his warnings and pushed to the front.
“By the Gods.” The young Varrintine girl gasped and turned away covering her mouth.
“I told you not to look.” Vhindr sighed, “The Captain is not merely dead. He has been brutally tortured.”
“Why?” Rhalin wondered softly as she stood beside Vhindr. “Why would the assassin do this?”
“For fun.” Bel’eak stated grimly as he and Legin also gazed through the door.
“I told you boys not to open that door.” Came a loud call from along the deck.
“It wasn’t me, I swear it.” The tall sailor begged, “It was the dwarf and his lot. Please.”
“Well, you did say please,” the elf replied thoughtfully, and before Vhindr and the others could to react to her sudden appearance she disappeared in a flash of light.
“Thank the Gods,” a nearby sailor sighed loudly.
But the man spoke too soon and out of the mist a dozen Alpha Grinlocks appeared on the deck of the ship. The sailor’s screamed and the grinlocks roared before they charged at the unprepared men.
“Valianna. To me.” Vhindr yelled as he summoned his Fog longsword.
Legin and Bel’eak were quick to charge into the fray and Kōrrin was close behind with his shield in hand and a manic grin on his face.
His sister heeded the words and quickly rushed to him and Rhalin where they formed a defensive triangle.
“Defensive spells Valianna.” Vhindr commanded as the first of the grinlocks ran towards him, its stone axe swinging wildly.
He felt the tingle of magicks wash over his entire body and keenly noticed the buffs Valianna had cast upon him. With the increase in his strength, speed and agility Vhindr easily dodged the grinlocks vicious cuts and slices. Stepping inside a back handed swing from the creature Vhindr’s Fog sword severed the grinlocks axe arm. His next strike opened the creatures neck and he ended its life by plunging his sword through its heart.
Letting go of his sword Vhindr moved passed the creature as it slumped to its knees before it fell forwards onto its face. His sword disappeared into wisps of Fog before it quickly rematerialised back in his hand.
Briefly he glanced over to Rhalin to see she was dealing with her enemies with deadly proficiency. Her speed and strength had also been temporarily improved by Valianna’s magicks and she was dancing around the grinlocks like they were standing still.
With a confident smile on his face Vhindr looked for the next adversary to try and attack him. With the many creatures on the ship’s deck it did not take long for one of the fiends to spot him and stalk towards him sneering viciously.
As the grinlock drew closer Vhindr threw his sword at the creature thinking to impale it easily. With a roar the grinlock slapped aside his flying sword with its stone hammer. Vhindr’s sword returned to his hand again, and again he threw it at the grinlock only to meet the same end. A smile came to Vhindr’s face and he launched his sword again at the grinlock. Sword after sword he threw at the creature and each time the grinlock smashed it aside with its hammer, sending shards of the Fog sword into the air. Flinging both hands at the fiend a dozen smaller blades flew through the air only to stop inches from impact and join the many other shards of his Fog swords.
The grinlock seemed to realise its dangerous predicament and it glanced around at the sharp daggers and blades floating in the air around it. Turning a hateful glare towards Vhindr the grinlock let out a fierce roar in denial.
Vhindr quickly pulled his hands to his chest and the shards and daggers ripped into the grinlock from all angles. The fiend managed to cover its head before it was impaled by dozens of blades. But it was not enough to kill the eight-foot tall monster and with blood flowing from many wounds it bared its teeth at him.
However, Vhindr was not finished, and with click of his fingers the embedded shards and blades exploded. Eruptions of blood and skin wracked the grinlock’s body and when the explosions finally stopped the fiend fell backwards to the deck with a resounding thud.
With a nod of grim satisfaction Vhindr summoned his Fog long-sword once again and moved to take down the next grinlock. Stalking across the deck to the main fight Vhindr caught sight of several grinlocks rushing down the gangplank of the ship and racing into the city.
“Legin. Bel’eak.” Vhindr cried desperately. “The ones heading to the town. Stop them.”
His two companions did not need to be told twice and happily they raced off after the grinlocks. Thankfully by now most of the monsters had been killed, predominantly by the talents of Legin, Bel’eak and Kōrrin. Of those that remained Vhindr believed they would make short work of them.
As he approached Vhindr suddenly felt the buff’s Valianna had cast upon him slip away and his eyes widened as one large beast swiped at him with its claymore. Desperately Vhindr twisted away from the strike, but his movement was slow and felt sluggish to him. Realising he had no chance against this adversary Vhindr darted away from the next deadly slice and put some distance between himself and the grinlock. But the beast pursued him eagerly and Vhindr barely had time to cast some magicks upon himself.
Warmth flooded over him and he stood still as the grinlock’s sword slammed down onto his right shoulder. The grinlock recoiled its attack and looked curiously at Vhindr who seemed as if he had not even felt the blow. A slight smirk spread across Vhindr’s face and the grinlock yelled in his face before cutting him again. Again the attack caused no harm to Vhindr, neither did the next dozen blows the grinlock swung into him. With each blow Vhindr could feel the energy build up within him, sending shivers over his skin and causing his hair to stand on end.
Taking a step back the beast gave Vhindr a strange look and glanced at its sword. With a simple gesture Vhindr released the energies built up from the attacks and the grinlock cried out in pain as it’s owns blows thundered into it. Bone cracked and blood erupted out as an unseen weapon crunched into its right shoulder and half way down its chest. The creature continued to cry out as many more blows blasted into it. Moving passed the dying grinlock, Vhindr joined Kōrrin amid the sea of dead bodies and together they destroyed the remaining grinlocks.
“Kazārk karoül.” Kōrrin bellowed triumphantly as he embedded his marvelous axe into the skull of the last enemy with a loud crack.
Taking a deep breath Vhindr let his sword dissipate and looked around at the carnage. All but two of the sailor remained alive and all of the grinlocks dead. With concern he eagerly looked around for Valianna and Rhalin and was relieved to see them together looking exhausted but otherwise unharmed.
“What’s the deal with this damn elf?” Kōrrin asked as he wiped the blood and brains from his hand-axe.
“I cannot say.” Vhindr replied seriously and shook his head before moving back towards the Captain’s cabin. “But perhaps we may learn more about her.”
Kōrrin continued to grumbled about something or another as he followed Vhindr form the stern of the ship.
“Valianna, Rhalin, are you two unhurt?” Vhindr asked with concern as he moved to them.
“I’m exhausted.” Valianna replied as she leaned against the railing.
“Your buffs disappeared in the middle of my fight,” Vhindr remarked with a smile, “Almost got me killed.”
“You try stacking several buffs on two targets at once,” Valianna snapped back, “All the time trying to stay alive yourself.”
“I have done it many times.” Vhindr baited and Valianna scowled at him.
“Next time you do it then.” His sister pouted and Vhindr laughed.
“Come Rhalin, let us see what we may learn of our assassin,” Vhindr motioned for the woman to accompany him to the Captain’s cabin.
“I’ll stay here with Kōrrin,” Valianna remarked as Vhindr and Rhalin headed for the cabin beneath the helm.
Without replying Vhindr heading into the room. Blood stained the rug and the stench of death hung heavily in the air. Behind a large desk, slumped back in his chair sat the Captain, his eyes staring at the ceiling.
“There is the rune the elf carved to warn of our entrance,” Vhindr remarked as he looked inside the door frame.
Rhalin gave him little heed and moved around the desk to the corpse.
“The assassin drew out the torture as long as possible, many days by my estimate.” she stated as she looked closer at the wounds. “All these stab wounds would have cause great pain without being fatal. Look some had even started to scab over.”
Vhindr looked from the other side of the desk and nodded grimly before he looked down upon the clear table top to where several names had been written in blood.
“Varrintine, Ragnarr, Ellengar, and Barrgarah,” Vhindr read the names and grabbed the bloodied dagger that had been stabbed into the table. “This looks more like a broken spear head than a dagger.”
Rhalin’s brow furrowed and she hesitantly took the spear head from Vhindr’s hands.
“A death list perhaps?” Vhindr wondered aloud as he looked back to the bloody names. “Is she saying that you and I are next, along with Baron Barrgarah?”
Rhalin shook her head slightly as she continued to look at the blood stained spear head.
“Do you recognise the weapon?” asked Vhindr and Rhalin quickly glanced up to him.
She did not reply and looked back to the weapon in her hands.
“Well that was a fun chase,” Legin said happily as he and Bel’eak entered the cabin, “I see you guys did alright here as well.”
Vhindr looked to his companions, but his eyes immediately went to the third in their company.
“Helwyr Drizzen?” Vhindr said in surprise, “It has been a while since I crossed paths with you. How do you fair these days?”
“Well enough,” the Helwyr smiled, “I should have guessed I would find someone such as yourself at the end of this tale.”
“He aided us with the grinlocks,” Bel’eak explained.
“I doubt the two of you needed the aid, but turning from a fight against such monsters goes against my nature,” the Helwyr replied, his mismatched eyes of yellow and purple glimmering with excitement. “Rhalin, is that you back there?”
“Well met, Drizzen,” Rhalin smiled as she came around the desk and embraced the white haired Helwyr warmly. “How goes the hunt?”
“Come, let us find a more hospitable place to talk,” Drizzen said cheerfully and he and Rhalin moved from the cabin, “I shall tell you the news, and perhaps you two can share your latest investigations.”
Vhindr watched the two leave before looking back to the names of the four individuals written in blood on the desk.
“I’m starving,” Legin remarked, “Let’s find some food Bel’eak.”
“Gladly,” the Nevārancien agreed, “Coming Vhindr? I don’t think you will learn much of the assassin here.”
Vhindr nodded slightly and grunted a response, his thoughts lingering on the names and Rhalin’s reaction to seeing the spear head.
“There is more here than meets the eye.” Mumbled Vhindr as he turned from the cabin and followed his companions across the ship.