Sunday, 17 November 2013

Whatever Happened To The Terra Draconis?

This is one of the new told stories of the old times. In the years after the Vanishing wiped the Terra Draconis from the worlds of Faerie there were remnants, survivors, a few who had evaded the cataclysm that lead to the eventual disappearance of all the dragons from Faerie.

Unexpectedly the person made most unhappy by the complete disappearance of the continent was the instigator of the plan to wipe it out in the first place. Count Okulas had planned to use the qualic energy of the continent and its vast reserves of elegantly balanced magicks to become the most powerful sorcerer in existence. Once the deed was done and the energies were contained in a vessel other than the Count he was beside himself with fury and determined to recover the vessel of power he now regarded as 'his'.

Unfortunately for the count the Quintessence Crystal, the vessel containing the energy the Count craved, had been well hidden by Prince Avan Weatherstrong's thief companion shortly after the time of the the Vanishing.

It was only a matter of time before Okulas located the crystal. While he may not have been the most powerful sorcerer to ever have existed he was still an incredibly gifted magician with whole armies at his command. His singular martial innovation was a creature known as the glass monkey, a beast strong, stealthy and loyal, although not terribly bright. The glass monkeys were Okulas's eyes and ears in the remaining lands of Faerie.

One day a glass monkey came to Caer Okulas, nestled in a deep valley in the dark shadows far beyond the edge of the Hundred Kingdoms, with the news of the location of the Quintessence Crystal; a city on the border of the Hundred Kingdoms: Deepwight. Okulas reached out to the eyes of his monkeys near to the crystal and in moments he saw...

"...need it for anyway?" asked a small, grubby little boy dressed in rags as he handed a package wrapped in thin canvas to his companion, a tall, slender figure obscured in the shadows of an alley way.

For a moment Count Okulas felt a shiver of excitement. Was the prize he sought within the canvas package? Then he realised that it could not be. The package was long and flat, not thick enough to contain the crystal.

"Never you mind," the shadowy figure said. "The less you know about my business the better, Wish Forbetter."

"Right you are," Wish shrugged, feigning disinterest. "I have several shiny coins in my possession, so I really don't know what I'm doing here talking to you."

Wish casually spun on his heel and disappeared up the street towards Deepwight market.

Forget the boy, follow the other one. Okulas ordered his glass monkey. The monkey obeyed and as the slender figure disappeared deeper into the alleyway the monkey scaled to the roof and took up an aerial view from the edge of the eaves looking down upon the figure. As they emerged in-between buildings Okulas could see that the figure wore a hooded cloak, it was impossible to see their face.

The dark sorcerer urged his servant to find a vantage point from where some clue to the identity of the stranger could be determined but, although glass monkeys are very difficult to spot, they do make noise so every one was nervous of getting within earshot of people. Particularly the kind of people who did strange deals in alleyways with street urchins and wore long, heavy, grey hooded cloaks.

The only identifying feature that the person wore was a large golden brooch that pinned the front of the cloak to the stranger's left shoulder. The brooch was bright and round, it told anyone who knew of the old Dragon Lore that this person was representing to be one of the last of the Dragon Warriors.

That wasn't entirely impossible. There were a few such left scattered across the Shadows, the Hundred Kingdoms and out in far-flung Araby. It was only a matter of time before Okulas found them all. Maybe this one would be one of the first to go.

The monkey continued to follow the slender Dragon Warrior into the warrens of Deepwight's poor quarter. The further they went the more evidence of filth and crime surrounded them. This person was walking without fear into the worst part of the city. Before long they reached their destination, a building that bore the secret markings that denoted it as the real thieves' guild house.

Every city had an official Thieves' Guild. Thieves, of course, could be employed to commit crimes, theft being the least of them. They were also often used as freelance spies, secret couriers, the quietest whispers between the courts of kings spilled, silken, into the ears of thieves for carriage. A thief's skull held a lot of powerful magic, if one had the stomach for such sorcery, Okulas knew.

The problem was that the official Thieves' Guild building was, like so many things with the thieving community, just a facade that concealed the places where the real business got done. The real Thieves' Guild was always in the poor quarter, the building disguised to look like any other hovel in such a place. There were outward signs for those that knew to look for them and Okulas knew what it was he was seeing.

His monkey, on the other hand, knew nothing. It scampered along the roof of the adjacent building ready to leap onto the walls of the guildhouse.

Stop! commanded Count Okulas. We shall have to wait and see if our friend comes back out.

Proper Thieves' Guildhouses were steeped in defensive magic so heavy that not even an invisible monkey could get inside. They also had multiple entrances and exits, not all of which were visible at street level. Okulas reflected angrily that he had, in all likelihood, lost the trail here.

Then the monkey turned its head and saw that it was not the only one to have followed the slender warrior to this location. On the roof opposite the urchin, Wish, had followed the warrior to the Guildhouse. He scampered down a drainpipe from the roof and slid into a sewer opening at the side of the road.

Don't dawdle! Okulas commanded his servant. Follow the grotty little twerp.

This was the best opportunity they would get to pick up the trail again. If the boy knew a way in, fine, but if he didn't then the Thieves would reason it was the boy who set off any alarm that was raised. There would never be any evidence of a glass monkey anywhere near the building. Okulas loved a win-win

As it happened the boy did seem to know a route into the Thieves' Guild without tripping any of their security. Okulas felt a tiny quiver of admiration, the boy was no more than fifteen years of age, at the outside, yet he had found a way to circumnavigate a series of security measures that even a glass monkey had to be cautious of.

Once inside the building one of the Thieves' passive security measures came in to play. A natural thief had to have a good sense of direction, without one a building with many identical rooms and hallways became very difficult to navigate. This observation was deeply embedded into thief lore and all proper thieves' guild building interiors were square, grey and featureless, so only a thief could get their bearings in them.

The boy was good, but he wasn't that good. He spent an hour just bumbling around, hiding from thieves who nearly spotted him and not finding the person he'd given the package to. Eventually, by sheer luck, he heard a conversation saying that she (a she? Okulas should have known but was still surprised) was taking the Grand Canal out of the city.

The boy knew where the underwater dock was and went there fast enough to be able to get onto the barge that was taking this female dragon warrior on towards her destination. The glass monkey followed, and watched carefully. If this street-urchin hadn't come along for the ride then Okulas would never have known where this woman was going; or even that it was a woman.

The barge took the small party away from the poor quarter and out to the main canal ways, toward the market quarter's shipping yard. Once there the Dragon Warrior, the urchin and Okulas's monkey switched to another boat. As this boat left the ship yard on to the canal way that would merge with the Deepwight River the Dragon Warrior's companion, a gruff looking boatman, spoke aloud for the first time since the boat transfer.

"Did you get it?" he asked the woman.

"I did," she said. "Wouldn't be here if I hadn't. Can't get past the padfoot without it."

"You could probably have just tried telling it off," the boatman remarked, the shadow of a smile upon his lips.

"There's nothing that will disperse this padfoot save the Storm's Eye, it's a geis," the woman said. Her face was still not visible within the hood but there was the sound of a grin in her voice.

After this brief exchange the conversation devolved into an exchange of pleasantries and tidbits of tedious gossip. Okulas ceased to listen, instead pressing the glass monkey to look about and see where they were headed and who else was on board the barge.

The answers turned out to be, southwards and nobody else. The former did not tell Okulas very much, except that they were heading into the Hundred Kingdoms. The latter pleased him greatly, particularly as Okulas was going to have to keep any activities he undertook within the Kingdoms very quiet indeed.

Eventually the boatman took his rest and the woman piloted the barge down the river alone. In the small hours the boatman took the tiller again and the woman rested. While the boatman was in charge he steered the boat off the Deepwight River and onto a tributary branch. They headed north again, as well as to the east, but not far enough north to leave the Hundred Kingdoms once more.

It didn't take long before they reached a small inland port with space to provide mooring for maybe twenty barges. The barge that carried the four passengers was the only craft at this place. The boatman moored the barge and woke the Dragon Warrior.

As the morning grew to full strength another person approached the port. A thief, riding a horse, a second horse tethered behind. The woman saddled up the second horse and climbed on its back.

They were in the process of bidding farewell to the boatman when the urchin revealed his presence. He tumbled from under a mound of sacking on the aft of the barge, not four feet from the tiller of the craft and stood, looking defiantly sheepish out on the edge of the dock as the three figures regarded him with amazement.

"Wish Forbetter!" the woman said, dismounting from her steed and coming over to the boy. "What do you think you are doing stowing away on Old Jed's boat?"

"I wanted to see where you were going," Wish responded. "It seemed like an adventure."

"It's more than any adventure a lad should be along on," the thief responded, a note of anger in his voice. "I shall have to take you to the nearest town, that will delay us by at least a day."

"There is no time, Garnet," the woman said. "He will have to come with us. We can't afford the time. Okulas will catch wind of what we're doing."

Okulas permitted himself a moment to preen at this clear evidence that his own hidden passenger had not been detected. As pleased as he was by this he was concerned that the boy might be sent away before the party got to its destination. He didn't want to ruin any more of his own plan than absolutely necessary with a thief and a Dragon Warrior knowing his minion was even present. A quick strike at the key moment would be the best plan.

"You can't take a boy into Hammerlode!" Garnet objected.

"We don't have a choice, he will have to ride with me," the woman said. "We had best be quick, in and out. Okulas has eyes everywhere you know."

The thief Garnet did not seem terribly happy at the arrangement, but he deferred to the Dragon Warrior's command. The three of them left the port side and rode their horses up a mountain road that soon turned into a thin trail. The trail ended at the mouth of an old mine, its entrance covered over with boards of weathered wood.

"You stay with Garnet," the woman said to Wish before they approached the mine entrance. "Don't think you can lend a hand to me, because you can't. Understood?"

Wish nodded, solemnly. With that warning in place Garnet and the woman pulled down the boards over the entrance and proceeded on into the mine. Wish trailed on after Garnet, the glass monkey slunk along behind them all.

They hadn't gone very far into the shaft before they were greeted by the sound of a mournful howl coming from the dark tunnels ahead. The woman and Garnet both took a moment to light torches. The flickering yellow-white flames illuminated the mine walls but the light did not push back the shadows a great distance.

"You sure this is going to work?" Garnet asked nervously.

"The Storm's Eye was forged to defeat a spectre-hound," the woman said. "I haven't personally tested it though, no. They're not very common these days."

Garnet was visibly unhappy at this news, the woman shrugged.

"You want to go back?" she asked.

"No, carry on," Garnet's tone said the exact opposite of his actual words. The woman listened to the words and not the tone.

The mine shaft sloped down and was extensive, eventually it levelled out and divided. After following a few twists and turns without even pausing Okulas guessed that the woman's route was pre-planned and memorised. If the Quintessence Crystal was here it was really no wonder that the Count had never found it, Weatherstrong's thief friend had done an excellent job of hiding it.

That made Okulas wonder why it was that this Dragon Warrior had taken it upon herself to move it. Given all the time that the Count had spent on locating the crystal without success so far there were really only two options. One was that the woman was a paranoid idiot, the other was that where they were moving it to wouldn't stop at being an obscure location, it would probably also be resistant to being located at all.

Okulas had long ago become averse to the risks of assumption. That meant he had to be very sure that he did not lose the crystal this time. Otherwise he may never get another chance to drain its power.

The Count had barely had time to make this resolution before the attack happened. Okulas had encountered a padfoot before this one was a large and particularly ferocious example of a breed that was formidable even in its weaker members.

The woman fought the spectral hound with the sword that she had obtained from Wish. Okulas commanded his monkey to stay well out of the way. A spectre-hound had all the senses of its material counterpart enhanced with some magical senses as well. None of the folk in the mine shaft could see the glass monkey but the padfoot might.

And indeed it did. Spectre-hounds have a keen sense of threat and a glass monkey was definitely the most threatening presence in the party. The hound broke from its engagement with the Dragon Warrior to run towards the glass monkey.

Okulas's servant panicked and turned to bolt away. There would be no chance for the creature alone in the dark tunnels. Okulas took control of the creature expending some of his magical energy to dominate the monkey's will. He made the monkey turn and dodge past the padfoot. He wanted to bring the beast back towards the woman.

In normal circumstances this would have been risky, the glass monkey might be revealed if it could be heard or felt. In the heat of battle it was a risk that had to be taken. Okulas imagined the woman was already puzzled at the dog's sudden switch of focus. Okulas intended that the focus switched back.

Placing the monkey behind the woman worked beautifully. The padfoot came back towards the woman. The new situation provided an unexpected bonus for everyone except the spectre-hound. The padfoot was trying to kill the monkey but whilst the woman was in the way she was attacking the monster. As a result she didn't have to try terribly hard to stab and slice at the padfoot because it was distracted.

Within a few moments the spectre-hound dissolved, defeated. The woman looked over to Garnet and Wish and caught her breath.

"See," Wish said happily. "No problem at all."

"Seemed too easy," the woman said, looking about her, suspicious.

Okulas took his cue and withdrew the glass monkey to a safe distance.

"Sometimes things are what they are, Princess," Garnet said flatly. "Can we be done?"

The woman, the princess, nodded curtly and continued on her route through the mine. A short distance further on they came to another downward shaft, the top of a ladder visible over the edge of the excavation.

They climbed down the ladder and walked along a short passage into a small cavern. Inside the cavern was a single item: a giant, stone pumpkin. The pumpkin was carved in two interlocking pieces. The princess stuck the shaft of her torch into the floor and shifted the top half of the pumpkin, inside the carved husk was a book, an old volume of simple spells such as might be given to a student witch. That was not something one would go to the trouble of hiding down here.

The princess opened the book, the inside was hollowed out and nestling within the space carved into the pages was the shard of crystal that contained all the power of the Terra Draconis.

Now was the moment. Okulas pushed the glass monkey to lope forward and jump onto Garnet's back. The monkey dug its hands into the man's neck and Okulas pushed the force of his mental domination forward through the man's flesh.

Dominating the mind of a man was not at all as simple a business as dominating a servile glass monkey. Garnet resisted but all resistance melted before the sheer force of Okulas's determination. Within a second Okulas had drawn Garnet's knife and put it to Wish's throat.

"Garnet?" the princess was genuinely shocked by her companion's apparent betrayal. That was an important tactical advantage Okulas decided to play the traitor card for what it was worth.

"Sorry, Princess," Okulas said through Garnet's mouth. He hoped the fact that he did not know the princess's name wouldn't cause him any problems. "You want the boy, my master wants the crystal."

"The Count is not your master," the princess said. "He killed your wife."

"And now all I have is money," Okulas said. He knew that some people put ridiculous sentimental attachments above the acquisition of money and power. He also knew there were fewer of this type of person among the ranks of thieves than elsewhere.

"I can't believe this Garnet," the princess said. "You wouldn't kill a boy. Think of Flint, think of your son."

"But this ain't my son," Okulas responded. "This is just a boy who will never be a man unless you give me what I want."

"I can't let you have this," the princess said.

"Then the boy dies," Okulas responded. Garnet was fighting the control but Okulas did push the blade tighter against Wish's neck. The blade pierced the skin and Wish cried out.

"I'm coming closer," the princess said. She held the glowing crystal aloft, her spare hand was open, empty, reaching out towards Wish. The princess was looking straight into Garnet's eye as she came forward.

"I can kill him before you can pull him close to you," Okulas warned her.

"Then I won't pull," the princess said as the glow from the Quintessence Crystal instensified. The princess's hand brushed Wish's cheek and the white light became a blinding beacon that obscured Okulas's vision. When the light had cleared the princess, Wish and the crystal had vanished, leaving Garnet and the glass monkey alone in the mine.

Okulas howled in frustration but it was too late, the princess had taken the crystal away.

"Does it tell you where they took it to?" asked Phoebe September, listening to this tale in another time at another place.

"It does," the story gatherer reported, looking up from the page of the tale. "But the reference is vague, it says that she hid the crystal, herself and Wish in a place called the Skull Garden, a place she had heard of from her friends when she was young. We never had those stories, till you came."

"Then our destination is written somewhere in here!" Tabarnas said, motioning towards Volume One of Anabyl's adventures.

And indeed it was, it didn't take them long to work out the route and the Story Gatherers sent them to the Garden, but what happened when they got there is a story for another day.

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