The Warrior was bored. He’d been back from the northern edge of Caledron for ten days. He’d spent nearly a month up there, including time recuperating from extreme frostbite. On the way back, he flew part of the way on a giant eagle—that was very exciting. Since then however, he had spent ten days listening to the dwarf historian, Ailig Holtt, explain historical and cultural elements of Dun Ordha. The last four of them just involved wandering the castle, Capitoline Mount, half-paying attention as Ailig sang ballads about Sorcha Edgewalker, the ancient adventures of the dwarven Sternn clan, and their modern remnants.
Yesterday, he realized he wasn’t just bored. Something was bothering him. He had been on Tala almost two months, traveled to the top of the world and back, and hadn’t seen anything like the “Dark Fire from the north.” No one around the village of Snowfall had heard of it either. The only mention of it had come from the druid he met when he first arrived.
The Warrior had been too stunned by the gate trip to Tala to get that druid’s name. Afterward, no one he asked seemed to know anything about him. Even Ailig, who seemed to know everybody, denied knowledge.
“Don’t know who that would be that deep into Middlemarch,” said Ailig. “I don’t know of any elder druids assigned there. But I’ll check into it for you.”
Then during a walk through the King’s Armory Museum, the Warrior stopped in front of a display case labeled “Remnants of the Black Flame Legion.” The stylized black flame logo neatly adorned each piece. In a row of black metal helmets, the center helmet was conspicuously absent.
The label in front of the missing helmet read: GENERAL’S HELM
“Strange story that,” Ailig offered. “The Black Flame Legion were the most feared troops of the djinn lords during the Banisher Wars. And a few months ago, the general’s helmet just disappeared one night. No one knows how it happened. None of the guards heard or saw anything.”
“Didn’t you question the curator?” the Warrior asked.
“Well yes, but Blacach said he didn’t know anything,” Ailig said. “What reason would he have to lie?”
“Money. Love. Revenge,” mused the Warrior. “Those are places to start.”
“You’re so cynical,” Ailig said. “It might just have been those corvaxis scoundrels. They steal anything that isn’t rooted. Anyway, there’s nothing to be done now. It’s gone.”
The Warrior knew enough about Talans by now to believe that this lack of curiosity was standard fare. Talans weren’t stupid, they were just extremely trusting—of each other, anyway. Nine hundred years of peace had led them to think well of each other. In stark contrast, the Warrior had stayed alive thanks to healthy amounts of suspicion.
The next day, under the pretext of wanting to hear castle gossip, the Warrior got Ailig to show him the residential section of the castle, where the king’s servants quartered. Among the maids and valets were quarters for crystal shapers, gardeners, librarians, smiths, and—what a surprise!—Blacach, curator for the royal archives. He studied the layout as Ailig spoke in hushed tones about the kennel mistress’s dalliances with various members of the cooking staff.
That night, after Ailig bid him good night, the Warrior shut the door and pulled a chair in front of it. For a few minutes, he made noises with the armoire and chamber pot as though getting ready for bed. Then he opened the window. He waited by it for several minutes, making his breathing loud and slow. When he thought he’d made a convincing show of going to sleep, he hoisted himself silently over the sill, and let himself out.
The outer walls of the castle were tough-as-stone tree bark, providing large, easy hand and footholds. The climb over to another window was easy for even an unskilled climber. He scaled two floors before finding another open window. After checking for witnesses, he dropped into a hallway.
Stealth was not the Warrior’s strong suit, but in the peaceful city of Dun Ordha, vigilance was not at a premium. The Warrior visited a magistrate’s court earlier in the week, and saw what passed for crime in Caledron. It certainly existed. But when the nature of the world punished you for going astray, law enforcement could afford to be lax.
The Warrior had studied the guard patterns almost reflexively over the last few days,before he’d even had intent to skulk about the castle. Any real attempt at watchfulness by the guards would have made his wanderings more difficult, but he had little to fear. It wasn’t that the guards were incompetent or foolish. They just didn’t have much edge. Like a knife, infrequently used, kept in a drawer.
Still, he didn’t know how he’d explain himself, so he decided not to get caught. Walking on the balls of his feet, he wound his way to the curator’s chamber. The door was cracked open. He heard a voice inside the room. The Warrior peeked through, and saw the hearth blazing inside. The flame burned deep black.
Blacach spoke to the hearth, engaging in some sort of conversation. Looking deeper into the dark fire, the Warrior glimpsed a figure within the flames. A drawn face with unnaturally tight skin, almost mummified. On its head, the creature wore a gold crown in the shape of flames, and a fur-rimmed robe draped around its gaunt shoulders. A cracked, strained voice emanated from the flame.
“…derstones are subtle tools. That makes them more powerful than martial prowess. Belac has yet to grasp this, but he will learn. You did well in sending him to me.”
“You are gracious, Lord Mowtil,” Blacach said with fear and deference.
“Have my servants kept news away from Dun Ordha’s ears?”
“Yes, the city knows nothing of your movements in the south, out of Ulgidoth. And the newcomers have been neutralized as you planned.”
“Good. The ones sent down here have been killed or turned by my legion. The tower lords have already destroyed Baile Bhoid. Soon we will be ready to push north, and I will no longer need to hide in the shadow of Xobmokt. Continue to be my eyes—”
Approaching footsteps in the hall forced the Warrior to cut his eavesdropping short. Blacach must have heard them too—the door quickly shut as the Warrior retreated from the noise.
He wound his way back to the open window and climbed back into his chamber. Nothing was disturbed except his peace of mind.
He sat on the edge of the bed and reviewed the events of the night. The dark flame was clearly bad. Blacach was willingly involved in something evil involving fire and djinn. But the Warrior would have a hard time trying to convince anyone that a trusted servant of the king was feeding artifacts to some evil undead creature named Mowtil.
Normally the Warrior could fall asleep almost at will, an old soldier’s trick. Tonight, he lay in bed for over an hour turning things over in his mind. He did not know where to find help in Dun Ordha. Everyone from his own world was scattered across Caledron, some aparently already defeated to the south. The mystery druid who sent him north was either mistaken or in league with Mowtil.
Finally, he rose, dressed, and tied his sword belt on. He would go south to Ulgidoth, or Baile Bhoid, or whatever was down there. If he could find any of his people there, he would try to get them to join him. Or he would face these “tower lords” alone, if necessary.
He accepted that it might not have been the smartest plan. But after two months, he was done sneaking and talking. It was time to play to his strengths: finding a dungeon full of monsters and going in. He probably wouldn’t be riding on any eagles this time, unfortunately.