When questioned, Volkov provides over a year of meticulous notes about mission histories, things that have gone wrong, and the compartmentalization of information. The party agrees that, assuming the information isn’t invented, it shines a fairly damning (if entirely circumstantial) light on Lieutenant Stein. Volkov even mentions that Mengst and Stein are so inherently paranoid that they use Warders to pass mission orders between them instead of couriers.
When Alton asks about Donus and Fern, Volkov says that Fern felt she could convince Xander that it was all a misunderstanding and that Stein is suspect, but something obviously went wrong. Volkov had ordered his men to flee the area and knows no further details of the altercation except that it ended in Donus and Fern’s death.
When Gronk questions why Stein would’ve sent the party to kill Volkov, Moriel notices that Shar’we has left the room and a strange smell is permeating the room. Everyone attempts to evacuate before the explosive detonates, but Lars, Steen, Kirk, and Bink are killed in the explosion. Moriel and Volkov pursue Shar’we out into the woods, where Volkov uses Alton’s Mickleson rifle to kill the fleeing traitor at range. The elves refuse to let the party back into Sidarth’minwe, but send out wardens to help heal the multitude of small wounds and provide refreshments for the party while they wait for an audience with Etari’sul – whom Volkov has been learning a great deal of facts about the Ringwielders with during their self-imposed isolation.
Two-thousand years previously, Etari’sul went on an expsedition to the WayGate with Leitus and discovered a great deal of information about Kishara in the artifacts. He also says that some artifacts that are believed to be Ari Stonehand’s belongings were discovered, and he believes they were taken by the dwarves and are held in the vaults of Karak’Ven or Karak’ap’Karak.
Very little is known about the nature of the Ringwielders except that they wield spectacular powers beyond the ken of even the most powerful wizards of Khevoran. Most believe they are priests channeling the power of their goddess Kishara directly through the rings they wear. The truth of the matter is that it is the rings themselves which contain the power. Cyan Marinetta, for example, is not the name of the woman bearing the Ring of Water, it is the name of an immensely powerful sorceress enthralled by Kishara at the dawn of time, her spirit and power bound to the artifact. These individual spirits are so powerful that they tend to completely decimate the personality of the ring-bearer, essentially granting the spirit a form of parasitic reincarnation. When the bearer is killed or grows too old for the spirit’s power to sustain them, the ring is transferred to a new host and the cycle begins again. For this reason, the Ringwielders usually appear in public shrouded or masked in order to preserve continuity with the populace if and when they take new hosts.
Unbeknownst to just about everyone, Ari Stonehand is a little different. Stonehand was a geomancer of incredible power in his day, but unlike his peers was very grounded (no pun intended) and even-keeled. He was not seduced, but defeated and enslaved by Kishara and Tahl’Mearis. As such, his hosts are chosen differently than those of his peers (who tend to choose strong, attractive, weak-willed sods as hosts). Hosts for the Ring of Earth tend to come from the Stranglers – the Kisharan priesthood – and usually involve a lifetime of grooming a fanatically loyal and incredibly strong-willed psychopathic killing machine who can dominate the spirit of Stonehand and manipulate his power. This selection process, combined with the goddess’ ability to destroy the rings and their imbued spirits essentially at will, has kept Ari Stonehand prisoner for millennia.
The party departs for Everwatch to warn Mengst of the traitor in his midst and to determine their next steps for retaking High-Guard. As they are crossing the foothills of the Massaan, they see in the distance one of the great peaks of the North/South range of the Massaan collapse along with a massive accompanying earthquake. None except perhaps Gronk understand the significance. When they arrive at Everwatch, they find the garrison in a heightened state of alert. They find Smoot, Cedric, and Goblin in their cups in the command tent. They relay that Stein near-fatally stabbed Mengst with a poisoned dagger and took the Ring of Spirit. In his escape, he also killed Company Wizard Deke Winter and Anabelle Cirrus, the latter sends Gronk into a vengeance fury. They discover that Stein was the personal assassin of Duke Stephen before joining up with Mengst. All of the Warders who were in camp left in pursuit.
In their absence, the goblins in the forest have been whipped into battle lines, and are threatening a full-scale invasion of Hillcrest. The next morning, Volkov (who is the ranking Society officer still on his feet) convenes a war council and instructs the party to circle around the battle lines, find whatever it is that’s organizing and driving the horde, and eliminate it. That evening, the party observes from a distance waves of goblins crashing into the lines of the Northlands Army, and as they set off to sneak behind their lines, they see a great winged form in the distance, emitting a terrible shriek. Vladimir asks the obvious question.
“Ees dat a dragon?”
It did not take long for Volkov to convince the others. The talks turned to what they were going to do about it. Or rather, how they were going to get the evidence to Mengst.
Etari’sul excused himself and left the room, leaving only the Society to discuss their plans. They had to tell Mengst, and hopefully, he would believe them. And they had to avoid Stein on the way to Mengst.
Then she noticed it. A stinging, bitter smell, and it took her a second to place it. When she did, however, instinct took over. “OUT! GET OUT!” If she was wrong, she would feel very foolish, but if she was not, they might still get out of this alive. She ran for the door, somehow noticing that one of Volkov’s men was missing. The elf. And she knew Stein had not been the only one.
She noticed Gronk come out of the room, dragging Volkov with him. One of the humans, carrying the documents, the evidence, that Volkov had so painstakingly collected. Other humans, both hers and Volkov’s. But not Poppy.
What she _wanted_ to do, was run in and grab the halfling, drag her out. But she knew there was no time. It cost her, that, to stand outside the room and wait, while the humans rushed out, to wait for her friend, rather than try to fight her way back inside.
The room exploded.
She knew, _knew_ that not everyone was out yet. And Poppy, Poppy, who had not passed her, came hurtling out of the room, hitting Gronk with an audible thunk, and they both went down in a pile. But the halfling was alive, and rose, apparently unharmed.
That released Moriel. She turned, then, and ran towards the exit. No time to explain, the traitor, the _real_ one, or one of them, would try to get away, might already have gotten away. Would try to carry word to Stein, to warn him, if it was not already too late.
So she ran, rushing past the guards, pausing to snatch her bow. She might not catch up with him, but she might still be able to stop him. It might already be too late, but even if it was, he would not get away.
At the top of the stairs, she paused, saw him at the edge of the forest. And she heard a sharp crack behind her, a gun being fired. The fleeing elf’s head exploded, the body crumpling to the ground.
Turning, she saw the man, Volkov, with a gun in his hand. She knew what would happen, so she ran, back towards him, but not in time to catch him when he sank to the floor.
She turned away. Did not want to see his eyes, did not want to see what she knew would be there. Not all the men had gotten out of the room in time. She was fairly certain that her own team had managed, so anyone left would be his. Dead, at the hands of one of his own. A terrible betrayal. No, she did not want to see.
Instead, she headed down to the dead elf. She did not, not really, expect to find anything. And it was better, easier, than standing there, trying to find words that would make no difference.
As expected, she found nothing. But when she returned to the entrance to Sidarthe’minwe, she found that the others too had arrived, and that they were now denied entrance.
She was not really surprised. Nor did she blame them. She asked once, and not again, if they would let her in. They refused, just as she had expected. They did not refuse to answer her next question, how bad the damage was. Not too bad, they told her. Nothing important; it had been, after all, a study, rather than a storeroom.
She heard Volkov mutter behind her. “Except my men.” She knew what he meant, but she also knew what the wardens meant. This was what they were here to protect. Their legacy, the final gift from the Elves to the younger races. She did not think they would have answered differently if there had been Elves among the casualties. Unless someone like Etari’sul had been among them.
Not that she would say anything. It was neither the time nor the place. And she was not terribly apt at explaining things anyway. Part of it might be her age. But most of it was that she was simply not good at it.
So she waited. Someone came out with food for them; they were not _that_ angry, then. Or perhaps they understood what had happened. At least the traitor, the one who had done this, had not come here with her.
Eventually, Etari’sul came out to speak with them. He told them about the Ringwielders. And how he knew, at least some of it. She wondered if the others noticed, if they saw the importance in what he had said. But she said nothing; if they had not realised what he had told them, she would not be the one to tell them.
When they left, the left the device behind. It was unexpected; she had thought Mengst would want it back, but the humans said they would not need it for a long while yet, and if any other Elven towns were trapped, it could be used to free them. Not that she did not appreciate it, but they kept confusing her.
They camped outside Sidarthe’minwe for the night. The humans, or most of them, slept. She did not, her kind never did. And Volkov did not. Instead he sat there, staring into the fire. Then he began to talk.
Not to her, though he probably was aware she was listening. He spoke of how he had struggled to keep his men alive. And as she listened, she realised that they had not told him that they had found two of his men dead when they visited Leitus. The two who had fought Xander and Erik; them he knew about. And the ones who had died in the explosion. She had told him about Jacob, and not in a kind way. She would not be the one to tell him about his men.
She wished she knew what to say, what to do. But she was not sure if it would be welcome, even had she known. One of his own, an Elf, had caused the death of three of his men. She was not at all convinced he would welcome comfort from another Elf, even had she known what to say. So she said nothing. Had he approached her, it would have been different, but he did not, so she kept quiet.
The next day, they headed back towards Everwatch, with Volkov and his surviving men. Moriel was, however, growing more and more uneasy. It was vague, not really a feeling at all, but more the fact that this, their return to Everwatch with Volkov, would be the perfect time to strike. Or worse, if Stein had suspected that they would, indeed, find Volkov and speak with him rather than attack him on sight, he might have tried to make it look as if they had joined the traitor’s men.
As they were drawing close to Everwatch, they heard a rumbling, from far far away, and in the distance, towards the east, they could see one of the great peaks of the mountain range east of Hillcrest crumble.
She glanced at Gronk. Wanted to ask, but did not know how. She doubted that goblins were behind it, but she did not see it as entirely impossible that the Dwarves might. Not that she would ask; she did not know him well enough for that. And if it was important, they would find out. If not, it did not matter. And it was not as if they could do anything about it.
As they rode on, she became more and more edgy. It did not help to find that the guards surrounding the camp were nervous, silent and suspicious. None of them would tell the group what was going on. Not a good sign. They were let in, but she could feel eyes watching as they headed towards the command tent.
Poppy and Moriel stayed outside, just in case. Of course, if it was Stein waiting inside, rather than Mengst, it would make no difference. Not really. But they had, at least, one advantage over Volkov’s men, the two who had tried to approach Xander. They had two Warders with them. They would most likely be heard.
At least there were no sounds of battle from inside the tent. Only the quiet murmur of words, words she was too far away to hear.
Gronk came rushing out of the tent, furious. No, that was not a strong enough word. when she asked, he told her in fewer words than she thought possible what had happened, that Mengst was in a coma, and Anabelle, his human friend, the one who had known Joseph, was dead, and Stein had fled, Warders chasing him.
This time, at least, she knew how to respond. Remembering that he had been kind, when she thought her entire people were gone, and other things he had said besides. She simply told him he would need a tracker and headed for her horse. That much, she owed him. Not that she did not want to see Stein dead too; there was little doubt now that he was, in fact, the traitor. But it was not personal, did not burn, not in the way it clearly was to Gronk.
She did not state the obvious. That it was late, that they were all tired, that Stein had had a couple of days to run, that the Warders had gone after him. Simply because he had to know, but right now, it would not matter.
And, heading down towards Hillcrest, they saw the campfires. It looked like thousands of them, burning like large stars, but far more sinister. She wished, not for the first time, but perhaps never so strongly, that her people had been here. Even few as they were, they would have made a difference against _this_ enemy. There was no love, none at all, lost between her people and the goblin-kin.
Had she thought it would have made a difference, she would have asked them to join the war. But they knew that the humans had played a role in bringing them back. Of course, the greatest role had been Poppy’s. Who had done what Moriel knew that she herself could not have done. To be fair, she did not think _anyone_ else could have gotten away with that.
Wondered what they thought of that, her own people. That they owed their existance, now, to the young halfling they had taken in, not so many years ago. She had been a child, then. In Elven eyes, she was still a child. They knew, of course, what Poppy had done. She had made sure of that, but she had not pressed the issue, not in any way tried to rub it in. They would know, and they would make their own decisions.
Not that she could do anything about that now. They would choose to act, or not, but no matter, it was too late to do anything about it, even had she wanted to make the attempt.
The sight of the campfires changed things, though had Gronk still wanted to go after Stein, she would have gone with him. She wondered what the woman had been to him. Family, possibly, in the way that she and Poppy were family. But as she listened to the others talk to some soldier, it became clear that they intended to wait for some meeting the next morning.
They did not spend much time determining who was in charge; Volkov was the obvious one, at least to her. That the question was asked at all would have surprised her, except by now she was starting to get used to how the humans, in particular, tended to ask questions where the answers were obvious, and rarely asked the _important_ ones.
She was, however, pleased. For some reason, she had begun to like this man. Maybe because he had chosen to go to her own people for help; it meant something, that, though she was not entirely sure what. Perhaps because his men had tried to stop Leitus from using the device in Tir’Valar. Or maybe because three of them had died, later, in the explosion, together with one other of his men, and he himself had killed another. And he had mourned them, that night, outside Sidarthe’minwe.
When he told them their next mission, she was not surprised. It was the logical thing to do, to find out what was driving the goblin horde, and to put an end to it. They were, after all, less than ten, all together. What difference could they make in the coming battle? Then she glanced at Gronk and realised that they could, indeed, make a difference. Still, finding and stopping whoever, or whatever, was behind this surge would make more of a difference.
And so they left, heading north to try to circle the goblin army. And that evening, they watched from a distance, as the goblins charged the humans forces. She wished she had been there.
Then they heard it. A scream unlike anything she had heard before. And in the distance, they saw a shape, a giant, winged shape. Though they were too far away to tell for certain, there was little doubt in her mind that this was the creature making that awful sound.
Then one of the humans, the big one, asked one of those very human, very obvious questions.
“Ees dat a dragon?”
Poppyâ€™s eyes glaze over as she starts to daydreamâ€¦
Someone said â€œdragon.â€
Poppy murmurs the word, just to see how it rolls off her tongue. Dragon.
It sounded right. So very right!
She likes Tonka. Tonka is a great puppy, but kind of annoying when she rips out her bows. Tonka could always be just a petâ€¦or a sidekick! Sheâ€™d even get her a hat! Tonka would still have uses.
Imagine a dragon. Who wouldnâ€™t notice a dragon!
A Halfling and a dragonâ€¦the team would be invincible! Weâ€™d end the war!
Itâ€™s flying around enemy lines, but Iâ€™m sure it could be convinced if someone just spoke to it. Or maybe itâ€™s under a magic spell? Surely the dragon couldnâ€™t resist the most famous of Halflings who saved the Elven race from demise?
Poppy snaps out of it and shakes her head a bit. She strains her eyes to see if she can glimpse a wing, a snout, or perhaps even fire on the horizon, but all she sees are tendrils of smoke from goblin fires.
It just has to be a dragon, she whispers. A dragon. Why not get the dragon a hat too?