It wasn’t a bad cave. Winters were rough. Until you built the door. And then, shortly thereafter, the chimney.
It wasn’t until you were somewhat warm and neither fending off bears nor choking on wood smoke that you realized Peruppi’s death may have been the secret to saving the world.
You and Shara cursed her and Harfur both as you made your way North through the Masaan (Chumley would have, but he doesn’t curse). The only reason for Peruppi to stay behind and confront the Ringwielder of Fire was to make a statement, and the only reason for Harfur to stay behind was to die with Peruppi.
Once you’d established yourself in your cave on the north face of the range, well away from High Guard and it’s troubles, and started getting messages in and out via your winged Friends and Relations, you started to realize that maybe Peruppi’s statement was quite profound.
After the battle, Aril Flambeau personally executed all of the witnesses. The Riverton civic center staff, her Peacekeepers, hapless bystanders, the poor kid who made her tea. Everyone. She rode back to Teribain literally alone. But word got out. You heard at least two stories, different enough to come from separate sources but similar enough to ring of truth, that Flambeau couldn’t harm Peruppi. None of her power so much as singed a hair on the spunky halfling’s head – which is why, much to everyone’s surprise, Peruppi managed to put her sword through the Ringwielder’s leg before the Peacekeepers caught on to what was happening and killed her in a mad rush.
Research into what may have made Peruppi special went nowhere for that first year, but then The Breaking came. While thousands of mad priests were trampling everything they could see all across the lands, you were keeping your ears open. And that’s when you found it. There were Halflings priests…but only Halflings…that didn’t go mad. Certainly many, even most, did, but some didn’t. You theorized that perhaps they were getting their power from a different place. A truer place than the rest, who obviously had been duped into tapping the dark powers of the goddess Kishara beyond the Waygate.
You coordinated with Shara and the other veterans of Riverton’s liberation: Lan, Voghan, Aradore, Raphael, in an attempt to find these Halflings. You didn’t have much luck. After The Extermination, Halflings were extremely secretive in general, and no one was claiming to be a priest after The Breaking.
So there was a lot of nothing. For years. Nothing.
Around the time Kironius Mengst was murdered by that nitwit Tyr and the whole of the North went mad with rage, you did learn that Leitus ar’Shimrael Vin was also looking for unique Halflings. He called them The Unbroken. You also learned that the demon Tan’Arle’Kin, also known as Gideon Nell, the creature who had attempted to subvert the Riverton government (before your team got there…and subverted the Riverton government), was a creature of Leitus’. The realization made the thought of crossing the ancient Elf that much more alarming – knowing that it was Leitus behind the Cult of Riverton – but you could never quite put your finger on what his motivations in Riverton may have been.
About three years ago, you got a message from Shara. You couldn’t read it. At least, you couldn’t until you realized she had used one set of codes to give you the code needed to use another set of codes to decipher it.
She found one of these Unbroken.
His name was Sanorin. He was a survivor of The Extermination who had been living a relatively quiet life in Brandywine’s Lament through the entire war. He made it through The Breaking without so much as a twitch, and his power, when he put his mind to it, was profound. You agreed that she should keep him close until the war between Volkov and Tyr settled down and the leaders of the North could turn their eye South once again.
About a year ago, you got word that Lan and Raphael had been murdered in Middenport.
Four months later, Voghan went quiet in Lachtanburg.
You sent warnings to Shara and Aradore. Someone was targeting the Riverton crew. Aradore planned to come North, meet up with you, and the two of you together would meet Shara in Karpassis and go into hiding properly and together. He never arrived.
A little over three weeks ago, Shara Tev died.
You felt it. Like a shudder went through the world. The mountains rumbled. The skies wept. Your Friends and Relations skittered away and hid. She was that important to the world. She was light. And she was gone.
Shara’s death rune blazed to light in your mind, far to the East, but steadily heading towards the mountains. You could only hope she left it with this Sanorin fellow. And you could only assume she had sent him to Volkov, so that’s where you needed to be.
You didn’t so much pack as fill your pockets with random odds and ends from your cave, sealed your library away behind runes of invisibility and dryness, and headed out from your mountain hideaway towards Harrowburg.
You were preparing your dinner over a small fire the second night, only just barely down in the Masaan foothills, when your firelight reflected off a small pair of eyes in the dark. It took you a moment to realize they were eyes, and another moment to realize they belonged to something bipedal. You waved at it.
“No hurt me,” came a small, raspy voice from the dark.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” you replied, trying to appear as harmless as possible.
Into the firelight emerged a goblin. Skinny little thing, wearing a ragged kilt and horned helm that obviously belonged to something far larger than he, and smelling as if it were long dead when he found it. Behind him scuttled the largest, meanest-looking boar you’d ever laid eyes on and unlike its companion, it wore a perfectly-fitted set of leather and mail barding the quality of which would rival Imperial Cavalry.
The goblin took a few steps into the light and blinked a few times, letting his eyes adjust. The boar settled down at the edge of the firelight with a leathery, metallic, porky thud.
He nodded to the spit. “That rat?”
“Er…well…no…rabbit actually.” The goblin looked somewhat disappointed.
“Well…I don’t see why not…come have a seat.” You marvelled at the sheer oddity of this encounter. Here was a goblin, who, by all accounts, should be travelling with thousands of its brethren and terrorizing dwarves. You were overwhelmingly curious. “So…what’s…what are you called?” you ask.
The goblin looked at you suspiciously for a moment before settling down by the fire and taking the rabbit leg you offered.
“I am Starry Night Over Trees After A Summer Storm the Scent of Mold and Dew on Black Rock Dripping Echoes.”
“Starry Night Over Trees is shorter,” he offered.
“Yes…well…yes I see that. Are…are all of you named similarly?” He shrugs. “Well…Starry Night Over… Say, would it be okay if I just called you…hrrm…no…oof…well…Snot?”
The goblin gave you a steady look, considering this. After a moment, he shrugged.
“Well, I’m glad, I fear I would run out of words if I had to address you by your full name every time. My name is Jacob Dain.”
The goblin raised an eyebrow at this. “Wizard of Wilds?”
“So I’ve been called, yes.”
Snot chewed on his rabbit leg thoughtfully. The boar began to snore.
“Meeting you is fate,” he said, finally. “I am Stra’Chik. I bring a message of The People.”
“Oh? Is a Stra’Chik a kind of clan chief? A message for whom?”
“The Human Emperor.”
“Oh. Oh. Well…I’m afraid…I’m afraid Joseph Altair is dead, and his son Frederic slain…and his son…as well…. I’m afraid the succession is in a bit of doubt at the moment.”
The little goblin drooped visibly and sighed. Then perked up.
“Mengst then. I will speak to Hero of Westergarde, to Slayer of Ringwielder.”
You clucked uncomfortably.
“Slain, I’m afraid. I have reason to believe though that he may have a child…in captivity.”
Snot raised an eyebrow.
“Who in charge out here?”
A question for the ages, you think to yourself.
“Well…I suppose… I mean…if I were to suggest someone, I suppose it would be Sergei Volkov.”
Snot scratched his chin with the rabbit bone.
“Okay. Sergei Volkov then. I bring a message.”
You look at him expectantly.
“No paper though.”
“Ahh!” you exclaim, finally in your element,”I have paper! And ink! And I know a few words of the deep cant, I may be able to pen this letter for you?”
And you did. And as the hours stretched on into the night, you became more and more astounded at what you were hearing:
A Letter From Goblin Stra’Chik Starry-Night-Over-Trees
As Translated (and paraphrased for content…and profanity) by Jacob Dain
My name is Starry Night Over Trees, Stra’Chik of The People of Mud and Night.
Forty-five years ago, when the Waygate opened, my people were enslaved. It was as if our hearts were gripped by an invisible hand and white-hot rage was poured into our veins. We went mad. With others of the deeps, the Orcs, the elves of the night, the deep dwarves, who all, for their own reasons I do not understand, were filled with hate as well, we invaded the places of the Dwarves and killed. We drove upward, this invisible slaver lashing our backs with whips of fire. Some were made so mad they did not eat or sleep until they fell. Some turned on their kin. The Deep Things used us as chattel in their battles. We were as animals. All was dark. Many of us who survived remember little.
When the Waygate closed, we were released in an instant. Our minds were muddled and our hearts were filled with sadness. We were broken, but we were of the Mud and Night again and not of a Dark Lady of Hate. But then He came. He Who Kills With Stone marched ahead of his peoples and lay upon us with a dark vengeance. He slew entire clans with a wave of his hand, encasing them in hard stone to choke and die in dark and fear. His people murdered in their rage and raised the heads of The People on pikes by the hundreds.
We pleaded. We sent envoys and messengers. We left marks on the stone.
But in their sadness and rage, the Dwarves could not listen. The stone could not hear.
Thus we fled. Like the Halflings, my people have scattered across the world to become diffuse. To make it so The People can survive, in some way.
I have come to plead for our lives. To prove to the People of The Sun that while we live in dark places, we are not of darkness. My people are nimble, and clever. We see but are unseen. We work hard, and with precision. We have come from the deep and are just out of sight. In that hollow, beneath those rocks, in those places of shadow.
I came to beseech your Emperor, but he is slain. So I sought out Mengst: The Hero of Westergarde, but he is slain. So I come to help raise his kin, so I may beseech him for The People. We will work. We will serve.
And we will help you fight, in what small ways we are able. Because the Dark Lady has broken The People. And those who have fallen will be avenged.
Once Snot felt like you’d adequately captured his intent, he promptly curled up next to the boar (who he called “Pig”) and was snoring within moments, leaving you flummoxed and astounded at how much stranger the world had become all of a sudden.
The next morning, the little man..creature…thing…was up bright and early, his eyes covered with something approximating welding goggles, waiting atop Pig to set out toward Harrowburg.
As it turned out, he was an astonishingly useful travelling companion, if a little nosy. Any time you needed nearly anything on the road – be it travelling rations, salt, fresh water, a spare knife, a small sheaf of moist but unused parchment – Snot would duck off into the wilderness and return some hours later with the needed item. You’re not entirely sure how, and you didn’t ask.
He was incessantly curious about everything – from the names of trees and herbs, to the patterns of weather west of the mountains that seemed to always astound him, to what you had in your pockets at any given moment. He never stopped asking questions, and when he wasn’t asking questions, he was talking about things he knew about, which largely centered on stone, mud, moss, and orcs. The first time you attempted to stay at a roadside inn (disguising Snot as a small, awkward, and rather smelly child) was your last. After being asked about a veritable pawnbroker’s shop worth of goods purloined from the rooms of other travellers, you chose discretion over hanging and stuck to sleeping in the wild.
Still, the three-week trip to Harrowburg was unceasingly enlightening. You got the distinct impression that Snot was somewhat of a savant among his people – very likely the smartest in his generation, perhaps even the era – which must have been a driving force in his being selected as the messenger of his tribe or council of tribes. Your knowledge of the Deep Cant increased a hundredfold, and you even brushed up on your Dwarvish a bit.
You arrived at the Mengst Farm outside Harrowburg two days after whoever was holding Shara’s death rune got to the village proper. The security was subtle, but heavy enough that you knew Volkov was present, and after introducing yourself and Snot to a rather befuddled soldier were brought to the man immediately.
Volkov was alone in the kitchen of the modest house when you entered. He raised an eyebrow at Snot, but seemed to move past his surprise and gave you a warm smile.
“I’m glad to see you, Jacob. Who’s your friend?”
“Ah…yes…well…yes, let’s get that out of the way.” You hand over Snot’s letter and he reads through it quickly, his eyes slowly widening. He sets it down and carefully re-folds it against the table. He stands up slowly, and much to your surprise, bows deeply to Snot.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Starry Night Over Trees. Our goals appear to be aligned. I’d be honored to accept your service, as long as you choose. In fact, we have an immediate opportunity. You’ll want to stay and hear about it.”
Snot appeared somewhat shocked at this, but he raised his hands in a strange, almost prayer-like gesture and bowed his head, then grinned.
“Good, good now. We fight together then.”
“Um…Sergei,” you interject, “There’s someone in town, someone who may know Shara…”
“Yes, a pair of them, Halfling and a merc.”
“You’ll want to bring them in, the Halfling’s important.”
“It’ll be done. Why don’t you two go put your things down, we’ll be having a meeting in a few hours. We can tell the same story to everyone then.”
You and Snot both nod and let yourselves out of the kitchen. A guard outside takes you to a stable for Pig and then across a snowy lawn to an old barn that’s been turned into a bunkhouse. You and Snot set your things down, eat a light meal, and rest. A few hours later a man arrives and escorts you back to the house.