You were nine, swabbing the deck of Count Isaac Vane’s Relentless, when the storm of the decade overtook the ship. It blew half the crew off the rigging, and was threatening to take the whole ship, if not just the mast, over with it if the topsail didn’t come down. You didn’t think. You were always light on your feet, and honestly, while you were scaling the rigging and cutting free the topsail, you weren’t scared. Not like, you’re-so-absorbed-you-didn’t-have-time-to-be-scared, but while the wind was desperately trying to rip you free of the ship and fling you into the forty-foot swells, you really weren’t concerned. It was difficult, but you never for a moment felt like you were in real danger.
And Vane saw.
You weren’t the sort of kid that had parents so much as a steady stream of ship’s masters, so when the Count requested you join his personal staff at hundred times the pay you could ever hope to make patrolling the waters around Erebor for pirates or invaders from the North…with better food…you jumped at the chance.
There were a few times in that first year you regretted it.
You never saw Vane once, but in retrospect you know he must’ve been watching. You were subjected to a grueling regimen of language and writing, history, court etiquette, and an extremely peculiar ancient form of Elven dance. You were up before the sun, performing several hours of grueling physical labor and collapsed into your bunk after a light meal well after dark.
There were a few others, all roughly the same age, but they became fewer and fewer as the months stretched on, until at last you found yourself alone in a practice field one balmy Erebor autumn morning, the sea breeze blowing colored leaves about, wondering where your dance instructor had gotten to.
Count Vane strode out onto the practice field, strode up and stopped way too close into your personal space, then stepped into the starting pose of one of your more difficult dance routines. It was so absurd, seeing this huge force-of-nature of a man take up a ridiculous pose. You burst loose a chuckle despite yourself. He gave you a wry grin and stood at rest. And then, almost faster than you could see, he struck the pose again, and this time he drew The Red Widow as he swept his arm up.
The pose didn’t look so absurd then. Before you stood a warrior of legendary renown, holding a guard stance, bearing a thousand-year-old Elven blade. And you understood.
“I…,” you stammered.
“Will learn,” he finished. “Tomorrow. Today, we’re going to rest. And talk. I want to know your story, and I’ll begin telling you mine, and the story of this blade.”
And that’s where it started. Everyone knew Vane was an Etu’sauri master and a brilliant tactician on sea and land, but you found in him a father, and you’re not ashamed to admit it. He was a stern master, and at times more cold and calculating than someone should be, but he had decided to spend his days teaching you quite literally everything he loved, and he was a superb teacher. He had son, fully a man by the time you met him, who was well-positioned to marry well and carry on the family and rule his lands near Erebor – but Vane didn’t care about land or titles, he cared about the Blade, and war, and the hows and whys of any given man’s decisions.
For twenty years you almost never left his side. From the time he was named the Lady’s Master of Ships, to being recalled to Penshin when the fledgling invasion fleet was burned, to chasing down mad Stranglers during The Breaking, being named Lord General of the Lady’s Army, to the siege and eventual capture of High Guard fortress. He molded you as you grew up, and you’ve begun to notice that he’s beginning to grow old. Your training in recent years has been almost entirely practical command and philosophy. You were starting to wonder if The Red Widow was about to be passed on.
It was late in the evening during the fifth year living at High Guard fortress that you were called to Vane’s private gallery overlooking the Black Rose Society’s encampment at Hillcrest to the North down the pass. The stone of High Guard sheltered you from the winds on three sides, but you were high in the mountains and it was late winter, so the gallery was frigid. Multiple braziers held red hot coals, bathing the gallery in a undulating red light, while not blinding you to the watch fires down the pass, just out of range of Hgh Guard’s cannons.
Vane sat behind his chess board, wrapped in furs like a great bear, cradling a mug of something steaming hot. At first you thought there was a small statue on the other side of the chess board, and strictly speaking, there was. It was about eighteen inches high, wide, proportioned like a dwarf. And then it hobbled up to the board and moved the queen’s knight.
“Um…,” was all you could muster.
“Matten,” said Vane, without looking up from the board.
Vane leaned back in his chair with a sigh and looked over at you. The…statue…turned its head towards you with a tiny stony crunch. Definitely a Dwarf….statue.
“It’s just Isaac tonight, m’boy. Just Isaac. Tonight we are two men…and…” he nods to the statue with a smirk, “…and we will discuss dark things that put us in mortal danger by merely thinking of them. We will make dark plans to do dark deeds that will either change the course of history or end us all. Tonight, we are just two men talking.”
You’d never seen Vane drunk before, but you were starting to wonder if this was the day.
You approached the table carefully and took a seat next to the chess board. The dwarf statue-thing’s gaze following you. Vane took a steaming pot off of a brazier, filled a mug, and handed it over to you.
“M’lo…Isaac…sir…can we talk about…,” you gesture to the statue.
“Our co-conspirator, Matt. He cannot speak in this form, but he can hear. An unlikely, but valuable ally in what lies ahead.”
You felt a chill in the pit of your stomach. “It’s…him…isn’t it?” The little statue grinned at you with a stony crunch, and bowed slightly.
“We won’t speak his name here, Matt. Either of them. But yes. It’s him.”
Thane Ironfist. Former King of the Dwarves. Bearer of Ari Stonehand, Ringwielder of Stone. By all accounts, a traitor so profoundly damaging to the Kisharan regime that Aril Flambeau was rumored to have killed an advisor for merely mentioning his name.
What have you gotten us into, Master?
You take a careful sip of the hot spiced wine and burn your tongue. You sigh in resignation.
“So…dark deeds then?”
“Indeed,” says Vane, staring off at watch fires down the pass. “Long ago,” he continued, reciting The Cycle, “in a world not entirely unlike our own, there was a woman named Kishara, and she was a conqueror.”
“I think it’s considered blasphemy to refer to Her as a woman.”
“It is.” He finally shifts in his chair to face you while Stonehand’s homunculus fiddles with the chess pieces idly. “I’ve been spending some time with the boss. We’ve been having some…very interesting heart-to-heart conversations.”
Vane always referred to Cyan Marinetta, Ringwielder of Water, The Lady of Penshin as “The Boss”. She had taken a personal interest in him, and had been responsible for his current position as supreme commander of all of the forces of the Kisharan military.
“Does she know…” you ask, gesturing to Stonehand.
“No, that might be a bridge too far at the moment, but ultimately I think it will be for the best. They’ve been doing this invasion and exploitation thing for a long time. When they march into a new world, the average time it takes to pacify and stabilize a conquest enough for the Ringwielders to move on is about a hundred years. There are exceptions of course, even a few complete retreats, but after a few thousand years of doing it, it averages out to about that. So technically, we’re right on track.”
He takes a moment to nurse at the steaming mug. The little statue had set up a line of battle with the chess pieces.
“Do you know how many times they’ve lost a Ringwielder? Do you know how many times, in all those worlds and all those battles and all those conquests, that they’ve lost the Waygate?”
“Never. The answer to both questions is ‘never’. This has given The Boss occasion to reflect on her lot.”
Some Dwarvish runes appear on the Stonehand statue’s chest. Vane glances at them and chuckles.
“As have we all, yes. And as it turns out, she’s been thinking about her lot for a very long time. Tell me, Matt, what do you think happened at Westergarde?”
You blink. “At the massacre when Mengst was killed?”
“No, no, the Battle of Westergarde, twenty years ago. Mengst meets Tahl’Mearis at the gates of Westergarde and slays him. Onlookers say he was aided by a manifestation of Aluviel herself.”
“Well…” your mind spins over the historical accounts, “if Aluviel appeared it would be the only confirmed time in history where the deity has been manifest. Combine that with The Breaking making it clear that the power of the faithful had some sort of direct link to Kishara, I find it very unlikely that it was divine intervention.”
“Perhaps Mengst is special?”
“He undoubtedly is. It’s said he kept the Ring of Spirit on a chain around his neck. Any normal man would’ve been driven mad or tempted into putting it on and letting the old bastard back out in the world again. But if he was special enough to slay a Ringwielder, who was that on the field with him?”
“Not Aluviel,” you reiterate. “Only one thing we know of that can take on a Ringwielder….besides Peruppi Dentkettle it seems….”
“Who was far too young when the battle happened…”
“…who was far too young when the battle happened, leaving only another…oh shit…”
Vane nods and takes a sip of the cider. “She won’t admit to it. All of the Ringwielders have a sense of each other’s location and disposition, but despite that I think she found a way to help. I think she wanted Tahl’Mearis out of the way. Wouldn’t surprise me a bit if she gave Whisper a good reason to march into the Northern Wastes and off the table entirely.”
A set of new runes appeared on the little statue’s chest.
“And indeed, she and Stonehand have always been close. Partners in the rebuilding and stabilization of the Kisharan conquests. Spirit gone. Air gone. Stone a potential ally. All that leaves is the Lady of Teribain.”
Your head swimming, you stood and stepped to the parapet and stared out into the night.
“To what end, though?” you ask.
“Maybe she’s tired of being a slave?”
You turn back to the older man, laughing. “Some slave! Near ultimate power, autonomy, she’s practically the de facto Empress of Khevoran as it is…” You trail off as the little statue grabs a lump of coal from a nearby brazier and begins writing on the wall near you, this time in Imperial.
WE ARE ALL SLAVES
You stare at the words. They seem to impart something much more profound than simply the current subject.
“Even you? Still?” you ask. The statue nods with a tiny grinding sound.
“With the Waygate sealed,” Vane clarifies quietly, “the Dark Lady is quite constrained in exerting control over her Chosen Ones. If they gate were to be reopened…we’re not sure what would become of our Dwarven friend.”
“So you think that the Ringwielder of Water wants out…”
“I know she wants out.”
“She asked me to help.”
You stumble back into your seat. “She asked you. Directly. She asked you to help her…what?”
“Live the rest of her days, which will undoubtedly be numerous, in peace.”
The gallery falls silent for several minutes. The little statue had gone completely still. Vane seemed content to sip his cider while you processed everything.
After a moment of shock, you start working the problem, “Flambeau is trying to excavate the Waygate.”
“Yes. It won’t be long. Months, not years.”
“The Boss can’t act against Flambeau directly. Neither can Stonehand.”
The little statue nods.
“You need someone motivated to end the Kisharan regime. Someone the people will still consider legitimate. Mengst is dead. The Altair line is extinct.”
Vane grins at you. “You have one fact wrong. Kironius Mengst has a son, Jacob. He’s currently the ward of Duke Tyr at Westergarde.”
“Yes, but,” you counter, “Mengst himself was a symbol. His son is a stranger.”
“Let me finish. Jacob Mengst’s mother was a woman named Annabelle Cirrus. He knew her through a mutual acquaintance, one Sebastien Bineau.”
“He lived? Emperor Altair’s Captain of the Knight’s Leopold?”
“The same. And Annabelle wasn’t her real name.”
All the pieces fall into place. “Anastasia. Anastasia Altair. Mengst’s son is the grandson of Emperor Joseph Altair.”
“And the son of Kironius Mengst. Quite the pedigree.”
You lean forward with excitement. “You’re going to ally with Sergei Volkov. You’re going to take Jacob Mengst back from Duke Tyr, hopefully over his dead body. You’re going to use the Northerners to find a way to neutralize Aril Flambeau. And you’re going to put this Jacob on the throne.”
“As I said, dark thoughts, m’boy.”
“And Marinetta will be happy to abdicate her power? Carve out a little niche for herself and live quietly ever after?”
“We hadn’t gotten that far, but I have the sense it may be exactly that.”
This time, Vane stood and stretched and looked out into the night. His voice took on a strangely cold tone. “I could end this war myself. Flambeau is tiring of my excuses for not invading, and she’s right. Captain Tennyson down there is no Alton, and certainly no Mengst. He can’t keep me bottled up in here. I could wipe what’s left of the Black Rose Society off the map and march through the North the same way Tahl’Mearis did. Volkov couldn’t stop me in the open, and Tyr is a fool. But I would have to kill every single damned frost-brained Northern dirt-farmer from here to Westergarde. It would be a slaughter the likes of which we haven’t seen since the first invasion. The North would never recover. That’s not peace.”
“And you’d likely end up killing all the talent you need to use against Flambeau.”
He chuckled darkly and glanced over to the statue, “Always the pragmatist, my Matt.” The statue studied you with an unreadable expression.
“So what’s the plan?” you ask.
Vane turns back from the parapet grinning.
“I need you to go on a mission for the Etu’Sauri Council.”
“It’s become clear that Stephen Tyr has murdered Etu’Sauri Lucas. I am told that he keeps The Justicar in a trophy case. I have a letter from Erebor, signed by the Council, condemning Duke Tyr for the act and authorizing retribution. Further, they agree with me that you’re prepared to take a Blade. You’re to retrieve The Justicar and become its master.”
Your breath catches. The man just told you the goal of your entire life to date was within sight.
“I know it’s not The Red Widow, and damn me if I’ll be able to train a new…”
“M’Lord…I…I don’t know what to say. The Justicar is a storied Blade and I’m honored.”
“Good, because I like my Blade too much to let you fumble about with it anyway. So naturally, you’re going to need help accomplishing your mission.”
“Seems likely that he’d be happy to help you put Tyr’s head on a pike. And he should honor your charge from the Council, even coming from a Southerner.”
“But…you’re on the Council.”
“Because of my relationship with you, I found it prudent to abstain from putting my name on the document.”
You can’t help but grin, “Convenient.”
“Just doing my part to help you keep your head on your shoulders. Thane here is sending one of his own to help Volkov as well, a clever Dwarven junior officer by the name of Kagdir. You’ll meet him at the trading post outside Karak Ven and head to Harrowburg together. The two of you shouldn’t face any harassment.”
“What happens after we take down Tyr?”
“You’ll probably get your chance at diplomacy. I’ve no doubt that Volkov will turn his eye either to me here at High Guard or to Flambeau. The only reason he and Smoot left the Society to begin with was to avenge Mengst – I’ve no doubt the man still wears the black in his heart. You’ll have to decide when the right moment is to come clean with him about The Boss’s disposition.”
“Does Kagdir know my mission?”
“From the Council, yes. Nothing more.”
“So I’m somewhat undercover?”
“I certainly wouldn’t admit to being the apprentice of their arch-nemesis who recently took their prized castle back from them over the bodies of some of their most storied friends.
“Listen Matt, you’re not exactly a public figure, but you have been with me for decades. You will undoubtedly be recognized at some point and the Council’s writ may not be enough. Hell, I’ve sent numerous agents into the North, hoping to get them close to Volkov so I’d have options to open a dialogue…or take him out…if and when it became necessary. I don’t know if any of them have gotten anywhere close to the man, but they’d recognize you in a heartbeat I’m sure.
“But you’re literally the only one I trust. Our dark cabal numbers only three now, and that’s the way it must stay until we’re absolutely sure we can move against Flambeau. I can’t go myself, and our friend here can only conspire so much before the others sense it.
“One other point to note. Mengst always kept the Ring of Spirit on a chain around his neck. It must now be in Stephen Tyr’s possession. Obviously no one has put it on yet, or else Tor’Ellian Tahl’Mearis would be tearassing around the world again. It must be found. It must be secured. Do not touch it with your bare skin. That ring can…not…find…its way onto a finger. Ever. He’s the worst of them, Matt. He’s smarter than me, he’s meaner than The Whisper, and he’s more powerful than the other four put together. He would end us all.”
You look to the little Dwarf statue, who is scrawling more words on the parapet.
You think through the plan. The mad, world-changing, shockingly desperate plan.
“It will take me a few days to sneak past the Society and get to Karak Ven.”
Vane veritably beams at you, “It will take Kagdir slightly longer.”
“Do I have to know anything? About the Blade?”
“No, son,” he says with uncharacteristic warmth, “Once you lay a hand upon it, that will be enough. You have everything else you need.”
“Well…I suppose I’ll leave tomorrow then.”
Vane and the Stonehand statue exchange a look, then the little statue climbs back onto the table, walks over to you, climbs into your mug of cider, salutes, then collapses into a pile of sand. In your drink. Vane roars with laughter for a brief moment, then stands, wiping the freezing tears from his eyes. He reaches a hand out and pulls you to your feet.
“I’m proud of you, Etu’Sauri Matten Ra’ask. Go claim your Blade. Go save our world.”
You nod, fighting back tears of your own. “Yes, m’Lord,” was all that you could say. There were no hugs, no lengthy goodbyes. You left your aging master there in the freezing night. When you shut the door he was looking back out over the encampment to the North.
The trip to Karak Ven was quiet. The Southern scouts got you out of High Guard and well past the Society pickets before leaving you to your duty. The hike to Karak Ven through the Masaan foothills was somewhat treacherous because of the weather, but you encountered no particular dangers.
The Karak Ven surface trading post was a set of massive buildings, primarily warehouses of Dwarven goods that had been scarce in the human world for nearly twenty years. There were a number of large traveller’s inns and you took up residence in one until this Kagdir fellow found you.
It didn’t take long. The next day you noticed a fairly well-armed Dwarf watching you for the better part of an hour, regardless of where you went, so you decided to confront him.
“Are you my escort?” you asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “Escort? I thought we were just travelling companions of convenience…”
You smiled grimly. “I’m a Southerner wandering around North of High Guard, something not entirely unlike an Etu’Sauri sword on my back, and asking after the leader of one side of a civil war.”
“I see your point.”
The trip to Harrowburg was three weeks of uneventful winter travel. It was cold. It was often wet. No one on the road wanted anything to do with the pair of you. Kagdir wasn’t the most chatty fellow, and neither were you, so in all of that time your conversations never really went anywhere deeper than idle chit-chat about the shitty road, the shitty weather, the shitty food, etc..
Harrowburg wasn’t a large town, but it was big enough for two inns. You hadn’t made it to the front desk of the one you chose before you were approached by a man who knew your names and escorted out of town. A few miles out you arrived at a broken-down farm. It hadn’t been worked in decades, and the buildings had the appearance of being ramshackle – though you had a hunch that was deceiving. There were armed people generally trying to stay out of sight, trying to make the place look abandoned.
There was a strange reverence to the place. A quiet calm that couldn’t be solely attributed to the winter. And then you realized it. This must’ve been His home.
You were being taken to a secret meeting at Kironius Mengst’s home.