Life used to be simple: Do the job. Get paid. Move on before you got tied down. Or embroiled in something too big. Or both.
It was just over five years ago.
Arvanti’s thugs had left you tied to a rock in the middle of The Wastes to die. You can’t swear that you remember precisely why you ended up that way, but it definitely involved some choice words with the caravan master. And your knuckles were scraped, so maybe more than choice words. There was alcohol involved.
You’d spent two full days in the sun and you knew you were about to be seriously in trouble by the third when the stone troll plodded along the road. He was twelve feet tall, and by the sound of his footsteps he had to weigh several tons. He also, much to your surprise, wore a fairly well-tailored suit of traveling clothes. And spectacles (the size of dinner plates!)
“Oh…hello!” he said. His voice was like an avalanche, but his accent was that of a prissy Teribainer. You responded with a croak that not even you understood. “Well…hrrm….” He considered you for a moment, then lifted you and the boulder you were lashed to as one and set you down in the lee of the rock outcropping that travellers use as shelter. He held a waterskin to your lips between his massive fingers and let you drink your fill, then unceremoniously squeezed the rest out over your head, cooling you down considerably.
“So I’m going to cut you down, don’t try to hurt me, okay?”
“You’re a stone troll.”
“Well…yes, we agree on that at least.” He smiled his toothy grin and cut you down off the rock, caught you in one massive hand as you fell, and gently sat you down against the boulder.
After you’d rubbed some feeling back into your wrists and ankles and drained a second waterskin he provided, you finally felt that you weren’t on death’s door.
“I get that a lot.”
“You’re not Chumley?”
“Oh no, guilty as charged. Not many of me lumbering around the desert, eh?” He chuckled.
Shara Tev and her companion Chumley were legends, especially in The Wastes. Along with Harfur Stoutfoot, Peruppi Dentkettle, and Jacob Dain, they captured the trading port of Riverton out from under the noses of the Kisharans and used it as a means to smuggle thousands of Halflings out of the South. After Riverton fell five years prior, the pair escaped to The Wastes and set up shop in Karpassis near the Halfling refuge of Brandywine’s Lament and began rebuilding their trading empire.
“I guess I’m lucky you came along,” you admit finally. The massive troll chortled.
“Believe me, luv, with Shara Tev, nothing is ever ‘just luck’.”
Before you could ask what he meant, you heard the sound of the cart coming around the bend. It was a massive thing, meant to haul a lot of goods in comfort across the broad expanses of the wastes and good for little else, with a team of ten horses in the lead and a large cabin in front of the covered cargo area. And She was at the reigns.
She was a slightly older woman, handsome, her skin was dark but not weathered like those who’d spent their whole lives in the desert, but what struck you was that all of reality, the entirety of the universe, shifted its gaze in attempt to keep her in focus. That’s the only way to describe it. She pulled the massive vehicle into the shade and climbed down to meet Chumley. They had a few whispered words, and when her gaze shifted to you, your breath caught. It was like love at first sight, which was ridiculous for all sorts of reasons, but it was something profound and inexplicable nonetheless.
You sat and watched the two work to unhitch and settle the horses, which, as it turns out, is surprisingly swift when one can physically lift and relocate a horse at will, and then both approached where you were recovering with armloads of their camp supplies.
“I hear,” said Shara, setting up a cookfire and flashing you a friendly smile, “that someone wasn’t terribly happy with you…”
You coughed uncomfortably. “Yes, well. The caravan master was a little gropey. Didn’t take ‘No’ well.”
Shara snickered at that. “Sounds like Avanti.”
She sat on her haunches across the fire pit and looked at you. I mean, really looked at you. You felt like you were being studied. Not judged…just…studied. It seemed to last forever.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Want a job, Syl?”
And that’s how it started. You became an employee of Rivers Trading Company, you were paid extremely well, and you almost never left their sides. In fact, people stopped referring to Shara and Chumley as “The Pair” and started referring to Shara, Chumley, and Syl as “The Trio”. Trading in The Wastes was always a tricky and somewhat dangerous business, but above and beyond that, you soon came to find that Shara maintained an extensive network across the whole of the world, and was constantly trading in, brokering, and collecting information from the lowest slums and the highest courts in the land. Shara’s transports were almost never harassed by bandits, but on average, you helped stop no fewer than a dozen assassination attempts per year.
The awe and wonder at the very being of Shara Tev never faded, though you grew as used to it as you could. Chumley would joke about it. He said it had something to do with all the Halflings she’d helped, almost like the universe was smiling on her. You all became fast friends, especially with Chumley, who, to you, was so much more “normal” than dealing with the always-radiant Shara. They were family.
Shara had always been known for helping Halflings, but there was a different tone to many of her inquiries as the years went on. You felt like she was looking for something or someone specific among all the refugees from Kisharan rule she was aiding. Then, nearly three years ago, Shara took the short trip to Brandywine’s Lament and came home with Sanorin.
Sanorin was, as far as you could tell, a perfectly normal Halfling. He was meticulous, ate like he had a hole in his stomach, and had the air of hunted and haunted that his people had developed since the Extermination began. From day one, Shara treated him as part of the family. And it didn’t take more than a few months for the employees of Rivers to start calling you “The Four”. He was handy to have around: he was adept at working the books and Shara’s network of informants, and, as you found out after a particularly brutal attack on a convoy, had a strange but potent magical touch.
It was fun. It was lucrative. It felt like you were doing good.
You were happy.
Then a month ago, the Grey Man came.
Shara, Sanorin, and yourself were returning from meeting a merchant caravan at the edge of the city. When you stepped through the front doors of the Rivers Exchange, you discovered a man…a completely unassuming, nondescript, perfectly average-looking man wearing a simple, but finely tailored outfit of nondescript, unassuming grey, holding two-ton stone troll Chumley to the ground by his neck. You arrived just in time to witness the unassuming man, with his one free hand, casually tear Chumley’s arm off at the shoulder.
Chumley roared in pain, Sanorin froze, Shara gasped in horror, and you screamed and swung your long gun from your back and up to your shoulder, but before you could fire, the man tossed Chumley’s severed arm – which must have weighed several hundred pounds at least – across the room, knocking you against the wall. You felt the ribs break and puncture your lung, and you couldn’t tell up from down for a few moments as you struggled feebly against the huge stone upon your chest. He picked Chumley up by the neck and tossed him against the opposite wall like a ragdoll.
He straightened, flicked a bit of grainy, sandy black troll-blood from his doublet, and smiled at Sanorin and Shara. It was the sort of smile that accountants give customers. Polite.
“Why Shara Tev,” he said with a smooth, deep voice, “it has been far too long.” He seemed to notice Sanorin then, and he cocked his head to the side like a curious puppy. His smile became wider, and his face took on the look of a hungry predator.
“And you have one of The Unbroken…my master will be most pleased to meet you, good sir.”
The man started towards Sanorin, but something stopped him, like an invisible hand. There was a look to Sanorin then; a look of concentration, rage, and hate.
The man blinked in confusion, and then took a step back. Then another. Then two more. It was as if he was being pushed by an unseen wind. He leaned into it and tried to struggle towards the small man, but he kept being pushed backwards. He finally stumbled into Chumley, who wrapped his remaining arm around and pulled him into a hug that would’ve crushed a team of oxen.
Shara dashed to a writing table and scribbled something on a piece of parchment, then strode across the room towards the creature.
“I know your true name Gideon Nell,” she snarled, tearing the paper in two before his eyes, “You’ll not have him, nor me so easily.” A look of calm came over the man’s face, and he smiled a knowing grin, and then went utterly still, as if frozen solid.
The air seemed to leave Shara and she took the last two steps towards Chumley, reaching up to cradle his huge head in her arms. You finally struggled free of Chumley’s severed arm and got to your feet. You stumbled over to Sanorin, barely able to breathe, blood bubbling up with every labored breath. Without even looking over, he reached out and took your hand and held it in his own and a welcome chill filled you, and you were whole.
“What the…” you stammered, “what the hell is that thing?”
“I don’t know,” he replied quietly. “I can’t…” You looked to him, then to Shara and Chumley, and let out a deep, sad sigh. You knew. You knew he couldn’t fix Chumley. He’d tried before on a much less dire injury. You both looked on…interlopers on a moment between two lifelong companions.
“I’m saddened,” said Chumley to Shara through gritted teeth, his refined, Teribain accent a sharp contrast to a voice like thunder heard in the mountains, “that our story has to end here, love.” Shara nodded, her face wet with tears pressed against his. “We did good though. We did good.”
“Yes, old friend, we did,” she whispered. “Walk in Her light, my gentle, mighty Chumley.”
“Walk in Her light, Slayer,” he whispered with his last breath. You watched as the animate stone of his skin hardened, growing somewhat lighter, until all that remained was a statue where your friend used to be, embracing his killer.
Shara didn’t move for several moments. Then she straightened, took a long look into this Gideon’s frozen gaze, and turned towards the two of you.
She strode across the room and took your and Sanorin’s hands in hers.
“Listen to me, both of you. You’re going to want to think about this, you’re going to want to ask questions, but there’s no time. I need you to saddle Stormy and Vixen, grab up your kits, and ride West as fast as you can.”
“But..,” you objected.
“No buts. That creature has my scent now, I won’t be able to lose him, but you can. He’ll break free of that little trick in a few hours, then he’s likely to spend a few days torturing me to death-”
“Now wait just a minu-” Sanorin cried.
“No. Time. Listen. A few days hard ride should shake him. He’ll have to track you like an ordinary man.” Shara lets go of your hand and kneels in front of Sanorin, taking both of his hands in hers. She looks into his eyes and shines a teary-eyed smile at him.
“My dear, sweet, Sanorin. We’ve discussed this. You’re going to help change the world. You’re going to help end all the suffering. I need you to go to Sergei Volkov. He’s the only one with a plan that can work now. Help him. Bring the light back. Go to Harrowburg. Ask for The Mechanic. They’ll get you to Volkov. He’ll get you where you need to be.” She pulled him in close and whispered something in his ear.
She let him go and pulled away, holding his shoulders.
“Goodbye, dear friend,” she says to him, smiling her smile, “we will meet again, when all is light.” She holds his gaze for a moment longer, then stands. “Now go, please. Get the horses together. I’d like to speak with Syl alone for a moment.”
He nods and steps out of the Exchange quietly.
She turns to you and takes your hands in hers, and you feel that tingle again, that sense that all the goodness and light in the whole of the world has been focused on you, and it’s breathtaking.
She lets go and turns to the writing table and starts writing with her back to you. You examine the frozen Gideon Nell, memorizing his features, and take a moment to touch Chumley’s forehead and say a silent goodbye.
When you turn back, Shara has written and sealed two very short letters, and is tucking them into a pouch that appears to contain something small but heavy. She walks back over to you and folds your hands around the pouch.
“I have…a job for you…my dear friend,” she smiles through her tears, “There are things you suspect, I’m sure, and things I always intended to tell you, but will never have the time. In your hands are two letters, one for Sergei Volkov, who you’ll no doubt find in Harrowburg, and one for Jacob Dain, who I can almost guarantee will stumble into you at some point in the near future.
“I’ve also included an ingot of pure mithril, which, if my calculations are correct, is five times the weekly rate I pay you and should last the rest of your natural life.”
You try to object. You try to tell her the money is meaningless. You want to beg her to never stop smiling at you, to never stop smiling, but she gives your hands a squeeze to forestall any interruption.
“Sanorin is special. We both know that. But I don’t think you realize how special. He may be the last, after Peruppi. He may may be the last one tapped into something different than the rest. He’s a weapon. He doesn’t know it, but he’s a weapon that can be wielded against the Ringwielders. It’s all we have left. You have to get him to Volkov. You have to keep him safe until he’s done what he’s meant to do. I don’t know if it’ll be a year or ten years, but I need you to get our little friend to his destiny.
“Once that’s done, I want you to cash out that ingot and find peace somewhere beautiful. I hope you can let yourself do that. If Sanorin succeeds there should be plenty of peace to go around.”
She pauses for a moment, gazing into your eyes, letting you process her words.
“I know it’s a terrible thing I’m asking of you. But you must. Do it for our friend out there. Do it for our friend…lying dead…against that wall. Do it for me. Do it for the world. Hell, do it for the early retirement. Just do it. Be his guardian angel.”
You can’t speak. The tears are streaming down your face and your throat is too tight to even croak out a response. You nod. She smiles through her tears and nods in response. Then without warning, she leans over and gives you the softest, barest of kisses on the lips. You feel like you’ve been struck by lightning. You can’t tell whether it’s romance, or the kinship of sisters, or a mother kissing a child…maybe it’s something more than all three.
“Now go,” she whispers, as she pulls you close into an embrace,”Live. Get our boy to where he’s going. Then just…live.” She pulls away and gives you another smile before turning and walking over to Chumley. She sits down at his stone feet and rests her head on his knee, closing her eyes to wait.
You emerge from the Exchange in somewhat of a daze. Sanorin is strapping the last of the gear to the horses. It’s hard not seeing him in a different light. You give the gear a cursory inspection before getting onto your horse.
“I told the men to leave,” he said. You nodded. Then without a word rode out of the compound and towards the gates of Karpassis.
You didn’t speak for the first day. Literally. Not one word. You knew you were in shock and he likely was as well. You rode, you stopped, you ate, you rode, you slept. You didn’t speak the next day either until you had to discuss making your way around a rockslide.
Halfway through the second night, you heard Sanorin jerk awake across the fading embers from you, and then he started weeping, and you knew. He felt it. He felt Shara Tev die. The wind seemed to take on a wail of horror. You climbed out of your bedroll and held him while he wept. While you both wept. That night broke you through the stunned haze that you’d been in, and you felt more yourself.
You continued to flee to the West, across the desert and over the central Masaan and into the plains of the Northlands. The war between Volkov and Tyr was heating up again. Highguard had been lost to the new Southern General, Vane. People were scared. The two of you looked innocent enough to not be threatening but tough enough to not be worth the trouble, so you had a completely uneventful journey to Harrowburg.
After discreetly asking around for a few days for “The Mechanic”, a man approached one brisk midwinter morning and asked you a few questions, just enough to make sure you knew Shara Tev personally and little more. He had you collect your things, saddle your horses, and led you out into the woods.
Several miles outside of town you enter a farm that was very carefully made to look abandoned. He led you to a house artfully designed to appear as if it were falling to the elements, under the watchful eyes of sentries who were almost, but not quite, well-hidden.
It was a special place. It had the kind of serene silence of special places. It took you a few minutes, but as you entered the house, you realized that this must’ve been His home. You were being led to a clandestine meeting in Kironius Mengst’s family home.