A Trail of Riddles
By Nathan Weisman
The gateway was in chaos.
A Gudanna Warrior, outfitted in the blood red armor and twin curved sabers of the Dominion, was standing on an overturned cart attempting to organize the frantic efforts of peasants from around Two Rock to make it into the city. A dust cloud heralding the Empire’s invading army was steadily drawing closer.
High above the swarm of refugees, Gudanna warriors on the ancient stone walls surrounding the city were rushing to prepare for the coming assault. They would have to close the ancient gilded Durani gates soon, long before everyone could make it into the city.
Archa knew the walls of Two Rock well. Twenty years ago, he had led the Gudanna blood knights of the Burial Tempest in breaching them. The battle had been one of his first in his command of that Tempest, and the victory solidified his right to lead. Seeing the Gudanna warriors prepare to defend the city now, Archa could feel the tide of history changing.
Yuvaka pushed his way through the crowd opening the way for Archa and Pilu toward the soldier standing on the wagon.
Archa had decided to bring Yuvaka with him on his investigation. The young warrior had proven useful in the hours after Khan’s death and he found that he could trust him to complete a task quickly and quietly.
Pilu on the other hand had insisted on accompanying him. The Urugal witch had always been as driven to discover the secrets of powerful magics as she was for seeking justice.
“You there!” Archa called to the Soldier on the wagon. Seeing Archa, who wore the armor customary of his rank as a Raja-Khan, the soldier waved for another to take his place directing the crowd, leaping down from the wagon to approach Archa.
“Thank the Ancient Ones you are here, Lord Archa. You are a most welcome surprise. As you can see we were not prepared for the enemy. Under your esteemed leadership, however, I’m sure the men will be able to rally.” The soldier removed his helmet bowing to Archa.
“You are warriors of the Dominion, trust in your ability and the power of Arcanum Gudanna. I have no doubt that you and your men will hold the walls, claiming honor for both yourselves and the Gudanna. But now I have need of your assistance on another matter.”
Archa wanted to rally the garrison and lead them, as he had led so many times before. He felt the walls of his old conquest calling him to defend them. He knew however that his mission must take precedence, and if he didn’t find the Khan’s murderers they would soon cross the border into the Empire and be out of his and the Dominion’s reach for good.
“My companions and I are tracking three sorcerers, it is of the highest importance that we find them. We followed their trail here from the capital, Kutastha. They should have arrived yesterday.”
Running a hand through his hair the soldier took a moment before responding.
“There was a group of three cloaked men who arrived late in the afternoon. They could be the men you are looking for. Most likely they would have stayed at The Keystone Inn. However the Inn was damaged last night. The owner was of Durani blood, settled here when the city was still under Empire control. Since the invasion the the city has been… Unstable. I suspect the damage to the inn was caused by an anti-Durani riot.”
“I need to see the Inn. Immediately.” Archa responded.
The soldier nodded, replaced his helmet, and began leading the way through the crowd.
The sun was low on the horizon by the time they reached the Keystone. As the soldier had said, it was clear the Inn had been attacked. Half of the roof had collapsed as a section of the structure’s outer wall had been completely destroyed. Scorch marks stained the stone street, much of building, and its neighbors.
Archa looked toward the city wall. The sound of the Durani army moving into position outside the city walls echoed through deserted streets. The coming battle would reduce much of the city to same ruined state as the Inn.
“This was not the work of a mob,” Pilu spoke, walking over to the ruined building, unwrapping the bandage around the stump of her left arm. She ran her fingers over a tattooed line of glyphs on that ran from her shoulder blade to the end of her arm reciting an incantation. As she did smokey blue light began to emanate from the gnarled flesh of her stump in the shape of her missing hand.
“There was powerful magic cast here last night. I can still sense the excess mana that has been left behind,” she said, touching the ruin with her spectral hand. “There is someone inside, dead most likely.”
Yuvaka was kicking down the door to the Inn before Archa had time to give the order. The door gave in easily, already partly off its hinges. A few minutes later the he emerged with a body over his shoulder.
“It seems unlikely that he was killed fighting with a mob,” said Yuvaka laying the body down in front of Archa.
There was no doubt that the man was one of the Khan’s sorcerers. Even with half of his face burned, his robes turned to ash, and his body disfigured, Archa recognized him from his time spent in the Khan’s court.
“It appears he was killed by one of his companions. The question is why would they turn on him?” Archa said stooping down.
“That I do not know, but I can track them.” Pilu replied, her phantom limb outstretched, her smokey fingers drifting away slowly. “One of the Sorcerers used a powerful enough spell that I can follow its mana trail to them—if we act quickly.”
Horns from the northern wall of the city blared.
Archa turned to the north in time to see a section of the wall erupt in flame as it came under a barrage of fire. A moment later the bright eyes of Winged Preserver could be seen charging through the thick black smoke. The Preserver brought its scythe down upon a Devil Djinn. The Gudanna knight however caught the blade in his golem’s dragon claws and used the momentum of his assailant to throw the golem to the ground, crushing several houses near the wall.
Flocks of Jeweled Harpies came flying over the walls. One of the airborne golems landed near the Rockbed.
“This way!” Pilu shouted pointing down a street away from the Harpy.
Archa made to follow her, but saw Yuvaka frozen in place staring at the Harpy.
The Harpy flapped its wings, preparing to follow them down the street. Just as it lifted off the ground it came toppling forward. A Sand Lion had caught one the Harpy’s talons in its jaws throwing it back toward the earth, crushing the ruins of the Keystone and throwing Yuvaka to the ground. Archa ran back lifting the untested warrior to his feet.
“There will be many battles to come, and I will not always be by your side,” Archa said urging Yuvaka forward.
Running to Pilu, Yuvaka reached out for her and swung her shrunken body onto his back. Pilu bristled at the familiarity with which he threw her around, and flashed a glare at Archa, who in turn glanced sternly at Yuvaka. Yuvaka was focused only on escaping safely to find the sorcerers, and paid them no heed.
“Just this once young one, but remember I can make my own way.” Pilu snapped, reaching her phantom hand in front of Yuvaka.
Pilu’s hand lit the area around them, pointing the way as they ran through a dust cloud kicked up from the falling debris. The screams of dying men and the thunder of golems clashing filled the night air.
Emerging from the smoke Archa could see a Sand Lion struggling to regain its composure atop the rubble of what was once a home. A Harpy danced around it, lunging toward the armored lion striking with its talons and then retreating out of the range of the golems powerful jaws.
With the Harpy distracted, Pilu’s light led Archa and Yuvaka through a maze of alleys and streets, the city erupting in flame around them as a battery of Durani Fire Rams launched another volley on the city.
Finally they turned down an alley with a dead end.
“Pilu, where now?” Archa called out as he looked back down the street that had just come from.
Around the corner there was a flash of blue light, and just above the rooftop of a building Archa spotted the wings of a Jeweled Harpy. Then he saw them, four men dressed in ornate purple robes, advancing towards him. It was the investigation team of Samdat, the Speaker of the Law.
Politics be damned!
Archa drew his sword and ran toward them. Without looking he knew Yuvaka would be close behind.
The Harpy took another lunge at the investigators, but drew back as one of the mages breathed a gout flame toward it. Retreating momentarily the Harpy dove again, using its wings to beat down on the group of mages. Rotating to the front of the party another of the investigators waved his arm in a wide motion. The force from the wings deflected off on a invisible shield around the group, blowing out the windows in the surrounding buildings. Seizing the initiative, the third investigator charged forward hurtling a javelin at the Harpy’s knight, shrouded in a blinding white light. The javelin hit its mark, exploding on impact.
The Golem collapsed into blue flames separating Archa from the investigators, the mana contained within the golem escaping in a hissing, burning blue flame. The Durani knight’s dying screams joined the chorus of war.
Stopping mid stride Archa spun himself around, and a few paces behind him Yuvaka did the same. From the edge of the alley Pilu was waving to them with her human hand.
“I found something,” She said pointing to where she had moved a loose stone from the alley cobbles to reveal a hole leading to the city’s sewer system. “The trail leads down there.”
Below the streets of Two Rock, Pilu led Archa and Yuvaka through the labyrinth of murky water and grime. The muffled sounds of the battle raging above shaking loose decades of dust from the ancient vaulted ceilings.
Coming to an intersection Pilu motioned for the others to stop.
“The trail is becoming weaker. With some time however I should be able to scry our prey’s location, now that I have a taste of their life mana,” Pilu said pulling a small crystal attached to a silver chain from her pocket.
Beginning to chant, Pilu held the crystal before of her, the glowing crystal drawing the blue mist from her phantom hand into it. As the crystal became illuminated with that light it began to spin.
While scrying to find one’s way through the wilderness or a city was an easy and common spell, using the ritual to find someone was more often stymied by the fact that most people took particular precaution to protect themselves from such tracking. Mages and sorcerers took particular precautions to hide themselves from such attempts, shrouding their presence with magical diversion and deflections, so to find the escaped sorcerers responsible for the Khan’s death would be a mythic feat—but it seemed to be working.
“Lord Archa, may I ask a question?” Yuvaka ventured, staring in awe at the spinning crystal, now leeching blue tendrils out through the air around with.
Drawing his attention away from the witch, Archa turned to the young warrior. “You may. Ask your question, Yuvaka.”
“It is clear that Pilu is no common hedge witch. How is it that she has come to such knowledge and power? From what I have witnessed she must be among the most powerful in the Dominion.”
Archa could not help himself but smile at the question, remembering days past when Pilu had held her rightful position in the court of the great Khan as one his most trusted mages. Of the nights they had laid together and dreamed of their future.
“She rode with the Great Khan himself for a time, a phenomenal Urugal witch with unquenchable curiosity. Pilu helped the Khan uncover the secrets of Arcanum Gudanna and the impenetrable mysteries of Zri magic.”
Pilu stood next them, her eyes rolled back, blind to the physical world around her. The crystal spinning violently illuminating the sewer with its eerie blue light.
“Pilu’s curiosity, while originally drawing the attention of the Khan, proved to be her undoing,” Archa said looking less at Yuvaka than through him. “She reached far beyond our plane, thinking not whether she had the right to do so, but only to see if she could. She found, touched… something. It’s a true testament to her prowess as a mage that she survived, however she emerged as you see her now. Withered.”
The spinning crystal began to slow its rotation, starting to sway in the direction of one the canals. Another sound came echoing down the long corridor.
“Durani.” Yuvaka said, drawing his sword.
“Durani sappers.” Archa agreed, also drawing his curved blade.
Pilu gasped for breath as she broke her meditation. Her crystal pulled on its chain in the opposite direction of the Durani.
“We must go now, I know where the mage is.” said Pilu.
“I will confront the sappers. We cannot have them interfere with your mission Lord Archa, and we cannot have them bringing down the walls.” Yuvaka said.
Archa put a hand on the young warrior’s shoulder. “I will send help as soon as possible. May the Ancients preserve you until then.”
Archa and Pilu found the sorcerer collapsed on the small stone walkway next to the sewer canal. He clutched at his right arm which hung limp, lifeless, and charred. His once ornate robes were agregiously torn, blackened by flame and soiled with blood.
Reaching the mages side Archa lifted the man so that he was leaning against the wall. The mage was breathing but faintly. His gaze shifting lazily from Pilu to Archa.
“Who… Why?” The mage struggled to force the words from his lips.
“I am Lord Archa, I am seeking justice for the killing of Jahnu Khan. You traveled with the one who is responsible for his death.”
The mage tried to push himself further against the wall, forcing himself to focus on the world of the living.
“Thought it was a mistake..” The mage managed to say in a quick jumble of words. “not as it seems, imposter.”
“It was the imposter who did this to you?” Archa asked.
The mage nodded, lifting his back up with effort.
“Where did this imposter go? To the Durani?”
“Caves… Mahtis…” The mage said shaking his head slowly. His head lolled onto his shoulder, and the rest of his body went limp. Archa let the body slip to the ground.
“I have heard of the Caves of Mahtis. It is a dangerous place.” Pilu said.
“More dangerous than it is here?” Archa replied, punctuated with a great thump on the sewer ceiling, shaking aged and stinking dust loose with the force of the fighting on the surface.
“The stories say the cave are overflowing with mana, so much mana that it has given form and life to those long past. Golems are a crude, simple expression of power. The Caves hold something more complex and unknown. Something ancient.”
“This will not be the first time that we have risked the unknown for Jahnu,. If the answers we seek are in the caves—then that is where we will go.” Archa said.
Illustration: Joel DuQue