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Chapter 14: Towards the North

“So,” Havaktri said, turning in a circle to show off her disguise, “what do you think?”

The Dvarnaava elders, as it turned out, had a rather impressive collection of clothing in the styles that were popular among the ruling classes of Riedra, whether captured or replicas, and so she had been given a fair variety to choose from. The result was something far fancier than anything Thyra had seen any of the kalashtar wear, though perhaps it appeared more opulent to her than it actually was because the unfamiliar Riedran designs still seemed exotic. Her top and pants were both loose and made of what looked like indigo silks, and gold jewelry glinted on her wrists and at her throat; the most striking accessory was the strange, spiky headdress Ganharath had indicated was a popular ornament for Inspired or Empty Vessel psions. Completing the ensemble was a plain wooden quarterstaff set with metal heels on either end; Havaktri had swung it through a few passes and seemed pleased with the weapon.

“Very nice,” Thyra said, smiling. “Just be careful when you go through low doors with that thing on your head, and you should be good.”

“Maybe try for a look that’s a bit more imperious while you’re at it,” Rinnean observed idly. “Based on what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think ‘nervous girl at a costume party’ is quite a look the Inspired go for. That Inharanath struck me as the arrogant sort, and believe me when I say I know the type.”

“I feel ridiculous,” Havaktri admitted, looking down at her silk sleeves. “How anyone would think this was better than a plain robe escapes me.”

“That’s not how you need to be thinking,” Len said, stepping forward. Walking behind Havaktri, she put her hands on the kalashtar’s shoulders and leaned close to her ear. “Take it from a professional, kid. You look like an Inspired, but you’re not thinking like one. You’ve got to believe in the con at least a little, or people will notice and it’ll start to fall apart. When you get in character, you’re not Havaktri the wide-eyed girl from the monastery anymore, kiddo. You’re one of the rulers of this continent, and you know in your soul that you expect, and deserve, to be obeyed. That you’re better than everyone else not because of anything you did, but just by virtue of being. Try it.”

Havaktri breathed deeply and raised her head, and there was a sudden coldness in her gaze and expression that Thyra had never seen before. “I know my place, mercenary,” she said in a soft, deadly voice. “Remember yours. Now unhand me at once!”

Len did so at once and stepped back, but Thyra saw the pleased look in her eyes. A moment later, Havaktri’s imperious façade broke and she looked expectantly to Len. “How did that sound?” she asked, and the illusion was broken, but for a moment, it had been successful.

Len mimed applause. “Very good,” she said. “Now, if you can just keep that up any time we meet someone on the road, then we’ll be on to something.”

“Yes,” Ganharath said as he stepped into the small side chamber, a small crystal sphere carried lightly in his hand. “Fortunately, those trained in the psionic arts tend to be skilled at keeping their composure under pressure. Now, a few words before we prepare to send you on your way. Havaktri, am I correct in assuming that you are the only one among your friends who can speak Riedran? My understanding is that it isn’t a commonly taught language in Khorvaire.”

“Yes, Elder,” Havaktri said. “I learned it in the monastery. I can try to teach some useful vocabulary and phrases as we travel, and if I use a mindlink the process should be a quick one.” She glanced over at Len. “It might still be best if you let me do the talking; if someone speaks to you, I’ll send you the proper response. And hope that the Riedran I learned at home remains up-to-date,” she added under her breath.

Ganharath gave a small smile. “Luckily, Riedra is a society that is slow to change,” he said. He turned to Len. “Captain, it might also behoove you to resume your true appearance for this journey. Havaktri will be taking the role of an Empty Vessel, which will give her a rank you might call noble in your lands, but changelings often serve the Inspired and their Chosen in important roles and therefore your presence would reinforce the idea that your group are important and not to be interfered with.”

“No,” Len said flatly, crossing her arms. She shot Ganharath a cool look as if daring him to question her further; had she been looking at Thyra like that, the sorceress would have known to stay quiet. Ganharath, apparently, did not.

“Why not?” he asked. “I assure you, any prejudice you might have encountered in Khorvaire you will not find here. Most Riedran changelings have high standing. You could walk about freely.”

No,” Len repeated, and her tone was ice; at her side, Yhani winced at the elder’s questions. “Maybe I could walk around here in my real face and non one would care – I could walk around naked, too, and I’m not doing that either. I don’t expect you to understand, but I’d hope you could take a hint. I’ll transform if I have to, but until then, I’m wearing this appearance. Ask me again and I’ll be tempted to do something to you that a guest shouldn’t do to her host.”

Havaktri’s hands flew to her mouth in horror, while Rinnean looked amused, but Ganharath merely appeared understanding. “My apologies, Captain,” he said, bowing. “I’ve known few of your people and was unaware I had caused offense. It wasn’t my intention.”

Yhani put a comforting hand on Len’s shoulder, but the captain thought it over for a moment and then shrugged. “Fair enough,” she said. “Anything else we need to know before we set out?”

Ganharath nodded, and help up the crystal he’d been holding. “This is a power stone,” he said. “I have impressed within it the essence of the power we will be using to send you across Riedra. Once your task is complete, Havaktri will be able to use it to return you here to Adar. However, I must warn you that it can only be used once before exhausting the power within it, and if you return without your artifact, we may not be able to send you out again.”

“Thank you, elder,” Havaktri said, taking it from him. “We appreciate your generosity.”

“We do, honestly,” Len said. “For the stone, and for all the help you’ve given us. We know most of us aren’t your people and this isn’t your cause, and we appreciate everything.”

“There is no need to thank us,” said Ganharath. “As the soungral reminded us, you prepare to face a great and ancient evil that could threaten us all, no matter our race or nation. Our war may be with the Dreaming Dark, but we know enough of the Lords of Dust to have no wish for their rule to return. We can only wish you success in your mission, and help you as we can.”

///

Later that afternoon, the travelers gathered in the main hall once again, now dressed themselves in the plain clothing that Ganharath had told them most Riedran commoners wore. He and the other elders stood in a circle near their seats, heads bowed and eyes closed; Thyra could only assume they were meditating to gather their strength. A strange circle had been drawn in chalk in the middle of the floor, but the sorceress didn’t know its purpose.

She idly shifted the heavy pack full of supplies and cold-weather clothes on her shoulders; all of the companions carried similar ones, though Ghazaan’s looked at least twice as heavy as anyone else’s. With one hand, she idly brushed the sword she wore at her hip, which, despite its nondescript scabbard, was the very artifact they’d found in the Mournland vault. Thyra didn’t know much about wielding a sword, and its weight felt awkward at her side, but when her hand brushed the hilt, she felt a faint tingle of energy race along her fingers. Whatever uses this strange device might hold, she doubted its blade was the most significant of them.

Meren stood by the door, speaking quietly to Len. “I can’t stay here forever,” he said. “My House would string me up if I vanished off the face of Eberron and never came back with anything to show for it. I don’t know how long your business is going to take, but I promise you, I’ll wait as long as I can.” He flashed a grin. “You’ve paid me well enough for that, at least.”

“Fair enough,” Len said. “I don’t intend for this to take forever, anyway. Sovereigns keep you, Captain.”

“And you, Captain,” Meren replied. Len nodded in return, and then she walked back over to the others.

“Are we all ready for this, people?” she asked.

“Of course,” Yhani said with one of her faint smiles. “We have not come so far to turn back now.”

Ghazaan grinned and Harsk grunted; Rinnean was affecting a bored look, though he couldn’t entirely keep the interest from his face. Havaktri – the only one who didn’t carry a pack; apparently it was beneath one of her supposed status – squared her shoulders and nodded once, trying to project an air of confidence. Len’s gaze slid past each of them in turn and finally fell on Thyra, one eyebrow raised in question; the sorceress took a deep breath and nodded once. It was time to go.

“You are prepared; good,” Ganharath said as he strode forward, the other elders following close behind. “Now, take your place in the circle; we will stand around the outer edge.” The mercenaries did as he said, packing themselves tightly to make sure they all fit; Thyra found herself squeezed between Havaktri and Ghazaan.

“Any last words of advice before we’re off?” Len asked.

“We plan to send you to a road in the north of Riedra, in the province of Dor Maleer. It is sparsely populated, and the Riedran people seldom travel far from their homes, so you should be alone on arrival. If our maps are correct, you will be placed a few days south of the fortress city of Kintam Malin, which guards the pass that leads to the Tashana Tundra; if you are fortunate, your disguises may allow you to pass safely; there are few in the empire who would interfere with the business of an Inspired or one of their Vessels. A meeting with an actual Inspired is something to avoid at all costs.

“The Tundra itself is little known to us, though legends speak of barbarian tribes and worse things in the ice. Based on the information you provided, your destination appears to lie in one of the lower peaks of the Eska Mountains. Accomplish what you intend to do, and then Havaktri can use the power stone I gave her to return you here to your ship. Beyond this, we can offer you little help, save to pray that il-Yannah’s light illumine you and speed you on your way.”

“I know you said there’s no need to thank you,” Len said, “but honestly, this is more than we could have expected. Hopefully, we’ll be worth it.”

“Do not thank us yet,” Ganharath said. “We cannot say what lies ahead of you. Now, prepare yourselves. We’re ready to proceed.”

“All right,” Len said. “Brace yourselves, everyone.”

Ganharath closed his eyes and raised his hands; at his side, the other elders did the same. The chalk circle began to glow with a faint blue light, and then suddenly it flared, brilliantly bright. Thyra flung up her hands to shield her eyes and stumbled back into Ghazaan. There was a wrenching sensation as though she was falling, and at the same time her body was being twisted and bent and stretched, and then…

She stood on a well-crafted stone road in the midst of a broad plain sparsely dotted with evergreen trees; a cool wind was blowing and Thyra wrapped her arms around herself, glad she had heavier clothes in her pack. Looking to the north, she could see the shape of low grey mountains; from the map in Dvarnaava, she knew that the Tashana Tundra, and their ultimate destination, must lie beyond.

Around her she could see her companions, some groaning and rubbing their heads but otherwise looking none the worse for the wear. Thyra raised an eyebrow at Havaktri in her thin silk clothes, but if the kalashtar felt the chill, she didn’t show it; she merely looked around herself with interest.

“Is everyone all right?” Len asked, hands on her hips.

“I’m cold, nauseous, and in the middle of a hostile nation, but otherwise, yes- just wonderful,” Rinnean said, pulling his cloak tighter around himself.

“It’s not cold,” Harsk said. “It’s bracing. Besides, if the kalashtar were right, we haven’t felt anything like the cold we’ll run into further north.” Rinnean merely scowled at him.

“The elders were correct that no one else is here,” Yhani said, “But perhaps Thyra should go ahead and cast her disguise on Ghazaan. He does rather stand out here.”

“Fine, fine,” said Ghazaan, waving a hand. “I know you’re all just jealous of my good looks, anyway.”

Thyra smiled at the hobgoblin, though she rolled her eyes as well, and raised her hands. She spoke a quick incantation under her breath, and the air around Ghazaan shimmered; when it cleared, he now appeared as a tall, burly human who resembled the hobgoblin strongly, save for his noticeable lack of fangs or tufted ears, and his skin was brown instead of orange.

Ghazaan felt his face and grinned. “Well, I still feel like me,” he said. “How do I look?”

“Well, you’re not my type, but you’ll do,” Len said. “Good work, Thyra. Now let’s get moving. I’d like to cover some ground before we sleep tonight; let’s not spend any more time in Riedra than we have to. Something about this place gives me the creeps.”

They all nodded as one. Thyra shouldered her pack and then they started off to the north, Havaktri walking in the middle as if she truly was the honored personage she pretended to be, with the others positioning themselves as guards at her side. The cool breeze rustled past them as they made their way north, towards the place where, Thyra hoped, the next piece of the Key might indeed be found.

They hoped only that their presence in Riedra might go unnoticed until they were free of its domains, but Thyra had a feeling it wouldn’t be that easy.

///

This chapter is mostly transitional, and I don’t have a whole lot to say about it, other than that our heroes’ plan is coming together and has so far gone off without much fuss – not that that will likely continue, as Inharanath has plans of his own, and nobody knows that ir’Sarrin and company have beat everyone else to the Tundra. We also get to see some small but significant character moments from several of our characters, including Len, Thyra, and Havaktri. But the important development here is that everything is now in motion, and moving towards the ultimate prize.

-MasterGhandalf


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