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Chapter 1: Stormchaser

Sharn, City of Towers. A mighty metropolis created by magic, composed of immense spires that rose high into the sky. Sharn, the jewel of Breland and, though it was the capital of no nation, it was perhaps the most famous and important city in all of Khorvaire. Sharn, home to sprawling slums and decadent mansions and everything in between, center of culture, commerce and knowledge across a continent.

It was also a center of transportation. Near the base of one of plateaus on which the city rested, on the shore of the delta called the Hilt which opened into the Thunder Sea, stood one of the great docks in all of Khorvaire. There were those who said that sea travel had been rendered obsolete by the lightning rail and airships, but for those who sought long-distance journeys, particularly across the oceans, sea-going vessels would always have their place.

One such vessel was the Stormchaser, owned and operated by Meren d’Lyrandar, a minor scion of a Dragonmarked House that was well acquainted with travel in all its forms. The captain, a tall half-elf just barely into middle age, now sat in his cabin aboard his ship with his hands folded on his desk, intently regarding the woman who sat across from him. She was lean, her frame spare and her clothing plain, her long dark hair pulled into a tight braid that hung to her mid-back. Human, with an ethnically-ambiguous face that could blend into a crowd in a dozen nations and an age that might be anywhere from twenty-five to forty, though Meren guessed she was closer to the former than the latter. Still, there was a certain hardness to her, and a military bearing her plain shirt and trousers couldn’t conceal; the captain would lay good odds that she’d been a soldier, and he rarely gambled unless he thought he’d win.

The woman’s name was Len, and Meren would have been correct in all his assessments save that she wasn’t human, though this was something she revealed to very few – and she was also a captain, albeit of warriors rather than ships. She was assessing Meren even as he was assessing her, and nodded slightly to herself. He seemed like he’d be just what they were looking for.

The Lyrandar scion lowered his gaze from Len to the bag of coins she’d pushed across the desk to him, then spoke. “This is quite an impressive sum of money, Mistress Len,” he said. “And I suspect you wouldn’t be showing it to me so casually unless you had more where it came from. My House is wealthy but I, alas, am not. You said you wanted to hire me and Stormchaser. May I ask what for?”
“It’s Captain Len, actually,” she said casually, “and I’m not wealth either, unfortunately, but I have a patron who is. We’d like to hire you for a voyage. Seven passengers, and no questions asked.”


Meren raised an eyebrow. “May I at least ask where to?”

Len smiled thinly. “Sarlona.”

Meren stood and turned to face the map of Eberron that hung on the wall behind him. “Sarlona,” he repeated softly. “Not exactly an easy journey, I’m afraid. Not as bad as if you’d asked to go to Argonessen, of course, but still… not easy. What do you know about the political situation there?”

Len grimaced. “More than I’d like to,” she said. “I have a friend who’s a kalashtar, and she’d never shut up about the place if you let her. It’s a bit hard to untangle what’s actually true and what’s just Path of Light mysticism, but I know about Riedra and the Inspired, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Yes, the Inspired,” Meren said. “I have nothing against them personally. Few people do, the kalashtar of course being the exception. I’ve even run into some of them at family events a time or two, and found them nothing but polite. But they don’t like visitors. As far as I’m aware, all official business between Riedra and the Five Nations starts at their end, not ours; almost no one is allowed to actually land in their empire, and the few who are get watched from the time they set foot on shore to the time they leave, and attempts at evading that… don’t usually end well. I don’t know what your business in Sarlona is, but I have a feeling being babysat by Riedran agents carefully controlling everything you can see and do wouldn’t be helpful.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Len said with a wry laugh. “But would it be possible for you to drop us off in Adar instead?”

Meren stroked his chin. “Hmmm. Far as I know, there’s even less contact with Adar than there is with Riedra. I certainly don’t know of any ports along the Adaran coast. But I have to admit, there’s something intriguing about the idea.”

Len smiled to herself; she’d been counting on that adventurous Lyrandar spirit, and it seemed she’d awakened it in the captain at last. “What if I told you that one of your passengers is the kalashtar friend I mentioned?” she asked. “She traces her roots to Adar. She can direct you to where you need to go, and smooth things over with the locals – her people. The kalashtar don’t terribly like outsiders either, but I think you’ll be better off with them than risk angering the Inspired. And,” she glanced down at the pouch of money on the desk, “like I said, I’ve got a wealthy patron, and he’s very interested in making sure this trip succeeds. You help us, there’s a lot more galifars and dragons where those came from.”

Meren turned back to face her; he seemed to consider for a moment, and then he smiled and held out his hand. “Maybe I’m a fool for this,” he said, “but I admit the idea of being one of the few outsiders to see Adar has its appeal. Never let it be said that Meren d’Lyrandar turned aside from a difficult voyage. And your offer is, of course, most generous. Deliver us payment, and safe harbor in Adar, and you have yourself a ship.” Len stood and took his hand, smiling in return. “Now,” he said, “let’s discuss the specifics of your payment.”

///

Later that afternoon, having left the captain of the Stormchaser with the details of their voyage and his reimbursement worked out to the satisfaction of all parties, Len found herself perusing the bazaar in the district of Upper Dura, not far from the neighborhood where she and Yhani kept their modest apartment. The satchel slung over one of her shoulders was already slightly heavier now that it had been this morning; Len had just come from a bookshop where she’d purchased a new mystery novel by a writer she enjoyed as well as a thin, nondescript volume that contained a number of combat spells that seemed like they’d be more than useful additions to her repertoire. For now, she was merely browsing.

Sharn was a diverse city – perhaps the most diverse in all Khorvaire – and it seemed that all races and types were represented in the crowd that thronged through the bazaar. Humans, elves, dwarves and gnomes were present, of course, as well as stranger beings – steel-plated warforged who had a martial aspect no amount of casual shopping could erase, a band of hobgoblin warriors from Darguun who scowled at the humanoids around them seemed to expect the crowds to part before them as if it was their natural right. Len had even caught a glimpse of what was either a minotaur or someone in a very convincing costume, his horned head towering over the crowd. Eberron was a world of many races, and sooner or later it seemed that all of them ended up in Sharn.

A flicker of motion caught the corner of Len’s eye, and she turned to see a pale figure in a hooded cloak brush past her. A changeling, grey-skinned and white-eyed, barely past her mid-teens by the look of her, lean and wary. Len paused for a moment and blinked; when she opened her eyes again the girl was gone. Unsurprising; no one could blend into a crowd like a changeling. Len knew that better than most. Fifteen years ago, give or take, and she’d been that girl, or someone much like her; though Len knew that she still wore her customary human face, inside she too, for good or ill, would always be a changeling – always be apart.

Shaking the disturbing thoughts out of her head, she made her way through the crowd and came up short in front of a jeweler’s display. Len had never been the sort of woman who had a passion for that sort of thing, though she owned a few pieces for the rare occasions her work demanded she appear to be someone who wasn’t entirely disreputable in respected society, but here a necklace had caught her eye. An understated piece, it hung on a thin gold chain and was worked into the shape of an ancient Elven glyph – Len wasn’t as good at reading them as she’d like to be, but she recognized this one easily enough. Eternity.

“How much?” she asked the gnome who sat on a high stool behind the counter, gesturing at the necklace.

“Very reasonable, I assure you,” he said, smiling. “Thinking of buying a treat for yourself, mistress?”

Len smiled wistfully. “Actually,” she said, “it’s for my girlfriend.”

///

Len stepped into the main room of the small apartment to find Yhani seated in front of the ancestral shrine she’d set up by one of the walls. The shrine itself wasn’t much to look at, really – just a short-legged table covered with a plain white cloth, with a small tree in a pot at its center. Around the tree were carefully-arranged portraits of distinguished-looking elves; Yhani had tried to teach Len her family tree, but the names and deeds of all those ancient ancestors of the family Eshenali had blurred together. The largest portrait, however, was one the changeling did recognize – Yhani’s paternal great-grandmother, a regal-looking woman whose eyes somehow seemed alive even in black and white ink. A pair of candles at either end of the table that burned with a faintly sweet aroma completed the shrine.

Yhani herself was wearing her customary white robe and sat with her legs folded beneath her and her silver-blonde hair spilling unbound down her back. Her hands were resting on her knees and her eyes closed; she was deep in prayer or meditation and Len knew there would be no point in disturbing her until she was done. Still, she stepped forward carefully, removed the gold necklace from her bag, and placed it gently on the front of the shrine, a faint smile playing on her lips.

Then Len paused as she regarded what lay between Yhani and the images of her ancestors – an unsheathed scimitar on the ground before her. Len frowned; her lover was more than capable in a fight, but she didn’t consider herself a warrior. If she was praying with her sword out, it probably meant she was asking for guidance or a blessing in battle, and that was something she did only when she was troubled or afraid. The priestess must be more concerned about their coming mission than she’d let on.

Len shook her head; there was nothing she could do about it for the moment. Making her way quietly into the bedroom, she sat her bag down on the bed and fished out the thin spellbook she’d bought before dropping down beside it. She’d barely begun going over the first spell, running her finger over the words while silently mouthing them to try and be certain of the pronunciation, when she sound of footsteps distracted her. Looking up, she saw Yhani standing in the doorway, the necklace held lightly in one hand.

“When last I looked,” the elf said lightly, “my ancestors were not in the business of distributing jewelry to their descendants. Therefore, I must assume that this gift came from another source. But who could it be?”

“It’s a mystery,” Len said with a smile; standing up, she walked over to Yhani and kissed her lightly. “But I’ll have you know that there’s a certain gnome down at the Bazaar who is one necklace poorer and several galifars richer, which might be the clue you need to unravel it.”

“Len, you did not need to,” Yhani said. “But nonetheless, you have my thanks. It is lovely.” She reached up and carefully fastened it behind her neck, letting it hang free, a bright line of gold standing out against the white fabric. Leaning in, she kissed Len lightly on her cheek.

“I knew you’d like it, ‘Hani,” the captain said, “and besides, we now have a ship chartered, so I felt like a little indulgence was in order. Captain Meren was just like Zanthan said he would be – hungry for gold and for glory. Well, we got him the first, and I think I managed to convince him we could provide the second.”

“Both courtesy of Professor Taras Zanthan of Morgrave,” Yhani said. “Under other circumstances, I might wonder at that man’s seemingly inexhaustible resources. But I took the liberty of speaking with some of his colleagues, and they have nothing bad to say about him that they shared with me. We have worked for worse clients, I think.”

“So long as he pays what he’s promised and doesn’t turn out to be the vengeful reincarnation of Karrn the Conqueror, I’ll work for him,” Len said. “Haring off to Sarlona on a wild griffin chase isn’t normally my idea of a fun job, but… dammit, ‘Hani, every time I have second thoughts I remember the Mournland and that tiger-headed bastard. This isn’t just some sort of con – this is real, and I have a feeling it’d pull me back in even if I tried to back out. At least this way we’ll be walking into things with our eyes open.”

“And I, of course, cannot let you go into danger without someone sensible to guard your back, my bold soldier,” Yhani said, with a twinkle in her eye. “But I do think you are right – one way or another, I think we are part of this. Though Rinnean has, at last count, informed me no fewer than six times that we are all mad and will get him killed before this is over.”

Len rolled her eyes. “Rinnean is still just sore that a pile of reanimated bones got the drop on him – he’ll live. At least Harsk manages to take everything in stride, and Ghazaan would go anywhere with us as long as the pay’s good and there’s fighting at the end. Thyra and Havaktri, last time I talked to them, are both ridiculously enthusiastic about this journey, but that’s not surprising. You want normal conversation and a sense of self-preservation, don’t go to a kalashtar, a Flameite, or a druid, or so they say.”

The real reason why Thyra was so determined to undertake this quest remained unspoken between them. Even now that girl seemed to be at the crux of everything uncanny about this whole affair with the Lords of Dust, and there were things about her that Len didn’t like voicing aloud.

She shook her head to clear it. “Well,” she said, “at least we can get everyone together this evening and tell them we can set sail by the end of the week. At last, we can get this business ready to go. Destination, Sarlona.”

Len mimed raising a glass for a toast; a moment later, Yhani followed suit, but there was nonetheless something wary and determined in the priestess’s clear eyes.

///

For our first couple of proper chapters, I wanted to give something of a sense of what the daily lives of our main characters are like when they’re not doing battle with ancient evils, starting with Len and Yhani. Showcasing a bit more of their relationship under more-or-less normal circumstances, and thereby deepening both characters, was definitely something I wanted to take the chance to do before everyone sets off for Sarlona, and I also wanted to take the opportunity to show Len chartering a ship for the journey. I didn’t do much with the dragonmarked houses last time, but they’ll have a somewhat more prominent role in this fic – in this case, for facilitating getting from point a to point be over the ocean, Lyrandar.

I was a bit torn on having Len use a modern, colloquial term like “girlfriend” to describe her relationship with Yhani, but ended up going with it. Eberron is a fairly modern place, as fantasy settings go, and Len isn’t someone who stands for much ceremony. Yhani, on the other hand, is a very precise speaker who wouldn’t be caught dead using a term so casual – she barely even uses contractions!

-MasterGhandalf


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