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Chapter 3: A Royal Audience

East of Karrnath, east of the dwarven homelands in the Mror Holds, clinging to the edge of Khorvaire on the border of the Lhazaar sea, there lay the land that was known as the Lhazaar Principalities. Partially located on the mainland, mostly composed of countless islands scattered about the ocean, it was here that human explorers in another age had made landfall from Sarlona, and begun the expansion that would leave them the dominant race across Khorvaire. Now the Principalities were divided, considered lawless among many of the people of the continent, and home to a variety of competing power groups. Pirates, Riedran spies, and the Dragonmarked houses all kept secret strongholds among the Lhazaar isles, away from the mainland’s prying eyes.

So to did the Order of the Emerald Claw, and the followers of the Blood of Vol remained a common sight among the isles. For it was here, the rumor ran, that the Queen of Death herself maintained one of her secret dwellings, on some lonely and desolate island.

Irinali knew that the rumors were true. Even as she pulled the hood of her cloak more tightly about her head and stared out over the unquiet waters of the Lhazaar sea towards the shadowed shape of the island that was their destination, she remembered how it was that she had come to take part on this journey. She and her patron, Lord Kharvin ir’Sarrin of Karrnath, had been preparing to set sail for Sarlona in this vessel that his family owned, when the words of a magical sending had echoed through the air. The flat voice had demanded they take a detour here, to speak with the Queen in matters concerning the item which they sought; though the words were not spoken aloud, the silence the spell left hanging gave no room for doubt that refusing to comply would have very unpleasant consequences.

Irinali turned and began to make her way towards the stern, cursing the cold under her breath. Ships she could handle, though she didn’t love them; she’d been born and raised on the island continent of Aerenal, and was familiar with sea travel. The cold, though… Aerenal was mostly tropic. Irinali had left her homeland and her heritage behind long ago, but she still hated the cold.

A sudden wave rocked the ship, and Irinali stumbled as she heard the crew cursing and scrambling nearby; leaning on her staff, she just barely managed to right herself before sprawling directly onto ir’Sarrin himself. A tall, powerfully-built human in late middle-age, ir’Sarrin had been a fine patron for the last few years that Irinali had worked for him; as a high-ranking operative of the Order of the Emerald Claw, he was far less squeamish than most about her practice of the necromantic arts. Of course, he was also a true believer in the Blood of Vol and the Order’s mission, something that Irinali, who had long since abandoned belief in much of anything but the magic she wielded and the money she could be paid for doing so, sometimes found grating. Nonetheless, the Karrn lord was one of the few people the elf necromancer considered a friend.

“All right, Irinali?” Ir’Sarrin asked, holding out a hand to steady her.

“Yes, my lord,” she replied, breathing somewhat more heavily than was dignified. “Let’s just say I’ll be glad when we get out of this foul sea and into the open ocean where I can only hope the weather will be somewhat calmer.”

“I find it rather invigorating, actually,” Ir’Sarrin said, scanning the horizon with a determined eye. This ship, Karrn’s Glory, had been in his family for generations; though not much of a seafarer, he’d made sure to keep it repaired and crewed in case he ever needed it for pressing business; now, with the summons from the Queen and the subsequent journey to Sarlona under way, was such a time. “Based on the charts, the navigator expects we should be arriving soon; I expect we’d already be able to see the island if it weren’t for this blasted weather.”

Irinali smiled. “You forget, my lord, that I’m not blind like you humans are. The island is there.” She pointed towards the dark shape on the horizon. “I wonder what business the Queen has for us? Hopefully our failure at the Mournland didn’t infuriate her so greatly she’s going to have us killed, or imprisoned for the rest of our lives.”

Kharvin’s face tightened; he didn’t like being reminded of their failure to secure the artifact in the Mournland, not least because it involved his own defeat in single combat at the hands of an ancient demon. “I doubt it,” he said. “If the Queen wanted us dead, she’d have sent assassins to dispose of us quietly. I suspect she wants to discuss the… unfortunate incident and our future plans in person.” He paused. “The presence of the rakshasa may have drawn her direct attention.”

“Not unlikely,” Irinali murmured. The two fell to silence as the ship drew ever closer to the island, a remote place that was difficult to find and reach without the proper charts, and was shrouded by illusions that could not be pierced without the proper tokens – both of which Kharvin had, courtesy of his standing in the Order, though he’d never had occasion to use them before. Slowly, the dark patch on the horizon grew, and then finally it resolved itself into a small, rocky piece of land jutting up from the sea; on its highest point was built a slender tower that rose to the heavens, built in a style that Irinali thought resembled some of the older Aereni architecture she’d seen, wedded to elements of Karrn pragmatism. At the base of the tower was what appeared to be a small but elegant manor house, and between two of the island’s rocky outcroppings, Irinali could just make out a protected harbor.

“Ah,” Kharvin said softly, a note of almost religious reverence in his voice. The followers of the Blood of Vol didn’t worship the Queen the way others did the Sovereigns or the Silver Flame, but they did venerate her as their first and greatest teacher. “At last.”

“Now we’ll see,” Irinali whispered.

///

Karrn’s Glory pulled into the dock and Kharvin and Irinali descended the gangplank to the pier; there they were met by a pair of servants so heavily swathed in dark robes that the necromancer couldn’t tell what race they were, or even if they were living, undead, or constructs. The two figures bowed once to their guests and then turned and led the way up a winding path towards the manor’s gates; Irinali glanced at Kharvin, shrugged, and then they both turned and followed.

Inside the manor was a long, low hall decorated with tapestries depicting historical scenes so ancient they seemed old even to the long-lived elves; the images were faded, but Irinali could make some of them out, even recognize a few events from Aerenal’s long history. The room was lit by magical torches that cast an eerie green light, and they illuminated a long table lined with chairs. Its only occupant was a handsome human man of indeterminate age who sat at the head, clad in rich robes of red and gold. He smiled when he saw the two guests, and gestured for them to take their seats on either side of him.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said, smiling and showing a pair of sharply elongated canines. Irinali sucked in her breath at that sight; between the fangs and his pallor, it was obvious that whatever this man had once been, now he was a vampire – and doubtless a powerful one, to stand so high in the Queen’s confidences. Irinali had long since become inured to the presence of lesser undead – it was necessary in her line of work – but she still had to suppress an instinctive shudder at the idea of a vampire. In her homeland, such creatures, who fed on the blood of the living, were considered abominations, a twisted perversion of the sacred mysteries of the Undying Court and their symbiotic relationship with their living kin. Irinali had long since left Aereni ways behind, but there was still an instinctive revulsion that she couldn’t entirely expel. Shaking her head, reminding herself that it was only ignorant superstition, she took the seat offered to her; across the table, Kharvin did the same.

“Now, then,” the vampire said, “in the name of Lady Vol, the Queen of Death, I welcome you to this, one of her lesser retreats. My name is Orrin; I speak for Her Majesty. No doubt you are hungry after your journey; allow us to remedy that.” He clapped his hands and more dark robed servants hurried forward, setting plates of elaborately dressed steak and salads in front of ir’Sarrin and Irinali, and a tall glass filled with a bright red liquid that certainly wasn’t wine in front of the vampire. Orrin raised the glass in toast and took a long drink from it.

Ir’Sarrin regarded his plate calmly but didn’t eat. “Will the Queen not be joining us, then?” he asked. “I was under the impression she wished to speak with me in person.”

“Her Majesty is a very busy lich,” Orrin said. “She has many demands on her time; she is currently scying in her chambers and does not wish to be disturbed. I will relay your words to her precisely when she is available to hear them, which may take some time. Eat, both of you; you make me feel a poor host otherwise. And during our meal, we will discuss certain recent events and what they may portend.”

“I submitted my report on the Mournland debacle to the Queen in writing,” ir’Sarrin said, frowning.

“And we would like to hear it in person,” Orrin said; Irinali frowned at the use of the word “we”, and wondered if the Queen’s scrying mirror might be pointed at a site rather closer to home than the vampire had implied.

Ir’Sarrin began with his acquisition of the map to the Mournland vault and related the entire story up through their defeat at the hands of the rakshasa and his barbarians, and Irinali’s subsequent discovery of the map leading to the second piece of the artifact in Sarlona. Orrin listened intently, with his hands folded in front of him and his gaze never wavering; when ir’Sarrin completed his tale, he stood and began to pace, with his hands clasped behind his back.

“In most situations,” he finally said, “Her Majesty would not be pleased by the loss of a company of loyal warriors and the failure to achieve the goals of a mission. To be honest with you, she isn’t happy now. However,” he raised a thin finger, “she does not intend to punish either of you yet. You, Lord Ir’Sarrin, remain well-placed and well-connected, and elsewhere have proven yourself a skilled commander. Irinali, we cannot afford to waste a necromancer of your abilities; such are not common even among the Order. More to the point, you remain the only ranking agents of the Order to have significant experience with these matters. This is more important than you realize.”

He turned back to the table and leaned forward, resting his hands in front of his chair. “Ordinarily, Her Majesty wouldn’t consider a single artifact worth all of this trouble. The presence of the rakshasa, however, changes things. Such creatures do not make their presence known casually, and they do nothing without purpose. If there is a prize a rakshasa is pursuing, it’s something Her Majesty considers worth having, if only to keep it from the hands of potential rivals. Therefore, Lady Vol has authorized me to give you her blessing to continue your pursuit of this device.”

Kharvin inclined his head. “Thank you, Master Orrin,” he said. “Now that I am aware of what force opposes us, you may assure the Queen that we will not disappoint her again.”

Orrin gave him a thin-lipped smile. “You will not.” He clapped his hands again, and two more figures entered from a side door. One was a tall, lean human man with a somewhat suspicious look about him; he was clad in leather armor written over with mystical symbols and carried a number of wands in holsters on his hips; Irinali raised an approving eyebrow at the sight of that magical arsenal. Beside him was a half-elf woman with red hair that was disheveled in a manner so artful it must have been done deliberately; she was wearing a plain shirt and pants and a brilliantly green cloak, and had a rapier belted at her hip.

“These are Arlan and Saeria,” Orrin said, gesturing to the man and woman respectively; both bowed, though Irinali couldn’t help but notice a mischievous glint in her eye as she did so. “Arlan is an expert in magical devices; Saeria specializes in ancient legends; both are also skilled in combat. They will assist you in your mission.”

“I do not require ‘assistance’,” Kharvin said stiffly, with all the wounded dignity that only an aristocrat could muster, but then he nodded. “However, if the Queen sees fit to assign them to me, I will welcome whatever aid they can provide.”

“Very good,” Orrin said. He gestured for the two newcomers to join them at the table. “Now, then, let us make plans…”

///

It was late that evening when the four of them made their way back to the Karrn’s Glory; the ship was to sail at first light, and nobody, even Irinali, particularly wanted to spend the night in a lich’s fortress. Ir’Sarrin took the front, seemingly filled with renewed purpose; Arlan and Saeria followed, watching everything around them with such intensity that the necromancer was certain they were there as spies and minders as well as assistants. She herself took the rear, her staff tapping lightly on the flagstones with every step.

When they reached the ship, the other three boarded quickly and without complaint. Irinali, however, felt what seemed to be the pricking of eyes watching her back, a feeling she couldn’t shake. Slowly she turned and looked up, back towards the manor and its tower, and there, in one of the upper windows, she thought her keen elven eyes could just barely make out the silhouetted figure of a woman regarding them with a keen, piercing gaze. From a distance, it was hard to tell, but her eyes seemed to flicker with a penetrating green light.

Then she was gone, and the window was empty. Irinali shivered, knowing that the memory of that eye contact would never leave her and certain in her bones just who it had been that she had seen. Turning away, she hurried back up the gangplank, her staff tapping on the wood as she tried to put more distance between herself and that penetrating, pitiless gaze.

///

Irinali and Ir’Sarrin make their reappearance in the fic this chapter. I’d initially intended to kill them off at the end of the previous fic, but they grew on me and I decided to keep them around as a rival faction to our heroes who are after the same goal. To further that end, they’re also gathering a bigger party of named characters around themselves. Haund, ir’Sarrin’s Blood of Vol cleric, will be returning in a bigger role (though he’s not high enough in the Emerald Claw to get an invite to this little dinner party), and here we add Arlan (an artificer) and Saeria (a bard) to their group as well. In this chapter they don’t get much to do other than show up, but they’ll be getting fleshed out along the way.

Erandis Vol isn’t the biggest Big Bad in the Eberron setting, but with the possible exception of the Lord of Blades she may be the most iconic. I deliberately didn’t have her show up here in person, as I like to keep my big bads a bit mysterious, but she’s definitely taking a more active hand; Orrin is a character I created here to act as a go between in the vein of Tolkien’s Mouth of Sauron or Babylon 5’s Mr. Morden, and he’s probably not the only one she’s got doing that job. This isn’t Illmarrow Castle, Erandis’s canonical main base, that we see here but as Orrin said, more of a smaller retreat – I’ll wager Erandis (being the good supervillain she is) has dozens of hideouts and boltholes all over Khorvaire, and this is one of them. I did want to let Irinali get a quick glimpse of her at the end, though, to remind everyone of who is really pulling the strings in this organization – it’s not a piddly little vampire like Orrin, and it certainly isn’t ir’Sarrin. The Wyrmbreaker isn’t the only major power taking a hand in events now…

Also, in her portrait in the Eberron Campaign Guide, Erandis has glowing red eyes. I decided to give her green ones instead, which seemed far more appropriate on many levels. Hey, if you’re a millennia-old vengeful lich, you learn how to stick with a theme.

-MasterGhandalf


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