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Chapter 10: Landfall

Len sat at a small table in the fort’s (decidedly unsatisfactory, in her opinion) excuse for a bar, staring down at the mug of beer in front of her and wondering if taking another drink was really worth it after all. Finally deciding she’d had quite enough to make subjugating herself to the stuff again worthwhile, she looked up across the table at Ghazaan and his much larger tankard. She and her friend were both off duty at the moment, and both of them had found their way here.

“Hey,” she said. “You hear the news out of Cyre lately? Sounds like the Karrns are planning some big offensive, hoping to take north Cyre and march straight into Thrane. Get ‘em a lot of land, if they pull that off.” She shook her head. “I got no love for the Church of the Silver Flame, but if they can throw the Karrns back and keep ‘em from pulling off a win, they’ve got my backing for now. Anything so we don’t have to end up bowing and scraping to Kaius and forced to let blood for that creepy religion of theirs ten years from now.”

“You know, there are plenty of people who’d say the same thing about the Thranes,” Ghazaan pointed out. “They’d take being ruled by Karrnath, Blood of Vol and all, if it meant not getting stuck in a theocracy under the Church. They say the Thranish Queen does whatever the church cardinals tell her to, you know.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard.” Len frowned and decided, perhaps against her better judgment, to take another drink of her beer. “Look at us,” she said when she was done. “A hundred years ago, we were all just provinces of Galifar, and now we’re talking about the Thranes and the Karrns like they’re different species. Damn it to the Six, what’s happening to us?”

“Well, in my case, they
are different species,” Ghazaan said, winking. “Which makes me think – you want to hear a hobgoblin joke?” When Len arched her brow, he continued. “What’s the difference between a hobgoblin and a human? They both conquered Khorviare, but the humans’ empire lasted for a thousand years. The hobgoblins’ lasted for ten thousand!” He threw back his head and guffawed; Len regarded him crossly.

“Very funny,” she said flatly. “Something I’ve been wondering, though. You’re so proud of your people, how come you’re here? Why not head down to Darguun, fight with that Haruuc fellow for your homeland’s independence, maybe a shot at raising another ten-thousand-year empire after we’ve all pounded ourselves into the dust?”

Ghazaan stopped laughing and regarded her seriously. “Don’t think I haven’t considered it,” he said. “But the thing is, between fighting for coin and fighting for a cause, I’ll take coin. Not for the reason you think, either. In my experience, when you fight for a cause, it can go one of two ways. It can end in a glorious victory. Or it can end with everyone turning on each other, determined to root out anyone who isn’t loyal enough to the cause, while whatever the cause was in the first place gets trampled underfoot. Call me a coward, but I’d rather wait and see which is which before I sign up with Lhesh Haruuc and his glorious revolution. ‘Sides, my people have lived in Breland for generations. This country suits me well enough, for now.”

Len regarded him carefully. “You,” she finally said, “are a complicated man, Ghazaan, and not what most people take you for.”

“Well, I hope most people take me for a great and noble warrior with dashing good looks,” the hobgoblin said, winking one yellow eye. Then he looked around carefully and leaned in close. “Len, come with me.”

“All right,” Len said cautiously, getting up and following Ghazaan out of the bar. He led her down one of the fortress’s twisting side passages; when they were alone, he turned back to her. She crossed her arms. “Please tell me you’re not going to proposition me,” she said. “I like you, but not
that much.”

Ghazaan guffawed again. “No, no,” he said. “Trust me – my mate would have a thing or two to say about that!” He leaned in close. “This is something else. Len… I know what you
are.”

Len suddenly went cold. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said, trying to sound calm. “I’m human, I’m a woman, and I can swing a sword, but none of those are exactly secrets. What else, exactly, am I supposed to be?”

“A changeling,” Ghazaan said, and Len felt the ice reach her gut. “Look, it wasn’t exactly hard when I started paying attention. I overheard some of the women who bunk with you talking; they said your hair is always braided, except that you let it down to sleep – but nobody’s ever actually seen you braid it
or unbraid it. And that your complexion looks exactly the same every day, even though no one’s ever seen you use cosmetics. And that got me thinking – ‘Len’ is an interesting name, isn’t it? One syllable, could be a man’s name or a woman’s – they say changeling names work like that. And the way you won’t tell anyone about who you were before you signed up, where you came from, where you learned to fight – it seemed like you had something to hide. I put two and two together.”

Len hung her head. “Fine,” she said. “You got me. I’m a changeling. Hope you don’t mind if I don’t show you my real face; I save that for people I
really trust and you’re not there yet, especially after this.” She looked up at him and glared daggers. “So, what now, big man? Going to rat me out, get me thrown out for lying on my enlistment form, maybe make a nice bonus?”

For the third time that afternoon, Ghazaan threw back his head and laughed. “And why in Khyber would I do that?” he asked. “I’ve watched you drill, and I can tell you’re good with that sword – better than you want people to think, I’d guess. And this may be the most boring post in Breland, but we might need someone like that before all is said and done. And besides – look at me. I’m a
hobgoblin. Breland’s better than a lot of places, but I’ve still had people treat me like a monster my whole life. You think I’m going to rat someone else out just because they’re not human? Not likely.” He winked. “And I like you. So there’s that.”

Len laughed and shook her head. “Well, maybe my luck’s not so bad after all. But why tell me you knew, if you weren’t going to act on it?”

“I wanted you to know I knew, and that I had your back,” Ghazaan said. “And to let you know that if I caught on, other people might too. This your first time living around people who aren’t changelings and don’t know you are? Figured. Learn to do your braid by hand, maybe let your face get scuffed up a bit. That might help.”

“Well, this conversation hasn’t gone anywhere I thought it would,” Len said finally. “But like I said, Ghazaan – you’re a complicated man. And a better one than most.”

“We’ll see about that,” he said, grinning and showing his fangs. He held out a hand. “Still friends?”

Len took it. “Still friends.”

///

Karrn’s Glory
dropped anchor in a narrow bay along the coast of the Tashana Tundra, and several longboats were lowered into the water and headed towards the shore. Here, in the far north of Sarlona, the sea was cold and grey, and the land was largely white with snow. The plains stretched flatly off into the distance, featureless and cold, and, just on the edge of elven sight, a low ridge of distant mountains could be see, brooding expectantly.

That was where they would need to go, Irinali thought, assume she had read the map rightly. The necromancer crouched near the stern of one of the longboats while ir’Sarrin’s soldiers worked the oars; she was wrapped tightly in a fur-lined black cloak that kept some of the cold away but still wasn’t enough to keep her from shivering. Damn the ancients, anyway, for building their vaults in such ancestors-forsaken places – first the Mournland, now this. They still weren’t sure who had buried the artifacts in the first place – the Mournland vault contained elements pointing to both dragons and rakshasas, but the odds of collaboration between the two mortal enemies seemed almost nonexistent – but whoever they were clearly had a sick sense of humor.

At last the boats put ashore, and Irinali scrambled out, looking around at her surroundings with distaste as she tried to pull her furs even tighter around herself. Kharvin, Haund, Arlan, and Saeria, who were now disembarking from their own boats, were bundled equally tightly, but didn’t seem to be quite as affected by the cold – damn the Karrns, whose northern homeland wasn’t this cold but could come close in the deep winter, and who knew where Arlan and Saeria originally hailed from. If only the vault had been buried somewhere tropical…

Ir’Sarrin turned and gestured, and a small group of his household guards disembarked and joined the others on the shore, leaving only a small group of warriors who sat in the back of two of the boats in perfect stillness, speaking to none, acknowledging none – or rather, one. Irinali gestured for them and they stood, marching ashore in perfect lockstep and entirely heedless of the cold. As they approached, the hollowness of their cheeks and the empty sockets of their eyes came into stronger focus. Several of ir’Sarrin’s people had died during the Mournland debacle; many of the corpses had been lost, unfortunately, but enough had been recovered for Irinali to add several more skeleton warriors to her service to replace those who had been lost.

“All here?” Ir’Sarrin asked when skeletons came to stand with the others. “Good. The first stage of our journey is over, ladies, gentlemen, but the next lies before us; an overland march through this frozen place. Irinali, what are your directions?”

The necromancer turned and pointed towards the distant mountains. “Per the map in the previous vault, our destination lies there, to the east, in a cave in one of the lower peaks. Getting there won’t be easy, but I think we’ve all faced worse. What we do when we get there, on the other hand… that’s the question.”

“That, I take it, will be when my skills are required,” Arlan said. “I look forward to it.” He smiled determinedly, his breath fogging the air.

“Are there any people around here at all?” Saeria demanded, wrapping her arms around her torso and looking around with profound distaste. “This place is so… empty. I knew what to expect, but actually seeing it…”

“There are some frontier towns, I believe,” Irinali said, “and a few nomadic tribes and, allegedly, some rather dangerous creatures, but nothing much in the way of civilization. The Inspired claim it as part of their empire, but they’ve never been able to enforce it anywhere but on paper. Too distant, too sparsely populated, too… cold.” Irinali was not certain she had ever spoken with as much disdain as she infused into that last word.

“Life is struggle,” Haund said unexpectedly in his soft voice; the priest was usually so quiet it was hard to remember he was there. “The world is uncaring and filled with death. If the Inspired gave up so easily, then perhaps they aren’t as formidable as they make out. But we are of the Blood of Vol, servants of the Emerald Claw. We will face the tests this Tundra throws against us, and we shall prevail, in the Queen’s name.”

“Well said, Haund,” said ir’Sarrin. “Now come; let us be off. I’d rather not waste any more time than we have to; the voyage lies behind us, and the true mission ahead.”

He turned and began to walk towards the distant eastern mountains, the others shouldering their packs and doing the same. Irinali motioned for her skeletons – including one that carried her own effects – and took up the rear, watching warily for signs of any danger. She saw no one but their party, felt nothing but cold, and heard nothing but the howling of the wind.

This was going to be a long, tedious journey.

///

Stormchaser approached the mountains of Adar accompanied by the kalashtar warriors in their small boats. Thyra watched the great peaks rising slowly in her vision and shook her head slowly, unable to fully take in their immensity, their… power. She’d thought the rakshasa in the Mournland represented something timeless and terrible, but here was something beside which even he paled into insignificance – and it wasn’t a god, or a celestial being, or even one of the dread Overlords, but a natural feature of the landscape.

Suddenly, she found herself feeling very small indeed.

“How are we even going to land here,” she finally said, as much to say something as because it was what was really on her mind. At her side, Havaktri smiled.

“There is a port,” she said. “Dvarnaava, it is called. It’s well hidden, but I thought I might be able to find it, drawing on my line’s memories.” She glanced over the rail at the kalashtar boats, whose crews were gazing stoically ahead and seemed to be paying little heed to the larger vessels they were escorting. “Luckily, we have a better way now. If Meren follows them carefully, we will be fine.”

“You thought you could find this port?” Thyra asked with a raised eyebrow. “That seems like you were risking this whole ship on a hunch.”

Havaktri looked defensive. “I was reasonably certain,” she said. “The memories are there. Putting them together is harder, but…” she let her words trail off. “Besides, we were lucky that the skies were relatively clear. It often storms in this part of the world, I’m told.”

“It’s all right,” Thyra said. “It looks like it worked out anyway.” She turned and began to walk towards the front of the ship, with Havaktri following. Near the bow she stopped, staring, for the bodies of the Riedran boarders. For a moment, she almost pulled back in horror but found herself looking closer instead, fascination winning over revulsion. The nearest body was a young man not much older than herself, a would still visible in his neck from where one of Harsk’s arrows had taken him. He looked innocent, peaceful, and Thyra found it hard to believe he could have been an evil man. In all probability, none of them had been, she realized – they had merely been following the orders of their gods, as they had been trained to do all their lives. Except that those gods were evil creatures from the Realm of Dreams, and they had lead these people, and so many others, to their deaths across the centuries, fighting for a lie. Her throat constricted, and a sudden surge of empathy for the Riedrans and rage against the Inspired filled her heart.

Havaktri placed a hand on her shoulder. “My people will lay them to rest properly when we reach the shore,” she said. “These were victims, not villains. But we believe that death is not the end, and I believe your people do as well. Maybe they can find peace in another life.”

“Thank you, Havaktri,” Thyra said. Tearing her gaze from the bodies, she looked up – and her eyes widened. “In Tira’s name,” she breathed.

Stormchaser had come to the base of an immense cliff that towered above them, thousands of feet of shear stone rising to the heavens. Around her she could hear the crew cursing and calling on the Sovereigns, or yelling to Meren that he should turn back; the captain himself remained at the wheel, staring ahead with an unreadable expression. The kalashtar vessels, however, didn’t pause. They approached the cliff without fear… and seemed to vanish beneath it. Thyra’s eyes focused on where they had gone, and she realized that there was indeed a tunnel leading through the rock, and the waters poured through it.

“Never have I seen a place such as this,” a rough voice said beside her, and Thyra turned to see Harsk standing there, staring at the stone. “I’ve traveled across Khorvaire and thought I’d seen all there was to see, but this… it’s pleasant to know there are still wonders in the world that can move a weary soul.”

“You sounded almost like a priest, there.” Thyra observed, surprised. She’d never talked to Harsk much, but then, it seemed he didn’t talk to anyone much, mostly keeping to himself.

“I almost became a druid, when I was young,” he said. “Couldn’t bring myself to go through with it, in the end. But some things you can’t easily leave behind.” He regarded the cliff intently, and spoke no more.

Stormchaser entered the tunnel, and for a moment all was dark, before several of the crew hurried and lit mage-lanterns to help light the way. Thyra didn’t know how long they were in that passage, the mage-lanterns the only light, the only sound the rushing of the water along the rocks as the captain carefully worked the helm, keeping the ship’s course straight and true. At last, they passed out of the dark and into the last evening sun – they had emerged into a sheltered bay, surrounded on all sides by mountains that rose high to the sky. On the opposite shore, at the base of the cliffs, was a city of worked stone; there was an ascetic quality to the buildings, which were devoid of unnecessary ornamentation, but even Thyra’s untrained eyes could tell that it was an example of incredible craftsmanship. The Adarans might not be an ostentatious people, but if this was any indication, they loved their art nonetheless.

“Behold Dvarnaava,” Havaktri breathed. “The last free port in Adar, and perhaps all of Sarlona. We’ve arrived.”

Meren brought Stormchaser carefully into an open dock and dropped anchor. No sooner had the crew extended the docking ramp than one of the kalashtar from the boats marched aboard, two others close behind her. She was a stern-looking woman in her prime, with a few faint streaks of grey in her hair, and she looked enough like Havaktri that she could have been close kin.

The mercenaries and Meren walked over to meet her; she scanned the group until her gaze found Havaktri, and then she spoke quickly in a sibilant, alien language.

“She says that she is Taivaktri,” Havaktri translated. “She and I are of the same lineage, sharing a quori forebear; in your language, you might say she is my cousin. A distant cousin, true, but to us, the connection is there, and we honor it. She says that she was honored to assist any who would stand against the Inspired, but foreigners are rare in Adar, and not always welcome; this is a nation under siege. She has been instructed to bring us before Dvarnaava’s council of Elders. There, we will explain why we have come, and they will decide what exactly is to be done with us.”

///

Well, both groups of main characters have arrived at Sarlona- getting there took rather longer than I’d intended! For the most part, this chapter was about getting the characters into position and exploring some of the new surroundings; I also wanted to take the opportunity to let some characters like Harsk and Haund who haven’t had much to do to say their piece. The Blood of Vol is a grim religion popular among a grim nation, but Haund is fairly harsh even by its standards – moderates need not sign up for the Order of the Emerald Claw. Harsk gets to talk a bit more about his druidic background, brought on by the sight of a natural wonder, but it’s still a while before we’ll explore that in any detail (Havaktri is getting the biggest focus of the non-Len mercenaries this time around, as the setting is, after all, her ancestral homeland).

Speaking of Len, we get our second flashback with her, developing her friendship with Ghazaan more and showing how he figured out she was a changeling. A person always appearing well-groomed even when they never seem to groom themselves is a fairly good giveaway; one of the Eberron novels had a bit where a changeling was identified because he was always clean-shaven, but never actually shaved. The present-day Len, of course, is a bit more careful. And I do like having the chance to get into Ghazaan’s head a bit, even if he’s not a major POV. There’s definitely more to him than meets a casual eye, but he’s still a good person when the chips are down.

-MasterGhandalf


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