66th of Zephyr, 1075 AE
As the Sunspears and their Lyssian Priest guide began their trek across the verdant canyons and crevasses of the Vehtendi Valley, toward the Grand Forum of Vabb where they hoped to receive ritualistic cleansing sufficient to grant them entrance into the Festival of Lyss—along with their newly-acquired invitation—Issa and Lulit, eyes nervously watching their wilderness path for the many local dangers which may inhabit it, stopped the group with hand signals; they saw something up ahead that warranted caution.
A body was caught in the rocks downstream of rapids in the mighty Elon River. The group had chosen this particular out-of-the-way path because, after hearing that a contingent of Kournan soldiers had been seen in the area, they wanted to take all precautions against sparking an “incident,” and thereby risking their admission to the Festival. The water flowed swiftly, but shallows ahead should provide adequate fording opportunity.
“It looks like a heket,” Lulit whispered back to the group, after advancing on the riverbank to investigate. “It couldn’t have died more than a few minutes ago.” Craning her neck, her companions could all see a frown deepen on her face. “Combat,” she whispered, and gestured for them to stay where they were—and ready.
Advancing slowly, her frequent childhood excursions into the Vabbian wilds and more formal training under Sunspear scouts serving her well, she sneaked up to a cleft in the rugged and uneven earth ahead, risking a quick peak around the corner.
Issa sighed heavily. “Just what we needed.”
“What did she say?” Li’iol, the Sunspear recruit they had taken under their care, asked of his dour superior.
Tancred, taking a more fatherly tone, answered the youth. “She signaled that there were two groups fighting, five on five. There are casualties.” He raised his arm to get Lulit’s attention, then pointed to the body they identified in the river. She nodded. He pointed again, and again she nodded.
“Heket fighting heket, it seems,” he translated.
Priestess Kehanni furrowed her brow. “That doesn’t make sense; heket stalk and pillage human settlements. Why would they be attacking one another, and out in the open like this?”
“This path is a good distance from the main roads,” Akeela reminded, turning her attention away from the bits of river moss that had grown near the base of a nearby tree.
Lulit, still the closest to the conflict, signaled a question.
“Do we try to avoid them, or charge through?” Akeela reiterated for the group.
Tancred loosed his heavy mace from his belt. “Balthazar doesn’t suffer those who stand aside and let battle rage on beside them.”
“You do that, and I’ll follow my own instincts,” Issa sighed again, shaking his head. Getting involved would just delay their dealing with the Princes of Vabbi—and as much as he didn’t look forward to that by any stretch of the imagination, he hated the idea of getting involved in other local squabbles even more. With a moment’s concentration he winked out from sight, having pulled threads of magical concealment from the very air around him.
With Tancred readying himself for combat, a quick glance at Lulit confirming that she too held a weapon at the ready, and Li’iol doing his best to look brave while hefting his simple club, Akeela looked to Kehanni for her vote.
“Don’t worry about me, girl,” she smiled. “If necessary I’ll take after our friend Issa and make myself scarce.”
Seeing the party largely decided, Lulit scrambled up the rocky abutment to get an appropriate vantage, smoothly stringing her bow once she reached the top. With Tancred and Li’iol ahead of Akeela and Kehanni as they approached the bend—and Issa nowhere to be seen—the Sunspears entered the fray.
Lulit’s first shots found purchase in the necks of the thick-bodied, bipedal frogs facing away from her, felling one dead at the feet of his bloodied foe. Her second volley felled two more, which joined several of their already-deceased brethren in the waters of the Elon, slowly turning red. Two heket, seeming to be in the lead of those who had been so quickly cut down, turned and hopped-swam away, trying to get as much distance between themselves and the bloody conflict as possible.
Tancred—his hammer glowing with the fiery aura of Balthazar’s thirst for physical conflict—was ready to charge after the fleeing heket, when he was stopped by the sound of malformed common tongue issuing from one of the survivors standing upstream.
“Very thank,” the frog croaked, ordering in its own tongue the remaining soldiers—what few remained—to lay down their arms. Lulit, ready to loose more arrows at the five heket who remained, stared in bewilderment.
“I thought all heket were marauding, bloodthirsty beasts,” Tancred said in the Istanni tongue, suspecting only his companions would understand his words.
“I haven’t—” Lulit trailed off, words failing her.
“We very thank,” the frog spoke again, gesturing with its thick, webbed fingers for emphasis. The other heket warriors bowed in a gesture of respect before moving to pull some of the bodies out of the river.
Issa’s voice whispered from right behind Lulit; apparenty he had climbed the cliff behind her, while maintaining his concentration on the spell. “I didn’t think heket knew common. Did you?”
Lulit shook her head, holding her bow drawn, but not quite aiming it at the remaining warriors.
Seeing an impasse, Akeela stepped forward, in front of Tancred and his mighty, glowing warhammer. She gestured overdramatically at the five who stood in the river, then in the direction of the two who had escaped. “Enemies?”
“We,” the leader croaked, “we Tuliphis. Them Boababis.” He somehow managed to convey an impressive amount of indignation and disprespect as he referenced the losers of the violent scuffle. “Them sick.”
Akeela tilted her head slightly. “Sick?” She gestured to her own body, then mimed flu symptoms. Issa’s guffaw could be heard from somewhere nearby.
The heket shook its head before pointing to the top of its skull. “Sick with new god. Boababis attack Tuliphis.” It watched her for understanding. “Attack for new god.”
“New god?” Akeela echoed while looking to Kehanni, who merely shrugged with ignorance on the matter.
“Purple god. Make sick.” The heket pointed again to his head.
Tancred growled angrily, cursing under his breath. “This is our fault.”
The other Sunspears eyed him with the obvious question.
“Remember what the Master of Whispers said when we met him near the shrine? When we chose to go with Magrid and save Spearmarshal Kormir?”
Lulit relaxed her bow, sighing with understanding. “There was a demon in the Mahnkelon Waterworks. Corrupting the Elon. He sent some of his own people to try and drive it out, and we assumed he succeeded.”
“He did,” Akeela added, “but didn’t kill it. They just pushed it upriver, where it found a new home, and new minions.” Her lips pursed with distaste as she considered what a powerful demon could be doing with an army of heket at its beck and call.
“You come,” the leader croaked. “See queen of Tuliphis. Reward.”
Akeela held up her hand in a sign of caution. “The Boababis, they’re sick?” she reiterated. The creature nodded, a full-body gesture owing to the relative immobility of its neck. “Your people, they’re not sick?”
It puffed up its chest defiantly. “No Tuliphis sick. We old gods. We true gods.”
“Have you tried to help the Boababis, to cure them?”
“Helpers come back sick. Not Tuliphis. Sick,” he gesticulated to accentuate his point. Akeela nodded with understanding and compassion.
“I think we should meet with their queen. At the very least to understand what’s happening here.”
“Don’t we have to get to the festival?” grunted Issa, surprising everyone with his sudden appearance directly behind Akeela.
Kehanni answered with a half-apology to her obviously disintersted countryman in her voice. “The festival starts four days from now.”
“We need to help these people,” Akeela offered.
Tancred dismised the glowing divine energy from his mace and strapped it once more to his belt. “More than that, we have a demon to kill, to finish what we started in Kourna.”
Issa said nothing, settling on crossing his arms across his chest with a scowl.
The five heket lead them beyond the waterfalls which fed the famed Hanging Gardens of Jahin, staying to the river paths which would keep them far from human civilization. Akeela attempted to engage the leader in conversation, and while its physiology and limited vocabulary made it difficult, she learned that its name was Nenenneg and that it had organized many of the defense patrols which kept the Tuliphis terroritory free of the corrupting Boababis.
After nearly two hours of walking—with the occasional wading where dry ground wasn’t available—the Sunspears finally saw the heket village before them. Suitated in a swampy morass that didn’t seem to hinder the amphibious residents, dozens of small, mud-caked huts had been built around a central square or parade ground. More than two dozen heket poked their heads out from doorways or up from deeper pools in the watery landscape as Nenenneg lead the group, including hauling the bodies of those tribe members who fell during the river conflict, directly down the center of the encampment.
As the sun began to disappear behind the western mountains, turning the high desert clouds into bright orange slashes across a darkening sky, the party’s attention was drawn to an impossibly large heket who lumbered out of the shadows at the end of the village’s center, flanked by six attendants clad in some sort of priestly or shamanistic clothing. The heket for whom the tribe was named, assuming from the large tulip that either grew from or served as a crown atop is head, looked down at the Sunspears who wouldn’t even come up to its knee, were it to stand up straight.
Nenenneg began speaking, calling out as much to the residents of the village as to its matriarch, presumably telling the story of how the Sunspears—even if inadvertantly and unknowingly—had helped them beat back the vile Boababis raiders. The towering heket never spoke or even opened its gargantuan mouth; its handlers seemed to speak for it. Though it seemed to take some convincing before the village could be convinced of the Sunspears’ good intentions, eventually the feeling in the air seemed to change, to relax. Nenenneg looked back at the party and smiled, or in as close as an approximation as it could.
A bassy rumble came from the end of the plaza as, for the first time, Queen Tuliphis spoke. Her words were clearer, less disjointed than Nenenneg’s had been, but the common tongue was not easily formed by heket vocal chords.
“You will purge the new god?” It asked, the swamp water reverberating with the deep tones of her voice.
Akeela nodded, having assumed the mantle of group leader for their encounter with the heket, no other seeming comfortable to do so. “We will help the Tuliphis.” Her voice seemed to echo through the village, an effect she had not expected. Issa gave her a small wink and a sly, knowing smile.
“The Boababis—” the matriarch began, before a piercing howl issued from the western edge of the village, cutting her off. The sound was immediately followed by thunderous crashing and the cries of heket families caught up in the destruction of their homes as three titanic beasts rampaged into the square, tempests of teeth, scales, and claws.
Two gigantic crocodiles, their eyes glowing with an amethyst sheen that was all too familiar to the Sunspears, appeared, flanking a multi-tentacled, rock-covered abberation with a maw large enough to swallow a human whole. As if to drive the point home, it effortlessly snatched up a shrieking heket and snapped its back, dropping the lifeless corpse into its waiting mouth, the sound of bones breaking echoing across the village.
Issa and Priestess Kehanni both blurred, each borrowing arcane gifts from Lyssa and obscuring their true position. Lulit had two arrows in the air even before poor vilager had disappeared down the beast’s throat and Tancred stepped forward with a rallying cry, filling the air with prayers to the god of war.
As the crocodiles savaged ramshackle structures and frightened heket villagers alike, the mawed monstrosity charged straight for the party of warriors, perhaps sensing that they were the only real chance the village had of defending itself. As its savage teeth clamped around Tancred’s mailed torso, the indistinct and amorphous blur that was Issa began chanting, whipping a small magical talisman around his head as if it were a sling. The terrible creature stopped its attack, its unnatural eyes glazing over as if transfixed. The other Sunspears knew that the captivation would not last long, but that the bard’s efforts would give them precious seconds to deal with the crocodiles.
Nenneneg, the heket warrior who had brought them to the village, dove into the path of one of the fanged beasts, slashing with his trident and dissuading it from attacking helpless villagers. He was battered by the thing’s powerful tail, but held his footing in the swamp water, ferociously defending his home and his people. Akeela exploded the earth beneath the crocodile’s feet, the murky swamp roiling and bursting with magical force. Seizing opportunity, Nenneneg dove for the creature’s maw, planting his trident between teeth that could eviscerate him. Feeling prey in its mouth, the crocodile did as the warrior hoped, and snapped its mouth shut with all the force it could, driving the well-aimed weapon through the roof of its mouth and into its brain.
As Nenneneg lept free from the spasming corpse, he saw that Lulit and Tancred had captured the attention of the other crocodile, pelting it with arrows sharp enough to pierce its thick plated hide and striking with a warhammer imbued with spirits of vengeance. Though Tancred was able to weather most of the beast’s assaults, enough teeth and tail swipes had made it past his polished Sunspear armour to start leaving bruised and bloody marks on his flesh, the swamp water around his knees showing telltale drops of dark crimson blood.
Holding his shield forth as a beacon, Tancred called out to the spirits of Balthazar, summoning a guardian to punish the beasts that so callously thought to attack those who could not defend themselves—Balthazar was the god of battle but loathed the concept of wanton slaughter; one was a contest among near-equals, the other a selfish flexing of one’s unmatched power. At his command an enormous radiant hound, blazing with the red heat of battle fury, appeared on the battlefield, all but daring the crocodile to approach any farther into the village.
Unfortunately the spirit’s zealous defense also extended to the glassy-eyed, multi-limbed monstrosity that Issa had been keeping transfixed with his charming magics. As the hound’s aura of battle washed over the abomination, its mottled and plated hide began to peel and blister, breaking it loose from its stupor. With a roar it lept back into the fray, pummelling Akeela with veinous tentacles and its amethyst-tinged rocky protrusions, even as the ephemeral war dog savaged its flanks. The druid felt her legs stiffen and slow, as if they were made of lead, the throbbing pain from her injuries giving way to a numb emptiness. With fear rising in her throat and the paralysis spreading to her limbs, her eyes darted around the battlefield, seeking any sign of help.
Lulit was concentrating on taking down the abomination, loosing volley after volley of arrows with deadly efficiency, while Tancred was standing toe to toe with the remaining crocodile, slowly being pushed backwards by the sheer intensity of its attacks. Issa summoned a cloud of emphemeral daggers in an effort to distract the monster from Akeela, but had retreated too far away to offer any material assistance for her circumstance. Li’iol was charging forward, trying to put himself between the creature and the druid, but had no magic to stem the spreading petrification she realized was hardening her body into an inert statue. Kehanni was nowhere to be seen—unsurprising with her dedication to the goddess of illusions but distressing nonetheless.
Li’iol and Nenneneg, in trying to threaten the beast away from the druid, had put themselves directly in reach of its long, grasping tentacles. With a rapidity which defied its enormous bulk it snatched up the pair, dropping each into its waiting maw, swallowing audibly as they disappeared down its distended throat. One of Lulit’s arrows struck one tentacle a split second too late to save the youngest Sunspear, a realization she made with a choked cry as he vanished.
The crocodile, seeing Tancred’s distraction as his gaze was drawn to the pair being snatched by the abberation, struck him with a mighty tail whip, sending the war cleric reeling and off his feet, floundering in the thick, murky swamp water which formed the violent battleground. As the silt and mica flooded into his nostrils, he let his pain and rage coalesce into a white-hot lance of purpose. Defensless heket had been slain, his friends and allies assaulted, and all orchestrated by the clawed hands of the monsters his former commander—Varesh Ossa—summoned into this world on behalf of her twisted master, the fallen and forgotten god Abaddon.
Focusing that hurt—both that of his physical body and that of his spirit—into a singular call for Balthazar’s strength, in an instant he wove together the threads of magic flitting through the battlefield and brought them down like a warhammer from the very gods themselves. Searing, white-hot light struck the swamp with concussive force, blistering and burning the crocodile and unnamed abberation with pure and undiluted force of divine will. Roaring with the impact, the crocodile tried to dive beyond its reach but the burning light would not let it escape so easily, and it quickly fell bodily into the swamp, its death throes shaking the very ground beneath the fetid waters.
The abberation took the full brunt of Tancred’s holy summon and for the first time a realization of its own potential mortality reflected in its offset eyes. Harassed by Balthazar’s hound, scorched by the lance of fire bursting from the heavens above, and struck by dozens of arrows, it began to turn away when one of Issa’s ephemeral daggers buried itself to the hilt where armoured scales had been burned away, stabbing deeply into what passed as a brain. Convulsing and twitching under the onslaught, it too fell under the Sunspear assault, and the only sound thereafter was the croaking screams of the heket, horrified at the destruction the monsters had wrought.
As Lulit and Tancred slogged through the swamp water to the collossus’ chest, pulling out daggers to try and saw through its tough exterior in hopes of rescuing Li’iol, Nenneneg, and other swallowed heket, Issa watched as Kehanni appeared before Akeela as if stepping out of a heat shimmer. Placing her hand on the calcified druid’s chest, she closed her eyes and began to pray, her voice in low tones which didn’t carry over the commotion at the base of the enormous monster nearby. At first nothing seemed to happen, but as she continued her incantations, Issa saw the flush of life seem to spread from the priest’s hand across Akeela’s chest, up her face, and out to her limbs, the hard stone giving away to real flesh.
Akeela gasped and breathed deeply, her blue eyes wild and unfocused at first, before centering on Kehanni, who smiled with satisfaction. “I don’t think you could be truly captured in statue,” she winked. “Something more dynamic, perhaps, like a song instead.” The priest turned her attention to Issa, who was sitting on one of the rickety raised platforms on which the heket built their homes, scraping swamp muck off his boots. She nodded with appreciation for the bard’s efforts, both for distracting and waylaying the monstrous creature, and then for delivering the final blow, ensuring it could do no further harm. Issa grunted with a sigh, wondering if he’d ever feel clean again after their little heket side trip.
With coughing sputters, Li’iol and Nenneneg fell out of the terrible creature’s stomach as the Sunspears carved it open. Covered in burning acid and near death, they had nevertheless been saved from a dark death inside the corpse. Akeela, still flexing feeling back into her fingers, worked with Tancred to heal the pair, recognizing that the bodies of other villagers traped within were too far gone, that Grenth had already taken them to his cold realm.
Regrouping with the surviving villagers and Queen Tuliphis, the party—via Nenneneg’s translation—concocted a plan with the tribe’s shamans to assault the temple of Boababis’ “new god” and to finally put the corruption to rest. Exhausted, bloodied, and spent from the combat, they opted for a long night’s rest before continuing on their journey. Though the heket were gracious in their offerring of a hut for the Sunspears’ use, Issa suggested that his magical accomodations would be “far more comfortable, and have fewer bugs,” he added.
Setting up their bedrolls within the comfortable and clean space Issa’s magic afforded them, Kehanni caught Tancred’s attention. “This village only survived today because of our collective strength. I would not want to leave them defenseless tomorrow, in case a second attack fell upon them.”
Picking up exactly what she was suggesting, he nodded in agreement. “Sunspears fight for the safety and freedom of all of Elona’s peoples. Li’iol,” he turned to the youth, “do you feel that yourself and Kehanni could provide strength and support to this village in their time of need?”
Not expecting such a grave assignment, the recruit could only nod in response.
“You are earnest, and eager, and step into danger with a commendable willingness,” Tancred continued, choosing his words carefully. “A Sunspear however doesn’t risk his life just because he can. Today marked yet another occasion where you underestimated your opponent, or overestimated your own abilities. We succeed not only because we fight from the heart, but because we fight with our minds as well. The better prepared we can be—including choosing the time and place of our battles—the better we can put our talents to use, in serving the people. What is the Order’s creed?” he asked, an eyebrow raising as he looked down at the boy.
“A Sunspear never fights alone,” Li’iol repeated, slightly unsure of himself.
“That’s right. Not only do you have your fellow Sunspears around you,” he gestured to the small group around the enclosure, “but you also have your own faculties. Your heart is tempered by your brain, and your brain is emboldened by your heart. Your training, your experience, and your conviction to your purpose—to save lives. If these all work in tandem, you will not only serve those beside you, you will serve yourself.”
The air was quiet for long moments as Li’iol considering Tancred’s wisdom, taking them to heart. The loud thump of a weapon against the ground broke him from his reverie.
“At the end of their first season, each recruit is gifted a spear, just like this one. It is at once a badge and a reward, a duty and an obligation. Varesh Ossa has taken much from us, and from you—most directly a formal study of what it means to be a Sunspear, to be a protector of Elona. You have shown yourself to be a valuable asset, filled with heart. We each of us hope that in time you will gain the experience necessary to wield such a weapon not only with honor, but with great efficacy. Take it,” he commanded, presenting the tall weapon, emblazoned with the Order’s mark.
Li’iol did as he was tasked, feeling its balance and heft in his hand as he struggled to find the ability to speak. “We trust that you and Kehanni will protect this village in our absence, and that you will use your mind as well as your heart to do so. We trust you, Li’iol, and look forward to the day when you can stand beside us before our revered Spearmarshal, accepted as a full member of the Order. Let the next stage of your journey start now.”
Li’iol bowed deeply and saluted, a closed fist over his heart. “Thank you, all of you,” he finally managed. “We will keep this village safe, and make the Sunspears proud.”
Tancred glanced to Kehanni, who nodded with a slight smile. She would keep the boy out of danger.
With a cold wind blowing through the tall reeds which made the heket swamps their home, the Sunspears—led by Nenneneg, who knew the way—slowly approached the Boababis tribe’s temple, almost two full hours away from their camp in the Tuliphis village. Dawn had not yet broken over the eastern horizon as Lulit crept forward, scouting the terrain ahead with the aid of Akeela’s hawk. Covered in the swamp’s cold muck, she gave her report. “There’s a big heket ahead, leading some sort of prayer at the temple entrance. Guards on all sides of the exterior wall are forming a perimeter, but they keep glancing back toward the head priestess—whatever they’re planning seems to be coming to a head.”
“Could it have something to do with sunrise?” Akeela asked, disliking how little time they would have if her suspicions were correct.
“Perhaps. It sounds like they’ve been there through the night, and they’re expecting something big to happen.”
Tancred frowned, but it was Issa who spoke up. “You all make a commotion out here while I slip inside. If there’s one thing I know, it’s how to steal the show.” With a whispered arcane word and complex movements of his fingers, the bard vanished from sight, barely leaving ripples in the water as he moved to circle around the temple.
“Right, then,” Tancred grunted, loosening the knots which held his warhammer fast. “Lulit, you pick out targets. Akeela, take away their advantage—make the terrain their enemy. I’ll keep them from getting close to either of you.” Nodding with agreement, the trio crept toward the waiting temple, and to their next confrontation.
The center building, barely visible against the dark sky, was in disrepair, the ravages of time and weather taking their toll on the ancient structure. An exterior wall was broken down in places, stones poking out of the murky swamp water covered in thick moss. At each corner of the wall small lanterns were lit, casting a sickly amethyst glow across the temple outskirts. True to Lulit’s scouting, a large heket—though by no means as enormous as Queen Tuliphis—stood in the entrance to the temple, chanting and raising clawed hands to the sky, her throaty croaking a chilling chant in the darkness.
There were few firm places to stand, small islands of compacted earth and loose moss offering little purchase against the ebb and flow of the mire. As Lulit took her customary position to Tancred’s right, and Akeela to his left, they each hoped Issa was in position. Tancred nodded and Lulit began releasing arrows, targeting the guards closest to the party. With their gurgled screams echoing across the flat swamp, the fight was on.
Several warriors identified the Sunspears in the dark and charged their position, only to be met with Tancred’s warhammer glowing with the fury of Balthazar. As he kept their attention Lulit pummeled them with more arrows, some of which exploded into spiked vines as she called on Melandru for aid. Akeela, not one to be left out, erupted the earth at their feet, making the terrain treacherous even for the wide-footed frogs and blasting them with any solid material found below.
Loud whip-cracks issued from inside the outer temple wall, a sure sign that Issa had found a way in and was fighting his own battles, trusting his companions to keep the main force’s attention outside. As warriors fell beneath the Sunspears’ combined might—and no small contribution from Nennenneg’s deftly-wielded trident—Issa called out over the rising crescendo of the priestess’ chanting. “Something’s happening! Focus on the big one!”
True to his words, as the priestess began pushing her green arms skyward, the very swamp itself seemed to react, as the water began rising all around the temple, making it nearly impossible to find stable footing for the terrestrial Sunspears. Lulit, swimming to where she saw a large bush just poking out of the morass, planted her feet within its limbs to get purchase enough to shoot. Rising out of the muck she leveled her bow and sent an arrow directly into the base of the high priestess’ neck, felling her dead at Issa’s feet just as the first rays of daybreak hit the temple.
“All the shamans in here are running away,” Issa called to his companions, even as Tancred fended off the desparate blows of the dwindling heket warriors still locked in battle. “But I don’t think it was anything we did—”
As if to reinforce his point, the water in front of the temple began roiling, frothing, and bubbling as if something massive beneath it was being unearthed. Something enormous was coming to life, scales shimmering like an oil slick beneath the water as the piercing sunlight shone down on the temple. Bursting forth from the foam came a long, serpentine neck nearly two feet thick, ending in a head not unlike a collossal snapping turtle, its amethyst eyes instantly locking onto Akeela. Beside it another head rose out, this one akin to a deadly water viper. And a third, topped by a long, alligator snout. Two more heads followed, with even more unusual mutations.
All five heads roared in unison as the great monstrosity was birthed into the world, the culmination of the Boababis priestess’ efforts given flesh. Momentarilly stunned by the beast’s sudden appearance and its unbridled ferocity, the Sunspears were caught off-guard when it suddenly lunged through the swamp water toward Akeela, multiple heads drawing blood with their savage bites. It was all the druid could do to keep from being grabbed and drawn underwater as the monster pressed its assault.
Tancred, eyes wide with the enormity of the creature before him, whispered a small apology to Balthazar as he tapped into the power of Grenth, god of death, infusing several of the recently-deceased heket warriors with the gift of unlife, necromantic energies reanimating their bodies into shambling puppets under his control. Trying to distract the fiendish hydra he sent his zombies into battle, hoping they would draw away at least some of the brutal attacks Akeela faced.
As some heads snapped and struck at the undead shamblers, including biting one clean in half, others fixed Tancred and Lulit with a stern gaze, belching forth sprays of acid. Tancred grunted with the impact but stayed resolute, his command of the undead unwavering, but Lulit was not so lucky. Barely keeping her head above the fetid swamp water as it was, the noxious blast knocked her from her purchase and sent her scrambling to find a new position from which to loose her arrows, running low after long minutes of attacking heket.
Given a moment’s reprieve, Akeela summoned a mighty maelstrom in the deep water to forcibly draw the monster out of range, to protect her fellow Sunspears from its terrifying bites. Issa summoned his ephemeral daggers, aiming them for the base of the beast’s necks, right where they joined the scaled torso, stabbing in a frenzied cloud of slashes and punctures. Tancred’s zombies were drawn into the whirlpool as well, and the titanic creature made short work of them.
Lulit managed to fire one arrow, infused with magical lightning, directly down the throat of one head as it reared back, looking to hit her again with its poison. The electrical detonation deep within caused the entire neck to shrivel, smoke, and fall off as the creature roared in pain. Following her example, Tancred and Akeela tried to focus their magical assaults on a single head, but to their horror when one head fell, shortly thereafter two grew back, longer and more aggressive than the one they replaced.
Seeing his companions facing down an ever-increasingly deadly threat, Issa rolled up his muck-covered sleeves, hooked his whip back onto his belt, and advanced, stepping atop the slimy corpse of the heket priestess whose rite summoned the beast in the first place. “Hey ugly,” he called out, using arcane energy to pull at the monster’s attention. “Why don’t you leave those side dishes alone and come for the main course?” He tapped his own chest defiantly. Though Lulit had already done appreciable damage with her arrows, Akeela with her magic, and Tancred with his warhammer, Issa hoped that his own magical distraction would be enough to open an opportunity for his companions to drive the monstrosity back to whatever plane it had been summoned from.
The creature’s heads—eight in all now—made a sound which Issa took as a laugh; a full-bodied stocatto roar that shook the swamp. Caught either by its own hubris or successfully snared by Issa’s magic however, his plan worked—the combined might of the other Sunspears brought the creature down, so distracted as it was that it could barely defend itself from the multi-pronged assaults which assailed it.
As the creature began to boil and froth, its very essence dissolving out of its flesh, a sickening oil slick spread atop the waters near the temple. Pulling themselves out of the brackish expanse, the group—including Nenneneg, who had barely survived the encounter—regrouped in the temple’s inner courtyard, catching their breath and consulting on whether the danger was truly gone.
“We should at least go inside the temple,” Issa suggested, casually not mentioning the wealth of lost coins he imagined may be waiting inside. The others agreed without complaint, figuring that the temple had been used as a focus for the heket’s ritual—it likely held more secrets that warranted exploration. Nenneneg opted to remain outside, ready to alert them in case any Boababis returned.
The simple structure’s interior walls showed evidence of carvings and large, painted scenes, but all were weathered beyond recognition by time and the hostile swam environs. Broken pottery and long-rusted torch holders ringed a central chamber, in the middle of which rested a stone pedistal surmounted by an offering bowl, both in prestine condition. Above the strangely-preserved stone furnature floated a clear crystal, glowing with a brilliant amethyst light and bobbling lazily in the still air.
“I do not like that at all,” Lulit opined, her companions nodding in agreement as they watched the large gem from afar.
Tancred was the first to approach, gripping his shield tightly, as if to reaffirm his connection to Balthazar, whose holy symbols were emblazoned on its front. He saw that the offering bowl—perhaps three feet across and one deep—was filled with an oily, viscous liquid the color of a midnight sky; it did not reflect the glowing jewel above it at all. He grunted with displeasure.
Eventually the rest of the Sunspears stepped fully into the main chamber, trying to decide how to deal with the otherworldly artifacts arrayed before them, objects which were likely the source of the Boababis tribe’s corruption. Akeela attempted to poke the liquid with a long stick, and to her horror the pool seemed to surge, as if it tried to strech forth and grab the stick as it neared. With a liquid pop the stick vanished, drawn violently into the pool, leaving no trace behind—not so much as a ripple disturbed its surface.
Issa looked up from idly rummaging through a pile of broken pottery, having found no riches or lost treasure. “I bet the stone and the water are connected somehow.”
Akeela pursed her lips, considering the thought, but Tancred had a more direct approach in mind: he stretched forth his hand and snatched the glowing gem out of the air, his fingers barely able to grip the melon-sized stone. Lulit was about to chide him for his brashness when movement in the bowl caught her attention; the liquid had formed a deep meniscus, as if its center were being drawn downward while at the edges it maintained its grip on the bowl. “I do not like this at all.”
Tancred looked down at the brightly-glowing gem in his hand. “Sometimes the simplest answers are the right ones,” he shrugged, dropping the gem to the soggy, packed-earth floor. Before anyonme could stop him he hoisted his warhammer in the air and brought it down on the fragile gem with all of his considerable might.
The sound of the stone shattering reverberated throughout the chamber and left a painful ringing in everyone’s ears, as shards of the gem splintered and were sent flying by the blow, each still pulsing with a deep amethyst. Tancred grumbled to himself, seeing the gem’s apparent magic still contained within the slivers. “At least it’s not floating any more,” he said as he went about the room, trying to collect all the pieces.
Lulit had been studying the pool and the opaque liquid within when Tancred snatched the stone. “I think I saw something move inside the bowl.”
“An animal?” Akeela asked, her blond eyebrows raising.
She glanced at Tancred. “Whatever it was, I don’t think it liked losing the stone, and I think it was separate from the liquid. Deeper, somehow. Beneath it, maybe?”
Issa cocked his head to the side. “Maybe there’s a portal at the bottom of the basin?”
“Or in the water itself,” Akeela added. “Maybe that’s where the stone came from in the first place.”
Approaching the basin, Tancred held the remnants of the stone in his cupped hands, his face a sickly purple in the bright glow. “And maybe that’s where it should return.” He looked to his companions for agreement.
With no one voicing a better idea, he let the shards and slivers fall into the basin, where once again the liquid seemed to rise up to snatch each piece as they neared, dousing their glow as they were consumed by the substance.
For a moment all was still in the chamber, before the liquid began frothing and boiling without warning, all of the Sunspears taking a reflexive step back. Slowly, from amid the tumult, an elongated, bluish, and skeletal hand started to reach up from within its hidden depths.
Thinking quickly, Akeela flung a pinch of dust from a pouch on her belt as two of Lulit’s arrows embedded themselves in the creature’s wrist. Flinching with the impacts, it withdrew back into the liquid just as Akeela’s glittering handful scattered across its surface. The substance began to bend and warp, as if absorbed by the dust, which clumpeded together on the surface into one mass.
Within moments, the liquid was gone, replaced by a single pebble the color of night resting in the center of the basin.. Akeela looked imenently pleased with herself. “Dust of dryness,” she smiled. “Useful for bringing water to the deep desert.”
“So now we have a pebble made of sick, demon-water that ate shards of a magical crystal and tried to summon some sort of undead monstrosity. What do we do with it?”
Stepping forward, Issa pulled a perfume phial from a pouch at his belt. Uncorking it with a flick of the thumb, he deftly used the basin’s gradual incline to ease the pebble through its opening without touching it with his fingers. Immediately the pebble began to sputter and bubble as Issa held the glass container for all to see.
“Issa, what’s happening?” Lulit asked with concern.
The roguish bard shrugged. “I took a small piece of the oozes we fought back near the temple of Melandru in Istan. I figured a clear, highly corrosive liquid might come in handy some day.”
Tancred frowned, but couldn’t deny the strategy’s effectiveness as the jet-black pebble was boiled away.
Nenneneg regarded the Sunspears expectedly as they exited the temple. Akeela nodded to him. “It is done.”
“No more new god?”
“No more new god,” she affirmed.
The heket’s slick, rubbery lips curled in a sickening semblance of a human smile. “Friends of Tuliphis,” he croaked proudly. While they appreciated the sentiment, Lulit and Issa shared a look—they knew too well the devastation heket had wrought against human settlements across all of Vabbi.
Marching back through the overly-drowned swamp, the band of heroes returned to the Tuliphis Village, Nenneneg calling out their successes as they approached, causing his fellow heket to stop their efforts to rebuild the town in the wake of the demonic attack, and gather in the main square.
Kehanni and Li’iol watched from the sidelines as Nenneneg spoke directly to Queen Tuliphis, detailing the terrible fight against Queen Boababis and the otherworldly forces she brought to bear. The crowd erupted in celebration as he finished his tale, and it was ordered that the village would hold a great feast in honor of the Sunspears who had come to their aid and the triumph over the vile heket interlopers and their false gods.
Though the Sunspears didn’t join in for the feast or jumping dances which dominated the celebration, they did make an effort to show their appreciation for the festivities put on in their honor. Excusing themselves shortly after the sun set behind the western mountains, knowing the party was likely to continue far into the night, they reconviened in the small hut set aside for their use, and filled in their friends about what really transpired at the temple.
“Fascinating,” Kehanni remarked simply after listening to the features and ultimate fate of the mysterious crystal and arcane liquid beneath it. “I shall have to pass this along to the Order of Whispers,” she mused.
Tancred cocked his head. “So you do work for them after all.”
She smiled enigmatically, a common trait it seemed of Lyssa’s most ardent followers. “I understand their purpose, and it aligns with mine—the preservation of Elona. Knowledge that this kind of magic, these kinds of artefacts, are present in our lands bears investigation, research, and coordination. I can’t think of a better group to tell,” she gestured to her companions, “other than of course the Sunspears.”
The group’s discussion turned to the path ahead—they could either take a direct route along the Elon to the Kodash Bazaar, at the far end of which stood the Font of Lyss, or they could take the more circuitous route toward Jahinur and travel through the wilds of the Forum Highlands, arriving at the Font without spending a day winding through the opulent marketplace.
“Is the Bazaar really that bad?” Li’iol asked, not understanding the desire to travel so far out of their way to bypass it.
“There are many people we need to avoid,” Issa explained, “and all of them will have eyes and ears in the market.”
Lulit expanded on the ansewr, explaining that the Kournans may have been very free with their coin, seeking information on a group of Sunspears traveling toward the Festival of Lyss.
“It wouldn’t take much for an ‘accident’ to befall our group, if they knew our location. In my youth I would have never thought the Kournan military capable of stooping to such underhanded tactics, but I have seen enough to consider them capable of anything, now.” Tancred’s words were somber, almost regretful. Time and time again Varesh Ossa and her corrupt generals had betrayed the noble precepts with which he had been raised.
With their course set, and having resolved their heket problems, the group slept soundly in the ramshackle swampland accomodations afforded to them by their froggy hosts.
68th of Zephyr, 1075 AE
Nenneneg escorted the Sunspears and Kehanni back to the river ford where their paths had first crossed. As hospitable as the heket had been, the swampy environs of their home had soured the disposition of the humans and they were eager to return to dry ground which didn’t threaten to sink and give under their feet with every footfall.
“You friend of Tuliphis,” the warrior croaked as he bid them farewell before returning upriver to his home. “We not forget.”
The party took extra time to scrub their clothing in the cleansing Elon waters, erasing any trace of the cloying muck through which they had spent two days marching. With their equipment and bodies adequately cleaned—though they all still felt sullied and dirty by the prolonged dampness of the fetid swamps—they crossed the river as had been their original plan, and chartered a small skiff for themselves and their trust pack donkey Dejen to travel Southward.
Lulit paid particular attention to the expansive housing of the Pojah Estates as they passed, keeping an eye out for any sign of her family colors or crest. Her primary reason for wanting to avoid the market was less the group’s safety—they had more than competently shown themselves prepared for battle time and time again—and much more to avoid any chance run-ins with the noble house she escaped from in order to persue a life among the Sunspears. Her companions knew she came from wealth, and had at times even managed to glimpse the signet ring she kept on a long chain around her neck, but also that she despised the ruling hierarchy within Vabbi. Though she had been brought up in very different circumstances than Issa, they bonded over a mutual hatred for the heavily stratified nature of Vabbian society which consolidated wealth, power, and knowledge only among the highest eschelons, and pitted everyone else against one another as a means of preserving the status quo.
Luckily none of her extended family or vassals were fishing upon the river as they floated past, and she breathed a sigh of relief as the terraced hills on which the estates had been erected faded in the distance behind them. Directing the merchant to ground his boat near the farms at the southern end of the lush Vehtendi Valley, they thanked him for his service—and discretion—and paid him nearly double what he asked for the trip.
Retracing the path from their first visit to Jahniur a week prior, they found the travel stop village surprisingly sedate, with few of the wilderness guides they had seen before. “Everyone’s already gone on up to the Festival,” explained a hirsuite innkeeper who bowed when he recognized Kehanni from her many visits. “All the big caravans have come through on their way to Kodash,” he continued, “and those who want the more rugged approach have all left through the Highlands already. Nobody wants to be late to the festival, even if they can’t actually get inside.”
The Sunspears paid for expansive rooms, the normally reserved and spartan Tancred dropping coin on the desk. After too many hard days and nights on the road, in the swamp, and on boats, even he was ready for an evening of comfort. If nothing else, it would be nice to not share a sleeping space with the rest of the group for the first time in what felt like months.
The establishment’s hot baths and showers finally let the group feel truly clean after their hard flight from Kourna, and they gathered in the main eating hall the next morning with a vigor and energy they had been sorely without. Denying the services of the last remaining wilderness guide in the town, they set off into the Forum Highlands, a mix of wind-swept canyons, overgrown scrubland, and large natural mud pits where the heat of Balthazar’s forges rose through the cracked earth and mingled with Dwayna’s life-giving rains.
Lulit pointed out tracks left behind by many different groups traveling through the canyons in recent days—some on foot, others on horseback, some with animals pulling large carts laden with supplies—and remarked that it was good the travelers had stayed together; much moreso than the plains of Istan or rolling scrub of Kourna, the wilds of Vabbi were home to an uncountable variety of hostile animals and plants, hungry to prey on overconfident and underprepared interlopers. Luckily though most would stay away from large groups of humans, giving them a wide berth.
The rest of the party came around a bend to find Lulit waiting for them, a sullen and douer expression on her face. “Mandragors,” she reported. Tancred gripped his warhammer tightly but she stayed his hand. “They’ve already come and gone.”
Leading the group forward, they saw an overturned cart, wheels and axles burst apart as if something had erupted from beneath. There weren’t bodies, but the bloodstained sandstone left no doubt as to the fate of the unfortunate travelers who appeared to strike out on their own. “A guide would have told them to avoid this stretch, wouldn’t they?” Akeela asked solemly.
Lulit nodded. “This whole area is hard rock at the surface but with rivers of looser sand beneath; prime mandragor hunting ground. They probably didn’t even know they were in danger by the time their fate was decided.”
Tancred stepped forward to survey the damage—the cart hadn’t carried merchant goods, but rather simple bedrolls and several days’ worth of foodstuffs. This had been a family trip to the Font of Lyss, with at least one small child. Something caught his eye poking out of a blanket strewn on the ground, and pulled it back to reveal a crude idol carved in the shape of the twin goddesses. Something from a family shrine, perhaps.
Issa wordlessly stretched forth his hand, and Tancred passed the Lyssian idol to him. Kehanni began a prayer for the departed, thanking Lyssa for the blessings they received while alive, and praying to Grenth that he may show them mercy in death. As her religious tones faded in the wind, she looked to the rest of her companions; none had anything to say before continuing on their journey.
As dusk plunged the valley into a deep chill, Lulit’s sharp eyes spotted the torches of the guards she knew would be stationed outside the back entrance to the Kodesh Bazaar. “We’ve made it,” she reported with a smile on her face. The group took a moment to dust off their armour and to ensure their Sunspear insignia were front and center before approaching.
“Who comes here?” the first guard announced in a formal challenge.
Issa spoke in response, stepping fully into the torchlight. “Sunspears, guiding this holy priestess of Lyssa to the Grand Forum of Vabb as she prepares for duties at the great Festival.” Though Issa’s armour was a patchwork of different leathers, the Order’s rising wings sigil shone brightly at his collar.
“Well-met, Sunspears,” the second guard nodded with equal formality. Both guards then relaxed, having fulfilled their official duty. “Haven’t seen many Sunspears pass by this way lately,” the second idly mused.
“We go where Elona needs us,” Issa deflected with a shrug. “Where would the best place for our friend here to offer her prayers to Lyssa?” he added, pointing a thumb over his shoulder toward Kehanni.
“Unless you wanted to go through the whole of the Bazaar, you’re best off visiting the temple near the perfumists,” the first guard answered helpfully. “After you get into the market proper, it’s three streets down and two to your left. Can’t miss the smell.”
His companion added, as if remembering something, “you won’t be able to go to the Grand Forum this late, so if you wanted to visit the Font of Lyss, you’ll need to wait for first light.”
Issa offered thanks for the insight, and gestured for the rest of his party to ascend the stone-hewn staircase which lead up to the Bazaar’s southern entrance. To their left the sprawling complex known as the Grand Forum of Vabb stood, an opulent, multi-level meeting place established as “neutral ground” for the Princes of Vabbi. By the light of the full moon they were able to just make out the sparkling fountain in its center, where their invitation demanded they be cleansed before making the trek toward the Garden of Seborhin, where the Festival officially took place. To the right, the hustle and bustle of the continent’s businest marketplace was in full swing, even as night fully descended upon Elona.
As Tancred and Akeela stabled Dejen outside an upscale hotel, their companions traveled to the market’s largest temple to Lyssa. Being a city in its own right, the bazaar had shrines to all five gods, but so broad was its expanse that Lyssa had two temples—one to the East and an ornate, almost palatial building dedicated to the worship of the twinned goddess. Li’iol’s eyes widened as the building came into view, and he found himself stunned speechless. As a dedicated follower of Lyssa he had often heard of the great temples made to her honor, but had never seen one.
As they wove their way through the crowds, the temple being of particular popularity on the night before the annual Festival of Lyss was to begin, Issa scoffed at the opulence while Lulit tried to keep her head lowered beneath her traveling cloak—lest a distant relative or member of an allied merchant house pick her out of the crowd. Once inside Lulit placed the homemade idol they found on the destroyed cart as an offering of Lyss, goddess of beauty, along with a small donation. While Issa remained by the door and Li’iol was enamored with the spiritual grandeur of the building, Lulit crossed to the side dedicated to Ilya, goddess of illusion, and made a more sizable contribution from her own purse. She knew all too well how fickle fortune could be, and that all their hard-fought and harder-won victories in Kourna could evaporate like a mirage in Elona’s endless sands.
Issa excused himself and walked alone into the bustling streets of the bazaar as Lulit and Li’iol returned to the hotel, where they found Akeela waiting. “Kehanni has her own preparations to make before the festival, so she is tending to those,” she gave by way of report. “And Tancred said he had something important to take care of, but that he will be back soon.”
The rooms prepared for them were enormous, and undoubtedly cost even more than their ornate facades and spacious floorplans would usually demand, with lodging at a premium so close to the festival. Akeela and Lulit spent a long hour in the scented baths, washing off the months of hard living since they left Istan. By the time Tancred and Issa returned, they were dressed in simple robes, both feeling more than a little refreshed.
Tancred called the group together and directed his comrades in arms to stand behind him as he addressed the younger Li’iol in formal proclaimation.
“It has been a custom of the Order of Sunspears, from time immemorial, at the completion of an initiate’s training, to grant them the arms and armour which bear our sign. This honor signifies that you one has proven themself worthy of deed, charitable of heart, and selfless of mind, and confers upon them the rights, benefits, and privileges owed to any Sunspear, but also binds them to the rigors, dictates, and responsibilities of the same.
“You have not had the benefit of formal education, and though this will be corrected in time, we believe we can do our small part, as lieutenants under the command of Spearmarshal Kormir, in granting you that which you have in such a great measure earned. Issa,” he gestured, at which the thin and—until their return to Vabbi—jovial bard stepped forward, holding a bundle in his arms.
Tancred drew away the heavy cloak, revealing a fresh breastplate, greaves, bracers, and skirting, each emblazoned with the Sunspear’s winged crest. “These are yours, Li’iol, and along with the spear with which you have already been invested, are at once the badge, the honor, and the reward of our Order. Wear them with pride, and know that a Sunspear never fights alone.”
Once dismissed, Li’iol spent long minutes in awe over the armour, reflecting on the honor that had been bestowed upon him. Issa turned to Lulit and Akeela and handed each a smaller package. “Several pairs of new clothes, fitting for the social event of the season,” he managed to say without fully giving in to the urge to roll his eyes.
“And for me?” Tancred asked, noting the fine quality of the outfits Issa had procured.
“You’re a priest. Lose the armour and I’m sure you’ll fit right in.”
Tancred shrugged in acceptance and unpacked his holy vestments from the pack normally carried by Dejen on their travels.
70th of Zephyr, 1075 AE
Each of the Sunspears were up early, the combined excitement for and dread of the day ahead ensuring none overslept. Emerging from their hotel as the first light of dawn broke over the eastern ridge, Tancred explained the plan to Li’iol. “You will remain just outside the festival grounds with Dejen, providing us an avenue of escape should the Kournans make trouble.”
The young soldier pursed his lips, debating whether to argue when Issa cut off any dissent, his sarcastic tone cuting through the air. “It’s not like anyone is actually in there to praise Lyssa,” he scoffed. “It’s just another party for them. You’re better praying on your own.”
Tancred checked that his warhammer was securely tied to his belt, and let his eyes fall on each of his companions to make sure they too were armed. Akeela had her tall staff, Issa a pair of wicked knives almost hidden in his fine wristbands, and Lulit carried a dagger at her hip. She felt the most unprotected of them all, but it would have been impossible for her to carry her signature lonbow into the holy festival grounds.
Waiting in line to enter the Grand Forum of Vabb, an hour later two muscled guards wearing fine local silks checked their invitation and passed them to an aging priestess who ushered them toward the Font of Lyss, a sparkling structure of fountains and shallow pools, above which a holy platform floated, covered in plants said to be favored by the goddess herself.
“I thought Jeshek would be here himself,” the priestess said, returning the invitation to Tancred. “He’s not one to miss the Festival.”
Issa pointedly looked away from the woman—he had no inclination to speak any more than was absolutely necessary, lest his true feelings get them into trouble. Seeing this, Tancred nodded at the woman, explaining that “our dear friend had some difficulty with stairs lately, but is well on the mend.”
“Ah well,” the old priestess sighed. “Hopefully next year. Don’t let him forget that he still owes me a loaf of spiced rumcake,” she smiled. Tancred nodded, uncomfortable with the look in her eyes.
The purification ritual was a simple one, but each motion was made with reverence and intention. The subject was bade to kneel in a pool while the priest annointed their brow with water cupped from one of the fountains, followed by the hands which were held upturned to the sky. Verses praising the bounty of the twin goddess were intoned, and soon the entire party was blessed by the venerable priestess, and allowed to continue on their journey.
The Grand Forum of Vabb sat several miles away from the Gardens of Seborhin where the great festival was to be held. The winding path between the two, bordered by the open highlands desert to the West and tall cliffs to the East, was covered by gossmar cloths and canopies blowing in the soft breeze, providing pilgrims, visitors, and other well-wishers a comfortable walk, which was said to represent the journey Lyssa took as they first strode across the world, granting all things good and true her favor.
Merchants had set themselves up along the path, though only sparingly; most well-to-do traders either stationed themselves closer to the festival or had invitations themselves. Those whose stalls or wares weren’t of suitable quality knew better than to make a showing on the path—they would be quickly “escorted” out of sight from the social elites who would be traveling beneath the shading silks on their way to the holy celebration. Those who had been cleansed at the Font of Lyss but who had not secured themselves an invitation congreated around the entrances to the magnificient Gardens of Seborhin, asking for alms from those well-to-do who passed by them. The sight of so many in need while the social elite trod past without sparing so much as a thought set Issa scowling; in all his time away from the streets since joining the Sunspears, some things never changed.
Leaving Li’iol and Dejen at the entrance as planned, the Sunspears presented the gate guard with their invitation, and were dryly welcomed into the festival. Once through the long corridor which separated those without from those within, each stood for a moment, stunned by the sights spread before them. The gardens had been meticulously planned, sewn, and cultivated to perfection, with paths and planters seamlessly blending in a dance that nature could never maintain. Music floated on the cool air—a surprising change from the already-rising temperatures outside the estate—but did not distract from any of the conversations already underway.
Though the Sunspears had risen early to be cleansed at the Font of Lyss shortly after sunup, there were already scores of attendees on the main promenade, each dressed in the finest of clothing and adorned with tastefully prominent jewelery, flaunting their wealth. Lulit instinctively placed a hand on Issa’s arm, urging calm. She didn’t like the lavish displays either, but their mission was more important than either of their personal distastes for the Vabbian elite.
Still caught up in the grandeur of the location, they almost missed Priestess Kehanni sidling up to them in rich, ornate Lyssian robes accented with gold and deep purples. “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?”
Tancred shook his head while Akeela, wide-eyed with her characteristic enthusiasm, merely gaped, her attention flitting between the priestess—looking all the part of an official during a major religious festival and nothing of the hardened traveler with whom they had adventured—and the grounds, her expression sending Kehanni into demure titters of laughter.
“Yes, the gardens are a particular vanity project for Prince Bokka the Magnificent; normally only the upper crust of Vabbian politics are allowed here, but for the purpose of the festival he opens the gates—slightly—to allow for a more diverse and devout crowd. You,” she added, referencing Akeela with a nod, “are likely to get a lot of attention; there aren’t many with pale skin and hair who get to see inside these walls. Most of the Princes prefer to conduct business with those who look more like themselves.”
“Rich, you mean?” Issa scoffed with a snort.
Kehanni smiled thinly. “Something like that. Speaking of the rich and famous, there stands Prince Ahmtur the Mighty,” she gestured, “surrounded by his military captains, and being fawned over by those thinking they would survive a tour in the Eastern wilds.” The Sunspears knew that most guards across Vabbi were employed either by select merchant families or by Ahmtur himself, and the soldiers stationed at the entrances to the Festival had obviously allowed his personal commanders to keep their weapons. Tall spears were held loosely by practiced, calloused hands, but the warriors’ eyes continually scanned the surroundings for threats. Their demeanor—as much as their weapons—kept admirers from getting too close.
“Bokka the Magnificient is there,” Kehanni pointed to the largest group of people in the area, many of whom were likely sycophants to the highly-visible and trend-setting Prince in charge of all things societal across the country. The throng of attendees hoping to make an introduction were kept at bay by his advisors who served as a filter so only those deemed to be worth the Prince’s time would be allowed to step up.
“And finally,” Kehanni said, turning her attention directly across the expanse, we find Prince Mehtu the Wise and his daughter.“
With the sharpest eyes in the group, Lulit quickly raised a pointing finger. “That woman? She is Mehtu’s daughter?”
Kehanni nodded. “Yes, the Princess Tahlkora. She’s his only child and rumor has it that she’s possessed of quite the rebellious spirit.”
“She does indeed,” Issa remarked, an eyebrow quirked at the unexpected development. “Who would have thought that the little firebrand we met in Istan would show up here of all places?”
“Speaking of people we met in Istan, get ready,” Tancred urged, flexing his fists but making no move toward his warhammer.
“General Morgahn! I had heard you were in the area,” the priestess greeted the Kournan warmly, going so far as to kiss his cheeks, much to the surprise of the armed and armoured soldiers standing behind him.
He reponded in kind, if more stiffly. “Kehanni. I did not expect to find you in the company of Istani spies,” he glared at the Sunspears who—by last count—were responsible for the deaths of two Kournan generals and of leading an insurrection against the military government.
“Lyssa guides me in all I do, Morgahn. You should remember the lessons taught to us by Priest Jeshek in our youth. Trust me when I say this is for the greater good.”
“This is a time for celebration,” he frowned, with no hint of celebration in his tone, “and out of respect for Lyssa and her beauty I will spare your friends during the festivities, but don’t think for a moment that I am not watching.” He then turned to face the Sunspears directly, particularly Tancred, his countryman. “You are my enemy. I have sworn on my honor, and by direction of my Warmarshal, to crush you. Should we meet again, I won’t turn a blind eye.”
With a snort of distain—and a curt nod to Kehanni—the general turned on his heel and lead his soldiers back to the celebration.
“You grew up with that guy?” Akeela asked the priestess, more than a little confused at the conversation she just witnessed.
“Morgahn is a devout follower of Lyssa,” she explained nonchalantly. “Before his career in the military, he and I both trained extensively under Jeshek, easily the best religious scholar in the southern reaches. Obviously our lives have gone in different directions, but I like to think that the lessons learned have served him well.”
Tancred shook his head at her placid acceptance of the general’s presence. “You know what we’re facing, what Varesh Ossa is trying to bring about. Morgahn has been hounding the Sunspears even before we stepped foot in Kourna. He’s not infantry ignorantly following orders, he’s up to his eyes in it.”
She cocked her head slightly and shrugged. “I know Morgahn, and more than anything I understand his devotion to the five gods. I imagine he follows Ossa out of a sense of duty, however misguided that may be.”
She looked out over the growing crowd. “If you’ll excuse me however, I do have duties to which I must attend. The Princes may see this festival as fun and games but there are many who truly wish to have a closer relationship with the goddess. Be true to yourselves and I know you will succeed in your task.”
Akeela gave a small bow of appreciation on behalf of the group as the priestess turned to walk among the faithful. “I don’t think she’s right about the general, but I like her optimism.”
Issa sighed and looked out over the assembled throngs. “Let’s just get on with this before the Kournans find an excuse to break the peace. Who do we want to start with—the ‘Wise’, the ‘Mighty’, or the ‘Magnificient’?” he said with heavy sarcasm dripping from the titles.
Lulit looked toward Mehtu and his entourage. “Maybe with Talkhora’s help we won’t have to jump through any other hoops.”