Crouched outside the hidden door, Nephelle, Bast, and Brand heard Felix and Nigel berating Gwyn, demanding to be informed of Nephelle’s whereabouts, “There has been another murder! And it’s the responsibility of the Princess to find the culprit! Where is she?”
The three quietly sneak through the hidden entrance in the other room and enter behind the two guards. They gather from the two guards that the freshly slain body is being quarantined. Pulling the others to one side, Bast reminds them the Baroness is in danger. It was no coincidence they saw a heart burst into flames then return to the news of another murder. Nephelle is pretty sure she can, with the help of another mage, construct a protective circle around the Baronness. The only other mages they know of are Vellatus, Lady Mara, and the Baroness herself. Emerging from the huddle, Nephelle sends Nigel and Felix off to get Lady Mara and Vellatus and meet them in the Baroness’ chambers. They knuckle their foreheads and depart.
As the four of them made their way to the Baroness, one of the guards outisde their rooms pulled Bast aside and said, “This was delivered for you while you were out.” Thanking the man, Bast takes the sealed letter and moves out of sight before examining it more closely. The letter bore the unbroken seal of Xxan’aaakck’kckckc. She opened it and read:
It has come to my attention that the events at High Glenn have drawn an unwanted servant of the Kardane Empire to our lands. He is known as the Ghost of the Empire and he is the empress’ hatchet man. Resolve this quickly. I think the empress has plans for her ambassador that doesn’t involve her ambassador rotting away in a High Glenn prison cell. Clear him or frame him and leave no doubts. Fake the evidence if you have to. We need this resolved one way or the other….and soon!
She showed the letter to Gwyn then touched it to one of the nearby braziers, setting it aflame. They continue down the hallways and passages until they reach the door to the Baroness’ chambers. Five guards stand outside it, and they bowed to Princess Nephelle before inquiring, “Yes, milady?”
She responded, “It is important that I see Baroness Sinticky. I know she is resting, but it is very important that I speak to her now.” The five guards exchanged glances before one of them rapped on the door then opened it and another replied, “You may go inside.” As they were entering the room, Nigel and Vellatus arrived. Vellatus looks much more refreshed than the last time they saw him. The two of them stood by silently as Nephelle recounted their journey down the secret passageways and their discovery of Othmontu’s release.
Shocked, the Baroness asked, “You think I am being targeted by Othmontu?” Before anyone has a chance to respond, Felix and Lady Mara arrive. Felix is covered in sweat and looks exhausted while Mara wears a smug expression. In a sultry tone she said, “We came as soon as we could.” Nigel muttered under his breath, “and knowing Felix, it was sooner than you wanted to.” Mara heard the comment and turned her head toward him, slowly looking him up and down until his ears were crimson. Smiling, she turned her attention back to the group.
Nephelle answered, “Yes, Baroness, and we need to protect you. They’re coming for your heart, and we need to prevent that from happening.”
In the midst of Nephelle laying out their plans, Brand heard Illrender speak to him, I am having trouble sensing anything in the presence of this voluptuous construct. She is not living as the other ones are. She’s not giving off Othmontu’s scent, but I can tell that either he is here or has been here very recently. Her scent is very distracting to me. The sword finishes just before Nephelle directs everyone to the vault where the dagger is being kept, explaining that there is already a protective ward in place there and it would be easier to modify that than create a new one.
The four from Bysynth, the Baroness, Lady Mara, Vellatus, Felix, Nigel and the five guards make their way to the vault, the strange parade drawing the attention of the few servants who were still active that time of night. As they got closer, they encountered many more people, most of them soldiers, running frantically to and fro. Halting one of the soldiers, Felix demands to know what is going on. The panting reply was, “Sir, the tower where the ambassador was being kept….someone broke in and all the guards were left unconscious!” Felix dismisses him then rejoins the group just as they arrived at the vault.
A Taan and a Wolfan stood guard outside. Bast snaps her fingers at them, “You two. Move!” The Baroness shakes her head somewhat apologetically then says, “She may be brash, but she is correct. Let us by.” They moved away from the door and as Nephelle moved to open it, Mara injected, “I came this far out of curiosity, but I have no interest in continuing. I’ll be leaving now.”
Nephelle moved to her and they engaged in a vigorous negotiation, which left Nephelle back at the door rolling her eyes and Mara standing a few paces away, her arms crossed. Answering the question written on Gwyn’s face, Nephelle explained, “Mara has agreed to aid us if we need it on the condition that I grant her one concession when I take the throne.” She then opened the door to the small room and strode in, joining the guard inside and followed by Vellatus and the Baroness.
Despite there only being four of them in there, it felt crowded. Brand moved to follow, but the Baroness informed him that his magical weapon would interfere with the protective magics they were about to create. As Brand turned from the doorway, Vellatus asked him to close the door, which he reluctantly did. As soon as the latch fell, Vellatus strode to the center of the room, grabbed the dagger from the stand, and lunged at the guard with an outstretched hand, grabbing his hair and thrusting the dagger up under his chin, slashing outward. Black flames ignited from the blade, devouring the guard’s blood and crawling up Vellatus’ arm. As the flames danced up his hand, his skin burned away, revealing a tiger’s fist.
The taan guard outside drew his sword, but instead of it being steel, it was made of myiar crystal. He moved to the door, and looked through the window just in time to see Nephelle clap her hands together, resulting in a thunderous boom which tore the door from its frame, causing the taan to nimbly dance aside.
The rest of the guards ran into the room, swinging their swords as best they could in the confined space. Felix moved among them, wielding his sword expertly and was able to slice into Vellatus’ thigh. In the confusion of the melee, Gwyn sidled up behind Vellatus and stabbed with her daggers. He sensed her coming and twisted away from one of them, but the other sank into his shoulder. With each slash and stab, more of the skin fell off him, revealing patches of tiger fur. Brand squeezed himself into the room with Illrender and deals a heavy blow against the creature.
Above the din, Othmontu opened his mouth and spoke directly at Bast in two simulateous voices, one high and one low. His words wrapped themselves around her mind and she heard, “Kill the one called Brand” over and over, compelling her to attack her ally. As he finished speaking, a ripple flowed over his skin, and it appeared to begin turning into stone.
The taan guard swung his crystaline sword at Othmontu, who caught it with the black dagger. Muscles bulged in both sets of arms, but the dagger slowly pushed the sword away. Oblivious to this taking place, the pantheran moved toward Brand with her daggers and slashed at him. Though surprised at this attack, Brand was able to parry her slashes and kept her at bay.
Just as the crystal sword was finally pushed away, a blast of frosty magic struck Othmontu who seemed to soak in the power, and the rocky appearance of his skin became more solid. An evil grin appeared on his face, and he waded through the carnage, ignoring the black blood drawn by those attacking him, toward the Baroness who was huddled in the far corner, sobbing uncontrollably into her hands. In stride, he swung an arm at the guards, sending three of them flying into the wall where stone hands reached out and pulled them close. Those closest could hear bones breaking and muscles tearing as the walls absorbed them.
The light in the room suddenly seemed to momentarily be sucked into the cystaline sword the taan was wielding, and as he swung downward, he whispered, “A gift from the Empress of Kardane!” The blade sliced cleanly through the left shoulder of the demon. Black blood gushed momentarily until rock pebbled over the wound.
Panicked by the mayhem taking place before her eyes, Nephelle desperately called out to Lady Mara for help, silently praying that the concessions she just agreed to would not be too grievous. In response to her cry for help, a fervent wind tore into the room, swirled viciously around Othmontu, then left as suddenly as it had arrived. The stone and skin on the demon had been stripped away, revealing a massive tiger standing there with a stunned expression on his face. As the wind left the room, the voice in Bast’s head disappeared, and she stopped herself from trying to decapitate Brand.
Eyes wide in fright, Nephelle threw out her hands, and three balls of fire flew at the demon, and instead of being absorbed by the creature, they exploded on contact, sending showers of black blood into the room. Bast and Felix took advantage of the creature trying to smother its burning fur and attacked feverishly, their blades leaving deep gashes.
Gwyn spins around Othmontu and stabbed at him with all her might. The keen edge of her dagger passed into his throat, and the remaining lifeblood pulsed onto her hand and down her arm. It sank to the floor and slid off her blade as she stared in shock and horror as the black blood covering her forearm soaked into her skin, staining it pitch black. Laying in an ever-expanding puddle of blood, Othmontu gurgled, “This is not what we agreed to, Gray Man,” then was still.
Brand heard Illrender request, I would like to ensure the demon is dead., so he placed the tip of the sword onto the tiger’s body. Quicksilver erupted from the blade, encompassing the body. For a brief moment, the quicksilver took the shape of Vellatus, then was absorbed back into the blade, leaving behind nothing but a dark stain on the floor. That young man was the one who led the Gray Man down to Othmontu, and he was the first victim of the creature.
As they all left the armory, Brand looked around for his fellow taan, wanting to thank him for his assistance, but he had disappeared like a ghost.
Over the next couple of days, life at Highglen resumes an appearance of normalcy. As the group departed back to Bysynth, Baroness Sinticky promised she would attend Nephelle’s coronation ceremony along with Lady Mara, who would remain at Highglen as a guest until the event. The Kardane Ambassador shook Nephelle’s hand warmly, thanking her on behalf of the Kardane Empire for clearing up the murder and killing the foul demon. He too promised to be at the coronation and would bring a number of trade agreements from the Empress to put before Nephelle’s father.
Looking back at Highglen one last time, Nephelle, Bast, Brand, and Gwyn set down the road toward Bysynth.
Two days into their return journey, they had stopped for lunch when Bast noticed a faint footpath leading into the ferns. Curiosity getting the best of her, she wandered down it. She caught the smell of rotting flesh a few moments before stumbling upon several bodies of Trenal soldiers. A few paces away from them, she found a military lockbox. She pulled out her lockpicking kit and made short work of the lock. She opened the lid to find it was full of gold and a few gems. Resisting the urge to keep it all for herself, she returned to the group and split the spoils among them.
The rest of the trip was not quite so rewarding, and the party had to fight off a horde of baboons, a band of thieving gypsies, and deal with a snakebite. But they finally arrived at Bysynth a few days before Nephelle’s coronation.