Learning 1.3

It is common knowledge that the city of Stormreach is an eclectic assortment of structures built in, around, and among the ruins of a far older city once home to the giant folk that once sprawled across the continent of Xen’drik. It is less common knowledge that Stormreach occupies perhaps a fifth of the known giant city, and that outside the area patrolled by the Watch reside plenty of desperate fools, along with the occasional anarchist who believes that any risk is worth not having to pay taxes and some people who don’t want to be found.

So when Jheran headed out past the last watch-post, whispering up a witch-light as he went, Irri tensed up and muttered “Where are we going, exactly?” A sensible enough question; he knew enough about the Thrane to know he didn’t seem to care much if he lived or died, but Professor Sanan Irri had a job to do and it’d be a waste of a lot of hard work to give up now.

Jheran snorted. “Stop being such a baby. The Watch did a sweep of this section last week, there aren’t any fire-breathing scorpions down any of the side alleys.” He paused, cocked his head, and added “Probably.” Irri gave him a sidelong glance, the Thrane was trying to suppress a grin. He rolled his eyes. “Greenseers don’t like company, and this one’s kind of prickly. Try to behave.”

The road they were on was as wide as any main road in Sharn, paved with massive square slabs, but as they turned the next corner it joined something that must have been either a main road or a plaza for the giants that once dwelt there; it was so large Jheran’s witch-light didn’t reach the other side. Vines and creeping plants crept over collapsed structures; few had more than one story remaining, but that one story was frequently over thirty feet high.

A note of awe came into Irri’s voice. “Fascinating. The center of the city doesn’t really have the same…scale to it.”

Jheran chuckled. “Nope. Most of the traditional buildings in the city proper are built out from the edge of roads like these. Scuff up the paving stones and you can mortar straight onto them, saves a lot on foundations and you leave enough road in between them for us little folks to walk around just fine.”

Ahead the face of a vast round building emerged from the gloom, the stonework barely visible through the vegetation, trees growing through its long-collapsed roof. Jheran guided the pair through the vast archway placed in the center, into a cathedral of branches, a space where it almost appeared that the city had disappeared entirely and the two had stepped out into the open jungles. Shattered remnants of paving stone poked out through moss and tree root here and there, and over to one side what looked like the head of a statue was given a halo of hair by hanging plants, but plant life dominated generally.

Jheran set Irri down on a rock, stepped aside, and waited. The elf looked about, leaned over, and in a practiced stage whisper asked “Shouldn’t we…I don’t know, announce ourselves?”

Jheran snorted. “She knows we’re here. Haven’t dealt with many druids, have you, kid?”

“A few.” Irri prodded his ribs, clamped his jaw shut, lapsed into silence. A minute passed, then another. “So…”

“Sh.” Jheran caught a glimpse of movement between the trees, shifted his head, and tried to suppress a grin. The immense black cat sitting bolt upright at the edge of the clearing gave a slow, feline blink. He winked back.

Irri tried to crane his head around, winced, and shifted in his seat, holding his ribs. Then he stopped abruptly, eyes going wide. Didn’t jump out of his skin, the way Jheran was half expecting him to, though. He whispered “There’s a panther over there.”

“Leopard, I think.”

“Whatever. What’s it doing?”

“She.” Jheran raised his voice a bit. “Hey, Midnight, your sidekick ’round here somewhere?”

Midnight let out a dismissive “whuff” of air, turned tail, and faded back into the trees. A voice from the other direction turned the two back around, saying “You two look like shit.” The khoravar girl padding out of the other side of the clearing had loose, rough clothing in stained brown, red hair sticking out in all directions, and a scowl for everyone and everything, though that faded some when it passed over Jheran. She stopped a short distance away, looked them up and down, snorted. “What have you done this time?”

Jheran started, Irri broke in and trampled over him. “A lamentable tale, to be sure; I set out in search of your associate’s advice on a venture I have planned, and was unfortunately directed into a tavern populated by fine folk who nonetheless took offense at my accent, and chose to accost me. Sergeant Tanth here,”  Irri gestured, “was kind enough to jump in on my behalf, and was unfortunately thrown out with me for his troubles, and we have come to seek medical attention. I am Sanan Irri, of Morgrave University; forgive my rudeness but my injuries prevent me from rising. Might I know your name, fair lady?”

By the end of this the girl had fixed Jheran with a baffled stare. Is this guy for real? Jheran rolled his eyes back. Who knows? Out loud, he said “‘Evening, Kaya. Met this guy today, he’s trying to recruit folks for a venture into Karsal and walked into the wrong tavern doing it.” A snort. “Got himself beat to shit trying to drag a retired man out of the bottle. Hoping you’d have a corner somewhere I can crash tonight, and maybe a bit of your magic to spare patching him up.”

Kaya rolled her head over to rest a glower on Irri, who sat up straight and smiled back with all the innocence and brightness he could muster. “Two hundred.”

“What? But…”

“He’s my friend, you’re not. Two hundred.”

The elf deflated, nodded. retrieved a wallet from within his coat and passed over a few bills. She took them and said “Right. Shirt off, lie back.”

“Aren’t you supposed to buy me dinner first?”

A quick prod in the ribs left Irri gasping as he rushed to comply.

***

An hour later after Irri had headed back into the main town to his own lodgings Jheran was sat on a strategically placed rock in front of the firepit in another clearing, deeper in Kaya’s domain, while the druid crouched on the balls of her feet a short distance away. He held an irregular clay mug of strong tea, pondering the surface and the steam in silence, when she broke his concentration.

“You planning to go?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Might be good for you.” Jheran turned, stared. Kaya’s clear blue eyes met his unflinchingly. “A short jaunt, just to get you moving again. Some pay. Stop living off the war stories.”

Jheran turned back to his tea. “I’m retired.”

“You don’t like it.” Jheran snorted. “Come on. I’m a recluse, doesn’t mean I don’t hear things. You drink like a fish, mope around taverns, pick fights. When was the last time you got laid?” Jheran’s eyes snapped up, the girl raised both hands, sensing she’d crossed a line. “Sorry. But seriously, you hate being retired.”

“Not enough to hate living yet.” Jheran stood, setting the mug down on the ground, paced about the clearing. “Not about to follow a green academic who’s probably read too many adventure stories off into the woods to get us all killed.”

“There might be more to him than you think.” Jheran looked back around, gestured into the pause for Kaya to continue from her perch staring into the fire. “I set an owl to follow him. He dropped some letters at the Aerenai consulate before heading back to his inn.” She looked back up, gave a lopsided smirk. “A mystery.”

“Or me inserting my nose into a mess too big for me.” Jheran dropped back down on another stone, further from the fire, head in hands.

Kaya approached, hesitantly. “You’re not exactly alone on this one. I’ll be watching your back.” Jheran looked up, and jumped as he found himself face-to-face with Midnight, who had moved quietly into the clearing. “And Midnight, don’t forget her.”

He wrinkled his nose at the jaguar, conceded “Point to you, cat.” in a grudging tone. Stood, turned. Said “I’ll make up my mind in the morning,” and trudged off into the bushes. Kaya lifted a hand, opened her mouth, stopped as the human turned behind a tree and disappeared from view.

Midnight chuffed. The druid turned a glare on her friend, asked “What are you looking at, cat?”

 

Learning 1.2

It wasn’t enough to be called a bar brawl, not really. Almost not even a fight. Irri may have been less drunk than the Thranes (also smaller and faster) but there were four of them, and after the first sucker punch what remained mostly consisted of two of them holding his arms while the others took it in turns to punch the elf.

I’m not a knight.

The thought came unbidden to Jheran. Not a knight, not anymore. No oaths, no codes, no duty. He sneered to himself. Plenty of duty to sit by and watch it happen. To be an inspiration to this pathetic gaggle of expats who wanted to convince themselves they needed to take sides in a war five hundred miles away. Nothing stopping him from sitting here and watching four drunks beat a smaller man to death.

Irri was still trying to fight, he had more of his balance left than his assailants and enough room to flail around. Get his head out of the way. They’d decided that wasn’t working and were mostly aiming for the torso now. The rest of the bar had turned studiously back to their drinks. The barman was nowhere to be seen. He’d seen this before. The Watch would arrive just too late, the man would be beyond a healer’s help, the Brey expats would be baying for blood and the next time a Thrane wandered into the wrong part of town he wouldn’t wander out. Jheran heard a rib crack.

“Think he might have learned his lesson by now?” The entire tavern stopped dead. Turned. Stared. Their icon had the gall to disapprove of their righteous anger? Jheran looked up, locked eyes with the ringleader. He had a name, but it wasn’t coming. Irri relaxed for a moment, coughed. Blood spattered on the floor. “Might be that if you just throw him out he’s not going to come back.”

The ringleader glowered. “And might be that he grabs his cousins and comes back and burns the place down. You know he’d do the same to us. Flame’s sake, man, they shot you!” He punctuated the sentence with a strike towards Irri, who had the presence of mind to shift and take it in a relatively unbattered shoulder. “You really want to do this?”

Jheran carefully corked the bottle, thoughts racing. He was the best-trained fighter in the room, he knew that, they knew that, but one unarmed man against an entire tavern was improbable at best. Irri raised his head, caught Jheran’s eye from under his ridiculous hair, winked. Maybe. It was hard to see his other eye through the bruising. Two unarmed men against an entire tavern wasn’t really any better, especially with how empty the bottle in his hand was.

He looked up. Most of the room was still staring. A few tables were empty that weren’t before, only hard, scarred faces now. Jheran dropped his hands below the level of the table, one caressed his knife, then released it, discarding the plan as soon as it came together. If weapons came out there would be not getting out of the room alive. The smart thing, of course, would be to go back to his drink.

Jheran shoved the table into the drunks and went for it.

***

They lost, of course. Jheran was laughing as he was hurled bodily into the street, followed shortly by Irri’s barely-conscious form, the bundle representing his worldly possessions, and a scream of “and stay out!”. His sword landed heavily in a puddle just beside his head, sending off a renewed chorus of giggles. From the other side Irri started to join in, then said “ow” and stopped. Jheran turned his head. The elf was probing his chest. “Three ribs cracked, one broken pretty badly. I might need help walking. What’s your tally?”

Jheran frowned. Tally? Oh, right. Injury. He tried to move. “Everything seems to work. How much of that five thousand you got earmarked for medical expenses?”

The elf snorted. “Stop. Can’t laugh right now. I’ll work on it.”

Jheran staggered to his feet, grabbed his bag, then extended a hand. “Come on. There’s a greenseer somewhere about as owes me a favour.” He pulled Irri to his feet, braced his shoulder.

They managed to hobble about half a block before Jheran half-whispered “fuel alcohol?” and set off another fit of laughter.

Learning 1.1

In the Thrane quarter of the city of Stormreach, at a table in the back of a beat-up old pub with the dubious distinction of being the thirty-fifth inn, tavern, or similar establishment across Galifar to carry the name “The Silver Arrow”, Jheran Tanth was having a bad day.

It had started with a hangover, but since most of his days did this wasn’t particularly noteworthy. When the landlord came around to pester him about his rent, however, that did escalate into a shouting match that ended with Jheran grabbing his coat and marching off to find somewhere else to park himself for the day, which led to him nearly getting run over by a band of joyriding maniacs galloping horses down a street they had no business riding horses down in the first place, getting turned around (in a city he’d been living in for five years and had no business getting lost in) and ending up in the Cyran market, where he’d only managed to avoid a rather one-sided street brawl by spending twenty minutes alternately running for his life and hiding behind and under things, at which point the Watch picked him up and forced him to spend another two hours convincing them that this particular misadventure was an honest mistake and they didn’t need to arrest him (for stealing anything) or any of the Cyrans (for assault) in hopes of avoiding jail time, some sort of feud, or possibly both.

So by the time Jheran had made his way back to the Arrow in the middle of the afternoon, exhausted, aching, soaked in mud, and demanded a bottle of brandy the barman on duty recognized that this was not a man with an abundance of patience for such trifles as “the state of his tab” or “appropriate times of day for drinking heavily” at the moment, featured him with the worst rotgut he had behind the bar, and parked him in a corner where, hopefully, he wouldn’t cause too much of a fuss before the landlord returned and the barman could try and persuade him to boot the maniac out.

And then just before sundown an incredibly irritating sort of man who was about as out of place as it was possible to be in the Arrow wandered in and started asking stupid questions, at which point a day that had merely been a mild nuisance thus far morphed itself into a vaguely pear-like shape and hurled itself headfirst down the drain without stopping to look first.

“So I am going to repeat this back to you, just to make sure I’ve fully understood the situation.” Jheran glared blearily across the table at the stranger. He was an elf, full-blooded Aerenai, ears sticking up to points almost to the top of his head through a wiry hedge of badly-bleached hair, and had introduced himself as Professor Sanan Irri of Morgrave University. “You’re planning an expedition into the interior.” Jheran punctuated his point with a finger. “Into the Karsal valley.” Two fingers. “And you need to put a team together, with all of five thousand for people and equipment.” He frowned at his fingers, then remembered what they were there for and put up a third. “Not to mention, of course, that you’ve got no experience, no connections, a very vague idea of where we’re going, and your only source in town pointed you to a retired drunk as a helpful source.” Fingers four and five came up a little more quickly. Jheran stared at his hand for a moment, then back at the elf.

“That’s about the shape of it.” Irri leaned back and grinned cheerfully. He’d acquired a glass somewhere and helped himself to some of the bottle during the conversation, which Jheran accepted at this point as some bizzare icing on top of the shit sandwich that was this day, but his attitude (far too chipper for civilized company), his clothing (too clean for the Arrow, if not for Stormreach, or possibly for the continent as a whole), and his accent (Brelish, probably Sharn, and enough to have most of the bar shooting dark looks at the back table) had Jheran on edge. “Why? Are you not up for it?” He smirked at some private joke.

Jheran glanced at his hand again, then dropped it, and his head along with it. “First, Karsal is empty. No ruins, no shard fields, no mystical caves to deep bits of Khyber full of tentacle-things and ancient relics. Nobody’s ever found anything there other than hungry wildlife and angry snake-people. Second, you’d be lucky to make it out alive with a five-man team, and with five thousand and no prospect of loot you may be able to find two. Third, most importantly, and the reason the rest of this is sort of a pointless thought experiment, I’m retired. Done. Out. Not going wandering off into some verdant hellhole in search of a violent death for a pittance anymore. Not for anyone or anything.” He looked back up at the elf, whose expression still hadn’t shifted. “Am I making myself entirely clear, here?”

Irri leaned forward again. “All right, then, from the top. I’m a professor of archaeology and archaeolinguistics, not some fop who thinks places people don’t go are the ones that still have stuff in them. I’ve picked Karsal as a destination because I’ve got a file this thick” (here he held two fingers about two inches apart) “full of notes and maps referencing Sul’at sites there.” One finger. “Second, I’m not entirely helpless myself, and with the prospect of loot I suspect there may be more people willing to come along. And the other reason I picked Karsal is that supplies are less of an issue when we’re going to be moving for two weeks rather than two months.” Another. “And finally, if nobody and nothing is going to drag you back out there, why have you been moping around here blowing your last haul on,” he sniffed the glass in his hand and took a deliberate sip, “fuel alcohol?” He paused and quirked a corner of his mouth, then lowered his voice. “I’ve been asking around. You’re two months behind on your rent, and your bar tab wouldn’t be out of place in Skytown, except the people who drink there are nobles or dragonmarked and can just go running to mommy and daddy for more pocket money, not friendless ex-sergeants with one sword to their name.”

By the end of this Jheran had just about concluded that Irri was badly in need of a closer acquaintance with his fist, until one of the other occupants of the bar robbed him of the opportunity to think by shambling over and saying (in the slightly too-loud and too-clear voice of a man who has had slightly too much to drink) “Hey. Bear-fucker.”

Jheran was the only person in the bar situated to see Irri’s eye-roll as he stood, turning, empty hands held out nonthreateningly. “‘Evening, gentlemen. What can I do for you?”

“You can stop harassing Sergeant Tanth. Man’s a war hero, deserves to be left to drink in peace, not pestered by assholes who won’t leave well enough alone.” Jheran stopped himself from rolling his eyes. He’d tried to stick close to the truth in the story he’d told them, but they seemed to hold more of a grudge over the Brelish arrow that came within an inch of hamstringing him than he did. Leaping at an opportunity to insert themselves into the fight, he supposed.

Irri tried to make a soothing gesture. “Easy, fellows. I’m an academic, I’ve never shot anyone outside a range. And besides, the war’s on that side of the ocean,” he gestured northwards, “we’re all Reachmen here.” He smiled, earnestly, as a few more unsteady men took up station behind the first. The bar was silent now, everyone staring at the confrontation. Jheran took in the barman’s wide-eyed hovering by the back door with a complete lack of surprise. “What are you drinking? How about I buy you a round?”

The other man’s scowl deepened. “Fuel alcohol.”

Jheran dearly wished he could have seen the look on Irri’s face as he saw the approaching fists.

Nightmares

         A child flees through an endless dark hall, bare feet sinking soundlessly into the lush red carpet. Glimpses flicker through the mirrors along the wall, some younger, some older, richly garbed, clad in rags, night-black hair jumping about in length, but the bloody knife stays clenched in his fist through all of them. The dream changes, the knife remains, now held awkwardly below bound wrists as the boy stands in a circle of light. Around him white masks floating in the darkness stare on impassively, then turn away, vanishing into the shadows.

A burning farmhouse lights up the nighttime wood, a mob in rough furs with a few forest creatures howling around a huddle of kneeling figures. They wail, they weep, they plead, and the invaders look on impassively. Their leader shakes his head behind his mask of wood and bone, raises a hand to gesture at the pitiful wretches grovelling before him, one of his band steps forward and tries to grab his arm. He whirls, backhanding her across the face, laying her out in the snow. A wolf detaches from the circle to leap for the leader, and is stopped on a spear. The girl scrambles away, running almost before she can achieve her feet, feeling as much as seeing the blood flowing behind her.

An armored man sits rigidly astride a horse, his captain chattering away cheerfully beside him, as the two meander through a town. Smoke rises from a number of points around them. Casualties of war, the captain says. Smashed storefronts line the road, soldiers run off with the contents, squabbling over choice finds. The troops are frustrated, the captain says, let them let off some steam. Ahead a pair of soldiers drag a girl into an alley by her hair. Boys will be boys, the captain says, let them have their fun. The man snarls wordlessly, heels his mount on. He tries desperately not to look. The girl’s screams follow him a short while before fading into the cacaphony.

On the steerage deck of the cargo ship Winter Wind the warforged had a corner to himself, the other passengers eyeing his angular black metal body and sculpted snarl of a face askance and settling as far from him as they could. He amused himself speculating which one he might throw the furthest, if he were so inclined. A half-orc came tottering down the aisle looking for an open seat, wineskin dangling from his hand, and plopped himself down next to the warforged. He looked, blearily, rubbed an eye, and looked again. “What ho, metal man!”

The warforged looked down at the unsteady fellow for a moment longer before replying gravely “What ho, friend.” He may have scraped the bear badges from his plating but he placed the man’s accent somewhere east of Wroat easily enough.

The pause stretched, before the half-orc wordlessly tried to offer the warforged the wineskin. His neck fibers creaked as he gave a small shake in response. “Better not, friend. I can drink it easily enough but it won’t have much effect on me, and I don’t exactly have a sense of taste.”

The half-orc’s eyes bulged and his mouth worked for a moment before he managed an outraged splutter. “Can’t drink? What will they think of next? It’s inhumane, I tell you, building soldiers who can’t enjoy themselves!” He ran down into mutters quickly, the occasional phrase bursting through into audibility, then sighed. “Going to try and catch forty winks, then, metal man. Sweet dreams.”

The warforged shook his head again, a hint of weariness wandered into his tone. “We don’t sleep, not really. No dreams to have.” He creaked in amusement at his companion’s snores, and tucked the wineskin more securely into the man’s satchel, before turning to study the wall.