“There’s no time to waste,” Saze said, tucking the black orb into a satchel and heading for the dense trees of Farhoon Forest.
Nimbles gave a look, shaking his head.
“We could use a moment,” he suggested, gesturing to the exhausted fighters.
“Take as many as you’d like,” Saze snapped, walking past. “I’ve got more important things to do than wait for feeble.”
“In a hurry, eh,” Janos quipped, casually twirling a small flame over his fingers. “Got another human sacrifice to attend? Wouldn’t want you to be late, I know how you like to stand around and do nothing.”
“Watch your tongue, whelp,” she said.
“Why,” Janos shot back. “Gonna sacrifice it?”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” she said.
Quinn raised a hand.
“I mean,” he started. “If that’s the issue – we’ve had a lot of time lately to try understanding. We’re willing to give it a chance—”
“—If you’re willing to tell us what the hell is going on,” Corvus chimed in.
“You owe it to us,” Vorle added.
“I owe you nothing,” Saze said coldly. She held up the satchel, looking inside. “In fact, now, I owe nothing at all.”
“We’ve paid for it,” Wyverna said, standing. “We’ve paid in blood for that little piece of hell you’re holding. We want to understand, we just
- we need to know that those who - that they didn’t die for nothing.”
“They didn’t,” Saze replied. “Well, they shouldn’t have. But your meddling may have changed that.”
“Wow,” Janos said, rolling his eyes. “So now this is our fault. Our mistake for trying not to let a bunch of monsters cut us into pieces.”
“That… got out of hand. But the process had to be accelerated. There was no other way.”
“So you were in on it,” Perrath said. “Guess that answers most of my questions.”
“I had a task to fulfill,” Saze repeated. “A task which required supervision.”
“So that was the plan all along,” Quinn said. “The whole Crystal Halls event, a charade. Those creatures didn’t stumble upon the teams…”
“You gave us to them,” Corvus said through clenched teeth, gesturing to the other teams. “All of us.”
“Yes,” she said. She showed no emotion.
“But why?” Vorle demanded, gesturing to the satchel. “What is that thing?”
“Well,” Janos started. “First off all, why, I mean, the cultist was a dark elf from the Darktide, just like her. Friend of yours? And second, I know what that thing is, so if you don’t tell everyone, I will.”
Saze narrowed her eyes.
“It’s a key,” she said plainly. “A key which can seal off the shadow realm.”
“Or open it,” Quinn added, crossing his arms.
“Okay,” Corvus said. “Great, but who cares? You stood by while twenty people died, how can you justify that?”
“I am merely the blade,” she said. “If you want answers, ask the hand who wields me.”
“Vara,” Vorle said.
“The crone,” Quinn said. “She’s talking about the crone.”
Vorle stared blankly.
“I’ll fill you in later,” Quinn added, then addressed Saze. “Unless we are going to meet her now?”
“Yeah right,” Janos scoffed. “Like she’d ever let that happen.”
“Return to Silverwatch,” she confirmed. “Tell Vara what you will – she will understand. She serves the crone as well. She knows that we fight a war greater than this, greater than the petty squabbles of your games, your lands, your kings.”
Wyverna took a step toward Saze, and she turned to face the dragoon.
“We don’t doubt that it’s important,” Wyv said. “But people died. A lot of people died. We knew what we were getting into, coming here, but the others, they were innocent. What could be worth the lives of so many innocents?”
“You,” she said, gesturing to everyone. “All of you, you live in a dream. Pray that you never wake up, never wake up to the living nightmare this world has become.”
She turned to leave.
“That’s not an answer,” Corvus said, stepping in her way.
Saze briefly looked at Corvus, then through him, and stepped around.
“Not so fast,” he said, grabbing her arm. “Not until we get some answer—”.
In a flash almost too fast to see, Corvus flew threw the air and smashed back first, upside down against a nearby tree, cracking it in half. His axe, the handle cut in half, fell to the grass nearby, along with his shield.
Vorle unsheathed his sword, and Janos reached for his implement. Quinn held his staff tightly, looking around. A dozen of the other team members stood up.
“You Atrums would live longer if you kept your nose out of things,” Saze said mockingly, brushing off her arm.
From behind Saze, Wyverna took a step forward, raising her weapon, and with lightning speed, Saze spun, her arm outstretched and the tip of a halberd, unwavering, touching the center of Wyverna’s neck. A single drop of blood ran down into her armor.
“You are about to make a large mistake,” Saze warned. Her eyes were jet black, unflinching.
Corvus groaned, slowly stumbling back to his feet.
“A knight of Caen is nothing to me but another body,” she said.
Wyverna opened her hand, dropping her spear to the grass. The others lowered their weapons as well. Saze looked at Nimbles, jerking her head toward the forest. He came to her side, reluctantly.
“If you follow us,” she said. “If any of you follow us, you will die a far worse death than your friends on the altar.”
Saze pulled her halberd back, flawlessly spinning it around and returning it to a sheath on her back. She headed into the forest.
Wyverna let out the breath she was holding.
“You’d do it again, wouldn’t you?” Wyv said in anger. “You’d do it again in a heartbeat, just for that.”
She pointed to the satchel. Saze paused, tightening its strings.
“For this,” she said, not turning around. “I’d kill you all myself – every one of you.”
And then they were gone.
Everyone stood silently for a few moments. Then Corvus rejoined the group, scoffing at his broken axe and returning the shield to his arm.
“Did I almost have her?” he asked, rubbing his head.
“So,” Quinn said, ignoring him. “This all seems horrible.”
“Which part?” Janos asked. “The imprisonment, the torture, or the evil dark elf with mysterious and obviously nefarious plans?”
“All of it,” Quinn replied.
“Nothing we can do about it here,” Wyverna said. “Let’s see what Vara has to say.”
“So that’s our plan?” Janos asked. “We’re gonna tattle?”
“We’re going to get information,” Wyv replied. “And THEN we’ll talk about plans.”
With that, the Stars got the others to their feet, and they began the journey back to Silverwatch.
“Think I almost had her,” Corvus repeated.
After Saze and Nimbles left, the Stars and Vorle gathered the rest of the teams and took a head count, excluding themselves, Barl, Perrath, and Smed.
Thirty one. Thirty survivors out of the forty-nine missing during the Crystal Halls, and a new addition.
An old man named Crock had been rescued as well, apparently. He said he was a sailor on a Forever Endeavor Trading Company ship called the Whispering Maiden, and stumbled out of Silverwatch Fort one evening, drunk, and woke up in the dungeon. Quinn, remembering that Thraim had left upon the same ship, asked him about the suspiciously long journey it was said to take, but wasn’t able to learn anything other than FETC was very secretive about its cargo, even around its own workers.
After two days of traveling, camping, and foraging, the long lost teams finally arrived at the gates of Silverwatch Fort, but things had changed in their absence. The crossed silver arrows of Thorne’s sigil were missing, instead every banner bore the familiar FETC logo. The gate itself had been replaced, the rustic wooden construction reinforced with iron plates, bars, and rivets.
A pair of FETC guards stepped forward to the teams emerging from the forest, asking for identification. The Stars showed their medallions and the guards, surprised at the return of those thought dead and gone, ordered the gates open. A small gnome appeared, Blokkem Blork, a FETC representative who had previously tried to sponsor the Falling Stars during the games, demanding that everyone stop and be properly processed, but the tired, injured teams, out of patience, simply marched past and into Silverwatch Fort.
Inside, they realized that the date was Septeran 28th. They had been missing over forty days, captive for most of it.
Starving, the Stars headed to the great hall for a meal, but learned that meals were no longer free. FETC signs and notices hung everywhere, on every post, building, and corner, proclaiming new rules, regulations, and updated prices for everything within the fort. After eating, the other teams headed back to the Pens, and the Stars took a look around.
Everything about Silverwatch seemed to be different. Gone were the roaring crowds, masses of spectators, games, and excitement. The spectator tents were gone, replaced with worker housing for FETC. All of Thorne’s banners were removed, including those upon Silverwatch House, all replaced with FETC colors.
The Silverwatch guards were gone, as well as the Thornwatch, but there were more guards than ever inside in FETC uniforms, and the Stars learned that all guards were now answering to them. Nimmonin was said to reside inside Silverwatch House, and that Vara and the others had been relocated to the Pens with the remaining teams.
It seemed that FETC had entirely taken over Silverwatch Fort, and everything cost a bit of coin. Anyone not associated with them or unwilling to pay the updated prices had been sent home – merchants, guards, spectators. It felt like a ghost town.
The games themselves seemed to be over. The arena was relabeled as a FETC warehouse, the jousting, carnival games, and other arenas had been closed. The information for the games themselves had been relocated to a small corner of the fort, crowded in near the wall, showing what little there was to show: Tavus had won the weapon mastery tournament, Raemus had won the magic mastery tournament, and it appeared that the Rising Cobras and Rolling Thunder were far above the other teams in points. A glowing banner overhead proclaimed that only the award ceremony remained, to be held Octovon 5th, a week away.
Checking their mail cost coin as well, and the Stars learned only that the FETC had opened and looked through all letters, redacting the information from one sent from Meister Eynn. Another letter from Eynn to Janos had passed through, containing a simple code, and Janos let the others know it was an address located in the port city of Stonewall in Westeraan.
Heading to see Eynn in person, the Stars found out that he had left the Silver Assembly Hall a couple of weeks ago in a hurry. The Hall itself had new prices for vacant rooms, increased to absurdity. The doorman seemed happy to see Eynn gone, but not excited about the new FETC management. As the other Stars left, Corvus made small talk with the man, hoping to learn more, and he lamented the loss of his favorite employee, a chipper girl known as Kally, who had been let go but fortunately found work at the Sleeping Dragon.
Still hoping to find Eynn, the Stars visited the Sleeping Dragon, paid the cover charge and a handful of gold for overpriced, watered down ale (which, even in that state, was glorious, after a month of nothing but acrid, stale water). Reminiscing with Kally for a few minutes and appealing to her softer side, Corvus and Janos found out that the FETC was after Eynn, accusing him of stealing and selling proprietary information, and he had fled in the night, boarding a ship and leaving in secrecy, but had left them a note.
Making a quick stop at the registrar’s tent, Corvus confronted Asar Nohle, who was now in charge of tournament relations, apologizing for his brash behavior before. Taken aback, Asar accepted the apology, giving his own, and implying that the lost uniforms and banners at the beginning of the tournament disappeared after a bribe from another team member (the teams assumed it was Tavus).
After that, the Stars decided they had seen and heard enough, and needed to talk with Vara, to get some answers about the imprisonment, about Saze, and about Vara’s role in it. They headed back to the Pens (paying the new 1g surcharge for the cart ride), and saw that things had changed here as well.
The Pens were now unguarded, unprotected, and surrounded by dozens of tents of spectators, who freely roamed the grounds, complaining about their ejection from Silverwatch Fort. There was a celebration, as well, the remaining teams cheering the return of their lost friends amid dozens of frenzied stories retelling the ordeal. Everyone cheered the Stars as they came forward, toasting them and offering them pints of ale, but they had more on their mind.
The Stars headed to the center of the Pens where a large tent had been erected. In front were a pair of guards wearing half of their former Silverwatch uniforms. They expressed their distaste for FETC, saying they’d rather work free for Thorne than be paid to work for FETC, and let the Stars inside.
Before they could take another step, an enormous hand grabbed Wyverna by the front of her armor, and pulled her off the ground. “They’re fine,” Vara said, and the hand let go. It belonged to an enormous bearded man, nearly 8 ft. tall, covered with metal scales and leather armor, a massive axe hanging off his shoulder.
“Corvus my boy!” the man shouted, slapping Corvus on the back so hard it sounded like his armor had been dented.
The man introduced himself as Manton, also called the Mountain, and the Stars immediately recognized him as the legendary hero, his fame rivaled possibly only by Thorne himself.
The tent itself was a mess, covered with piles of gear, scrolls, maps, and crates. Vara sat behind desk overflowing with loose parchments. Around her were many of the other house leads. Som Dutto, Pelore, Thorne, Forli, and Rynn of Illius.
Wasting no time, the Stars demanded to know what Vara knew, telling them Saze had been apart of their disappearance, that they had been tortured with her knowledge, that she had done nothing to stop it.
Vara went deadly silent, then welcomed the Stars back, thanked them for their service, and told them to get some rest and come back in the morning. They reluctantly agreed, and could hear Vara yelling in anger as they left for Axe House.
The Stars found Axe House quite empty, with only the Oaken Shields remaining in as an official team, the other torches having been removed. They learned that Sandeev, the Crashing Waves, and everyone else associated with the escape attempt had been rounded up by FETC, fined, and sent home immediately, and mused that FETC would likely be coming for the Stars soon, if they weren’t already.
The Stars bathed, ate, and rested comfortably for the first time in over a month.
Early the next morning, the Stars went to see Vara and talk things over. Manton and Forli were also present for the discussion.
The Stars told them of the whole ordeal, beginning with the Crystal Halls, and going through their rescue plan, imprisonment, and escape, leaving out no details. They told her of the cultists, the rituals, lost lives, and how Nimbles, Saze, and the Crone were involved, as well as they knew.
Forli, Manton, and Vara exchanged some words, and the Stars realized that Vara and the others had no knowledge of Saze’s doings, but had suspected she had been up to something for some time, and this confirmed it.
Vara sent Manton out to collect the other house leads, who soon joined them in the tent. Vara introduced Thorne as Heren Belderone, brother of Pelore and the man who had been standing in for Thorne Silvershot.
She told the Stars that a creature, a great demon named Gal’malok, had cursed Thorne, long ago, and had been hunting him for decades, thanks to somehow absorbing the power of an Arkimas Atlas, a living map.
Thorne arranged the games on Meddes to lure the creature here and trap it so that they could undo the curse and free him. The games were set up so as not to draw attention to their plan, using Heren as Thorne in order to draw the creature out. However, Gal’malok had grown too powerful, fueled by the bright sun of Meddes, and Thorne had disappeared, hiding somewhere in Farhoon Forest.
Heren has been taking demonic tinctures designed to give the appearance of the curse in an attempt to trick the Gal’malok into thinking that he’s the real thorne, in addition to using the attuned lanterns to confuse it, placing dozens of “Thornes” all over to confuse the Arkimas Atlas magic.
But things went wrong, and Thorne disappeared, gone into hiding. They brought Vesh to track him, but with no luck. The goal now, Vara said, is to somehow trap the creature, undo the curse, and then Thorne should resurface, putting an end to the whole ordeal. She said that it was important that Gal’malok was not killed outright, not before the curse was undone, or Thorne’s life and many others would be forfeit.
To this end, Thorne had called in every favor he had left, bringing the remaining heroes of the time to Meddes to assist in his trap. During this time, Thorne had met a creature of Meddes called he called the Crone, the mother of Farhoon Forest, who promised to assist in exchange for borrowing many of the best hunters from Silverwatch to protect its borders.
Though only there for their own wealth and benefit, the FETC was, unfortunately, necessary in the beginning to fund this excursion, and now, thanks to the missing teams and chaos surrounding the rescue attempt, the FETC had completely taken over Silverwatch Fort, putting an abrupt end to the games.
She continued, saying that a recent complication in the plan is that the Gal’malok has somehow been able to summon other demons to him, something they had thought impossible. They were sure he was getting help, and suspected many of the tieflings in Silverwatch, but now it seemed obvious that Saze was the one behind it.
Although unsure of Saze’s plans, Vara said that if what the Stars said was true and Saze was truly in possession of an abyssal key, she might be able to open a portal to another realm — most likely to the depths of Fel’taras, if she was working with Gal’malok — and could summon an army of demons to Meddes.
Unfortunately, Vara and the others were all being watched by the FETC, and until they knew what Saze was up to, they couldn’t risk taking action and abandoning the current plan. Begrudgingly, Vara admitted that the Stars might be the best chance for discovering what the dark elf’s plans were, and charged them with a task of reconnaissance, if they were willing. Not only had they proved themselves trustworthy, and capable, but Janos might be able to buy them some time, or bargain, if they encountered any demons.
Having suspected Saze for some time, they had secretly enchanted one of her halberds with a tracking spell, which would leave a trail for weeks, showing her comings and goings through Farhoon. She gave Quinn a small magical wand, which would make the trail visible, and told the Stars to take what supplies they needed from the tent.
She told them that they needed to know what Saze was doing, not only where she had been, and that the Stars were poised to make the most of the situation, as FETC had not yet realized their return, so no one would be looking for them and they could track Saze unimpeded, for a while at least, but that they would have to leave as soon as possible – that night, under cover of darkness.
Finally, she told them that they suspected Gal’malok hides during the night, as it is weakest then, but to be on their guard. If they encountered Saze, they were not to engage her, if they valued their lives.
With that, the Stars left, preparing their supplies and resting, and snuck out of Axe House and into Farhoon shortly before midnight. Janos and Quinn led the others to where they had encountered Forli and Saze talking, weeks ago, and sure enough, the wand picked up on the trail, illuminating a dull blue wispy trace of Saze’s path.
For two days, the Stars followed the path into the depths of Farhoon. Saze traveled dangerously, but silently, and without a trace – if it weren’t for the tracking spell, no one would ever have suspected that someone had passed through this way.
Mid afternoon the next day, the Stars emerged from the near absolute darkness of Farhoon Forest into a sunny clearing, to a strange site. There, a mere few paces away, was what seemed to be a replicate of Silverwatch Fort, but old, grown over, dilapidated. The fort seemed to be both partially constructed and heavily damaged, the remnants of lumber, tools, and half-chopped trees littered the clearing around the gate, which had been barred from the outside. The magical trail led up to and through the gate, it seemed.
The walls itself were unfinished, but tall and durable, and scratched into the wall, nearly the entire length of the front of the Fort, was an abyssal phrase which Janos read to the group:
“KNOCK KNOCK CLEVER BOY.”
As the Stars explored the area, Corvus suddenly pulled and threw a small throwing axe, which stuck into the wooden wall. He pulled his makeshift dragonsteel sword and shield and gave the others a serious, curt nod, and they drew their weapons as well. Suddenly, several different types of demons emerged from hiding and attacked. As the Stars engaged the guards, several arbalesters appeared atop towers deep within the fort, launching a fiery barrage.
The Stars made quick work of the foes on the ground, ensuring that they wouldn’t be followed, then made a quick retreat into Farhoon Forest. They delved deep enough to ensure that they were alone, secured the area, and rested, waiting for the cover of nightfall to return to the fort, this time in search of another entrance, perhaps a breach in one of the destroyed walls…