Jolan Brightwind waited patiently for the strangers to enter the hall.
What could be taking so long?
“Again I will state my disagreement to this plan, Baron” the spymaster’s calm voice whispered next to him. Brightwind didn’t have to look at Spymaster Bloodclaw to know that he was tense. They had been arguing for the better part of the morning. Bloodclaw stood confidently next to him watching the doors as well. He donned his dark worn leathers and an untrusting gleam in his eyes. He stood with his hands behind his back and straight as a board.
He slightly rubbed his hand over his scruffy chin, a tick the baron knew all too well.
“This is our best chance to learn more about what is happening,” Jolan said, turning to face the spymaster. “This city can wait no longer.” He made his way over to the head of the table and sat as Bloodclaw spoke.
“We should go to the south. It is the best option,” the spymaster moved to his seat at the table.
“There are too many threats for us to handle all of them,” Jolan stated as he turned to face the spymaster. His patience was wearing thin.
Brightwind and Bloodclaw stared silently at each other. This argument was not a new one.
“The baron is right,” the silky female voice cut through the tension that was starting to rise again. “We need help.” Jolan looked over to see Advisor Willow seated calmly next to him at the table, waiting. Her straight black hair lay flat against her back. She wore a simple red velvet dress with gold trim to greet their guests that flattered her slender figure. Her crystal blue eyes spoke of a vast knowledge that few could understand. She sat upright with intent, her slender hands resting in her lap. She looked serious but elegant, as always.
“Everything will be decided in due time,” the baron stated as he saw a figure enter the hall. “Please sit Spymaster Bloodclaw. There is still much to discuss.”
Bloodclaw sat slowly as he collected himself. Once he was seated they all watched with curious eyes as the strangers entered the hall one by one.
The first to enter Jolan recognized as the captain. His uniform newly cleaned and polished with the sigil of Aggramon etched into it. He walked to the table with purpose and came to a stop next to one of the chairs, bowing low. “Baron Brightwind, it is an honor.”
The baron nodded slightly to the Captain in acknowledgement. “The honor is mine Captain Highwater.”
Jolan spoke no further as he saw the floating creature beyond the captain. He sat a little straighter at the sight before him. He had heard of this half-blood creature born of smoke and flames. He glided slightly over to the table, his eyes distant. The baron had only one thought as the tendrils of smoke lifted from the cracks in it’s skin. How beautiful. Such raw power barely contained! It was fascinating.
Another man entered the hall. This must be the one they called Aikos, a watchman on the docks. Despite his scars and his ornate sword, the baron couldn’t help but notice that Aikos walked as though he had not a care in the World.
Spymaster Bloodclaw looked over towards the doors as the men who had already entered took their seats. He ran a hand over his chin again, agitated.
“Just wait,” Jolan whispered as he grabbed a grape from off of one of the platters before him. He placed it in his mouth and chewed slowly.
“Of course Baron Brightwind,” the spymaster whispered back bowing his head slightly.
“The grapes are exceptional this season,” the baron said as he grabbed a few more.
Advisor Willow picked one off the platter and popped it into her mouth, finishing it off quickly. “Indeed, they are.”
After another brief moment another man entered the hall. The baron noticed his ears first. He was the half elf they called Samson. His polearm was strapped to his back and he walked with confidence. He took a seat at the table with the others.
“Please, help yourselves,” the baron gestured to the table. He waited as the men at the other end of the table started to partake in the drinks offered.
The spymaster rubbed at his chin again, clearly impatient.
Jolan poured himself a goblet of wine and slowly took a sip.
“Baron Brightwind, perhaps we should start?” The spymaster whispered as he shifted forward in his seat.
“Soon,” the Baron said as he took another sip of his wine. He grabbed another grape and bit off the end. “You should try these Spymaster, they are delicious.”
Bloodclaw ignored the comment, and the grapes, as the Baron ate.
The baron heard a faint shout from the doorway and a few moments later a woman entered the hall. She was beautiful despite her tough appearance. She was slender but not fragile looking. Her curly red hair was pulled back into a braid and she wore leathers that were well used. As he watched her walk to the table he noticed daggers here and there on her person.
This must be Freya.
She made her way to the table and sat between Samson and Aikos. The baron watched as Freya joined the others in conversation. He also couldn’t help but notice the captain staring at her from across the table.
He rose from his seat and whispered so only Bloodclaw and Willow could hear him, “Now we can start.”
“Firstly, welcome,” his smooth baritone voice slightly echoed through the room as Freya and the others quieted. “On behalf of my companions, and myself, thank you for joining us.” He gestured to the seat on his left, “This is Advisor Korintha Willow.” Advisor Willow bowed her head in introduction. He gestured to the seat on his right, “This is Spymaster Saelin Bloodclaw.” The spymaster bowed his head as well. “And I am Baron Jolan Brightwind,” he bowed to the group. “We are in need of your assistance.”
“Firstly, on behalf of my companions and I, thank you for everything that you have done for us,” Captain Highwater paused for a brief moment. “I am truly grateful.” His voice held many emotions as he spoke, but the baron could tell that he was sincere. “Secondly, I know that what you have done for us is a debt that deserves to be repaid, of that there is no question. Whatever you ask I, and I alone, will do without hesitation.” He paused as he locked eyes with the baron. “But my companions are free to make their own choice. If you and yours are agreeable to that, then me and mine are ready to hear your proposal.” The captain held his gaze but for a moment more before looking away.
The baron noticed the tension at the other end of the table as the captain finished. The men wouldn’t look at the captain, either uninterested or uncomfortable. Freya, despite trying to hide it, had a firm set jaw and reddening cheeks.
Brightwind also couldn’t help but be impressed with the captain. Here he was protecting the people of Aggramon – even the ones that stood by him. This was exactly the kind of man they were looking for to help them.
“Agreed,” the baron stated plainly as he took his seat once again. There was a clear look of shock from the captain, but he recovered quickly. “So, now that we are in agreement, let us discuss what help we require. Advisor Willow, if you please,” he gestured with a hand for Willow to proceed as he grabbed another handful of grapes.
Willow bowed her head, “Thank you Baron.” She sat up straighter, which didn’t seem possible, and her gaze found the strangers at the other end of the table. “As you know first hand there are many creatures that are now threatening Aggramon,” her voice was commanding but soft. “We have reports of strange sightings from every direction of Aggramon’s borders. To put it simply, we are surrounded by enemies.”
Advisor Willow clasped her hands together and paused for a moment. Brightwind saw that she had their attention, their eyes solely focused on her, as he popped another grape into his mouth.
“In order to combat these threats we need to start to investigate some of these reports. Aggramon cannot spare any more men, they are vital to the survival of the people. This is where you come in. We need you to help us investigate.”
“Why us?” Aikos asked as he took a swig from his mug.
“Last night you were some of the few who fought to help save the city. You were also already planning to be guards for a caravan which, unfortunately, no longer requires assistance, so sending you doesn’t diminish the protection for Aggramon.”
Brightwind watched as Captain Highwater closed his eyes, his jaw clenched, at the news of the caravan.
“I was not a part of that original deal. I came across these fools just last night,” Aikos said around a small smile. “I know James and he is a good man, and I’m all for a fight, but I don’t see why I would leave the city.”
“Indeed. Well, Aikos Durandal, according to the dock master you show skills beyond most of the other men, and you love fighting so much that you constantly go to prove yourself in the local bar brawls,” Willow stated simply.
“Exactly! Why would I give that up?” Aikos’ excited voice echoed out across the hall.
Advisor Willow continued without hesitation, “Your skills are better suited for the battle field, but you know this. You also find no challenge when you fight among the men of the city, most of them have even stopped fighting you. You crave for something more,” she searched for the right words, “sweetly satisfying,” she leaned back slightly. “To put it simply, you are bored.”
Brightwind watched as a smile grew across Aikos’ face. It stretched from ear to ear and soon became a hearty laugh. It cut through the silence of the hall.
“I’m in!” Aikos said around his laughter. He raised his glass toward the others.
The baron caught Bloodclaw rubbing at his chin again from the corner of his eye. The spymaster was clearly becoming impatient.
“Do you know what is causing all of this to happen?” Freya asked staring at all of them. She watched them with calculated eyes as Willow continued.
“Most call it The Rift. It is a magical portal in the north east. It was opened 100 years ago by a cult of mad Cyclops – their goal for doing so is lost to us. We do know that it used to be the homeland of the elves. In an attempt to stop The Rift the elves discharged a primordial bomb that resulted with the forest twisting into something dark and unnatural.” She paused briefly, “And it caused their destruction,” Willow’s voice held a slight tinge of pain that Jolan knew all too well, but she recovered quickly. “In that destruction was born hope, as their weapon held The Rift from growing further, their sacrifice not made in vain. We still don’t know much more than that about it. We are hoping that by sending out small parties, such as yourselves, to different areas can help provide us with quicker answers on what is happening and how best to close the portal.” As Willow finished this explanation Jolan saw Freya’s expression shift. He could tell that she trusted what she was hearing.
“With so many threats we need to determine where is the best place to send you,” Advisor Willow let out a small sigh that only Brightwind noticed. “The spymaster believes that sending you to the south near the desert is where you will be most useful.”
Spymaster Bloodclaw used the opportunity to speak, “There are reports near a small village, of lights and chanting at night off in the distance. They claim golems, strange lights, and new denizens. I believe you will be able to find more answers there.”
“Why do you believe that?” Samson asked.
Bloodclaw stared at Samson for a brief moment. “For over one hundred years we have had little to no information on The Rift. Going south towards Death’s Desert will provide answers of some kind. For your group this is a threat that you can handle.”
Before Samson could speak further Advisor Willow interjected, “I believe that your skills would be better used at the heart of the problem. I propose that you go north east towards The Rift. This is where activity is highest and it has the largest number of threats to the villages that surround it. But be warned, the villagers there are a stubborn lot, not yet ready to leave their homes. On top of which there are reports of undead monsters that roam the foothills,” Advisor Willow looked down towards the table briefly, and then back towards the group.
“What aren’t you telling us?” Freya asked as she stared at the advisor.
Perceptive girl, thought the baron.
“Going towards The Rift will almost certainly mean your deaths,” Willow stated without emotion. “You are all very skilled, but The Rift holds immense powers beyond your understanding.”
Freya nodded with realization. There was something at stake for everyone.
“Either way there is a chance of death. There is even a chance of death if you stay here,” Bloodclaw stood from his seat. “The most important thing that you can do is go south to investigate further. We are in need of answers that have eluded us for far too long. There is more to know down there.” Bloodclaw’s voice was firm with warning.
“Having the help at the source is a more advantageous use of resources. More can be done to hold back the tides,” Advisor Willow stated from her chair.
Brightwind held up his hand before Bloodclaw or Willow could speak again – no doubt to restart an argument. Jolan had been watching the group as the others by his side had spoken. They all had their doubts and their fears, of that there was no question. But ultimately he trusted that they would help them. They were not the type to sit by and watch the world burn, which they had proven.
“As you can see there is much debate as to where we should send you,” Baron Brightwind stated as he got to his feet. He gestured towards Bloodclaw who, after a moment’s pause, sat back in his seat.
The baron looked over the group, his gaze landing finally on Captain Highwater. “This is why I am leaving the decision to you.” He noticed the slight tenseness that filled Bloodclaw as he spoke. Willow sat straight as a board, unmoving, with her hands resting in her lap once more. His guests couldn’t keep the shock from their faces.
Captain Highwater spoke, cutting through the whisperings of his companions. “With all due respect Baron Brightwind, but such an important decision shouldn’t be made on a whim.”
“I agree,” Bloodclaw stated from his seat.
“This decision is not on a whim,” Willow interjected as the voices in the hall started to rise, a mix of questions and confusion.
The baron held up his hands for silence. After a few brief moments the room was quiet once again.
“There is darkness surrounding our World. It is leaking through the cracks of the unknown to threaten my people and I will do everything in my power to protect them,” the baron paused as he looked at the group before him. “That includes using the strong to help the weak.” Brightwind took his seat once again, draping his long arms over the arms of his chair.
He thought for a long moment before speaking again. “Let me be clear, I helped you because it was the right thing to do.” He turned towards Freya and stared into her eyes. “You fought for the city, as a part of it. That makes you one of the strong. You are a part of my people,” his gaze swept over the others, “all of you are.”
Brightwind shifted in his seat ever so slightly as he continued, “What I ask of you all is not something I ask lightly. I am asking for you to give your lives should it be necessary. But I,” he held his hand to his chest. After a slight pause he swept his hand to include Willow and Bloodclaw, “We, need help. I have sent out as many groups, such as yourselves, as I can, and I will continue to do so. Those people of Aggramon willing to fight for it. Truthfully some have not returned and are believed lost. But some, a small few, have returned with invaluable information.”
The baron leaned forward in his chair placing his forearms against the table, his hands clasped in front of himself as if in prayer. “We are unprepared for what may be coming from The Rift and we have few left willing to fight. This decision has to be yours to make. I will not be another force determining the fates of my people. And make no mistake you are my people. That is why you must choose. If you are going to fight for Aggramon it has to be your choice.”
Baron Brightwind unclasped his hands and sat back in his seat. They needed the help, but he wouldn’t force them. He couldn’t do that.
“None of you are indebted to me or mine. Please, take a moment to discuss this among yourselves.” Baron Brightwind started to make himself a plate of food as his guests sat at the other end of the table unsure of what to do.
Eventually under the silence that followed, Captain Highwater convinced his companions to gather in the far corner of the hall, where they whispered, shouted, and decided amongst themselves.
As they did Bloodclaw and Willow grabbed food from the table and barely uttered a word. Brightwind had made his decision and there was nothing left to be said.
Brightwind was finishing the last bits of food when his guests sat back down at the table. He held a piece of thick cut bread in his hand ready to lap up the juices on his plate, “Captain Highwater, have you come to a decision?” He put the bread aside and took a sip from his goblet.
Captain Highwater stood and faced the baron and the others. “Yes Baron Brightwind, we have.”
“What have you and yours decided?” The baron asked plainly, leaning back in his chair with his goblet in hand.
“All of us are willing to fight for Aggramon. We will head south towards the desert in agreement with Spymaster Bloodclaw, if you will allow us,” Captain Highwater bowed low again towards the baron.
Baron Brightwind waved for Captain Highwater to take his seat. He then bowed his head towards the group. “If that is your decision I am in favor,” he raised his glass. His guests did the same, as did Bloodclaw and Willow. “To you and yours Captain Highwater,” he took a drink from his goblet as the others did the same.
He could tell that Bloodclaw was pleased with their decision. His demeanor had changed as the toast finished. Willow remained elegant as always, sitting politely with little outward emotion. He knew that she was alright with the decision, they were still gaining help that they desperately needed.
“Now that is settled, we will get you whatever you require for the journey ahead. For now, please help us partake in this food and some light conversation!” He raised his glass once more and finished off the wine within.
Jolan snapped his fingers and servants came in with more wine and ale. They stopped just shy of the table, waiting. Jolan, moving his hands in elegant patterns in the air, whispered a few words under his breath. As he finished with a sweep of his hand towards the table his guests found themselves sitting closer to Jolan and his companions.
Highwater was now sitting next to Bloodclaw and Samson was now sitting next to Willow. There were a few stares and hands on weapons as the table shrunk to become more intimate and the food became hot once more.
Baron Brightwind started to laugh, a low chuckle under his breath, as the servants quickly moved towards the table and started to fill glasses. His guests took a few moments to recover. Hunger, ultimately, won out as they started to fill their plates and relax once more.
Brightwind grabbed the platter with the fruit that was in front of him and held it in front of the captain. “You must try the grapes,” he said as Highwater took the platter. “They are exceptional this season!” He clinked his goblet against Highwater’s. As the conversation started to break through the awkward silence, Brightwind filled up his newly clean plate that sat in front of him.
We won’t be able to discuss the journey seriously if I’m still hungry. Best to not be distracted by such things, he thought as he grabbed another piece of bread from the table.