Chapter 24:

Ashes and Flames I


Remembrance Moon 3, AS 632. The Grand Library, Apotheosis City, Sulmon Magocracy, The Sundered World.

“Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy” Appraiser said. The Sunviewers and Cyton stood in front of the burned-down ruins of the Apotheosis City Public Library, where they had hoped to find information on the symbol that appeared on the skeleton.

“Yeh, them skeley-tons really did it this time,” an old beggar who sat nearby said.

Cyton said eagerly “What was that? Skeletons?”

The old beggar nodded wisely. “They wandered into the library. Next thing I saw, flames were comin’ out the side. Not that I mind. A spectacle’s always good for the beggin’ business. Spare change?” Rachel tossed him a few coins as the party moved to examine the burned husk of a building.

As expected, no books were salvageable. The library had originally been three stories high, so there was an enormous amount of rubble from the collapsed two levels. Looking through this was pretty pointless.

“Look at this,” Appraiser said, holding up a mostly undamaged humanoid skull. The group crowded around to look. Sure enough, the inside held the same strange rune as the skull the previous night had. Dinah used her spell that caused her eyes to glow purple to confirm that it was indeed the same necromancy spell, although this one was broken because the skeleton’s body was too damaged for the spell to remain intact.

“So we still have no clues on where these things are coming from” said Rachel, holding the skull.

“Can I see that?” a voice asked.

“Sure.” Rachel handed the skull to the person behind the voice a split second before two things registered for the party. First, none of the Sunviewers or Cyton had said that; it was the voice that of a stranger. Second, the group appeared alone, meaning there was nobody visible who could have made the request.

Instantly, the Sunviewers and Cyton drew their weapons and prepared their magic, pointing them at the patch of air where the skull floated about head level. “Beist ye friend or foe, invisible being?” inquired Erenata.

“Neither, really,” the voice said. The light in that patch of air shimmered. It was like a mirage appearing out of the sun, although the day was cloudy. The shimmering, distorted air returned to normal after a moment to reveal two figures standing side by side. The first was a medium-sized female dragonkin holding the skull up to her eyes as if still examining it. The other was a familiar large, red-skinned fiendblood.

“Jotun!” Descartes exclaimed, running forward to give the man a hug.

He caught her at arm’s length. “While I hate to refuse the embrace of a lovely woman, I’m afraid you must have mistaken me for someone else. After all, I’m certain I would have remembered meeting one such as yourself.”

“What do you mean, Jotun? Remember that awful elf village?”

“I can’t say I do.” After a short pause, he said “wait a moment. Jotun? You know Jotun?”

Dinah stepped back, confused. “You are Jotun, right?”

“Ah, I understand now! Yes, it all makes sense.” The not-Jotun roared with laughter. “I’m Jorgun. Jorgun of clan Jormungandr. You must have met my cousin Jotun! People always say we look similar. I trust he's doing well?”

“Cousin?” This man looked exactly like Jotun in every way. He could have passed for Jotun’s twin brother, not cousin.

Before anyone could press the point, the other stranger, the dragonkin woman, spoke up. “I ought to introduce myself as well. I am Solnia IV, wanderer, minstrel, and cataloguer of the ancient lore of this world as my bardic quest. This, as you just learned, is Jorgun. He is my…” she turned to Jorgun. “Did we ever figure out what you do? Bodyguard? Boyfriend? Research assistant?”

“Let’s say traveling companion,” Jorgun said.

“Yes, right. Well, it is so interesting to meet you all in this newly-ruined center of knowledge.”

Descartes and Erenata introduced themselves, but before the rest of the party could, they all heard the sound of marching feet. Guard were approaching. “Shall we more somewhere else?” suggested Cyton. “Somewhere we look less suspicious than standing in the ashes of a library, holding a skull?” The suggestion was universally accepted.

The Sunviewers, Cyton, Jorgun, and Solnia IV made their way to a large nearby restaurant. It was nearly empty, so they sat in a private room at the back; Jorgun was so big that he had to sit with his back to the open door, part of him spilling out into the main portion of the restaurant. Solnia IV closely examined the skull, which sat on the table. She paid particular attention to the rune painted inside. After a few minutes, she set it down. “Interesting,” she said.

“What’s so interesting?” Rachel pressed, seemingly heedless of any reason to be suspicious.

“That rune. It’s actually an ancient symbol of Shitabii, god of Magic and Death. At least, mostly.” She paused as though for dramatic effect. “See those little lines coming out of the top? Those aren’t supposed to be there. Plus, the whole thing is too elongated. The Rune of Shitabii is supposed to symbolize domination over magic, but those two changes suggest the Domination over the God’s Realm. And arrogant pronouncement, but still effective in providing the base for necromantic magic.”

“You can tell all that?” asked an impressed Rachel. “That’s amazing!”

“Sure is,” added Appraiser. “We need this skillset on the team. I vote Cyton is fired and replaced with this chick.”

“Hey!” Cyton said.

Solnia IV continued. “I wouldn’t expect you to notice the differences unless you were well studied in lore of the ancients. A required topic for us scholar-bards, but uninteresting for most. And there’s one more thing: it makes no sense to revere Shitabii.”

“Why not?”

“Because Shitabii is dead, unquestionably. He is one of the gods that was unmade in the Sundering over 600 years ago. All the stories agree on this.” Cyton looked fascinated by the information, but Erenata shoved it aside.

“Then why wouldst any being bother inscribing this symbol in the heads of its mindless army?” asked Erenata. “To power the spell, mayhaps?”

“Maybe,” piped up the quiet Descartes. “A proper rune of the appropriate domain is important to cast a long-lasting spell like a corpse reanimation. But there would be no point contorting it. Actually, that would make the spell less effective.”

Cyton added “although for this small of a change to the rune, the difference in spell quality is negligible.” Everyone looked at him. “What? I know the basics of magic. I just can’t do much yet.”

“So how do we learn what’s really going on?” asked Rachel.

“Hit people until things work out?” suggested Jorgun.

“That’s how we solve most problems,” answered Descartes.

Cyton put his chin in his hand. “This city is controlled by a guild of powerful mages known as the Magocracy. The Archmage Ruler oversees the Magocracy, but based on Appraiser’s digging, it sounds like his death is still secret. It’s being covered up. So the Magocracy will pretend everything is normal. That includes fancy balls they throw every few days.”

Appraiser chimed in. “The rich and powerful love to gossip. And since these rich boys are all stupidly powerful mages…”

“…They might know something about the undead and the symbol.” Solnia IV finished the sentence. “But how do we get in?”

Erenata suggested “what if we disguise our personages as servants?”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Cyton suggested. “Once we’re inside, we can listen in to conversations. The undead attacks seem like a big deal, but not classified or anything. So somebody will probably say something. Even if not, we can leave the distorted rune the skeletons had somewhere. With some luck, some mage will get curious and start talking about it to someone nearby.”

“That’s optimistic,” said Descartes. “And how are we getting in?”

“Leave that to me,” Solnia IV said with a confident grin. She snapped her fingers. A silvery dust appeared from nowhere surrounding Jorgun, temporarily obscuring him from view. When he became visible, it was no longer the muscular fiendblood. Instead, Jorgun appeared to be a frail old human man. “The illusion’s not perfect,” admitted Solnia IV. “But it should get us through the door.”

“Man, the things I could do with this skillset in the party…” She looked meaningfully at Cyton again, sending a ‘why-don’t-we-fire-you-and-replace-you-with-this-girl’ look his way. He made a rude gesture in return.

“We should get serving uniforms, too. Just in case,” Rachel suggested.

“And the entry plan must be perfect,” stressed Cyton. “If we screw up, well, we’ll be surrounded by a bunch of very power, very ticked off magic users.”

Coming up with the perfect plan was easier said than done. The discussion lasted over an hour. Arguments went in circles about how to acquire the uniforms, whether to split up or stay together, what to do if they got caught, and stupid things like the necessary amount of paper to carry to take notes of any useful conversation. Finally, after over an hour of argumentation, the group could only settle upon the plan ‘get in, try to get the information, and don’t do anything stupid.’

Appraiser and Solnia IV left to, in Appraiser’s words, “acquire the supplies as subtly as possible.” They returned about an hour later with some mysterious stains on their robes and a new bruise on Appraiser’s left hand. They refused to say anything about what had happened but presented seven server’s uniforms.

After doing more investigation, Appraiser easily found out that the next major ball was two days away. The group spent the intervening time hiding in a seedy tavern on the fringes of town. Adventurers were still technically being rounded up for the war effort. None of them had any interested in being drafted, although Jorgun did wistfully mention that he wouldn’t have minded fighting the strongest that Farrus had to offer. Also during the downtime, Solnia IV chose seven servants who were often seen entering and exiting the target mansion. She explained that she would use her illusions to make the group look like those seven. Rachel asked Solnia IV how she intended to make sure the original servants didn’t appear to cause any problems. She refused to answer, but she subconsciously touched the stain on her clothes, proclaiming that it “wasn’t an issue.” The rest thought it best to let the matter drop.