It has been long since I have felt the comforts of civilization. I forgot in some respects what it was like, having been away long enough to forget it all. Not that I regret leaving, but regaining the sensations of an urban life has certainly been welcome, even if it does come at the fair price of adventuring.
It is still unclear to me why it is the Silver Griffins come forth only at this time to wrest me from my isolation. I highly doubt that it truly took them so many years to find me. They may have known all along where I was; the woods are not so deep that it would take 56 years to find a single man within them. Why not act sooner? I digress. Their bargain was exceptionally generous. I fully expected to be summarily executed upon discovery, but I am thankful to receive a second chance.
Adi Singhasari, the man I was charged with escorting on his travels, is an amiable fellow. I can appreciate any man of great accomplishment. His passion for knowledge is genuine and refreshing. Upon arriving in the city of Shore Blossom, he went immediately to speak with Elder Yen. Though technically my job was done and my charges lifted, I felt bound by duty to see through this man's mission alongside him. So, I followed.
Elder Yen's Emporium is one of the biggest shops of its kind I've ever encountered, which is surprising for the small size of the city. I was truly impressed upon first entry. A total monopoly, to be sure, but good on Elder Yen for his capacity to run such a place. Elder Yen and Adi discussed the disappearance of Ten Flower, whom Adi had come to Shore Blossom to seek. It was likely that she was dead somewhere on the Coastal Road. Our mission then would be find her, enact her last rites, and put her spirit to rest. After Elder Yen handed Adi her compiled communications under oath that they would be well-treated, Adi and I both opened lines of credit at the Emporium. This process was interrupted by a rather obnoxious Wood Elf (who I later came to know as Naligor) who assumed he was included in our party. Rather presumptuous…
As Adi and I exited the Emporium with the intention of finding mercenaries to aid us in locating Ten Flower beyond the city's walls, we were chased down by a monk, Kodu, who had been sweeping inside and overheard us. He explained that he was willing to offer his fists to Adi's service if we in turn aided him in the location of some artifacts. At this point, they began speaking in Draconic. Why a human monk would know Draconic so fluently is lost on me, as was the rest of their conversation. To Kodu's credit, he did interrupt himself to apologize to me. In Elven! Huh! Fancy that.
Naligor joined us out front shortly after and offered his services as well, in Elven. The dialect of a Wood Elf. I do not consider myself as greatly bound by racial relations as some others of my kind, but I will never not find the minor linguistic disaster that is the Elven of Wood Elves to be grating on the ears. It's horrible, really, but we all switched to conversing in Common soon enough. Curiously, Naligor has mastery of some shape-shifting magic. A druid, I suspect. I've heard of them, though I have never really interacted with any. They're certainly nonexistent in the military. He took the form of a wolf and introduced himself to Charka. I cannot posit why she approved of him, but she did. And if she approves, then I must at least tolerate him for her sake. I sincerely hope she will not be going into heat anytime soon….
From Kodu and Naligor's back and forth, I overheard them mention one of their adventuring companions. If I heard them correctly and it was indeed Oransi that they spoke of, then our paths have crossed before. He is a healer for the Golden Wolves, the highest order of Royal Guard. Is a healer? Was a healer? Perhaps he too deserted and is in this town for his own reasons. If not, that is much worse. That means there is a reason for a Golden Wolf to be in this corner of the world and not in the capitol. I must keep an eye out for this fellow.
We all proceeded to The Rose Shell Tea House and Hostel, where we were told by Elder Yen we would find more adventurers for hire. The owner, Madam Saru, was as welcoming as one would expect. She hides much, I think. Every word she speaks is covering a deeper intention. My curiosities linger here. She runs a tight ship; her staff is incredibly well-trained. That, I can easily respect. And my gratitude to her as well. She was generous enough to compensate us a night's stay in her hostel, and she bid her staff to bring us some buns. Steaming hot. Delicious. I've missed this. (And sake. Oh god, how I've missed real liquor. Brewing nonsense in the boonies can only slake thirst so much).
Madam Saru regaled to us the tale of the table we were sat at. It was a map, incomplete, of the region, recovered during a rebellion and having sustained damages. She sought adventurers to map what was not there. Odiri, another of the party's adventuring companions, had done a slapdash job of carving additions to the map from a previous outing. She sounds to be… fiesty, to say the least. Naligor attempted to cook food directly on the table, discovering it was resistant to fire, but was quickly stopped by Madam Saru.
After an argument on the semantics of languages with Kodu, we came to the discussion of conscripting some adventurers, and at this point, Frivolity Ramshackle (what a name!), roused from his drunken stupor at the table to voice his interest. According to Madam Saru, as Frivolity himself was a number of drinks too deep to coherently explain, he was seeking a gate of some sort. To Sigil? I have not heard of such a place. In any case, the five of us were assembled.
The following morning, we moved to depart the city. Heading due north, we passed through the bustling merchant's district, following the main road through some distance of farmland. A rather peculiar sight, to see farmlands inside a walled city, but the residents must be feed somehow. It was rather idyllic. One long, empty road, flanked on either side by fields of grains and rice paddies. I considered briefly the possibility of such a life. But no. My cards have never fallen so simply.
We came at last to the wall itself. A massive, towering thing of hewn white stone. 50 feet in height, at least. At the exit, two guards. Kodu, Naligor, and Frivolity bantered with them as we left. I imagine they've built up some sort of rapport with them already. One of them wished upon us the blessings of the gods as he drew up the gate. Not to say he was a fool, but all the gods have long been dead to me.
As we moved beyond the gates and towards the Bamboo Sea, glowing keys of white jade appeared on each of us. Mine, as a mark burnt into the leather of my shoulder strap. Charka's, as a dark outline of a key in her fur on one shoulder. It was explained that these marks would return us by magic to the gates of Shore Blossom if the need for such return arose. Frivolity called it a curse. A curse, sure, but a rather damnedly convenient one.
We followed along the outside of the wall, as the texts left by Ten Flower indicated. Most peculiar was that the Bamboo Sea ended rather unnaturally at this border between civilization and not. Still with an inconsistency bid by nature, but there was no reason for there to be a gutter of only grass about 5 feet between the wall and the forest. That, and there were no trails to be spoken of anywhere in the forest. No game trails either. But game and other creatures do exist in the forest, according to the others. Animals simply must not venture so close to the edge? Strange things afoot.
As we walked, there was again discussion of language semantics, followed by Kodu's affirmation that, while fully capable, he would never kick a man in the ass. Finally, something we could agree upon. It's simply not honorable. The head is a far better, more tactical choice, in any case. However, I cannot abide by Kodu's suggestion of experimentations with the magic keys and finding volunteers who would agree to being killed for the sake of testing the keys' functions. While his quest for knowledge is admirable, it is deeply disconcerting at times.
After a 14 mile trek, we came to our first night's rest. On the mid watch, Naligor and I were ambushed by kobolds. My first arrow failed me, though it did grant me enough time to rouse the others from sleep. In the ensuing battle, Kodu snatched a kobold out of the air and drove it into the ground with his fist, killing it outright. I was sorely impressed and decided not to be on the wrong side of that man. Charka stepped in and killed a kobold who was heading right for me. Good girl. Adi cast a spell and knocked out the kobolds, allowing the rest of us to kill them easily. I had not yet seen him use any magic, and this first display was tactically excellent. Frivolity interrogated the single surviving kobold and convinced him that we were the enemies of their enemies. In 10 days, he was bid to return to trade with us. Ha! What a great ploy!
As that kobold scampered away, Kodu preformed Draconic last rites for the corpses. Kobolds they might have been, but all warriors deserve the honors due in death. The smell of flesh burning was a familiar one, though I tried not to dwell on it. I am no stranger to death by any means. But the fires turned white and a flash of brilliant white light engulfed them. The corpses were turned into a fine white dust, leaving only the smell of incense lingering in the night air. Kodu said that they were redeemed by Aion, his god. All are capable of such redemption, he said. I doubt that, truly. That cannot possibly be true for me….
The following morning we made it to the coast, heading east along it. We stayed primarily in the forest, as the terrain there was much easier to navigate than the intensely rocky shoreline below, only occasionally moving down to the shore where it was impossible to pass otherwise. A second night passed, though this one without incident.
On the third day, we continued through the forest. Naligor took the form of a ghost tiger, a creature some of the party had apparently encountered in the Bamboo Sea previously. It had not particularly occurred to me that Naligor could shift into things besides a wolf. It had been discussed among the party, yes, but seeing it actually happen was a whole different thing.
We were forced to a halt by blankets of spider webs in the forest. These simply could not have been ordinary webs and were certainly home to giant spiders. I have a particular dislike for spiders. I'd had quite enough of dealing with them in the woods and was keen to avoid them then, but tactically, I conceded that going through the webs would be the best decision. Taking a route around the forest would take too much time and likely lead to more spiders anyway, while the rocky coastline simply could not be navigated to any degree of effectiveness. There, we were more likely to drown. No sooner did we get into the thick of the spider webs than we were accosted by the queen and three of her young. Naligor transformed into a giant spider and spoke to them in a tongue I could not understand. The negotiation must have gone successfully, because the spiders retreated upwards and we were allowed to pass. Naligor picked me up and threw me onto his spider back. I've never ridden anything in my life beyond a horse. However, if I could have a spider for a steed, I'd pay fantastical coin. Never had a smoother ride in my life. Charka was particularly distressed for my safety and trotted along beside me as Naligor and I went along.
The forest was absolutely littered with kobold corpses. Where I was able to ignore thoughts of death before, here, they were absolutely unavoidable. The horrible sight was all there was to see. In the mutilated and decaying bodies, I saw reflections of the faces of my past. They were the fields of my slaughter in memories I tried for so many years to escape. Their belongings were littered about with the remains of their lives. The spoils of carnage. We scavenged the kills of unknown others and stole greedily from the dead. Necessary, yes, but at the cost of the dignity of life. I remained silent for fear that if I spoke, I would be sick.
Needed relief came when we went down to the shore. The sun had just begun to set over the horizon of the sea. Clear blue water, as far at the eye could see, under a sky of shifting colors. As I looked out, it occurred to me that I had not seen the ocean in 56 years. More than that, perhaps. We set up camp, and I stripped off my weapons and armor, taking off my boots to wade in the cool, refreshing water. I dug for clams, plucked seaweed, and caught fish after fish after fish, with all the glee of a child. It was a joy I had not known for quite some time.
We feasted like kings that night, and slept under a blanket of stars in the cloudless night. Charka curled about my head as she always did, allowing me to use her flanks as a pillow. These stars, I thought, were the very same that I had stared up at so often in the woods. But here, now, the difference was that they were not my stars alone. The sight of them was shared. With recent companions, and unconventional ones at that, but not in loneliness, at least.
The next morning, we did not have to travel far to reach the road. Two stone pillars of colossal size marked it with great Dwarven script: Imperial Coast Road of Shore Blossom. And still less distance we traveled until we came upon a corpse. A woman. Elf. She'd been there quite some weeks and was in very bad shape. Brutal violence had been done here. Adi did not need to look hard upon it to identify it as Ten Flowers. A terrible loss… I suspect he might have loved her, from his sorry look. I know that look well.
As Adi walked Kodu through the necessary last rites for Ten Flowers' faith, I could see that my Elvish companions were experiencing contemplations of our race's mortality as I was, though I doubt that either of them saw it as I did. Death, once so foreign a concept, had been made a close thing. Violence had become so dearly intimate. Just as easily as I myself have taken so many lives, I have had so many lives taken from me. Mortality is real. Death is inevitable. No gods nor monsters can change that. All things must die. Even that which once was once untouchable. Even that which is nearest to the heart. Even in paradise.
I did not return to life to see only death. This is not at all what I had wanted.
Ten Flowers' cremated remains were carried out into the sea, as is right and necessary. But as the sun of our third day set, a thick fog set in across the ocean, blackening the sky and turning it to night with an alarming speed. From the Bamboo Sea, another fog emerged, engulfing the forest. Thunder rumbled and the sky opened up with a drizzle of rain upon our heads. Something was terribly wrong.
A voice emerged from the mist, one that appeared familiar to Naligor, Kodu, and Frivolity. It threatened death upon us, and Kodu shouted back with death threats of his own. The voice called fourth a ghoul and three zombies, which swiftly came down to the shore to attack us. My performance was lackluster, I suspect an effect of my being out of practice from battle, though my companions certainly made up for my shortcomings. Adi performed distracting illusions as Naligor took the form of a panther and Kodu hailed his fists on the foes. As we dispatched the last zombie, the voice called back that he was not done with us yet, and the keys on our bodies began to glow.
Suddenly, we were returned to the gates, safe for the time being. But I have been roused to the call of bigger things. I exect to be venturing out again shortly…