This is the last time I will control your character. Enjoy!
"Like I says," The dirty, scruffy peasant said again, in illiterate Common, ”Ya want to pass, you gotta pay the toll. Dangerous times, master, you understand. Just leave it on that rock thar, and we'll let ya through.”
The heavy-set man thumped his fist hard on the rather rickety looking barricade that crossed the road, made up of hastily cut trees, salvaged barn timbers, and heavy bales of wet hay. Not a trivial obstacle actually, at least for those cursed with simply mundane skills. Still, for Novox, this whole thing bordered on farce. Like a bored student looking over a simple problem that stumped his duller classmates, Novox, once again considered the situation.
To his left lay the Tomarsulk River, the same watercourse that had stalked them for the last week or so. It was slowly changing from the placid brown ribbon to a fast-flowing river with white foam cascading over rocks. Novox wasn't sure which version of the river he liked better, although the slow churning stream had been quieter at night, at least. Along side sat a dirty, insignificant village, dun colored with thatched roofs. It wasn't even big enough to have a mill or a a temple, for the God's sake. Farther, across the river, lay the dark green of the Barrowood one of the largest forests in Cheliax.
On his right, lay the green rolling fields of Cheliam, the breadbasket of the Empire and tediously boring. Full of small cottages and farming towns, in peacetime, these roads would be full of farmers taking goods to market, and bringing in the harvest. In the current chaos it is a patchwork realm of bandits, hold-out Thrune loyalists and independent noblemen running private armies. Over the last few days Novox has seen several burned out remains of villages and more then a few unburied bodies. If someone didn't take the situation in hand soon, not only would the harvest be ruined, undead would be roaming the land.
Behind him lay the road back down the river, ending at the Lake of Sorrows, where their boat had been sunk. It hadn't surprised Novox, not really. The captain had been poor, selected for his political reliability and not his skill. Sailing at night with full lamps? On a lake infested with pirates? Idiocy. While he would have preferred heading upriver on a boat, he doubted that brain-dead imbecile would have gotten much farther before encountering some easily avoid disaster. Farther back, across the Lake lay....Egorian. His birthplace, his home.....his future. A broken shell of a city full of squabbling bureaucrats, haughty nobles and Majestor Quinus Thrune whose grip on reality left something to be desired. Still, it was the font from which all power flowed, the nexus of authority and Novox wished he was there, getting his share. But no, first he had to prove himself worthy, and earn the respect (and favors) he needed by succeeding in his given mission.
Which brought him to what was ahead of him. Just one good day's ride ahead lay Dekarium, a large town that dominated the upper Tomarsulk, commanded a strategic position in the fruitful Cheliam Plains and access to the lucrative Barrowood. An important location, and it showed at least someone back home could read a map and use their brain. Dekarium was famous for three things, an overabundance of fey-blooded sorcerers, very talented fishers and an independent spirit that had flirted, but never quite crossed the line into treason during the Thrune period. The first two made it a valuable addition to the struggling remnant that Quinus Thrune claimed, but the third is why Novox was being sent. His task was, on paper, a simple one. Investigate the city, judge the current loyalties and leverage those most in favor of Quinus into power. Simple on paper but in practice....likely to be headache. Just sorting out who supported who would take days, let alone engineer a pro-Thrune coup (if one was even needed). Regardless his first needed to get to Dekarium, which brought him back to the gaggle of filthy peasants blocking the road. His road forward, to his destiny.
At his side, a man snorted in derision. Novox turned to his sole traveling companion, a parting gift from his so-called 'superiors' in Egorian. He went by 'Hax' and was a big man with bronze skin that spoke of distant exotic climes (or perhaps merely a life spent outdoors). Whatever his dubious loyalties (Novox had no illusions he could trust the grim looking man), the wizard had to admit he was intimidating, a very useful quality on the unsafe roads. Novox hadn't see the man use the heavy bastard sword on his back but guessed Hax was quite competent with it. Few men gained that many scars without learning a thing or two, if he lived through it.
Hax locked eyes with Novox, deep dark blue against the tanned lines of his face. The man tiled his head slightly as if to silently indicate, 'Well, when are we going to start?'
Ah yes, the peasants. Novox turned his attention back to the ramshackle barrier ahead. About a dozen peasants, maybe more, are visible although the barrier is high enough to hide crouching men and women. Novox doubts there are that many more, there pathetic hovels can't house that many more, even supplemented by this illegal 'tolls'. Most are armed with farming tools like axes and scythes but a few seemed to have scourged swords or spears. Novox doesn't see any bows, but who knows what might lie right below the barrier.
"Oh, they've got you now, chief."
You could hear the smile in the imp's gruff voice, even if you couldn't see it. Of course, this would be especially difficult to see now that he was in the shape of a raven. Most found it difficult to smile with a beak. His master had bidden him assume this form as a precaution; travelling with a literal incarnation of evil sitting on one's shoulder tended not to make for the best first impressions.
Well, not among the common folk, anyway.
"Surely you've met your match this time," he continued croaking. "There's no way even the mighty Narsus Novox, Novox the genius, Novox the prodigy, could surmount such a challenge as this. I mean, they tore down at least two pig sties building this thing. At least. Why, even..."
"Shut up, imp."
"That hurts, chief. I have a name, you know."
"I do know. A true name. And once I learn it, I will command you to pluck off your own wings and eat your eyes."
"Geez, someone's in a mood... Shutting up."
And shut up he did. It was true; the imp's master, Narsus Novox, was not in the best of moods. And this wasn't just due to the delay, or the boat sinking, or the dimwitted peasants, or even the dung he'd just stepped in - it was this place. This place reminded him of his birthplace. He hated it. From the smell of the waste and offal to the creaking of the flimsy shacks, all of it took him back to the slums of Egorian. Like stepping back in time, just setting foot in this sad excuse for a village felt as if he regressing to a boyhood very different from his current lofty self. And Novox did not, could not, accept any form of regression. The last twenty years of his life had revolved around nothing but advancing his personal and social power. Going back was not an option. The world did not stop at one's leisure and if you weren't advancing, you were falling behind. And on that note it was time to leave this sh*thole behind.
"You there," he addressed the would-be toll collector.
"You ready to pay now, mister?"
"How long is that plank you're leaning on?" the wizard said whilst retrieving pen, ink and paper from his pack.
"How. Long. Is. That. Plank..."
"I heard you the first time, it's just... I dunno, just over three feet, I su'pose?"
"Mhmm. And the thickness, four inches?" Novox continued, not looking up from the whatever it was he had begun scribbling.
"I reckon thereabout, yeah."
"That will do."
If this exchange was mystifying for the peasants, it became stranger still as this tall traveler with the expertly maintained beard and imposing eyes said nothing more but merely walked over to the riverbank, still writing away with furious and deft strokes, stopping only to survey the landscape every now and then.
Know (engineering): 1d20 + 15 ⇒ (12) + 15 = 27
Some minutes later Novox was satisfied with his work and strode back to the barricade with purpose in his step. There were, of course, a great many ways the wizard could penetrate the piddly blockade. It was a ridiculous obstacle, really - the wall could no more hold him out than it could a dragon, capable as he was of both flying over it or burning the whole thing to the ground. But he was no dragon. Oh no. He was so much more than that. He was Narsus Novox! Novox the prodigy! Novox the genius! No mere flying lizard, he hadn't earned his reputation by torching every hurdle he'd ever faced. No, the wizard was here to save all of Cheliax. And that included these idiot plebs.
"You, with the finger up your nose, listen to me."
"Whaddaya want now? You won't pay, you won't leave, what do you want?"
"Tell me the name of your... quaint little village."
"What do you wanna know that for?"
"I thought I should ask seeing as I have the chance. After all, every other settlement I've passed so far have been nothing but smoldering ruins and charred bodies. Villages much like your own. If nothing is to remain of you in two weeks time, then perhaps at least the name might survive." The hard edge in the wizard's commanding voice became more pronounced.
"... Are you threatening us?"
"Not I, you fool! Surely it has not slipped past you that we are a nation at war! Bandits, or worse that scoundrel Imbrex, are roaming the heartlands taking whatever they please, robbing you of everything that should be yours. There is no law but that which is enforced, and with no crown to implement the law they have impunity to do as they please! How long do you think before the raiders set their eyes on you? What then? What happens when a party of twenty, thirty come upon you and your barricade, and see you obstructing them in going wherever they care? I know what happens then. I have seen it. The same exact thing that has happened to every other village I've passed, except they will kill you not for profit, but for pleasure!"
The silence that followed the harsh words was loaded with tension.
"... Here. I have something I'd like you to see," Novox continued after masterfully pausing for maximum effect. He folded the paper from earlier and gave it to Bilbastis the imp, still in his feathery guise, to fly over to the villagers by the wall. Once delivered, the page opened to display a dense diagram with accompanying calculations that almost looked like...
"It's a draft for a watermill. And it is your only hope. If the bandits come here, they will see your blockade as a sign of defiance and attack you. Dismantle the wall and use the materials to build that watermill. I've run the numbers; the structure is sound. You are situated perfectly along the Tomarsulk where the current is neither too fast nor too slow. It's perfect. So much so that I even offer my own knowledge in magic to see the construction to a good start."
If the peasants were skeptical, Novox gave them no time to protest.
"The Fields of Chelam are in disarray right now. But where there is chaos there is opportunity. The bandits only know how to plunder, they cannot produce. And with so many other villages destroyed, the entire nation is crying out for grain and wheat. In other words, the lands are open for your taking. Collect the harvest now being ignored; with a functioning mill, you could name your prices. And should the scum turn up at your doorstep, give them what you can spare. They are merely human, and every army marches on its stomach. They will not kill you if they rely on you for survival. The calculation to the side of the sketch is a rough estimate for what you could be earning in just a month's time."
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (18) + 13 = 31
The numbers Novox presented the villagers with were not fantastically impressive, but they were surely more than what they were taking with the barricade. On a similar note, one could argue that all this planning, all this thought the wizard had put into bettering these peasants to ultimately circumvent one measly wall, was a lot more effort than, say, simply burning them all to the ground with a flick of his finger.
Narsus Novox would interject by saying that this is why he's the smartest man in Cheliax. Any old buffoon could destroy an obstacle with fire and fury. It was the mark of a genius to make said obstacle work in your favor. And besides - these villagers might all be idiot peasants, but they were Chelaxian idiot peasants. They died whenever Novox damn well pleased, but until then they should work for the glory of the empire.
"Well? What say you? The current war shan't last forever, and when peace and order return these lands will go to whoever is most qualified. Will you die in anonymity like the rest, or will you take this opportunity to establish a legacy that will outlast your children's children?"
Hax watches the interplay with obvious interest, raising a dark eyebrow when Novox presents them plans for a watermill. He fixes with the wizard with a hard to read gaze, almost appraising. Novox wonders what sort of tests and judgement are going on behind those dark eyes.
Meanwhile the peasant 'leader' stares at the diagrams as if it were covered in ancient Azlanti. He shakes his head slowly, clearing not comprehending the mathematical formulas Novox had sketched out for him. Was his plan going to be undone because these peasants were too thick to understand the gift he was handing them?
Then the man waves a hand and shouts, "Oh, Ellis, get over here!"
Novox can see, through gaps in the barricade, a spindly halfling hurrying over with that obsequious shuffle that screams 'slave'. The peasant hands Ellis the diagrams with a flourish then turns back to Novox.
"Ellis here is real smart." he says conversationally, like one might talk about a particularly fine horse or mule. "He was a blacksmith apprentice in Dekarium itself, you know. Very impressive. Been doing all kinds of work around her. Helped old Sextus built his new barn a few years back. Good head for numbers and all that."
Ellis says something too low for Novox to hear and the peasent chuckles calling, "Ellis says you write real nice." The irony that the peasant apparently can't read but the slave can seems to be lost on the dirty man.
After a few moments of further conversation the peasant waves again and says, in a louder voice, "Ellis says the plans are good. Give us a bit." A few of the peasants gather around in a huddle, Ellis among them.
Meanwhile, Hax steps over to Novox and says, voice a mixture of surprise and suspicion. "A watermill? They hold us up for ransom and you give them plans for a watermill? Have to say, I did not see that one coming." The man stands at least a head taller then Novox and is broad shouldered but not muscle bound, wiry muscles standing out like metal cords.
The fighter lowers his voice to a rasping whisper, "Are you honest about it or is this just a lie to get their guard down? Just curious."
Eventually the peasant waves again and says, "Fair enough! We agree." Then, as if thinking this is too generous and easy-going, adds sharply, "But we will have a blade at your back while you work, so no tricks!"
Slowly the barricade is opened up, flanked by the motley peasants.
So this was how he had felt, Novox thought whilst waiting for the peasants to reach a conclusion. This was how the fiend he'd bartered his soul to had felt when he'd forced it to wait: like a lion pressed to wait upon sheep. It was intolerable, every second a fresh cut to his pride. It was only the wizard's great self-restraint that kept him put as the villagers debated, looking nothing so much like a bunch of gibbons trying to decipher poetry. Or a schematic diagram, for that matter.
Self-restraint aside, however, Novox nearly lost his head at the sight of Ellis.
Oh no no no, are you relying on the SERVITOR RACE for arithmetic?! Have you no dignity?!
Narsus Novox would have told you that the second a Chelaxian had to be advised by a halfling was the second Cheliax as a nation and idea was over. And yet here they were. He grimaced at the half-man's compliment on his writing.
Lords below, I should have just torched the rabble on sight...
I heard that, Bill the imp piped in within the wizard's mind, gifted as he was with telepathy. And yeah, you really should have. Face it, chief, your 'chosen people' are as dumb, vapid and fallible as every other walking meatsack on this world.
Shut up, imp.
Worse even! And I should know; why do you think we devils chose Cheliax? Dumb, vapid, fallible, and vain to boot. Perfectly, perfectly human...
Whatever reproach Novox was about to sling back to his familiar was interrupted by the approach of Hax. The sellsword (as the wizard assumed him to be) had not been overly talkative so far on their journey, which was exactly how Novox preferred it with hired help. He didn't trust him any farther than he could fling him. Which wouldn't be very far, the wizard thought as he looked up to catch the taller man's eyes. Still, making allies wherever possible was very much Novox's business, so he saw no reason not to be cordial.
"Are you honest about it or is this just a lie to get their guard down? Just curious."
"Of course you'd think that," he sighed like a teacher answering a particularly insipid query from the very dullest of students. The wizard's criterion for 'cordial' were unfortunately somewhat skewed.
"As a mercenary you're not accustomed to think beyond the stated objective. 'Protect the coffer.' 'Kill the usurper.' 'Guard the agent.' Job done. Next task. That is not a luxury afforded to one such as I. I must see the larger whole. Yes, I am honest in saying that men need food. I am honest in saying that the breadbasket of Cheliax needs to be harvested by someone, and even in saying that making themselves useful is these fools best chance for survival. This war won't last forever. And when it does end and my work turns to repairing the infrastructure of the entire nation, what do you think I'd prefer to see on this miserable patch of mud then? A functioning village ready to contribute to the larger machine that is Cheliax? Or the putrefying corpses of some idiots you and I murdered?"
The barricade opened as if to punctuate the statement.
"Fair enough! We agree. But we will have a blade at your back while you work, so no tricks!"
"How very reasonable." The sarcasm was so thick you could put it in a bowl and call it oatmeal. But the man hadn't gotten to where he was without keeping his wits about him, and so tried to watch the peasants for eventual treachery.
Sense Motive: 1d20 + 10 ⇒ (12) + 10 = 22
Striding in as if he owned the place (Gods, no), Novox marched right up to the stretch of riverbank he'd already already picked out as the most ideal spot for a watermill and raised his hand. The ring there glinted faintly with unnatural light, and suddenly the waterfront rose to make a low stone wall, as tall as it was thick and some twenty feet long.
"There. The axle of the wheel will rest on there. I'm sure your Ellis can direct you from here."
You know, on that subject, chief... I've been wondering what your Chelaxian sense of superiority has been resting on... Turns out it was just on little people, huh?
Shut up, imp.
Using the bonded item's daily feature to cast Expeditious Construction.
I wondered how Novox would take a halfling being considered the expert. Loved it.
Hax locks eyes with Novox as the wizard lectures him about his duties and role in this assignment, as well as the brief aside about the wisdom of investment in Chelish infrastructure projects. Even for Novox, who prides himself on his ability to read people, in sure what is behind the blue eyes of his erstwhile traveling companion. However there was a slight tightening there, among the tanned wrinkles that spoke to Novox of....calculation.
When he finally speaks his voice is low but firm, edged with a forgien accent the wizard can't place instantly. "Narsus Novox, I may or may not be the hired help but there is one thing you do know and I want you to keep it firmly in mind. You did not hire me."
The fighter adjusts his stance slightly, a strange mixture of relaxing his muscles and easing his stance. Like a cat idly considering a pounce. "Now, I actually like you, as far as it goes. You have a way of solving problems that appeals to me, like this watermill. I think we could work very well together, in time. However, if you talk to me like that again, it might put a...strain on our partnership."
The man does nothing as crass as touch the hilt of his blade, merely flexes one powerful hand, a fist then back again. His voice is not threatening, not aggressive just....serious.
"Do you think this will be a problem?" Hax says, head slightly tilted.
Reply however you see fit. If it makes sense, I shall proceed with your building
The townsfolk crowd around as Novox effortlessly moves earth and stone to create the foundation. Magic isn't exactly uncommon and the spell not a particularly uncommon one but still. In a village this size, any sort of magical effort was worthy of note. Novox can feel dozens of sets of eyes on him, all tinged with wonder and awe and it feels....right.
Anything else or are you good to shake the dirt of his pigsty from your feet? If you push hard you might reach Dekarium by nightfall
The taciturn mercenary, as it turned out, had something of a defiant streak in him. As his voice turned hard, Hax was met with the unwaveringly (perhaps infuriatingly) superior gaze of the wizard, even standing a head shorter as he was, but was otherwise allowed to speak. Novox did not interrupt him. Instead he merely listened and finally, when Hax had said his piece, smirked.
"You're proud. Good. A man should be proud."
Was that a glint of respect in the wizard's eyes? It was hard to tell; the man's demeanor towards everything had defaulted to detached disdain since Hax had met him.
"Very well, Mr Hax. If that's what it will take to ensure our cooperation."
And that was all Novox had to say, turning from the sellsword to begin the construction. However, as was so often the case with him, there was more left unsaid. In this case the wizard wondered whether Hax had any idea of the magnitude of the mistake he'd just made. Pride, pah! Was the whore proud when she sold her body? Why then should the mercenary be proud when he sold his? No, what the good mister Hax had was conceit, unfounded arrogance - in other words, a weakness. And nothing could delight Novox more. Understanding a person's weaknesses was the first step in controlling them. Hax might make a decent tool yet.
"Really, chief?" Bilbastis croaked as the crowd ooh'd and aah'd at the wizard's magic.
"Speak your mind, imp."
"Shouldn't have to. I can peer into your head as readily as you can mine. I'm asking if you really can't see the irony?"
"I'm not overly fond of irony outside the opera."
"Oh c'mon. Narsus Novox, grand-master of everything overblown, the man with the ego so large it can be seen from Nessus, is giving this poor bastard sh*t for having a little self-respect? It's the height of irony. C'mon on now, chief, don't make me worry about you - I know you're arrogant, but I'd hoped you're not delusional."
Novox turned his head to the familiar.
"The mark of delusion is the belief in something false. I am Narsus Novox. When I say that I could have snuffed out the sellsword five different ways, eight should I put in some effort, had he drawn his weapon, I am not delusional; that's the truth. When I say that the entire nation will be defined by my actions in the coming months, that's not conceit; that's reality. I am the smartest man in Cheliax - Were I any less proud, then I'd be delusional."
Bilbastis looked into the wizard's eyes, and knew that he meant every word.
Yup, think we're good for moving on. On that note, are we on foot or did some horses survive the sinking ship?
Alas, all the horses were lost so you are trudging through the countryside like some commoner, unless you summon up some horrible monster to ride?
A shadow of a smile crosses Hax's weathered face then vanishes as he says, "Your magnanimity will be the stuff of legends, Narsus Novox." The bigger man pauses then says, "It is not 'Mister Hax' just....Hax." His accent grows stronger for a moment, gilded the word with a rougher patina that sounds alien to the Chelish wizard.
It doesn't take long for Novox is cast his spell and get ready to move along. He had already spent more time in this dung-heap then was probably healthy. If that theory that bad air causes illness, it was amazing they hadn't all dropped dead already. However, even as Hax and himself tried to extricate themselves from the town, people gathered around. For one wild moment Novox thinks they are about to be attacked but not. Instead people start handing them letters and bits of papers.
Letters. They expected him to pass letters and other mementos to those in Dekarium, now that safe travel has broken down. Judging from some of the snatches of shouts her hear, it has been weeks or months since anyone has heard from upriver. The wizard hears rumors of everything from monsters to bandit armies roaming the roads but it obviously just wild rumor by ignorant peasants.
"Ooh, letetr carrier. Very fine, boss." Bill interjects, "I forget, which Chelish Emperor was it that started as a mailman?"
Feel free to reply however you want to the peasants. I do assume at this point however you don't fry them all, so I'll assume you leave peacefully enough (even if you castigate them for loading you down with letters). However, if you do change your mind and start cursing them, just ignore this below
The town slowly fades away behind them, hidden by the slightly rolling hills. The muddy road under their feet grows finer, showing more signs of regular use. Always a clear indication of a larger settlement ahead. Dekarium must be close. Hours pass as they silently march forward, Hax's long strides covering ground more easier. The wiry fighter looks like he could walk like this for days, or weeks, without tiring. A useful skill, Novox supposes, for would-be martial tools.
Finally, they crest a small rise, the road becoming broad and smooth, flanked by large shade trees. At the top, the view ahead opens and Novox can see much.
Only a few miles away, he can see the town of Dekarium. A much battered wooden palisade sweeps out from the river in a curving arc, encompassing a rambling hub of wooden houses and shops, around a inner core of solid stone buildings. Dozens of rickety-looking piers reach into the river, like searching fingers. Fishing boats are tied there, more then Novox expected, considering the chaos in the land. Apparently war didn't concern fishermen? One bridge crosses the river entirely, leaping it gracefully in a series of stone arches. Beyond it, on that far bank the overhanging boughs of the Barrowood loom, midnight trapped under their branches.
However, Novox's eyes are drawn to something much closer at hand. The road he is standing on, runs down the short hillock and straight to a gnarled old wooden gate in the city. However, across it and along it are tents. Lots of tents. Enough to hold a few hundred, maybe more. They weren't orderly in military fashion exactly but there was some pattern beyond just randomness. Armed men and women paced around, sitting around cookfires or drawing water from the fast flowing river.
"A siege?" Hax says.
Novox thinks not however. While not exactly a military man himself, he would have expected entrenched lines, soldiers in formation, and a more completed envelopment for a proper siege. No this was something else.
"Oh, I almost forgot." Hax says, reaching a hand into a punch, "I was told to give you this if you made it to the city. I suppose this counts."
In the man's tanned and scarred hand is a small square of folded paper. Even without holding it, Novox can see words written on.
To Be Opened by Narsus Novox only
Below that is a large, ornate seal of gold and red wax.
"Ooh, letter carrier. Very fine, boss. I forget, which Chelish Emperor was it that started as a mailman?"
Novox almost grumbled before catching himself; he liked to think he was above grumbling. And truth be told, it was really just the villagers getting overly familiar with the wizard that bothered him. The parcels could be an opportunity. Delivering them might make for an adequate excuse for entering Dekarium, and, assuming the peasants were only half as addled as he suspected, could even include some information useful to himself. Narsus Novox was not above reading others' mail; on the contrary, such standards were beneath him.
The next hours' walk was not easy for Novox. The man wasn't unfit exactly, but his pride was such that he forced himself to keep up with the abler and long-legged Hax. Under no circumstance would he be the first to ask for rest. When the two finally came upon Dekarium, it was an odd sight that greeted them.
"Why wonder when we can find out?" Novox replied, trying very hard not to let any sign of wear show in his breathing. He then promptly started towards the camp, but did not get far; the sellsword had something to show him.
"Hmph," the wizard snorted, obviously not pleased. "Nothing else you're forgetting to tell me, is there?"
Within his own quiet mind Novox cursed his superiors in Egorian. If there was anything the wizard hated, then it was operating without all the facts. If he found out that the fools had sent him here under outright false pretense, they were all officially on his sh*t list.
Then again, he thought, looking at the ornate seal on the letter, this might come from Majestor Quinus himself. Novox sighed in opening it. Sometimes he wondered if the Thrune was worth the effort.
I should note, just because I didn't mention them, Dekarium does have buildings other then just houses and shops. You are at a bit of a distance, but Novox did see something that might be a church or temple among others.
Should I assume you looked through the villagers letters on the way or not?
Hax looks unconcerned by the acid in Novox's tone, "If I remember, I'll tell you. But I didn't forget this, it was to wait until we arrived. At least, those were the orders I was given."
Novox takes the letter and carefully cracks the seal. It is the seal Majestor Quinus is using, currently, a wheel of dark spikes surrounding a disc of stylized flames. The paper is fine, expensive, clearly from the old royal stocks dating back before the current troubles. The highly organized Chelish government used lots of paper, and even Quinu's remnant devoured the stuff at a prodigious rate. Already most offices were being forced to substandard stuff that was nearly as rough as sandpaper.
The wizard unfolds the neatly folded letter and is greeted with....a blank page.
Hax steps over, seeing Novox's face. "Right. They said I needed to speak the password." Novox of course, knows about such spells and has used them plenty of times himself. A handy and quite potent way of keeping nosy letter carriers from reading the mail.
"Magni Animi" Hax says, stumbling with the unfamiliar words. The fighter might not know the words, but Novox does. That is ancient Azlanti, virtually a dead language whose only real sue these days are in Cheliax among the more traditional theater productions and pompous intellectuals. That phrase means 'great mind'. A compliment for himself? Doubtful. Whoever wrote this had an ego to match Novox's own.
As soon as Hax speaks the words, inked lines start to appear on the page. "All yours." The big man says, stepping away as to be unable to read the rapidly coalescing words. At least he had a sense of discretion about the doings of his betters. Then the wizard focuses on the words in front of him.
The message itself is fairly short, written in a fine and learned hand, quite a world apart from the hasty and half-legible scribbles from those villagers.
Forgive the addition of these instructions but consider the trip to Dekarium as a minor test. I did not wish to share the following with someone unable to even reach the city. Note, the following is in addition to your previous orders, which the throne still expect you to carry out successfully.
In the name of His Infernal Majestor, King Quinus of the Thrice-Damned House of Thrune, you are ordered to enter the Barrowood and aid the secret fey village of Everpine. The inhabitants have been quietly promising sizable rewards for aid and you are going to offer your talents. What Everpine needs exactly has not been made clear, but it seems to relate to the arcane, which should suit your skills. Success in this will be rewarded, and failure will be punished accordingly. May Asmodues himself guard your secrets and your steps.
Signed, Epaphras Iyyov
Epaphras Iyyov.....Novox knew of him, of course. In many ways, Iyyov was exactly who Novox wanted to be. The man had been a fairly minor functionary in the old government but had caught Quinus's ear during the chaos. Now he was one of the strongest factions behind the throne and was rumored to be as cunning and cruel as any of the old Thrunes. Novox knew the man fancied himself a great scholar and man of learning, hence the Azlanti name he had given himself and the password for the letter itself. Iyypv had many enemies at Quinus's court but, when the wizard had left, had been the most potent of the King's advisers.
"Anything of interest?" Hax says casually, "We still going into the city? Or at least the tents?" The sun glimmered dully off his dusty, worn leathers and thin sheen of sweat on his skin.
Novox's hand trembled. The paper under his fingers - it was soft as a mistresses's skin. He knew of only three paper mills in the nation that could make product of this quality, and they had all ceased production in the current troubles. How had Iyyov managed this? Sweat beaded on his forehead. He felt sick. Did Iyyov have access to the royal stores? No, he couldn't. Novox had never been granted any such privilege. He couldn't possibly be respected so much more highly than himself. Could he? The paper... The subtle off-way coloring... The tasteful thickness of it... Oh my god, it even had a watermark.
"Anything of interest?" Hax says casually, "We still going into the city? Or at least the tents?"
"Yes," Narsus replied, brow knitted and eyes still on the letter. "The mission has not changed, just expanded. Tell me, Hax, how do you feel about the fey?"
He folded the paper and placed it into his backpack where it disappeared into its own little miniature dimension. Novox was not altogether fond of the fey. They were too unpredictable, too fickle - as allies or tools they weren't reliable enough, and certainly not the partners he would have chosen. But then the wizard was perfectly aware that his cause needed all the help it could get. Still, he had to wonder: what problem could incite the typically evasive fey to ask for outside aid? This must be serious. And with serious problem solving came serious prestige. Novox smiled.
"I am being tasked with assisting the fairy-folk of Barrowood with some small matter. But we should head for Dekarium first; we'll need directions before entering the forest."
"Woah, hold on, did you just say fairies?" Bilbastis interfered, sounding a fair bit more excited than his usual lackadaisical self. "Oh, this is gonna be great. Those chits are wild. Never been with a fairy, but the stories... Oh ho ho ho! I mean, I don't mind the big girls, of course, but sometimes it's nice with some tail that can't literally crush you underneath their, you know, tail."
Novox ignored his familiar and set out for the town. It was the only sensible option; he was fairly sure that the imp's carnal desires were just an act put on to annoy him. And damn, if the fiend didn't succeed in this more often than not.
Going for the tents to see what's up. Will ask the nearest person what's what and why all these people have set up here. I'll roll a Diplomacy check for it if you prefer...
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (9) + 13 = 22
And yeah, I think we can assume Novox skimmed through the villagers' letters on the road.
Might as well do the letters first then
The villager's letters are mostly boring and mundane scraps of paper sent to some distant relative or loved one asking for news and reassurance. Most are barely legible and filled with misspellings and cross-outs. Only two really catch the wizard's interest.
One is addressed to a 'Thirus Undershale', asking about a previous order of plows and spades from his smithy. The phrasing implies Undershale is a person of some means and import.
Another is a letter sent to the 'Mayor of Dekarium', Lalita Jireen worrying about river pirates and if any naval aid can be expected from Joreen's much larger town.
Hax shrugs casually, but Novox notes a guarded emotion there, only for a moment. "Fey? Those things who live in the woods and lead people into bogs for fun? I've never had any dealings with them to be honest, although the story goes they can't be trusted for anything. Then again, what in Cheliax can be trusted? What do they need help with?"
The man's eyes narrow at Bill's needling joke but doesn't react otherwise. Hax had rarely reacted to anything the imp had said during their travels, ignoring the small creature. It was almost like... disdain, although Hax hid his feelings well. It was annoying how hard this fighter was to read.
Novox ignores both of them, and they walk openly down the small crest, following the road. The last thing he needed was to let the imp's insinuations or Hax's background distract him.
They don't get very far before reaching a small picket, set along side the road a ways out from the camp. Five people sit around a fire, arguing over a game of dice. All are armed with swords, axes and daggers. One has a strung bow lying at his side, propped against a quiver of arrows. The guards, as Novox supposes they are, are wearing a hodgepodge of clothes, ranging from dirty workingman's leathers to remnants of Chelish military uniforms. As the wizard approaches, the group stands up and spreads out across the road, creating a thin barrier of bodies.
"Whoa there, stranger." One of them says, a tall gangly man leaning on a long handled battleaxe. "Who might you be and where are you going?" His tone is casual but edged with command, an expectation he is to be obeyed.
The guard with the bow has fitted an arrow, although they hold it loosely at their side, not pointing at Novox.
Hax grunts and says, only loud enough for Novox to hear, "Should I tell them we are watermill salesmen?"
"Something magical and no doubt terribly clever," Novox replied to the mercenary's query about the nature of the Everpine problem. "That's why they saw fit to send me."
Just as I hope to see why they sent you, the wizard silently finished his thought. He had an inkling that Hax was not just here at some whim of their superiors; certainly he was not the average sellsword. But this was a question for another time. It was late, Dekarium was in sight, they needed to find accommodations, and so Novox strode onward right up to the five oddly shabby guards, seemingly standing watch not so much over the town as the tent city outside.
What is it with this place and roadblocks?
"Should I tell them we are watermill salesmen?"
"For both our sakes, I hope that your sword is sharper than your wit," he hissed back.
"Good evening," Novox then continued, turning to the watchmen, in a voice clearly deliberately softened from its usual imperial self. The effect was something like that of covering the edge of a blade with a pillow.
"I am Novox, this is my travelling companion," the wizard said indicating Hax. "We have some business in town, chiefly delivering a few letters."
Novox held out some of the mail, just close enough for the guards to be able to read the name of Dekarium's mayor. The miserable peasants earlier had at least done something useful in their lives if they could provide him with a fair cover here.
Bluff: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (17) + 13 = 30
"Now, who are you and who do you answer to? And if you will permit a few questions, we are new to this place - where have all these people come from, and why have they camped outside the town walls?"
Don't know if you want to keep the earlier Diplomacy check or if you'd prefer I roll anew, so...
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (16) + 13 = 29
Roadblocks are useful narrative forces! I'll try to shake it up.
The assembled watchmen eye Novox suspiciously but he feels he totally fooled them. "A letter carrier? No one said anything about those." The lead guard says, then, with obvious relief, "Our orders are to stop everyone and get the boss. Pin, go and get him."
One of the guards, little more then a boy, nods and runs up the road toward the collection of tents. He is fast at least.
In the awkward silence, Novox asks his questions. The guards seem wary of answering but one of them, a rough-looking woman missing most of her teeth says, "We are Decius's Fighters, from all over, banding together. Haven't you noticed-"
She is cut short by the man with the axe who says, curtly, "We can let the boss do the talking, Drusilla." He turns back to Novox, "You can ask him everything you want, stranger."
I assume you wait? if not, feel free to retcon the following
Again, Novox gets that suffocating, penned up feeling. Is that what this mission will be? Held up by ignorant worms at every turn? How long could he stand it before he blasted these people out of his path?
Novox doesn't have to wait long, thankfully. Shortly two figures come back down the path, one being the spindly 'Pin', Novox's interlocutors sent. The other person however, is cut from quite a different cloth from the ragged youth.
A tall, straight backed man wearing a Chelish uniform, although it has been removed of any rank or title. A well-kept but blank slate of red cloak and burnished steel, a world away from the dirty rags and remnants of the others. He is armed with a heavy sword at his belt, hilt gleaming dully, like his helm. Interestingly, as he steps closer, Novox notes his arms and hands are fully covered, including leather gloves.
The other part around the uniformed man, nodding in respect. One even gives a haphazard salute, clearly never having been trained how to give one. The newcomer ignores them, only having eyes for Novox and Hax. His eyes are dark and deep, like liquid pools of ink, unreadable as the night sky.
"Ah, greetings travelers." The man says, bowing shortly to them. His voice is firm, not rough but with an accent that says 'lower class' to Novox's trained ear. "My name is Decius and I am in command of the forces arrayed about you. I apologize for any inconvenience you may have suffered but these are dangerous times. Please, forgive us."
"Pin here says you have some letters for those in town? May I ask where you are coming from? There are few peaceful travelers on the roads these days, as I am sure you are well aware." A quick glance to Hax and Decius adds, "I assume you are peaceful travelers?"
"Pin here says you have some letters for those in town? May I ask where you are coming from? Th..."
"No, actually. You may not."
The regal tone had returned to Novox's voice, and with a vengeance at that. Drawing himself up to his full and not-inconsiderable height, with arms at his back and chest thrust forward, the wizard's dark eyes took on the assured luster only afforded to men of great conviction. He looked a sovereign state given form. If this Decius was an officer, then Novox was a king.
"What we are, are free subjects of Cheliax. Our business, our comings and goings, are of no concern to anyone but ourselves, and we owe answers to no one but the crown and her representatives. You have no right to question us."
"Yes," he continued quickly, before anyone could voice the obvious objection, "you may argue that the throne sits empty and the nation is at war with itself! You may say that the laws of yesterday do not apply now. I say that is precisely why two travelers must stand up for themselves. Civil war is here! With no governing body, the only order and decency in Cheliax now is that which her sons and daughters practice. The highest authority in the nation now are you and I, the ordinary citizen, and if we cannot maintain propriety without the good Queen Abrogail and her devils prodding us in the back, then what are we?"
Novox let slip a pregnant pause. He was fond of those.
"I know what I am. I am Chelaxian. And like every other Chelaxian I bear the future of the nation on my shoulders now. That is why, when two travelers on the Queen's road are stopped in the night by armed militants of unknown origin, I know it is my duty and pleasure to deny them everything. You are the one intruding upon us, Decius, not the other way round. Who are you? What is this band of yours? What are you doing here? These are the answers you owe us."
It was defiant. It was reproachful. It was a call for national unity and morality and even hope. And it was as false as the father of lies himself. Well, only mostly. Novox didn't particularly like lies. They were a tool like any other, but he much preferred truth bent to serve his purposes. What he wanted was answers and some small compliance from these faux-soldiers. With the introduction of this Decius, when it quickly became obvious that he wasn't going to get these via courtesy, the wizard had decided to change approach. Like everything else he did, this new tactic was not random. Having observed the group's haphazard uniforms and pseudo military conduct, clearly stemming from aspiration rather than experience, Novox hazarded a guess that they might be receptive to authority and calls for social order. This was his gamble.
"Now, if you are decent folk merely protecting Dekarium in these troubled times, then you have my admiration and gratitude. But I will not apologize for taking a stand for decency. Nevertheless, as a sign of goodwill, I will give you the same answer I gave your people: my name is Novox; I hail from Egorian, as you've no doubt already surmised by my accent; And I'd like to enter the town to pass on some messages."
Of course, Bill the imp would have said that the wizard's stratagem was born less out of a quick risk/reward assessment, and more so out of just being a presumptuous ass plain tired after a long day. And this would not be untrue.
I'll roll as many Diplomacy checks as it takes! Hi-yah!
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (15) + 13 = 28
A flare of anger sparks deep in Decius's dark eyes, kindled by Novox's words, seemingly kindled out of some older, and deeper wound then the wizard can see. One of his hands tightens, going for the hilt of his blade, eyes narrowing. At Novox's side, Hax takes a casual but obvious step forward, knees bent, body loose, the stance of a fighter on the edge of violence.
Then the moment passes, the anger vanishes out of the uniformed man's eyes and he masters himself. The man nods in cold and formal respect, "Fair enough, Master Novox. But as you say, civil war is upon us and all is in disarray. Much of what was once certain is in doubt and not all on thew roads are who they appear to be."
He waves a gloved hand toward Novox, "You, for example, look harmless enough but your friend there is carrying a mighty large letter opener." One of Decius's men risks a smirk at the quick insult at Novo'x appearance but says nothing.
"But, as you say, I have no right or need to block two travelers on the road, if they mean no ill will to either Dekarium or Cheliax. A word of warning if I may though, Master Novox. I would not speak so freely or openly of the crown, new or old. The city was not overly friendly to such talk before the current troubles. Now? Who can say what such declarations may bring? Much has changed."
He waves a hand and the commander's men shuffle off to one side, leaving Decius alone on the dusty road. The tall man eyes both Hax and Novox for a long moment, dark face unreadable. Then, slowly, he paces off, leaving the way forward to Dekarium clear.
"Be on your way, Master Novox and may your letters bring glad tidings to the heavy hearts behind those walls."
"A word of warning if I may though, Master Novox. I would not speak so freely or openly of the crown, new or old. The city was not overly friendly to such talk before the current troubles."
"We all owe alligiance to the throne, Mr Decius," the wizard added, "if not whoever sits upon it."
This said Novox nodded in farewell to the man and his strange band, vaguely annoyed that they had avoided answering a single of his questions. No matter. He had other means of procuring information.
"Imp," he said suddenly, the word carrying not so subtle tones of derision.
"Still here, chief," chirped Bilbastis from the wizard's shoulder.
"I recall you having some low thoughts on mail carriers earlier. Here," he said, shoving the barely legible paper scraps into the familiar's beak. "Deliver those to the good people of Dekaris."
"Aw, c'mon, chief. This is pointless. This serves no purpose beyond..."
"Beyond humiliating you, yes. Get to it."
The raven that was not a raven let loose a sigh so heavy it could sink the isle of Kortos, and then flew off. Novox considered it of utmost importance, as a diabolist, to regularly disgrace the devil. It was the Thrunes' greatest mistake: the art of devil-binding was not in making accords with the cursed things; it was in coercing them. And professionalism aside, he enjoyed it. Few things convinced him of his own superiority than out-manipulating the greatest manipulators in the multiverse.
And on the subject of manipulation, Novox looked to his hand at the two letters he hadn't given Bilbastis. 'Thirus Undershale' and 'Lalita Jireen'. These seemed like good points to start.
From the second story window Novox looked like a stern headmaster surveying a fresh flock of freshmen for potential mischief-makers or rabble-rousers. In truth, however, the wizard wasn't watching the townsfolk walking the streets below. No, he was listening to them.
Thud-thud-thud sounded the footsteps of Dekarium. People walking home from work. People skipping to their leisure of choice.
Novox had an ear for rhythm. Of course he did. Why shouldn't he? He was the smartest man in Cheliax. There was no reason the ears that adorned his head should be any less gifted than the matter within said head. But with such talent came certain inclinations. Beyond a great appreciation for the opera and a natural advantage at dance, the wizard's ear for rhythm often led him to a curious recurring thought: that he calculate the composition of any community by the sound of their footfall. It was of course an idea born just as much from his fierce mathematical intelligence and sociopolitical drive rather than any sense of rhythm alone, but Novox was convinced it could be done. He listened to the men with their long strides, the women with their shorter, lighter steps, and the children, shorter still and irregular. It could be calculated, he knew it. Already his prodigious mind was at work, translating the pattern of one demographic into values ready to be plugged into a formula rapidly taking shape within his head. Thud-thud-thud. The relative structure of a population calculated by sound; what a novel idea! And not just that, it hadn't escaped him that the gait of these Dekarians was markedly different from, say, that in Egorian. Perhaps the theory could be taken a step further. Perhaps there was a mathematical formula for expressing the temperament of a populace vis a vis footsteps. Perhaps...
Novox stopped himself. No, no more of this nonsense. He looked at his reflection in the window. The most important man in the world glowered back. He was Narsus Novox. Yes, of course he could calculate whatever far-flung concept his brilliant mind could dream up. But he wasn't the smartest man in Cheliax because he indulged in whatever scholastic fancy took him. He was disciplined. He spent his time wisely. He couldn't afford to do otherwise. The nation could not afford him doing otherwise. He was not one of those useless academics squandering their talent on some obscure subject that would ultimately result in an indecipherable tome to be read by a handful of other useless academics and then promptly left to rot on some library shelf. His time was precious and he would use it all to save Cheliax and her people!
And with this in mind, it was time to get to work. The wizard needed information. His mission could not be completed without a better understanding of Dekarium. General information would do for now, specifics would have to wait. And while he could perhaps learn a great deal about the community with time, abstract math, and the rhythm of the people, Novox knew he could gain much more by just invading their minds with a few seconds of magic. Sluggish ingenuity was no match for quick and brutal efficiency.
He sat down on the floor of the lodgings, crossed his legs, spread out the spell components and spoke the incantation. Immediately the wizard's eyes rolled back in his head and Narsus Novox could no longer really be said to occupy the inn. Not his conscious mind, certainly. Instead he was among the people, inside a maelstrom of raw data, flitting from one soul to the next absorbing snippets of info in flashes of memory and debate. It was pure zeitgeist distilled and forced upon him. Even in the chaos of voices the spell inundated him with, the wizard managed a sardonic smile: Narsus Novox, man of the people, indeed.
I really like the spell Ears of the City. Assuming I'm reading it right, I get six questions that are answered as well as any average person of the town can answer them. This includes biases, false rumors, misunderstandings and everything else that comes with asking the ordinary person anything.
Question 1: What is Dekarium's stance on the civil war?
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (15) + 13 = 28
Question 2: Who does Dekarium support in the civil war?
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (9) + 13 = 22
Question 3: Who is Lalita Jireen?
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (14) + 13 = 27
Question 4: Who is Thirus Undershale?
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (14) + 13 = 27
Question 5: Who is Decius and his band?
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (9) + 13 = 22
Question 6: The heck is up with the tents outside town?
Diplomacy: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (11) + 13 = 24
Novox is unbearably egotistical. Amazing
Hax and Novox pace past Decius and his picket lines, heading down the muddy road. Silently they pass the clusters of tents, spotting more poorly dressed and haphazardly armed people around them. All eyes fix on the wizard and the fighter, but no one moves or says anything. It is oddly unsettling, even for Novox. What exactly was going on here?
Soon they come to the gates of the town, massive wooden constructions. They look old but well preserved, heavily lacquered timbers cut from the Barrowood long ago. The gates stand half-open, with only a few guards standing around. They wave Novox through after only the most prefuntionary questioning. More armed men look down from the rough battlements above. The feeling is tense here, an expectation of trouble and violence. Novox notes the guards glancing to Decius's soldiers outside, and not with friendly eyes.
Moving into the town proper, the first thing Novox senses is....how crowded it. In the official census reports, Dekarium only held three and a half thousand people before the current troubles started, mainly fishers and others making a living from the river. Now, the place seemed packed with people, overflowing onto the streets. Hax grunts at his side, stirred from his usual silence, "Refugees. Standing walls attract people at a time like this."
Novox is forced to agree with the fighter's assessment. The streets are full of people, and most back alleys seem strung with tents or crude lean-tos while every house and building seems stuffed with people. Even the porches and shop awnings show signs of habitation, anywhere to keep out of the frequent rain. Still, they didn't look too hungry or oppressed so someone was feeding them (and that there
was food to to give, not a certainty in the current times).
The city itself is made almost entirely of wood, quite different then most Chelish architecture Novox is used to. Cities like Erogain tended toward heavy stone and angular lines, built for both imposing intimidation and defense, a heritage learned from Hell itself. But this city was full of graceful curves and sweeping wooden buttresses, reminiscent of nature and growing things. Much of it was ornately carved, grape vines seemed to be a favorite motif. Much of it looked very old, the buildings stained and weathered by time, but upkept well with new repairs where needed. Novox reminded himself that this town had deep roots, much older then capital which was only a few centuries old. With ties to the river and the wood, Dekarium operated on a much longer perspective then Cheliax as a whole.
A quick tour offers three inns. You may choose in ooc at the start of your next post
The first is a rowdy riverside establishment called Hark's Catch, seeming to cater to the fisherfolk and the river captains. Strung out right along the river, it has its own dock for those who arrive by boat. Drunken songs drift out over the water from the open windows.
Second is the White Tree, a elegant looking establishment in the middle town. Painted a blinding white, it has wide porches and private verandas for the room, giving it a airy, outdoor feeling. The ground floor is filled with small round tables, spilling out outside for diners. Already many of these are filling up, apparently the place is a well-regarded restaurant as well as a resting place.
Last is a ramshackle looking building right next to a large wooden building Novox guesses is a wharehouse. It looks newer, or at least recently renovated look with fresh wood and newly painted doors. There is no name or sign posted but the place is lively with many young people coming and going, with many of the rooms having their own doors. Honestly it reminds Novox more of a boarding house then an inn.
The wizard does find a small stone building, on the edge of town that appears to have once been a hostel for those of more....traditional tastes. Dark frowning stone, narrow windows and imposing gates. However, it looks deserted and no one answers when Hax hammers at the front gates with his fist.
Your choice. I'll go ahead and follow up on your post since where you stay shouldn't effect it.
Alone at last, Novox casts his spell. Instantly his mind's eye is filled with random images, blurred visions of the streets of the city. Accompanying this bewildering visual display is a cacophony of voices, snippets of conversations a blur of overlapping voices. It is like a tidal wave of information pouring over Novox, filling his eyes and ears almost to the point of physical pain. Slowly the wizard masters it and picks out what he thinks is the truth, woefully aware of dangerous that assumption can be. In Novox's mind, the questions float like messages suspended in water, surrounded by information...
What is Dekarium's stance on the civil war?
The current violence is bad for business, for one thing. The river is full of pirates and the roads crawling with bandits. As a nexus of local trade routes, a breakdown of order is always bad. Many also dislike the influx of refugees. More faintly, although pervasively however is a positive reaction tot he current crisis. A sense of...relax of restraint, a freedom from oppressive central government.
Who does Dekarium support in the civil war?
Novox gets little here, few of the people know much of the civil war happening outside and fewer still have interests. A few people have gone off to fight for this group or that, or to find fortune and favor but most have stayed here and minded local affairs. Deep roots....
Who is Lalita Jireen?
The long time Mayor of the town, respected by most. Seen as a useful guard against the outside world, with deep connections with the local community. A human woman with rumored arcane powers, which is not uncommon as fey-blooded sorcerers are common here.
Who is Thirus Undershale?
One of the few non-humans in town, Thirus Undershale is a dwarf who runs a sizable blacksmithy complex on the edge of town. Respected but not liked, he is gruff and keeps to himself, except for his sizable workforce. Indeed, apart from the fishers, he probably has the largest organization in the city. Despite being a second generation native, he is regarded as an outsider.
Who is Decius and his band?
Few know more then Novox himself. Apparently a few weeks ago Decius arrived out of the east, with armed men at his back. Not quite a warlord but clearly not taking orders from anyone else. Decius bills himself as a decommissioned officer, but so far no one has heard of him or knows his (former) rank. Jireen is providing food and medical services to the people outside, in probable exchange for Decius to not sack the city.
The heck is up with the tents outside town?
They house Deciu's slowly growing force. He is gathering strength from smaller bandit groups and others who wish to avoid being trampled in the violence sweeping the nation. There are only about four hundred strong now, but still enough to probably take the city with a determined push. Recently Decius has even started drilling the 'troops' although the attempts cause more laughter from the watching citizens then training.
Whew, ok, got everything?
I have subtracted 14 gp for Hax and Novox's stay at the inn.
Jolting in his seat and taking a deep breath, Novox returned from his magical sojourn. It wasn't his first time using this particular spell, nor would it be the last, but splitting one's consciousness into a thousand pieces and then forcefully reconstituting it wasn't one of those experiences you got used to. He collected his thoughts, newfound and foreign, before they slipped away. So, the good Decius fancied himself a commander? Well, he was a fool. For a leader of men he allowed himself to get awfully exposed. The wizard could have killed him when they first met, then and there. Perhaps he should have.
Novox mulled it over. While the man apparently claimed to be an officer out of active service, that really only translated to him either being a liar at best or a deserter at worst. The nationalist wizard did not appreciate any officer not actively aiding the country in this time of need. Never mind serving under Majestor Thrune - they could march under the banner of his nominal enemies for all he cared, so long as they fought for Cheliax. He could at least respect the intent. Heck, he might even think that much higher of them for not throwing their lot in with that idiot Quinus... Still, the man had 400 warriors under his command. Not experienced warriors, by all reckoning, but 400 willing and able bodies was nothing to sneer at in the current unrest. Novox pondered. If an agent in the Majestor's service sent out to make a simple assessment were to return with a small army to add to the cause... Why, that would be no mean feat. That's the sort of stuff one earned promotions for. The wizard smirked. Now the question was whether he needed Decius alive for this...
"You really shouldn't smile at your own thoughts, chief. Bad habit."
Bilbastis the imp, in all his impish glory, was lounging in the windowsill, wearing a sardonic smirk of his own. It was difficult to say when he had entered, but the window certainly hadn't been open when Novox began his spell.
"Besides, you have the evil grin of a shark in a seal orphanage. Could reduce a child to tears, I swear..."
"I don't permit you to live for your canny insight, imp. And on that subject, I don't recall allowing you to resume your wretched natural form either."
"Hey, my 'form' is two feet of pure lady pleaser. And..."
"Why you gotta be like this, chief? And relax. I'm just stretching my legs. Nobody's going to see me. Do you have any idea what it's like to stay transmogrified for hours on end? Like contorting your leg behind your head and holding your breath at the same time. It's exhausting."
"Then it is my utmost pleasure to order you to transform immediately. We're going out."
Novox fasted his travelling cloak again and felt the raven that was his familiar land on his shoulder with a heavy sigh. He then spent a few minutes magically cleaning his clothes for dust and grime, partly to look presentable and partly to let Bilbastis know that he could have allowed him some scant extra minutes of rest but chose not to. Torturing the imp was a distant but ever-present priority. The wizard then exited the room to find his bodyguard.
"Did you deliver the letters?"
"Yeah yeah. Took twice as long as it should have; even when the address wasn't all smudged, the damn idiots can't spell for sh*t. Had to fly all over town..."
Good, Novox thought. This meant that the imp had gained a working and useful understanding of Dekarium's layout. Which had of course been the wizard's intent. Who said abuse and practicality couldn't go hand in hand? Not Narsus Novox.
"So where are we off to, chief?"
"I'm going to introduce myself to a Thirus Undershale. He's a man of some influence here and could be of use to us. It's a bit late for an audience, but then dwarves sometimes keep odd hours. Shouldn't have any need for our escort, but we'll bring him along for formalities' sake."
"Right, been meaning to ask - the big guy's been hanging about for a while now, silent and ever present and scaring away the girls... Bit like a giant genital wart. What do we think of him?"
"I think of him as any other tool. He is to be utilized, not trusted."
"Chief, that's just how you feel about people in general."
Novox finds Hax sitting in the hallway, tending to his blade. It is quite the dichotomy the gleaming white corridor and the bulky, dusty man gliding a whetstone along the silvered blade. The fighter looks up at the wizard and nods, "Business?" He glances at Bilbastis and frowns fleetingly but says nothing else.
The trio (counting the imp) head back into the streets just as dusk starts to descend. Despite the lateness of the our, the city is busy and in many ways, seems to be coming to life. Cheap bars and taverns are lit up, street performers appear on the corners, and gambling dens seem to pop up like mushrooms. It all has a certain frantic quality however, an edge of desperation. Using idle amusement to push back reality for a bare second. All is not well in Dekarium.
It doesn't take long for them to find the blacksmith, and Novox is actually somewhat impressed by the scale of it. No mere smithy, it is instead a industrial complex of multiple foundries, wharehosues, storage sheds and work areas, all set around paved plazas. There is little of the customary graceful wood here, everything being utilitarian stone, stained with soot and grime. Men and women bustle about, pushing wheelbarrows filled with coal, carrying tools or simply passing orders to other work crews. The place has an oppressive feeling of industry and toil, with the harsh stink of coal dust and hot metal in the air.
In short order they enter a large stone building, iron girders holding up a vaulted roof. They walk into a stygian world, the air heavy with smoke. Novox tastes grit on his tongue, acrid and sharp. Blackness fills the space, only broken by orange tongues of leaping flames or the dull pulsing red of hot furnaces. The sounds of ringing metal pound on Novox's ears, nearly drowning out the shouts and mutters of voices and heavy boots.
"Reminds me of home, boss." Bill says brightly, gazing around.
From nearby they suddenly hear a rough voice rise above the din, "Gods damn you, where are you going?"
Novox can see little past the smoke and gloom, but there seems to be two figures standing together near an open kiln.
"Going home? Why, cause the sun went down? You think I give a broken pebble about the bleeding sun?" The voice goes on, "You'll work when I say you'll work or you won't get paid. There, simple enough for you?"
Another voice, drowned out in the industrial clatter.
Then the first voice laughing, "I would like to see you try, stripling." A pause then, "Exactly. Get the Hells out of my sight boy, before I use you to feed the fires."
A pale, ashen faced young mans tumbles from the murk, pushing past Novox and Hax without a word. Following him is a balding dwarf, braided beard black as midnight. He is wearing dirty working leathers, stained from long use. A short but heavy looking hammer rests easily in one hand.
"Damn, nature worshipers." he mutters before spotting Hax and Novox.
"Who are you two and why are you standing around my forge?" He says shortly, eyes narrowed.
A successful entrepreneur. A leader who did not suffer impudence from subordinates. A diligent laborer. A grounded soul who valued practicality over the sentimental. Novox was finding a lot to like in the dwarf. A shame he wasn't a proper Chelaxian.
"Thirus Undershale, I presume?" the wizard asked before venturing further. His commanding voice carried quite well in the din of the complex.
"My name is Narsus Novox, representative of Majestor Quinus I of the Thrice Damned House of Thrune. This is my associate Hax. I'd like a word with you at the earliest opportunity on matters of national importance. I hope that we can help each other. But I shouldn't interrupt your work; some other time perhaps?"
Was it trained social wiles that led Novox to take a respectful approach with the gruff smith? Or was he simply so arrogant that he could not imagine being turned away after the self-aggrandizing introduction? The truth, as it so often does, most likely lay somewhere in the middle.
"That said, I should hand you this." He pulled the crumpled piece of paper from an inner pocket.
"Here. A letter entrusted to me by some farmers. Your business must be flourishing. Or are you too suffering in these lean times?"
Thirus takes the note from Novox brusquely, reading while speaking automatically, "Business is good, when I can get ore in. People who make weapons do well in war. Less ploughs, more shields, less spades more pikes."
He crumples the note with a snort and tosses it into a nearby furnace, incinerating it instantly. The dwarf turns his dark eyes on Novox and Hax in turn, sizing them up like a carpenter eyeing a troublesome knot of wood.
"So you are the one in charge then?" He finally says to Novox. Hax merely shrugs, a casual roll of the shoulder that reveals little. Thirus grunts at this then shouts over the din of metalwork, "Grimm!"
In the fiery gloom a figure moves toward them, at first little more then a indistinct shadow. It quickly resolves into a shirtless half-orc so muscular he is actually hunchbacked, gnarled from his over developed shoulders. Even with the deformity he is nearly as tall as Hax and moves with easy dexterity over the jumbled floor. A heavy leather whip is at his hip, and a iron truncheon in one large fist. The iron band of a slave's collar is around his neck, glittering with fresh oil. The half-orc says nothing but merely stares at them, eyes glinting in the dark.
Thirus ignores the slave and says to Novox, "I am always working, so interrupt me now. What is this about? Be quick about it and save me the titles, I don't give a bit of slag for Quinus or any other Thrune at the moment."
"I am always working, so interrupt me now. What is this about? Be quick about it and save me the titles, I don't give a bit of slag for Quinus or any other Thrune at the moment."
"Then I shan't mince words: I am here to conquer Dekarium to my cause."
The words were spoken as breezily as if the wizard had only asked for directions to the nearest latrine.
"Civil war is upon us, as you yourself say. And no-one can remain neutral in a war between everyone. Dekarium has faltered indecisively for too long. It is time it chose a side. I am here to ensure it makes the right choice. I had hoped you could be part of that effort."
At the half-orc's entrance, Novox cast a disinterested glance at the bastard. The wizard has consumed enough literature to know that the unfortunate results of unions between man and orc were not necessarily, not even typically, as simple-minded as their green skinned progenitors. That said, he still viewed them as abominable and hoped that this Grimm was every bit the slave his collar indicated.
"I understand you are a man of means and influence in town, Mr Undershale. Were you to leverage those assets for Majestor Thrune, I would ensure due compensation. A king's gratitude is worth its weight in whatever precious metal you care to name. And beyond such hypothetical rewards, I'm sure you yourself realize the immediate benefits you stand to gain in Dekarium choosing a side in this conflict, any side. Wars require weapons and 'people who make weapons do well in war', as you say. Your business is situated well here, isn't it? Almost uniquely so. So close to the heartland and with both the Tomarsulk and Adivian river for transport... Why, if the town was active in the war, you'd make a mint exporting arms."
Novox roamed the forge whilst talking, taking in all the sights, sounds and smoldering smells of the complex. Under different circumstances he would have feigned interest, but that was wholly unnecessary here. The mechanisms and half finished projects of the place did genuinely interest the engineer in him.
"Of course, even if I fail and Dekarium remains stubbornly neutral, you will have plenty to see to right here in the forge. The question is whether you'll be toiling with gold in your pocket or iron around your neck." Novox cast a meaningful look at the half-orc's collar. "You've seen all the refugees out there. What they're fleeing will be on your doorstep soon enough, Mr Undershale. That is inevitable. War is coming to Dekarium. What happens then? Will Lalita Jireen order you to arm the town militia for a pittance during a long siege? Or will you instead be forced, at sword-point, to arm the horde of whatever bloodthirsty warlord sacks the town? Most likely one followed by the other."
Shadow and light played rather dramatically over Novox's face as he looked into an open forge. He was confident the effect was suitably striking.
"Thrune operates out of Egorian, Mr Undershale. It is Dekarium's closest neighbor of any importance. Help me ally the two and not only will Dekarium be that much safer, you will have easy access to an army that needs armaments. Whether Thrune wins or loses, you profit."
Glancing around idly, Novox can't help but be impressed by the engineering in the workshop. Heavy chains run the the iron ceiling, linked to intricate blocks and tackles, set on studded tracks. The furnaces seems to have an ingenious set of bellows and he even spots a crude conveyor belt leading off into the ashen shadows. Of all the he has met, Novox has a feeling Thirus might just be able to follow the finer points of his own keen mechanical mind. Dwarfs were famous for it, he supposed, if you believed that sort of thing.
Thirus takes in Novox's words silently, his heavy overgrown face revealing little in the gloomy darkness. Around them the din of the smithy works on, seemingly as monotonous and timeless as the groaning of the earth itself. Novox, eyes' adjusting, can see scores of sweating slaves beating cherry-red metal, looking pale and weak against the roaring flames. Others shovel coal into the hungry furnaces, while yet more simply lug around ingots of steel. But not all are slaves, Novox spots several free men doing more sophisticated work. This Undershale, at least, understood the value of tools.
Then the dwarf speaks, eyes glinting in the dark, "Beware the gem that glitters too brightly, for it is often glass. The same might be said of words, Master Novox, and often has." Still, his tone is not cold or unfriendly, more of a musing quality. Novox could sense his fish nibbling the bait.
"But you fail to mention one possibility, at any rate." Thirus goes on, "I back you and you fail, and all of your allies are strung up. It might not be gold or iron for me, but a hemp knot and a sudden stop. A wise man never discounts the worse."
He glances back at Hax, "Is he your entire army? Not enough to quite take Dekarium by storm, well armed or not. And eve with my lads backing you, still not enough." he lwoers his tone in mock secrecy, still nearly shouting over the industrial clatter all around, "There are druids about, Master Novox, and not so easily scared by a bit of iron. And besides, what about that rabble at the gates? I haven't been out to look myself, but you hear things. Armed men and women, under the banner of a captain? Maybe I should be looking for him, eh?" Novox can tell this is a trivial thrust, not serious.
"But you fail to mention one possibility, at any rate. I back you and you fail, and..."
For the briefest of seconds, Novox simply stared at the smith. Gone was the assured and easy confidence that usually dominated his features, instead replaced with an expression exceedingly rare on the wizard: utter bewilderment. He looked like Undershale had just voiced something incomprehensible - as if he had objected to Novox's perfectly reasoned sales pitch by arguing that everyone knew Majestor Thrune was really three abyssal hamsters in a cowl - as if he had deliriously broken into song - as if he had opened his mouth and banana custard had dribbled out. For that brief second, Novox could not comprehend what the dwarf was saying. But then how could he? The idea that Narsus Novox could fail was incomprehensible.
Prodigious intellect kicking in, the second passed and he recovered. Yes, of course, Novox failing in his task was a far-flung theoretical possibility, in much the same way whittling down a mountain with one's teeth was possible in theory. It was just such a distant possibility in practice as to disappear completely. Thirus Undershale had to be forgiven for this blunder; he did not know the wizard, nor was he blessed with the latter's genius, so he could not possibly understand.
"Fair points, Mr Undershale," the wizard replied gregariously, "but I am not suggesting armed revolt just yet. I have only just arrived in Dekarium and am yet to speak with your good mayor. Ms Jireen may prove amicable to me. I can be convincing."
Novox paused to let the potential flattery of him seeking out the smith first set in.
"You are of course correct, however. There are forces in town that will oppose what I am suggesting. Progress will always clash with the established, as you are no doubt aware; I can't imagine the trouble you've had establishing this facility in Dekarium. But I am confident I can overcome these obstacles. Can I expect your support when I do?"
"Never trust a chain you did not make." The dwarf says, as if quoting a proverb. "The word of a stranger, no matter how confident, is not worth very much, no matter his titles."
The dwarf holds up a callused and scarred hand that looks strong enough to crush pebbles to powder, "That being said, I do think you speak true. I imagine my work would be better rewarded under the administration of yourself, or your masters." He spits onto the floor and adds, voice a rough burr, "You know, they have been talking about banning slavery in the city. Just like that, let them all go!" Thirus snaps his heavy fingers and lets out a mirthless laugh.
"So I will say this. If I like what you say and how you say it, you'll find me behind you when the time comes. If the time comes."
"But don't expect me to put my own neck out for you, or anyone else."
"These terms are acceptable," said the wizard with a conspiratorial smile.
Novox's long-fingered hand disappeared into the dwarf's grasp as the two shook hands. He did his best to meet Thirus's powerful handshake, but an academic's grip was no match for that of a smith's; the only calluses on the diabolist's hand were from holding a pen.
"I look forward to a fruitful partnership. Thank you for your time, Mr Undershale. I'll let you get back to your work."
Satisfied with this first encounter with the dwarf (and with himself), Novox turned to leave the forge complex when his eyes happened upon the crude conveyor belt again and...
Know (engineering): 1d20 + 15 ⇒ (15) + 15 = 30
... and he was suddenly reminded of another one of his thought experiments. It was just some more mathematical musing his overactive intellect so often fell upon, the sort of casual theory-crafting that naturally sprang from brilliance like salmon through raging river. The wizard liked to think these idle insights were the by-products of a genius mind, and suppressed them however possible in favor of the truly constructive. But perhaps this idea could serve a purpose here and now, in impressing upon the smith that he was more than some glib politician.
Quickly retrieving some paper from a magical pouch, Novox tore a wide strip from it. He then brought both ends together, forming a loop, but not before giving the paper a half-twist. The resulting figure made an unusual geometric shape. He handed it to Thirus.
"Your conveyor is impressive, but... Have you considered extending the band into a revolving loop? It's called a Mobius strip after some long dead mathematician or other. By using both sides of the belt, the service life of the band would be extended by some 100%."
It was a small gesture, entirely artificial and intended to catch the dwarf's interest beyond the monetary. But Novox had found it was the small gestures that built relationships. The grander showings typically only fostered suspicion.
"Just a thought. I'm staying at the White Tree for now. Come by some evening, should you change your mind and want to sit back after a day's work. I'd love to talk shop. Engineering can be a fascinating subject and I doubt any of the... fern fondlers have a head for numbers."
If you're wondering, I did actually look up the development of conveyor belts through history for this one. The things you end up researching for some characters.
When Novox turns to the jumbled machinery and starts to fuss with paper, Hax starts to laugh. It is a strange thing, here in the bowels of the smithy, a full throated chuckle set against the clang of steel and the sizzle of hot metal. The strange looking Grimm looks on, face unreadable.
"Ah, so you can talk." Thirus says, eyeing the big, forgien looking man. 'What's so funny?"
Hax simply lets the laugh run its course then says, "Nothing, just thinking of a waterwheel."
Undershale eyes Hax as if he were a madman then turns his attention back to Novox. He takes the bit of paper in his gnarled hands, looking at it. The dwarf puts it together instantly, understanding the concept, "Ah, I see. Clever, very clever Mr. Novox. Perhaps the belt will require some extra support, but that is minor compared to the decreased wear..." he looks up at Novox, "Ingenious. As for the social call.....perhaps."
Nodding his farewell to the dwarf, Novox left the forge together with his companions - Hax at his side, Bill on his shoulder.
"I'd thank you to restrain your humors when I'm negotiating, Hax," he said sharply, as soon as the din of the smithy began fading behind them. If the encounter with Thirus was the mercenary's first experience of the personable, even affable, Novox, this persona of the wizard had already faded like dew before the morning sun. The Novox he was seeing now was the same arrogant prig he'd traveled the river with; the one with the near-chronically wrinkled nose, as if the world at large offended his superior senses. The transformation was really a bit startling.
"Anything you can add to a debate is better said with your broad shoulders, sharp sword and dead eyes. You may not answer to me, but I will not have you sabotage my efforts with your inane comments."
The brisk walking speed he had initially set for them slowed, the wizard almost halting.
"Hmm. I promised I wouldn't speak to you like that, didn't I?" Novox's tone was suddenly softer, his proud features almost apologetic. But he did not apologize.
"You'll have to forgive me. It's been a long day, for both of us. I'm hungry. You must be hungry. Come. The inn is supposed to have a decent restaurant. My treat. I'm going to order a nice bloody steak from these nature lovers, see if I can make them slaughter the cattle in front of me to my specifications as in decadent Taldor. That might be amusing."
Nah, in the interest of realism I think Hax and Novox need a meal and a bed after their trek. Almost want to dedicate a few posts to a proper conversation between the two over the meal, but beyond that or some unforeseen obstacle, Novox wakes up and pays a visit to the mayor's office first thing in the morning.
When Novox addresses Hax harshly, the big man pauses mid-stride. His hands ball into light fists, shoulders growing taut. The wizard catches a flash of anger in his eyes.
I am not trying to imply Novox is 'apologizing' out of fear or anything. Just want to say you noted the anger under neath the control
When the wizard pauses and speaks again, the emotion subsides. Clearly the 'apology' makes an impact on the big man, who falls into loose stride again. The fighter nods, tilting his head, "Fair enough. I'll try and let you do the talking." A pause then, "Although I doubt it mattered much what you said to the dwarf. He seemed to be content to back the winning side, whoever that would be."
Hax smiles then, the gesture not quite reaching his eyes, "Which will be the great Narsus Novox, of course." It isn't sarcasm exactly, more of an acknowledgment that Hax has noticed the man's self-pride.
"And as for dinner, yes. A bloody steak sounds good to me. " A real smile now.
The White Tree does have an excellent restaurant, although not quite up to Erogian standards. The menu seems more aimed towards fish, vegetables and nuts then is customary in Cheliax, with few of the exotic delicacies that the upper class tended to favor. Novox doubts a true Chelish noble would settle for a salad laid on his board.
His order for a steak goes well, however, although sadly the waiter informs them of the lack of live cows on the premise. He does offer a live chicken, the sarcastic joke behind his eyes obvious. In any case, steaks and other trimmings soon load the table and Novox and Hax set to work. The big man eats like one of Thrius's furnaces devours coal, a constant steady stream of intake.
Novox however, is more aware of the crowd around them. Unsurprising, they are the center of attention. Unknown strangers in times of trouble, one of them heavily armed and the other clearly dresses in the capital? The wizard notes most of the looks are unfriendly, and a few even mutter to each other. Some though are speculative, as if sizing the pair of them up, entering them into mental calculations. It was clear that Novox's mere presence was altering the political landscape of Dekarium. What would his actions do?
They retire to their room without note, Hax indicating a sleep in a real bed would be welcome. For his part Novox's mind buzzes with opportunity, with plans. There was much going on in this city and he would soon, rightly, be the center of it. Bill, of course, laughs at the pretensions but Novox knows better. Soon, he would have this place eating out of the plan of his hand. He falls asleep dreaming of political victory.
The wizard awakes in the dark, night surrounding him. For an instant he wonders what awoken him, what had interrupted his dreams of glory and power? Then he hears it. A scraping noise at the door, and a...wet splashing sound? Quiet, but definitely audible.
"Where were we? Oh yes, the so-called circle of life. Have you heard of the circle of life, girl? Perhaps from one of your clever little druids?"
The servant quickly nodded her assent. She was so nervous she nearly gave herself a concussion doing so. Such was the effect of her customers this evening: unnerving. The tall, scarred foreigner should be bad enough, armed to the teeth and enigmatically silent as he was, but somehow it was his smaller companion that really upset her. For a few seconds she had initially wondered whether she was serving a member of the royal family. The man's regal bearing, well maintained appearance and sheer bossiness in placing their order led her to fear so before remembering that there were no more Thrunes. Whatever the case, he certainly expected perfect obedience from the service, and the servant was scared to disobey him. He was a man to which disobedience carried consequences, she was sure. Which was unfortunate as he refused. to. stop. talking.
"You see, the graybeards will tell you that it all starts with plant-matter," Novox said, holding up an artichoke heart speared on his fork to helpfully illustrate his point, his voice as stern and patient as a father explaining right from wrong. "Plants are eaten by cattle, cattle is eaten by beasts, beasts are eaten by bigger beasts, before finally dying and putrefying into dirt which turn acts as a seedbed for, what? Keep up, girl. For more plant-matter. So it goes, round and round, every living being in the world in a grand interlocked circle, hence the pithy name. Poetic, isn't it? Beautiful even. All beings, man and beast alike, equal and dependent on each other."
The servant hazarded another nod. What the man described was a familiar and commonly held idea in Dekarium. In fact, it had offered some comfort to her when her grandmother had passed last winter. The thought that we all served a purpose in something infinite and eternal, it...
"And it's all nonsense!" Novox rapped the table with his fist. Plate and girl jumped alike. "Beware poetry and pretty words, these are tools for distorting what is true to what is pleasing, and the truth is that we are not part of any such circle. No, humanity is above nature. Listen to my words, girl, for they are the most important you've ever heard in your sheltered little life. Man is no more part of nature than a smith is part of his forge. The wheel your druids describe is ours to control or break at our leisure. Ever since the Age of Darkness, for thousands of years man has endeavored to rise above the miserable station nature intended for us, and now here we are, not in nature but above it. If we want shelter, we do not make do with what nature may provide - we plunder it for timber and rock to do with as we please, creating not just houses, not just cities, but architecture. Art! If we are wanting land to build those cities, nature has to submit to us - rivers will be rerouted and mountains leveled to make way for our progress. If the beasts of the forests threaten us, man does not acknowledge nature's superiority and acquiesce - we hunt the damn things to extinction, make fashion of their pelts and burn down their homes so that nothing may ever stand up to us again. And if I want a tender slab of beef, I do not pick up my bow and arrow, I don't even dirty my hands, I have merely to trust in the industry of the myriad that is humanity to provide. Nature is neither hallowed nor mystical, no. It is a bad-tempered slave, like any other in Cheliax: here to serve us, as long as we administer the requisite corrective beating every fortnight."
The servant looked like she was about to cry.
"But on the subject of tender beef... I asked for mine rare. This is medium. Throw it away, girl, and bring me a new one."
The plate was snatched away as the girl scurried off to the kitchen, happy to be away from this monstrous, monstrous man. She had no idea what she was going to say to the chef, however. This would be his third steak, the two previous ones also rejected for not being bloody enough. Even putting aside his positively heretical ideas, the food wastage was just shameful!
"This is entirely your fault, you know," Novox said back at the table, prompted by a look from the mercenary that asked why he was torturing the poor girl. "Your table manners are atrocious. At dinner conversation is supposed to flow out at least as regularly as food is shoveled in. If you weren't as talkative as that slab of beef, I wouldn't have to make my own entertainment."
Novox was obviously not at all annoyed, merely prodding at his companion. If anything it was good to know that the wizard was capable of enjoying himself, even if it was at others' expense. Even the unfriendly eyes from the other tables seemed to amuse him. Which was why his next question came as something of a swerve.
"So, Hax... Why do you resent devils?"
Any trace of mirth had evaporated from the diabolist. He sat back in his chair like a judge behind his bench, dark eyes scrutinizing and inscrutable. And not just his; Hax felt keenly aware of another pair of eyes studiously watching him from above. Bilbastis's expression was difficult to read from the ceiling beam he perched upon, not least because he was once again in the shape of a raven, but his gaze felt like twin ice picks resting on the mercenary's skin. Although undoubtedly a cliche, the sensation that the creature was looking into his soul was difficult to escape. Given the nature of the damn thing, it might just be true.
"Understand that this is not an denunciatory question. You should resent devils. They are vile, petty would-be tyrants who would murder our entire race at best or enslave us at worst. This is simply a professional question, for the sake of our partnership. I see how you look at my own wretched pet, and very much doubt you keep that silvered blade sharp for werewolves. There is more resentment than fear for the denizens of the Hells in you, which I applaud. Why?"
Narsus Novox patiently awaited the answer that would determine what sort of tool Hax the sellsword could really be for him.
Nothing needed to be said. Even if they didn't share a telepathic link, there was still nothing that needed to be said between Novox and Bilbastis. At the first sign of trouble, the imp, who did not sleep, woke up his master, and the two slipped out onto the floor. Paranoid as he was, as anyone literally plotting to take over the nation should be, the wizard was immediately alert. So the enemies were at his door already? That was quick. He wasn't even sure who to expect yet. Which made catching this intruder in the act that much more important. Should he utilize the invisibility both he and Bilbastis shared?
No. No, he was new in town. Novox decided a show of force was in order. His enemies needed to understand who they were dealing with. Fear was the grease that negotiations hinged on.
After some quick and silent orders to the imp, wizard and familiar coordinated their offensive. They stood in a line, staring at the door, Novox at the back of the room and Bilbastis at the entrance. They were waiting. And as soon as they heard the scratching at the door they went into action.
Novox spoke aloud the spell that empowered the imp, while Bill used said power to...
Str check/attack roll: 1d20 ⇒ 20
Crit?: 1d20 ⇒ 20
... blow the door completely of its hinges and onto who- or whatever was behind. It should have been a ridiculous sight, of course; the tiny imp brute forcing something many, many times its own size. It was a ludicrous idea. But then Bill wasn't the average imp. In fact, what leapt out of the now empty doorway was no imp at all. Instead there was a man-sized monstrosity, a red blur of sharp claws and angry scales and sinewy muscles and fanged maw. It was horrific. And it had its master blessing to eat one of its victim's limbs if it so desired, free choice.
In what I'm assuming to be a surprise round, Novox uses Bull's Strength on Bill while the imp (in his flippin' dinosaur form)... I dunno, either does a Str check to bust down the door or straight up uses it as an improvised weapon depending on rules interpretation. What I'm hoping to do is have the door fly straight at whoever's behind it. In this transformation, with the boost, Bill has a Str score of 22. Not bad for an imp.
And how about them rolls, eh?
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Hax pauses his meal at Novox's words, watching the young waitress flee the table, nearly in tears.
"You have a way with people, Novox. I stand in awe of your brilliance. But as for talk, well....my father always told me food and talk don't mix. 'Do one and then other' was his motto. " he swallows a bit of bloody meat, the fighter having not turned down a thing.
"But fair enough." When the talk turns to devil's however, his face becomes guarded, wary. That look of calculation fills his face, of judging his words carefully, watching Novox's reactions.
His words themselves however, seem casual enough saying, "Did they tell you where I am from, when they assigned me? No? Well, I am from Rahadoum. I was taken off a ship in the Inner Sea by Chelish slavers and sold into the fighting camps."
Rahadoum, the strange land of atheists and unbelievers. That would explain it, a place that despised and distrusted the gods would have little patience for beings so closely linked to the great Asmodeus himself. As for the fighting camps, Hax clearly meant the great gladiatorial games that many cities in Cheliax prided themselves on. Usually gory and brutal spectacles with hundreds being killed by the sword, by claw or devilish spell to thunderous applause, they did occasionally produce fine fighters. They were famous for being inventive, tenacious and underhanded, often greatly sought after as bodyguards. A Rahadoumi gladiator in the land of devils, how curious. How interesting.
The big man shrugs his mighty shoulders, leathers creaking, "Devils? I would not trust an agent who whispers to the ears of a God. Would you use a man who spoke all your secrets to a mighty yet capricious king?" Hax cuts another bit of the steak, "But I am no zealot, like some in my land. I would not have such a creature on my shoulder, I would not trust it, but you use what tools suit you best. After all, I cannot understand the arcane either and yet you use it to great effect."
Hax says little else on the matter but Novox senses the man has not told the whole truth of the matter.
As for the door, with rolls like that you'll get whatever you want. But you might not be happy with the results
Door Damage: 2d10 + 12 ⇒ (9, 7) + 12 = 28
Uh oh. Your life just became much more complicated.
The door explodes out into the hallway, a blizzard of flying wood and iron. Novox sees some dark shape caught up in the cloud and flung against the far stone wall with great force, wood clattering around it. The shape slumps to the ground as Bill strides into the hallway, teeth and claws. Novox is behind, eyes searching, becoming accustomed to the darkness.
His nose catches a strange, chemical smell, puzzling the wizard for a moment. Then he sees it, on the floor smashed to bits by the weaponized door, is a bucket of green paint and a crude brush.
His eyes track to the dark figure and sees it is a man, no a mere boy, perhaps of teenage years. The damage dealt by Bill's attack is complete. The boy's head is a bloody ruin, smashed in like an egg dropped onto an anvil. His limbs are a broken tangle of bone and torn sinew, resting in a pile of seeping blood. A boy, Novox had killed a mere boy whose only crime had been...graffiti perhaps?
Suddenly Hax's door is thrown open, the big man standing in it, naked steel in his hand. He is shirtless, taunt muscles gleaming in the dim light, a body criss-crossed with old scars. "What's the matter?" He barks harshly, the easy manner of the road forgotten. Then he spots the boy, the ruined door and the new form Bill has taken.
Downstairs both of them can hear voices, the tramping of feet.
"Damn," Hax curses, eyeing the pathetic body. "Can you get rid of this in a hurry? I'd rather not have to fight our way out of this town but I'll be damned if I face the rope for some kid." His voice is rough now, bright eyes avoiding the corpse, instead looking down the corridor toward the advancing sound.
The first thing that registered was a strange clucking noise. He was in a state of shock, you see. Every sense available to Novox might as well have gone numb, such was his state, but in actuality his senses were overloaded. His genius mind was hard at work processing the scene before him, the mangled corpse, the child he had killed, and it was having some trouble. He'd killed a child. He had never killed a child before. Well, perhaps the more accurate term was 'young adult'. He perceived fair laryngeal prominence at the neck, underneath all the blood, which indicated the onset of puberty, and the literature on the differences between adult and child, both natural and philosophical, was to his knowledge inadequate. Who could say, really, what...
No! Focus! Novox cursed his vast intellect's tendency to wander, even as he worried that this particular lapse came from a deliberate wish to escape the current situation. This was also new. Gods damn it, what was that clucking?! Wresting his eyes away from the image of the bloodied and broken boy, the wizard tried to force his stunned self into action. Yes, this was a very unfavorable situation. He had killed a child. Witnesses were on their way. He had to fix this. He was Narsus Novox; that's what he did. He was a problem solver. First on his list of problems: find the source of the clucking noise.
Face still painted with wide-eyed shock, he turned to the creature that was Bilbastis. Bill was convulsing. The imp was still in its monstrous lizard-like form, elongated maw open and emitting a series of bizarre high clicking sounds. It took Novox a few seconds to understand what it was he was doing. He was laughing. This clucking was just all he could manage in his current form.
"It's over, chief," the devil's scurrying voice sounded in the wizard's head. "The sellsword's right. These people are going to hang you for this. And you know that's not the end. Oh no. You know what comes after that."
The imp had served Novox for some years now, but never had he heard the creature's voice so positively dripping with malice.
"I wonder how long it will take, down there in the Pit, before you call me master."
Hax, mercifully not being privy to the telepathic bond, could only watch as Novox stared at the oddly twitching imp-monster, hoping that his seemingly overwhelmed companion would snap back into action and soon. Any more of this and he would frankly have to think about abandoning ship. Footsteps were approaching. Which was exactly when something seemed to come over the wizard. His face, locked in an aghast stare up until now, slowly relaxed and then rearranged into a grimly determined scowl. Where there had been shock earlier, the mercenary now saw Novox glaring at his familiar with abject hatred. The wizard turned to him. And disconcertingly his features shifted once again: Novox was smiling.
"The rope? Us? What are you talking about? No one is going to harm us. We're godsdamned heroes."
So the imp thought this was it for him, huh? Thought he was going to hang, huh? Thought he was going to invoke the contract and go straight to Hell, huh? Thought the devils finally got their grubby claws on Narsus Novox, huh?! Well, think again! The wizard rose up to his full height and held out his hands to work his literal magic. He was Narsus Novox! Novox the prodigy! Novox the genius! His proud soul, the hope of all humanity, was his own and would never belong to some spade-tailed sycophant. The nerve of these arrogant hornheads! He was a problem solver. He turned the unfavorable into the advantageous. That was how he would inherit Cheliax. And this, this dead child that was to be his downfall, this too he would turn into an asset.
"Hax, take the paint bucket and put it into your room. Then come back and close the door. Keep your sword out."
Novox spoke hurriedly but precisely. He had a plan.
"Imp, bite the boy."
Although clearly looking forward to his master's ruin, Bilbastis was still bound by the infernal rules that formed the very core of his being. He leapt over to the corpse and gave it some rough nibbling, which given his current over-sized jaws meant nearly tearing the poor boy in half.
"That will do. Now make yourself scarce."
Wondering where this was leading, Bill immediately disappeared from sight, invisible to the naked eye. During this, even as he spoke, Novox's hands were in a flurry, miming out the movements necessary for the spell he was weaving. The effect was not especially impressive, but it was very appreciated. Slowly but surely all the bloodstains within the corridor were fading and dissipating, leaving no trace. The wizard finished this simple cantrip by vanishing the paint smudges too. As soon as this was done he launched into what was clearly a different, more powerful spell. His motions turned almost violent and ominous chanting followed. Hax returned to the corridor just in time to see the spell culminate in a foreboding red glow held within the wizard's fist.
"So, a gladiator, eh?" Novox's voice was a bit strained, and the luminous hand was shaking with arcane power. This magic clearly made for some exertion. "That's perfect. You'll have no trouble fighting for an audience."
With this said, sinister smile on his lips, the wizard set the spell free.
Summon Monster III: 1d4 ⇒ 4
A great roar of flame escaped from his hand which coalesced, with an unpleasant stink of sulfur, into four dog-like beings. They could only be called dog-like, for they were clearly not canines. Not truly. Skin rough and blackened from fire, the creatures seemed like little more than four-legged vessels for an internal inferno glowing out of their maws and empty eye sockets. They were terrible. They were hellhounds.
"We're going to fight them," Novox informed his companion. "Don't worry, they are under my control. May take a little bite out of you for the sake of realism, but you're in no real danger. When our audience walks up the stairs they will see us heroically battling the forces of Hell. No doubt sent by one of my political enemies, perhaps even someone here in Dekarium. Unfortunately, we were not able to save the poor lad, despite our best efforts."
The unfavorable turned into the advantageous. As of next morning, as far as Dekarium was concerned Narsus Novox was a daring enemy of everything infernal and his enemies cowards and scoundrels of the highest order to use such cowardly and unholy methods in trying to assassinate him. The good wizard had even tried to save an innocent child caught in the crossfire. Gods, Novox loved politics.
So yeah. Using Prestidigitation to clean up the evidence and Summon Monster III to call up the hellhounds that killed the kid. Just look at the bite marks. Clearly it was them. We then put on a play fight against the hounds in front of our audience which is going to sing our praises. On that note, I should probably roll for Bluff.
Bluff: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (5) + 13 = 18
Novox is backing away from the hellhounds and pretending to hide behind Hax when the party from downstairs finally arrives on the landing. The wizard glances back toward them, eyes cutting through the gloom. Most of the faces look familiar, fellow diners from his earlier dinner but a few are unknown to him.
One of these, a wispy woman with pale blond hair flying in every direction shudders as she catches sight of the slavering hellhounds in the hallway. She falls back, clutching at the paneled wall. "What are those...things and what doing in my inn?" Her voice is a panicked wail.
"Hellhounds." Another woman says. Novox recognizes her, a stout woman of late middle-age who had been in the restaurant below, hours ago. The woman had spent the entire evening apparently determined to find the bottom of every bottle the White Tree had, slurring her speech and nearly falling off her chair.
There was no sign of that hard-won dissipation now. The woman was steely eyed, voice measured and calm. Each of her hands was laced with blinding bright light, like a luminous glove draped over her skin, intense enough to light the entire corridor.
The other cluster behind these two, eyes wide as they spot the infernal summoned creatures down the hall. A few gabble to various gods for aid and help. Novox shouts, "Get back! They are dangerous, they have already claimed one night tonight!"
Meanwhile, Hax is putting on a show for them. The man swirls and dives, spinning his sword in glittering circles with each thrust and cut. As Novox secretly controls the unwholesome beasts, he is impressed. While the fighting displayed here is theatrical and hardly practical (no one wasted time with spinning blades in real fights) it does look impressive to the untrained eye. Novox does his part by having the hellhounds put up a determined fight, jaws narrowly missing, flames jetting from nostrils signing the white-washed walls.
Once, he is a bit too effective and a hellhound nips Hax's leg, tearing flesh. The former gladiator curses and sends Novox a surreptitious dirty look, before wading back into the fight.
Then the woman with the glowing hands steps forward and gestures toward the largest hellhound. A lance of sizzling acid flies down the corridor spattering the lead canine, making it yelp and jump backward in shocked pain.
"Thanks!" Hax grunts appreciatively, while delivering a ornate double handed thrust into the heart of another. Soon, all four are slain, and then vanishing into crumbling ash.
For a moment silence fills the now empty feeling corridor. Then the woman who cast the acid spell says, voice ringing, "Are there any more? Who brought these creatures here? Speak up, whoever you are!" Her stern glare falls on Novox, eyes hard and unmoved by his words.
?: 1d20 + 5 ⇒ (2) + 5 = 7
?: 1d20 + 12 ⇒ (9) + 12 = 21
"Oh, Sky Father, there is a body!" the wispy woman says, using a common name of Gozreh. She steps forward but the other woman barks, "Stay, Issel! Not until that man answers my questions."
Her hands are still glowing with arcane power.
"Stay, Issel! Not until that man answers my questions."
Novox was about to do just that when he realized this wasn't really the optimal option. He would answer the questions, of course; heck, he was glad the woman had asked as it was a smooth and natural kickoff to what was going to be an absolutely outrageous series of lies. But with his analytical mind hard at work, the wizard was still ruminating on the optimal course to feigned innocence. And he realized that a good, honest Chelaxian's first instinct would not be to explain themselves. No, the first thing a shrewd scoundrel playing at being a good, honest person should do, was show concern for their closest friend who was injured in this awful, awful attack.
"Gods above, Hax, are you alright?" he cried with great conviction. Somewhere in the room an invisible imp was rolling its eyes.
Digging into his bag of spell components, Novox retrieved a tiny vial with a viscous liquid and dabbed just a drop onto a finger. Touching this drop onto the mercenary, he quickly recited an incantation. Slowly, very slowly, the wound on Hax's leg began stitching itself back together.
"You'll be fine," Novox nodded reassuringly. The trusting relationship between a warrior and his superior - how long should he hold onto Hax's shoulder for the gesture to turn from touching to inappropriate, the wizard wondered?
Using Infernal Healing to heal Hax. He's going to recover 10 HP over the next minute. Totally gonna register as evil for the duration though, should that be relevant.
"None of you were hurt?" Novox said in turning to their audience and jurors, just to lay on the sympathetic facade extra thick.
"Good. And no, madam, I don't believe there are any more of the beasts, damn their hides. Thank you for your aid in destroying them. As for your second question... My name is Narsus Novox, representative to Majestor Quinus I of the Thrice Damned House of Thrune and rightful ruler of Cheliax. My king has many enemies as you're no doubt aware. I can only guess that one of these enemies, perhaps the Jeggares or the Hellknights of the Gate, caught wind of my presence here and prepared this ambush for us. Cowards... Of course they would ambush at man in his sleep."
The wizard paused to look appropriately rueful as his eyes narrowed in mock sorrow to take in the dead youngster. He took care not to display too much emotion here, however, instead opting for stoic grief. A stiff upper lip was the mark of a proper Chelishman.
"And the attempt claimed this poor young man. Horrible. My companion and I only woke up when we heard the beasts lay into him. We tried to help him, but alas..."
Was the previous Bluff check just for acting convincingly in the fight? Should I make a new roll for making them buy the cover story?
Bluff: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (10) + 13 = 23
And can I determine how capable a caster this chick is? Was her magic earlier arcane or divine?
Spellcraft: 1d20 + 15 ⇒ (14) + 15 = 29
The only thing better then Novox being an arrogant jerk is Novox pretending to be a good person
"I'm...all right." Hax says, faking a wince, and a crack in his voice. "Only the one got me." He gives Novox a veiled look that says a great deal about 'fake fights' but no one else can see it. Going on in the charade the fighter adds, "Still, better me then anyone else." His wound slowly knits together, the atheist eyeing it with suspicion.
Meanwhile Novox turns to the crowd, explaining himself.
I'll take that second roll for the cover story and the first as faking the fight. As for the spellcraft, you can tell she is a sorcerer, which is hardly surprising given Dekarium's reputation as a hotbed for fey blooded people. As for how capable, for a drunk she is doing pretty well. You wouldn't want to meet her in a dark alley but you don't feel overly threatened (not that Novox would) by her skills.
Most of the people nod blankly at Novox's words, clearly believing them for the moment. They had seen the hellhounds fight Hax and your commanding words carry weight. This is Cheliax after all, a land where titles and intimidation runs deep, even in a counter culture like this town.
Sense Motive: 1d20 + 12 ⇒ (4) + 12 = 16
Even the woman with glowing hands seems to accept Novox's explanation. Issel runs forward, white robes fluttering as she rushes up to the boy on the floor. She kneels down beside him, peering at the ravaged corpse. In a moment she leans back, hands over her eyes.
"Gods, it is Pepis! Oh, how horrible."
The caster takes a few steps forward, face grave. "Morgana's boy? Gods, she will not take it well. Why was he even here?" Her sharp eyes sweep over Novox who reveals nothing. Then she glances back down at the broken, shattered body and the steel seems to slide out of her, a woman feeling an old and familiar load return. When she speaks her voice is hoarse, "Take him to the...." Her words trail off at yet another glance at Novox and Hax. Finally she says, "Come on, let's inform his mother and get this over with."
A few of the townsfolk hurry forward and pick up the mangled corpse. Few make eye contact with Novox but one, an old farmer mutters, "It is a shame your Lordship could not have moved quicker." he seems honest about his grief.
Soon the dead lad is borne away, Issel alongside, holding one of the corpses's hands. The caster woman remains a moment more, looking up and down the hallway but Novox feels she sees little. She has the air of being somewhere else, long ago and far away. Slowly, so slowly, she comes back and says, "The boy is Pepis, his mother is Morgana Greentounge. Was, I suppose...so young." She turns and walks away, lost in thought again.
Soon, Novox and Hax are once again alone.
Anything else tonight?
Oof, that's a pretty impressive Sense Motive. This could have gone poorly.
"I can't say I'd pay to see you on a stage, Hax, but as acting goes that wasn't bad. Not bad at all."
A superior having no need to explain themselves to an underling, Novox turned on his heel and returned to his own chamber without offering any clarification on what happened here to the mercenary. He frowned as he stepped over the splinters that had been a door a few minutes ago.
Humph. That Issel woman didn't even offer me a new room... Some host!
As the wizard reached the bed, he stopped. Bill the imp was sitting at it's foot, visible and perfectly impish, having returned to his natural form. He wore an unusually sober expression.
"Do you have something to say, imp?"
"That's about what I was gonna ask you. Are we, uh, okay, chief?"
"The simpletons accepted my version of events and I destroyed any evidence that might say otherwise. Why shouldn't we be 'okay'?" Novox responded impatiently.
"Not what I was referring to and you know it. I got a little, eh, over-eager out there for a minute. Said some things. Some stuff that could jeopardize our beautiful little partnership. Things that'd make my job harder. So I'm asking, are we OK?"
There was a tension in the air as Novox drew out the moment. He stared at his familiar, the devil that minutes earlier had cackled in glee at the thought of it's master's death and subsequent damnation. His expression was merely inscrutable, however, not angry. Finally to shooed the imp the bed to pull back the cover.
"Yes, Bilbastis. You and I are perfectly fine."
"Glad to hear it, chief." There was relief in his gruff voice.
"After all, it would be ludicrous to hold a grudge against a dog that bit you," the wizard continued frostily. "The mutt is merely following it's nature. It does not think. It does not feel. It meant nothing, good or ill, in attacking you. It cannot. It is a being without meaning. It is very literally meaningless. Do I hate the stones that forms a landslide? Of course not. The thought is ridiculous. That is how I don't begrudge you wishing for my demise. Because you are lower than both mongrels and dirt."
It wasn't hate Bill saw in his master's face now. It was abject disdain; disgust even.
"You are an incarnation of evil. Your tongue is composed of lies. In your veins runs liquid murder. Your every scale was forged in a betrayal. You would forsake me? Of course you would. You are incapable of doing otherwise. Just like the rest of your wretched kind, you are slaves to your instincts, pitiful creatures unable to recognize their own absurdity. You are more deserving of sympathy than hatred. So yes, imp - You and I are perfectly fine."
The imp did not respond. What was there to say? The two just looked at each other, two rocks neither of which was going to budge.
"I have a mission for you, imp," the wizard finally said.
"Follow the crowd from earlier. Find wherever they're storing the corpse for the night and give it a look-over. Check his pockets. A boy like that doesn't just come about without guidance. Someone put ideas into his head. Perhaps some of these druids. See if you can find anything."
"Will do. Night night, chief," Bill said as he flew out the open doorway.
"Shut up, imp."
Stealth: 1d20 + 16 ⇒ (4) + 16 = 20
Bad roll, but it doesn't include Bill's at-will invisibility. The little guy's practically impossible to find. But yeah, beyond that we're just going to see the mayor first thing in the morning. That and, uh, pay our respects to the grieving parents. 'Cause that's what decent people do.
Novox didn't like being in a room with a missing door. It made him feel vulnerable, exposed (and not least, under-served). Still, Novox guessed that an innocent and upstanding member of society wouldn't trouble anyone over a missing door when corpses lay about. Granted, Novox knew of people in Eorgian who would value their least favorite tea-cup more then an entire town of souls but....probably best to not intimidate those people, not yet at any rate. Still the wizard doesn't sleep well and when Bilbastis wakes him with the morning sun, it is with relief.
Still, his first words don't fill Novox with joy. "Bad news, boss. "
"I followed them through the streets last night, the ones carrying the body. The innkeeper lady was with them, the drunk lady just stayed downstairs and hit the cause. Pretty hard too. Anyway, they took the corpse to that big wooden building, the one by the boarding house we looked at. Remember?"
Of course Novox remembered, it wasn't an imbecile. Bill grins at the petty insult and goes on, "Anyway, boss, this is where it gets bad for you. I was going to follow them inside, I really was, but they had the place warded. A big old Magic Circle around the entire place, and little ones sprinkled about. Very tight, boss, very well done. I got close as I could, but no holes. I senses other wards too, some arcane and maybe a few divine ones? Some of the stuff seemed pretty amateur but there was lots of it, all overlapping. Sorry boss, but no way I can go in unless you bring a battering ram."
The little imp shrugs, obviously not bothered by his failure, "No one saw me though. I watched for a few hours, people coming and going but most had hoods or masks. If I recognize anyone, maybe I'll mention it, boss."
This isn't much information but Novox chews on it as he gathers up Hax and heads downstairs. The restaurant downstairs is quiet but the staff hurries to satisfy Novox's desire for breakfast. The wizard is a bit distracted but he does take time to order eggs and bacon, and refuses the first patch for not being tasty enough. Hax, of course, merely devours his with single-minded. silent determination.
Issel is not about, but a few of the more senior looking staff murmur words of apology for last night and promise a new, and finer room. With no extra charge, of course. Soon both he and Hax are out on the street, under a rising sun. The streets are already busy outside, people going to the day's labor, heading to street markets, or simply getting a look at the weather (bright and sunny).
Hax looks around, eyes squinting against the dawn, "Plans for today? Also, will we always get up this early?"
Novox sat over his spellbook preparing his magic whilst listening to Bilbastis's report. He gave no particular reaction to the news, opting instead for staring at the pages with great concentration, but the account was worrying. Well, not worrying exactly. He was Narsus Novox; he did not have worries. What he had were problems to overcome, sometimes to kill. So the humble warehouse was magically warded? Interesting. The only two things anyone bothered to guard like that were sanctuaries and secrets. So which of the two was this?
Awful lot of young people about the place when the wizard saw it yesterday. Which meant it acted as a meeting ground. And yet it was completely unadorned, not advertising itself. Which meant it was the private lodge of select members. Select members who were mostly young. Which meant, given the nature of social politics and the young, that it was a radicalized group. A radicalized group unhappy enough with his presence in Dekarium to vandalize his room at night. Which meant...
Novox closed his spellbook and rose. So. There was some sort of insurgent political group, likely religious (possibly druidic given the town or even Gozren judging by the inn keeper's outburst last night) that were radicalized enough to walk about Dekarium after dark wearing masks. How very troubling. How very interesting. He wondered what the good Ms Jireen's thoughts on the matter were.
"These masks didn't have any particular designs or iconography, did they?"
Once outside Novox took a deep breath. It was a beautiful day, and although he would not admit it he rather enjoyed the air out here.
"Plans for today? Also, will we always get up this early?"
"Early bird and all that tosh, Hax" the wizard replied. "As for plans - aside from whatever incidentals the day will bring, we are going to introduce ourselves to the mayor, console a grieving mother, and perhaps infiltrate a cult. All in a day's work for loyal servants of the empire."
New daily spell list!
1st - Grease, Heightened Awareness, Infernal Healing, Stone Shield, [empty slot] + Mage Armor
2nd - Bull's Strength, Create Pit, Glitterdust, Greater Detect Magic, Invisibility + Web
3rd - Dispel Magic, Fireball, Fly + Stinking Cloud
"Yeah, boss, they also had big signs too with the name of their group. Bright red paint. HERE WE ARE." Bill rolls his beady, unholy eyes. "No, nothing formal. Most just had scarfs or whatever hiding their mouths. Looked informal, not very organized." The imp[ sniffs, "Nothing like home. Say what you like but Hell is organized."
Hax shrugs, "Fair enough.I have to say though, after your speech at dinner and the looks they gave us last night....I doubt they are inviting you to the funeral, no offense." The big man takes in the street with experienced eyes, measuring sightlines and distances. His walk is slow, easy, like a hunting cast. Poised but on the edge of violence, eyes never resting, hands a bit too/i] still.
The streets are cramped and winding, either bare dirt or rough cobblestones. There is little sign of the orderly and regular Cheliax construction here which marks (in Novox's mind) the mark of a true city. Dekarium is....organic. Trees dot the town, growing along sidewalks, edging streets, alongside buildings. In a few places Novox notes the trees have actually been built [i]around making streets less useful, buildings smaller. Inefficient and, frankly, untidy. Still, it does provide shade and sweet birdsong filters down from the green boughs.
The streets are busy as Novox and Hax head for the mayor's abode (The White Tree staff provided directions). A few times they are forced to wait for heavily laden carts to pass through, carrying fish, lumber and other bulk items. Shops open onto the street, or stalls set up on corners. There is an open, gregarious air among the people but also a sense of overdone camaraderie. Too many of the people look dirty, unwashed, or simply listless. Refugees.
There are even a few outright beggars, something unheard of in Ergoain. Such people would be run off by the Hellknights at best and sold into slavery at worst. What good were worthless, unsightly mouths? A few however, try to pass as street performers. Novox passes jugglers, artists and singers hoping to earn a bit of money from the morning crowd.
Suddenly Hax stops, standing near an elderly man bent over a aged and cracked lute. The man does not look up, but merely starts to play, the notes low and harmonious. Somehow they rise over the crowded and bustling street, banishing all the noise, leaving only the sweet melody and the piping birdsong on the fresh breeze. The old man's wrinkled fingers pick the strings with skill that seems almost magical, his eyes closed. Each note hangs in the air, and Hax, for the first time Novox can remember seems to relax a moment, eyes closed. One foot gently taps to the sweet but sad tune.
Then the moment ends. A string on the battered instrument snaps, the music cuts off. The old man sighs wearily and leans back against the wall, shaking his head. Hax looks down and tosses an entire gold coin into the man's waiting hat, then moves on without a word.
Catching Novox's eye the fighter says roughly, "My mother was a singer." and nothing more.
They find the Mayor's home in the center of town, at the crossroad of two tree lined streets, sitting on patch of green lawn. The home is decent sized and would rate as a mid-level noble's manor in the capital, if one ignored the architecture. For this building was the height of the baroque style of Dekarium. A two-story structure with steeply angled roof and wide sweeping lines. Graceful wooden buttresses brace it on all side, looking almost like tree roots. Intricate wooden designs grace the outside walls, with particularly good ones on window ledges and under rain gutters. A wide veranda wraps around the building, a wooden railing protecting it. Beds of overflowing flowers surround all, heavy with hummingbirds and bees.
A young man tending these flowers looks up at Novox and Hax, frowns and says in a rather high voice, "Can I help you?"
"My mother was a singer."
"And for that you would delay us? Hmph."
Novox didn't exactly have much appreciation for street performers, as evidenced by his ready dismissal of whatever sentimental nonsense the old man and his lute managed to evoke within the mercenary. This was not to say the wizard had no interest in the arts. On the contrary! Novox regularly attended concert performances in his native Egorian and had a particular fondness for the opera. But this admiration undeniably had root in their places as touchstones of Chelish culture; what he truly loved was himself. Convinced as the wizard was of his own greatness, other displays of grand merit simply appealed to his ego. Hour-long performances of staggering complexity and skill, written by Chelishmen for Chelishmen, spoke to his own superiority as a Chelaxian. Thusly, Hax's old beggar could never interest him.
Setting a brisk pace, the trio arrived at the mayor's mansion soon enough. Within his own quiet mind, Novox declared the plot 'respectable enough'.
"Can I help you?"
And with that curt response the wizard strode right past the young man without a second glance. Hired help these days, honestly! How did a lousy gardener deign to greet important visitors to an appointed official? This might be Dekarium, but it was still Cheliax, dammit! However, understanding halfway to the door that immediately offending the mayor's staff might not lead to be best first impression with Ms Jireen, Novox half-turned and graced the youngster with a disinterested look.
Know (nature): 1d20 + 10 ⇒ (20) + 10 = 30
"Why not do your job and help the garden, hm?" he said with a nod to the flower beds. "The Azalea have early blossom-end rot. They need bone meal if they're to survive winter, and the roots of that Whisper Hair are murdering the Tien Lilies next to it. And don't even think about setting down those Fever Peas! They were not meant for this climate. In the north where they originate they might struggle, but here it will spread like the weed it is. The Larkspur is lovely, however. A touch over-watered perhaps. Track its progress."
Satisfied that this would keep the impertinent man occupied, Novox walked up to the door and knocked. He wondered how long it take the gardener to realize there was no such thing as Larkspur.
Hax seems sublimely unconcerned with Novox's judgement.
The young man seems entirely thrown by Novox's abrupt dismissal and then torrent of gardening advice. His eyes grow wide as he glances from Novox, to Hax, to the sweeping gardens.
"But...I...you..." he is still stammering as Novox walks up the broad wooden stairs to the main door.
The doors are grandly carved wood, studded with artistic iron bars. The motif is fish and nets, which run down the front and curl around the lintels in schools. In the shade of the porch, they shine with polished luster that almost makes them look like living things. The door swings open under Novox's knock, revealing a shadowy foyer inside.
The house is cool and dark inside, the only lighting coming in from the windows. It is full of houseplants in pots ranging from tiny thimbles holding patches of moss to giant containers big enough for Novox to sit in that hold entire gnarled trees. The air is rich and moist, and warm enough to make Novox think of greenhouses. There is no one inside, but down a wooden paneled hallway, Novox can hear heated but murmuring voices.
Hax raises an eyebrow.
To an outsider observer they would appear vaguely comical. Narsus and Hax standing in the foyer exchanged quizzical glances, twin eyebrows raised, looking nothing so much like conspiratorial schoolboys come upon strange noises from Mr and Mrs Henderson's bedroom. Are-you-thinking-what-I'm-thinking?
Not giving a toss what the mercenary thought, Novox inched just a bit closer to the hallway where the voices were coming from. He held up a hand to demand silence from both Hax and Bill, to hold their breath if necessary, and perked his ears. He recognized that 'intelligence gathering' was just a euphemism for filthy, filthy spying. But the wizard was all about intelligence.
Perception: 1d20 + 11 ⇒ (17) + 11 = 28
If a Stealth roll is needed I think Novox would prefer to send Bill to listen in for him. He trusts his sneakiness far more than his own, and the imp can just relay whatever he sees telepathically anyway.
Stealth: 1d20 + 16 ⇒ (3) + 16 = 19
Hmm, what's that? What's Novox's Stealth score? I can't imagine why you're asking, but if you must know it's 2... Yes, 2 + 3 equals 5, what are you getting at?
'Sure thing, boss' Bill's voice drifts into Novox's mind, 'Ooh, I hope they are up to something nasty. This one time, a guy had me scout a brothel in Abasalom..."
Novox is thankfully spared anymore of the imp's prattle as the tiny, invisible being stealthily approaches a cracked door. Voices murmur out, loud enough for Bill to hear quite clearly.
"So you think it is random chance? Really? How naive are you, Lalita. He's from-" A vigorous female voice says, pleasant to the ear but untrained.
"I know where he is from, Eslih. In fact I have thought of little else. You know that we have to be smart here, just as we have always done. Nothing more but nothing less." Another voice says, also female but not as strong.
"It is different now, with all the chaos. this could be our chance..." The first voice says, trailing off and Novox imagines the person is making extravagant hand gestures.
"Not that different." The second voice says, firmly. "This is not time to be foolish or daring..."
The voice fade away, either into silence or more quiet tones Novox (and Bill) are unsure. Around them the hallway and foyer are still quiet and empty, nothing but crowded greenery.
Ah, to be spoken of in conspiratorial whispers. If that wasn't a sign of success, Novox didn't know what was. It was life-affirming, even. Really, what higher compliment was there than knowing you were influential enough to have others scheme against you? In Egorian, rife with political intrigue as it was, you weren't somebody until an attempt had been made at your life. The wizard was enjoying this immensely!
Novox pulled himself together and motioned for Bilbastis to return. This was no time to indulge in one's ego, however well deserved. The two women flattered him, unbeknownst to themselves, but the speed at which they had learned of him was what was truly noteworthy. He hadn't even been in town a full 24 hours. Either small town rumors spread every bit as fast as he'd always heard, or Dekarium had a more efficient information network than initially suspected. Novox did not trust menial servants as a rule, and this merely reaffirmed to him that the White Tree's staff was no exception.
Curious to know who this other person was who had the mayor's ear (and blinded by pride to the possibility that the two were not talking about him), the wizard returned to the door. Grasping the handle he shut it forcefully, not so hard as to be boorish but loud enough that Lalita Jireen and her guest had to notice. He then added some dainty knocks on the wood, to complete the illusion that he and Hax had only just entered.
"Mayor Jireen?" he inquired when approached. "I do hope I'm not intruding - the gardener told me to let myself in."
With a perfectly affable and innocent demeanor, Novox extended his hand to the mayor in greeting.
"Good morning. My name is Narsus Novox, representative to Majestor Quinus I of the Thrice Damned House of Thrune. This is my associate Hax. Good to meet you. You being a busy woman I came by primarily hoping to schedule a meeting for us. There are some matters of national interest I'd like to discuss, if you please."
Adding a Bluff roll to throw of suspicion of eavesdropping/play the role of plain old diplomat.
Bluff: 1d20 + 13 ⇒ (13) + 13 = 26
Novox's diplomatic knocks is initially greeted by utter silence and then the scrape of adjusted furniture. Then, after a deliberate pause the second, weaker voice says, "Come in?"
Novox opens the wood paneled door onto a medium sized room. It must rest in a corner of the home, as two windows are nearly entirely windows, looking out onto the small grass sward and then the busy streets of Dekarium. The view is mostly blocked however, by large wooden shelves, stocked with yet more plants. Many seem to be bloom and the small room is filled with the soft scent of flowers. The greenery blocks much of the light, only allowing a dappled shade into the room quite like that of a heavy tree canopy.
The actual furniture inside is spare otherwise, none of the ornate collection a proper Cheliax would have. Missing are the trophies, plaques, the collected signs of victory that grace most offices in Erogain. Also missing are the rows of leather bound tomes, more for show then use. Even more unusual is the lack of heavy wooden and iron furniture currently in style, expensive (or at least expensive looking) and overly done in a heavy brutal style. No, this office is sparse. A small wooden desk, a few chairs around it, along with a small writing table and chair in a back corner. That is all. No books, no drawers, not even the virtually required cabinet of liquor.
A woman sits at attention behind the desk, hands folded neatly in front of her, looking up at Novox. Her age is hard to tell, a certain timeless face wreathed by pale gold hair and intelligent, dark eyes. The hair is carefully braided and reveals two somewhat pointed ears. Half-elf, Novox realizes. Mayor Lalita Jireen was not even human? What was the empire coming to?
Whatever her race, one thins is clear. Mayor Jireen looks tired, as if she has not slept in days. Heavy bags rest under her eyes, and her hair, despite the attention, looks fragile and cracked. In fact her entire demeanor is one of brittleness, of toiling under a heavy load.
Another figure sits in the back of the room, at the small writing desk. A human woman, tall and lithe, with clean athletic limbs that spoke of a life accustomed to physical activity. Her dark hair runs free over her shoulders and down her back, a deliberate snub at current fashion. She is currently leaning back casually in the chair, feet entwined around the legs of the writing desk. her eyes are closed, as if sleeping in such an odd position. Or perhaps merely ignoring Novox and Hax. At the least, she is a full blooded human.
When Novox introduces herself, the woman behind the desk stands up and takes his hand. "Mayor Jireen. A pleasure to meet your Master Novox. It is always a pleasure to have a visitor from the capital. I hope your travel was safe? The roads are not what they once were." At his mention of 'national interest' her mouth twists, not in a smile but not quite a frown. More like someone, having already expected a worm in their apple, finding only half a worm.
"National interest? Please, sit and do tell. Dekarium, and myself, are of course at yours and the Majestor's service."
Novox Perception: 1d20 + 11 ⇒ (8) + 11 = 19
Novox hears a very faint snort from the woman in the back of the room.
Novox hears a very faint snort from the woman in the back of the room.
"Blow your nose, dear. It's unseemly."
Novox hadn't even taken the proffered seat before responding to the woman's thinly veiled derision in kind. He didn't have the faintest idea who she was, but if she was determined to be his enemy then so be it. This girl wanted to play hardball? Novox was happy to introduce her to the big leagues.
"Your friend may have an allergic reaction to your greenery, Mayor Jireen," he continued with concern so false you could slather it on toast and call it rabbit. "Perhaps it would be best if she left us."
The wizard said all of this without even honoring the dark haired woman with a single glance. Whether this treatment would provoke her into revealing her identity or storm out to give the mayor and himself some privacy, either result would be satisfactory; even petty insults from Novox typically had some thought behind them.
"But no, madam, our travels were not at all safe. The roads are, as you say, not what they once were. Nasty business out there."
He allowed the half-elf time for her mind to conjure up whatever awfulness she could imagine. This would only aid the negotiations.
"Now, mayor - thank you for allowing me into your lovely home, are you sure this isn't a bad time? I could come back later. No? - Now, mayor, it is significant that you describe yourself and your township as being at the Majestor's service. Because I am here precisely to find out why you are yet to swear Dekarium to our king's cause. For a loyal subject of House Thrune, this is an anomaly. I'll show you my respect by being direct: I was sent here to evaluate you."
It was almost a threat. What was being inferred was that the well groomed man sitting in the mayor's office was to determine whether she was friend to the crown or enemy of the state. Even under the best of circumstances, being 'evaluated' by Egorian was in most cases synonymous with being fitted for a noose. So it was a conscious decision on Novox's part when he leaned back in the chair and adopted as non-threatening a stance he could manage.
"I admit to being mystified, Mayor Jireen. I've been told you are an able administrator, and have seen nothing to challenge that view." Ridiculous potted plants notwithstanding... "And yet here we are, at civil war and you've chosen to remain neutral. Neutrality is not an option in this conflict. By refusing to pick a side you are inviting every cutthroat marauder exploiting the nation's chaos to sack your city. After all, if you're neutral, that just means you have no one backing you and Dekarium is free to be pillaged without consequences. Your citizens live with the ever-looming, inevitable actually, prospect of being subjugated or sacked. You can end this. It is your duty to do so. Ally yourself with your nearest and historical benefactor, and this problem goes away. It should be an obvious choice. Why have you not done so?"
Novox bent forward, as if genuinely curious.
"It wouldn't have something to do with a certain Decius and his four hundred men, would it?"
When Novox talks about the chair leaning woman, she doesn't react except for a visible tic of anger crossing her tanned, rather handsome face. She doesn't open her eyes or shift from her casual position.
"My friend?" the Mayor says and then glances toward the 'resting' woman. "Ah, you mean Eslih. She is Master of the Guilder of Fishers and a close adviser to myself. Whatever you have to say to me, you can say to her. She has my complete confidence. Please, continue."
Novox Sense Motive: 1d20 + 10 ⇒ (2) + 10 = 12
When Novox talks about 'neutrality' Mayor Jireen only expresses polite confusion. "Neutrality? I do not remember declaring any such state of being for Dekarium in general, or a person in particular." Her voice, still brittle, gains some strength. "Whatever our reputation in Egorian, Master Novox, Dekarium has always been a loyal city in the Chelish Empire and we have never wavered in our duties." She stands up, chair squeaking on the elegant parquet flooring. her eyes are hard now, ignoring the weariness, "I am insulted you would imply otherwise Master Novox. If I recall my time in Egorian well, there are nobles who would have you whipped for speaking to an Imperial official so boldly."
In the privacy of Novox's mind, Bill says, I like her, boss
Still standing the Mayor says, "As for Decius, I assure you the presence of so many armed men outside our gates concerns me. However, as you said yourself, nasty business. So far, Captain Decius has not proved a danger and in fact has guarded the town from several smaller bands of bandits and criminals. Since the throne seems incapable, at the moment, of providing such protection we cannot be choosy. I am surprised I need to explain such practicalities to you, Representative."
Another tiny snort from the Guild of Fishers.