"Grailius looked upon his children, knowing hatred lie within their hearts. He looked into their eyes and saw the jealousy that writhed within their souls. 'Dost thou rebuke me even as Oolaam's children rebuked Him?' he spake unto them. They did not respond but instead cast him out, so he went into the night, his heart sore and his mind troubled.
"He went into the mountains, hoping to find peace to assuage his troubled mind. He soon realized he was lost and could not find his way back. He cried out 'Oolaam, hear my plea! I am lost because my children rebuke me; they, like Thy ungrateful progeny, hath found fault in all things and see Thy creation with a jaundiced eye. Please help thy faithful servant!' A light appeared to him, moving slowly through the winding passes.
"The light showed him the way through the mountains and he saw before him a vast plain filled with deer, trees with fruit and a spring of fresh water. His eyes could not believe what he saw, but he knew Oolaam had provided for him. He stayed there for many years, living a simple life; men and women would come to hear him speak of Oolaam, and soon a town was formed. The people called him a prophet and showered him with gifts of meat, wine and gold, which he accepted with humility. They named the town after him to show their praise, and many great monuments were erected there…"
The Book of Edicts, Chapter Five
"The Story of Grailius"
"Well, I didn't quite know how to proceed," Estos said as he, Briareus, Ekos and Ekos' former pentan sat around a round table, eating bread and cheese with water. "When the messenger came back and said you and Ekos were not there, I was a little startled. So, I sent my poor staff to find some men who could find you; I must admit, of course, I was grasping at straws."
Nero spoke up at that point. "His servant came up to me and said a Regent required men who understood the streets. I had been out of the pentan for some time then and I knew the streets a bit. So, I followed the young man here and his Grace filled me in. When I heard it involved you, legionari, it became personal." Nero's aquiline face and swarthy skin placed his heritage as western, but his mannerisms were strictly Oolani. He possessed a medium build with thick arms and had, Briareus discovered, a hypnotic voice, containing only the faintest trace of his western origin. Shoulder length black hair and ice blue eyes made him more exotic than he really was.
Estos nodded. "He was quite vehement in his desire to retrieve you, and it appeared to me Oolaam provided the answer to my question. He left to get the other members of your pentan and they descended into the depths of a place I can only imagine."
Ekos nodded grimly. "It was a horrific place, your Grace. Not a place I would go willingly."
Nero nodded in agreement. "Ahyah, legionari. It really wasn't much to it, though; we infiltrated the little grubby band of thieves and figured out where you were, then secured your things and got you out."
Estos nodded, finishing off his water. "Well, you are safe now, so do not concern yourself overmuch."
"Well, I have one question: Why did you send a page to us?" Briareus said. Despite the protests of the staff, he insisted upon getting up and moving around, even though it pained him to do so.
"Well, that involves another facet of the rescue. I received some interesting information regarding Croesus, and altogether from a highly unlikely source," Estos said, nodding curtly to Hannibal. The giant man got up and moved to another room. "In fact, the source was the one that told us where you two were."
Hannibal re-entered the room, carrying a body over his shoulder. At first Briareus thought it was a corpse, but as the big man dropped the body onto a chair, he could see it was Birdie, who groaned and rolled his head. "How…what?" he lamely gaped.
"Nero found out who sold you out," Hannibal rumbled. "So we paid him a visit." He motioned with a splayed hand towards Birdie's unconscious form. "He had a slight problem with it and forced our hand." He smiled broadly, flexing his massive shoulders. Briareus was certain he could bend armor like paper after seeing how easily he dispatched Xerxes. His dark brown hair and thick jaw did little to reveal his ancestry, which aggravated Briareus in a minor way. He was easily a head taller than Nero and dominated any room he was in. However, perhaps because or in spite of his size, he was the quietest man, not inclined to incessant or unnecessary chatter.
"We should not take joy in the misery of others, Freeman Hannibal, no matter who they may be," Estos admonished the giant, who blushed and looked embarrassed, mumbling an apology. "I used a little known orison to keep him from escaping. It simply would not do to have him run away." He whispered a few words and something wispy floated away from Birdie's body.
Briareus did his best to hide his smile, but focused on Birdie as he gathered his wits about himself. He looked around with an unfocused stare, shaking his head quickly as if waking; which was, in fact, the case. "Wot wot? Where 'm I?"
"You are currently in a location where we may speak," Briareus said, unwilling to jeopardize Estos' home. "You and I have a lot to discuss, Birdie."
Birdie seemed to notice Briareus for the first time and actually cringed. "Oh, bloody 'ell," he said as he hung his head. "Right…what d'ye want?"
"The information on Croesus."
Birdie blinked a moment, but nodded slowly. "Yar. I guess I do owe it t'ye." He took a deep breath. "Keep in mind me life ain't wurf nuffin' if I tells ye what I know, as sum'un wants t'make sure 'at no one even remembers 'is name."
"How strange. Someone is trying to erase any reference to him?"
Birdie nodded. "One o'me boys were jumped shortly after I looked into it. 'E may not make it, 'cuz 'is face is all mashed up." He sighed. "Signed me on to a nasty one, you did." He thought for a moment and then spoke to the ceiling. "Well, lemme see. 'Is muvver was dragged out fer spawn worship; they's trump charges, but no one's seen 'er, though. No uvver relations. Most people deny 'e even existed; lots o' money is changin' hands 'cause summon is wantin' 'im t' go away real bad, if ye knows what I mean. One bloke, 'owever, tol' us 'e saw Croesus an' a fella workin' togevver a lot outside of caravan watchin'. 'E was real keen on makin' sure I didn't reveal 'is name, seein' as 'ow anyone who talks turns up dead."
"Who is the fellow he was working with?"
"'Is name is Xylon."
Nero sucked in breath through his teeth. Briareus looked over at him, but the exotic warrior shook his head. "So, I think I can safely assume this Xylon fellow is bad news?"
Birdie nodded. "'E's madder'n a dog in 'eat. 'E don't think like normal people. Why Croesus was wiv' 'em is beyond me."
"Well, we'll get back to that. What else can you tell me?"
Birdie thought. "As far as I know, Croesus was a two bit bruiser fer' tha' most part, never really doin' nuffin' but bein' muscle. Then 'e disappears for a few months. 'E comes back wiv' new weapons, armor an' 'e's a lot better, too. Even did a turn watchin' Leonidas. 'E was real picky wiv' 'is jobs. Then 'e starts workin' fer tha' caravans, 'bout a monf or two ago. 'E'd be gone fer a few weeks, then come back an' do it again." He shrugged. "Not sure why summon 'ud pay t'git all that good stuff an' work caravans, but there it is."
"Interesting…he got money and training and ended up working on caravans," Briareus mused. "Did he watch specific caravans, or stick with a particular caravan company?"
"Nope. Just tha' ones that went souf, 'parently."
Briareus' head shot up, accompanied with some lingering pain. "South? As in towards the Wastes?"
"Yeah, yeah. Summon said 'ow crazy 'e was fer goin' there all tha' time."
Briareus looked at Ekos and smiled knowingly. "Well, there it is."
"We still have to figure out who hired him," the battle hardened soldier retorted.
Birdie looked back and forth between the two. "Um, 'at's easy. 'E was bein' paid by Xylon."
Briareus looked at him carefully. "Xylon? Are you sure?"
The bound bartender nodded his massive head. "Oh, yeah. 'E was takin' Croesus everywhere, showin' 'im to 'is friends, braggin' 'e made 'im into sumfin halfway good."
"No…Jus' before, when 'e showed up wiv 'is 'quipment."
Briareus thought for a bit. "I would like to know how Xylon fits into this. Someone with that much money and time should be visible. Do any of you know who he works for, if any?" The former Templars shook their heads. "Curses. It would be too easy, I guess."
Birdie looked sheepish again. "Um, I know who 'e works for."
He arched an eyebrow at this admission. "Birdie…you normally don't go above and beyond a request like that."
"Call it profesh'nal curiousity."
"Fine; we'll call it anything you like. Who does he work for?"
"'E works for one o' them Regents."
Silence blossomed within the room.
It was a very long time before Briareus broke the still air. "Birdie, are you sure about that?"
Birdie nodded, uncomfortable with the quiet. "Yeah. 'E was over'eard talkin' 'bout 'is employer, an' 'ow he hated 'avin' t' scrape an' bow, sayin' 'Yer Grace' an' all that. Summon said only Regents were called that, an' 'e said 'Whaddya think 'e is?'."
Briareus looked at Estos. "Well, your Grace, I think this just became a great deal more involved than a simple robbery and murder."
Estos arched his eyebrows in consternation. "So it would seem."
"Wait a minute," Nero interrupted, "what in the world is a mercenary doing working for a Regent? I've never heard of such a thing."
Estos sighed heavily, passing a hand over his prominent brow. "They don't, Goodman Nero; only Templars guard Regents."
Silence blossomed anew.
* * * * *
Birdie was taken away and the soldiers disappeared to check on various things, leaving Briareus and Estos in the spartan study. The two were sipping steaming hot tea, lost in their thoughts. The occasional sip and the delicate sound of china was all that could be heard for a moment in time.
A soft sigh signaled Estos was about to speak. "You certainly have an unusual ability to get yourself into strange situations."
Briareus chuckled softly. "Hardly by my own design, you must admit."
"True," Estos admitted ruefully. "But we are at a crossroads, I think. Where do we go from here?"
Briareus stood up and stretched, wincing as his tender injuries reminded him of their presence. "We think." He paused and began to pace. "Xylon is a Templar that works for a Regent; we don't know whom. He trained Croesus and kept him around for an unknown reason. Croesus looked for the rings under the guise of a caravan guard." He paused, frowning. "But was he acting independently, or was he operating under orders from Xylon?"
"I don't think that can be answered yet."
"I was speaking rhetorically; my apologies. Why was Croesus after the rings? If he was acting under orders, why did the other person want the rings?" He frowned. "This is much more convoluted than it seemed."
"You know, I am curious to know about these rings you mentioned. Are they very expensive looking?"
"I never did describe them, did I?" Briareus sheepishly admitted. "Both of them were large, gold rings; one of them had a large ruby in the center, with symbols of Oolaam etched around it, while the other was unadorned except for scenes of men and women around the center."
Estos stiffened. "Are you sure it was ruby? Could it have been a red garnet or a stone of a similar type?"
"I am fairly sure it was a ruby; it had that deep, red color common to that type," Briareus admitted slowly, curious to his friend's sudden interest. "I assume it sounds familiar? It looked familiar to me and Father Galius."
Estos got up and rummaged through his desk for a moment. He finally retrieved a scroll from a pigeonhole and brought it over; unfurling it, he showed the contents to Briareus. "Is this the ring you saw?"
"Yes! That is the ring!"
Estos sat down with a shocked look. "Then it was him after all…."
"What do you mean? Who? And who owns that ring?"
"That man you found in the desert? That was the Warden of the Hierarch. And the ring -"
"- is the Ring of the Hierarch," Briareus finished, remembering at last where he had seen it. "But why in name of Oolaam would the Warden be so far away from Grailius, and why have the Ring of the Hierarch in his mouth?"
"I suspect the other was his ring, the Ring of the Warder. I have never had a chance to examine it up close, but it sounds about right in description. As far as the rings being in his mouth, I think I can answer that." He paused for a moment. "There was a story that made the rounds at the university quite a few years ago; it dealt with a newly discovered transcript that detailed a siege of a monastery many generations ago, in the northern provinces. It was later determined to be melodramatic hearsay and quite possibly a hoax, but it involved a particularly sensational tale relating how several escapees put their jewelry in their mouths so they would not reflect the light of the attacker's torches."
"They didn't have pouches back then?"
"As I said, it was melodramatic," he said as he shrugged. "It's not supposed to make sense. In any event, the Warder traveled back and forth between the Hierarch and the university on any number of errands; it is very likely he heard the story."
"I had suspected he didn't want bandits to see them, but that works just as well. Given the fact that he was probably delusional from the exposure and lack of appropriate dress for the climate, he might have thought it was a wonderful idea. I'm just glad he didn't swallow them."
"That's rather morbid of you."
"Well, it's true," he said as he paused. "So, let us assume for the sake of argument that it was the Warder we saw and those rings were the ones we've mentioned. The obvious question that begs to be asked is: Why?"
"I think I can answer that as well," Estos replied with a grimace. "About two months ago several Regents and I went to see His Holiness, mainly to conduct some important business, but also to check on his health."
"And you call me morbid?"
"We are human, Briareus; we are always concerned with our fellow man if he is sick, especially if that man happens to be the voice of Oolaam," Estos retorted in an injured tone. "In any event, I noticed the Warder was not hovering nearby as he usually did; in fact, he was markedly absent. When I asked His Holiness about it, he waved it off, saying the Warder was out 'on personal business'. I didn't think much of it until a chance conversation with a fellow Regent gave me a different idea…
"I began to notice some of the Regents were getting very cold responses from some of the others. When I inquired about it, I discovered not three days prior to our visit, a group of Regents had also gone to see the Hierarch, but from what I was told their reasons were wholly selfish and predatory. Four of them have already announced their intention to run for the position of Hierarch."
"My goodness. Tact is not one of their strong points, I take it."
"No, it is not. In any event, there was an exchange of words between the Warder and one of the Regents regarding their shameful behavior; I never found out whom. It was done away from the Hierarch, naturally, so no other witnesses were nearby; at least, none that could be counted upon to give a neutral statement."
"Damn! Uh...Sorry, your Grace," Briareus apologized quickly. "So, the Warder was there when the first delegation arrived, but disappeared between their visit and yours. Two months pass and he ends up dead in the Wastes." He frowned. "He took a long time to get there. But that could be explained by his lack of experience, I suppose."
"He was not accustomed to traveling, that is certain. He would go with the Hierarch on the rare trip and usually surrounded by a flock of attendants and assorted staff."
"I am curious about his motives for taking the ring. It is highly improbable he stole them with the intent to sell them; where would he do that? They are too unique, too priceless for any fence to assign a price."
"What in the world is a 'fence'?"
Briareus laughed. "A fence is a person who sells stolen goods."
"Okay, so we can safely eliminate theft with eventual sale. What else could motivate him to take the ring?"
Estos frowned as potential ideas flitted through his mind. "I do not know. It is priceless; no one would willingly take it if they knew what it was. If they knew he had stolen it they would turn him in immediately."
"Does the ring have any particular significance?"
"Other than being a relic, a mark of station and a priceless artifact, nothing else really," the Regent replied dryly. "It is an icon of the position. It is passed down from Hierarch to Hierarch, ever since it was commissioned and made."
"Theft!" Briareus blurted, startling Estos. "What if he was trying to implicate a Regent?"
"That would be highly unorthodox and very illegal, Briareus, not to mention wholly unsatisfactory from a legal perspective. I cannot see the Warder doing such a thing."
"You said yourself he had words with a Regent; if you were able to find out about their motives I am sure he picked up on it, or overheard his Holiness talking about it. What if he took the ring to cast doubt upon the group? You said some of them were already promoting themselves as the next Hierarch; what if he wanted to stain their reputations, thereby preventing them from succession?"
Estos pondered the idea even though he was not entirely sold on it. "It is possible," he admitted reluctantly, "but I still find it hard to swallow."
"It makes sense, even though the method leaves much to be desired."
"That is true," Estos remarked.
They both lapsed into silence.
* * * * *
At the same time, Ekos was becoming reacquainted with his former pentan. They were gathered in an inn, drinking and reminiscing about old times. Nero naturally dominated the conversation, offering embellished accounts of their past exploits with exaggerated or completely imagined events. Inevitably the stories would end with boisterous laughter, fists pounding the table; sometimes a toast would be offered to times past. Hannibal occasionally offered a rumbling correction while Romulus and Julius sat and smiled knowingly.
After a particularly sordid tale of Hannibal's supposed (and completely exaggerated) exploits involving a lonely barmaid of questionable virtue and a wayward goat (which caused the entire table to collapse with undisguised mirth and Hannibal to blush furiously), Ekos took advantage of the lull in conversation and asked, "So, what have your four been doing since I…left?"
Nero arched an eyebrow. "Is that what we are calling it, legionari?"
"You know what I mean, Nero."
He shrugged in response. "Well, after you were forced out, we were split up and put into different pentani. Hannibal and Julius got the better end of the deal, as they were placed in the same pentan, but Romulus and I were not so lucky."
"It was bad," Hannibal rumbled laconically.
"We had to deal with a lot of gossip and preconceived ideas of what exactly happened," Romulus stated quietly. "Tongues wagged a great deal after the incident with the pagans." Romulus was just as quiet as Hannibal; the other men would often make playful bets on who would speak less. His intense face and studious manner placed him as the most knowledgeable of the group; his ability in the field of medicine nominated him the medic of the group. The other men suspected he was from the northern reaches, but no one felt it was his place to ask.
"I guarantee it was Narcissus and his goons," Nero muttered savagely. "Only they would paint us as barbarians."
"My superior said we was tha' ones that killed 'em," Julius offered. While some people strove to wean themselves away from the dialect of the Docks, Julius almost seemed to take pride in it. His blond curly hair bounced as he fiddled with something on his armor; he was always moving, always in motion. Paradoxically he was the most proficient man with the crossbow; his aim had saved Ekos and the other men on several occasions. "Needless t' say I 'ad a few issues wiv' 'im, so we settled 'em on tha' outskirts."
"Which gave them the impetus to give you a dishonorable discharge," Nero added testily.
Julius shrugged while drinking his wine. "Eh, it was getting' borin' anyway."
Ekos laughed heartily. "You know, I don't think any of us truly belonged in the ranks of the Templari. We're too jaded, I think." The other men raised their glasses in agreement.
A young boy walked up to them with a scroll in hand. "Um, sir? This is for you."
Ekos looked surprised as he took the scroll and dropped a few coins in the urchin's hand. He unfurled the rather new parchment and scanned the lines, a scowl creasing his face the further he read. The men gathered around him knew that face all too well and understood something important was transpiring.
"We need to speak to Briareus," the grizzled veteran rumbled as he wadded up the missive and threw it into the fire. "Narcissus has made his move."
* * * * *
"Basically, Narcissus wrote me and said you would be taking a long trip," Ekos said to Briareus as the two sat in the study. The others had gathered there as well, since Ekos refused to relay the story until he spoke to Briareus. "Apparently he managed to get you nominated for Fatherhood of Thermopylae Monastery."
Estos snorted. "That is highly doubtful and very irregular. The prospect must go before a panel to determine his worth as a candidate, and only then is he placed as a nominee for the position."
"Well, knowing him he's managed to cook something up."
A page opened the door and silently entered, handing a scroll to Briareus and departing without a word. Briareus opened up the scroll and perused the contents, frowning towards the end. "It seems you were correct, Ekos. Apparently, the Regent Ikoles has heard so many good things about me he nominated me in my absence. It has been done before although it is, as Estos has stated, very irregular."
"Especially considering Regent Ikoles is approaching 60 and sleeps half the time during the conferences," Estos added. "I can assure you he has no idea who you are."
"This does indicate something, however," Nero muttered. "I think you're making someone rather uncomfortable, Briareus, and that means you need to be out of the way."
"Why? We haven't done anything."
"True, but the potential for mischief on our part is too great to consider. That means the potential for embarrassment is just as great on his side."
Nero shrugged. "Yes. This smells of a plot hatched by a man. Women are too flighty for this sort of intrigue." Estos rolled his eyes and uttered a silent prayer as Briareus hid a smile. "In any event, this means we are on the right track."
Ekos frowned. "I would agree, but what track? We don't even know what's going on."
"That may be solved in due time, but not at the moment," Briareus said with a sigh. "I have to go to Thermopylae, regardless; not going would look poorly on his Grace and I certainly don't wish to besmirch his name, even if this was done without his knowledge or consent."
Ekos scowled darkly as he replied, "Well, I guess that means I'm going along with you."
"No, you aren't."
"You are going to stay here and continue working on this; we need to know what part Xylon plays in all this. For all we know he works for Ikoles."
"Who will protect you?"
"I have my ways," Briareus said mysteriously. Ekos rolled his eyes as he continued, "I need you and your men to work that angle and give all information to Estos, who will in turn send me updates while I sort this out."
Estos cleared his throat softly. "Briareus, a thought just occurred to me. You are well known at the monastery and reasonably respected; if your nomination became an appointment you would not be able to leave except under specific circumstances."
Briareus frowned momentarily. "That is true. They would get me out of the way permanently." He waved a hand. "It really is of no import; a Father is supposed to be of 'virtuous thought and deed', a descriptor which definitely doesn't adhere to me." The other men looked at him curiously but said nothing; if he noticed he did not indicate such.
Estos clapped his hands. "Well, I think we shall have to proceed as instructed, then. I will send you an update once we get the information. However, there is one issue which needs to be resolved immediately: What do we do with Birdie? I have already kept him here far too long; legal precepts must be observed and holding him against his will is definitely against the law."
Briareus shrugged as he stood up. "Let him go."
Nero arched an eyebrow. "Are you sure, Brother? He could reveal our discussions."
"No, he won't. Despite his poor choice of profession, he does have some scruples. He won't reveal anything because he was humiliated when you captured him and would rather die than tell someone he was caught."
"If you say so," Ekos added, but his voice betrayed doubt. The expressions on everyone's face indicated they felt the same way.
* * * * *
Estos sat at his desk, examining a scroll brought to him by a page from the temple. A bit of a sticky problem, he thought as he stretched out the ancient, crackling parchment and secured the edges. They found this one in the back of an abandoned desk in the basement; it was written in a foreign language that no one seemed to know. He had several scrolls beside him, full of translated texts and indicators for the rare languages. It appeared to be some sort of elf script at first, but he could not be sure.
He idly wondered how Briareus was doing. A week had passed since he left and still no one had discovered anything, although a letter was sent describing the situation as it stood. The quiet one, Hannibal, had managed to track down a few men who had worked with Croesus, but he hadn't managed to uncover anything important. Estos knew the taciturn giant was a great deal more aware than he let on, and so had confidence in his ability to glean any information from the men.
He heard the door open much to his irritation; his pages knew to knock before entering. He turned around to deliver a blistering rebuke but stopped, as three burly, unkempt men bolted towards him, hands outstretched. He started to chant an orison but the men were prepared for such a contingency; one disposed of all finesse and smashed him in the mouth with a meaty fist. As the elderly Regent flew back they descended upon him, darkness filling his vision.
* * * * *
Ekos was sitting at a table in an inn, which was located near the Docks. He was anxiously waiting to hear from Nero and Hannibal, both of whom had gone out to investigate several leads. Romulus had remained with him while Julius had left earlier in the day. He drummed thick fingers on the scarred table, waiting patiently while Romulus silently read a small book.
Nero suddenly appeared at the doorway and proceeded straight for the table, Hannibal in tow. The slender warrior ordered some tea for both of them when they sat down, waiting until the barmaid had left before speaking. "Well, we had an interesting, yet depressing day," Nero started. "Three men we were searching for; just three men! Imagine our surprise when we discovered two of them have mysteriously and suddenly 'left town' and one has not been seen in several days."
Ekos arched an eyebrow. "Then why are you smiling like that?"
"We tracked down the one that had simply disappeared; we eventually found him hiding out in some shanty in the Docks. Once we confirmed his identity we spoke at length."
"He couldn't tell us much, other than he was fearful for his life because everyone else was disappearing. He did confirm a few points regarding Croesus, however," he said as he received his tea. "Croesus had instructions to follow all caravans going to the Wastes, even to the point of turning down a lucrative permanent position up north. He didn't mention why Croesus behaved that way, but I think we can safely assume the reason." He sipped on his drink before continuing. "I'm afraid this was an empty camp, legionari."
Ekos grunted but did nothing to interrupt the silence hanging over the table.
"Where's Julius?" Nero asked after a moment.
"Don't know. He just left and gave some sort of nonsensical reason like he normally does."
At that moment Julius sauntered in, a crooked grin on his face. Ekos arched an eyebrow as the young man sat down. "I take it you have something interesting to tell us?"
Julius grinned even wider, ordering a tea while getting comfortable. "You betcha. You'll nevah guess who I saw on tha' road t'day."
Nero paused for a moment. "The Hierarch?"
"No, you loon. Narcissus."
"What is he up to now?" Ekos asked with narrowed eyes.
"Oh, nuffin, really," the young man said flippantly, receiving his tea and waiting until the barmaid left. "I sawr 'im goin' into a 'ouse that doubles as a brothel when tha' priests aren't lookin'." His eyes twinkled with restrained mirth.
Everyone's eyebrows shot up at this unexpected news. "Would you remember where the house is if we had to go there again?" Ekos asked.
"Yar," Julius affirmed.
"Good. It never hurts to have some sort of edge, especially when it comes to him." He looked around. "Well, it looks like will have nothing for today's efforts. Let's finish our tea and report back to his Grace."
* * * * *
As they approached the unassuming house and opened the gate, their instincts told them something was wrong before they were conscious of the fact. All of them stiffened and looked around warily, unsure what was wrong but knowing something was amiss.
Julius pulled out his crossbow and pointed towards the door, which was cracked open by the barest of margins. Ekos nodded and motioned to him and Hannibal, pointing towards the back. The two nodded and went to that direction. He then motioned to Nero and Romulus to follow him, and proceeded through the gate. They sidled up to the walls on either side of the door, listening carefully for any sounds and watching for movement. Ekos looked at the two other men and nodded, then stealthily made his way inside.
He peered through the darkness and saw two small forms on the floor. He frowned as he motioned to the others to join him. He proceeded down the hall to make sure no one was nearby and then returned.
Romulus was kneeling between the two forms to examine them. "Broken neck on this one…Heavy object on the other," he whispered softly. Ekos recognized them as the two pages that helped Estos, and his heart grew heavy with the knowledge. He motioned down the hall with his head and the three moved more silently than one would expect from three armored men.
They searched each room one by one until they reached the study. Readying their weapons they burst in, only to feel disappointment and regret when they saw the overturned desk and scattered scrolls, but no Regent. They sheathed their weapons and began to investigate; Romulus left to inform Hannibal and Julius of the update. Ekos was examining the scrolls, hoping to find some sort of information, when Nero cleared his throat. "Legionari, here is a letter." He held an unfurled scroll in his hands; it was an old scroll on one side with some crude lettering on the other. Ekos snarled when he saw how uncaring the intruders had been and took the letter out of Nero's hands; while he was certainly no student of history, such an uncaring attitude was uncalled for.
Ekos, (It read)
Bring Briareus back to me in chains within one day, or his cherished Regent will meet Oolaam sooner than expected.
The other men had entered, awestruck at the mess inside the study. Ekos wordlessly handed the missive to Hannibal, who read it and passed it on. After all of them had ready it, they looked at each other and instinctively knew what their next course of action would be.
* * * * *
The rain was falling hard onto the cobbled stone streets while the black, pendulous clouds blotted out all light from the skies. A lone man stood in a wasted, thin shack, which succeeded in remaining erect and failing in everything else. He looked miserable in the rain, his shoulders hunched up and a crudely made cloak wrapped around him.
The former pentan sat across the street, similarly hunched underneath a crude overhang. The only difference was these men were accustomed to such situations and felt neither irritation nor were bothered by discomfort, which was more than what could be said for the lone watchman. Julius in particular had been sitting there for several hours, at least, watching the main entrance to the underground world that Ekos had only recently escaped from. Water beaded immediately on his crossbow as he glanced up and down the street, making sure it was clear before the men made their move.
"Julius," Ekos whispered, daring to speak a little loud because of the noisy rain, "how long has he been sitting there?"
"For a bit, actually. I 'eard tha' evenin' mass bell ring a while ago; 'e 'adn't moved yet, even though 'e's a squirrelly fella'. Keeps lookin' back at tha' door."
Ekos arched an eyebrow. "Whatever for?"
The blond soldier smirked. "'Is relief is probably late, I'm thinkin'. Anyway, there's been only one lad 'oo's gone in an' come out since then; I'd say 'round evenin' prayer."
"Oh." He chuckled as his eyes narrowed. "Alright, everyone, I think I know how we will do this. Julius and Nero will stay here while the others come with me and we'll see if we can't dispatch the nervy guard without fuss or mess; if he runs, Julius, kill him." The blond mop of wet, curly hair nodded. "Alright, let's move it!"
Julius watched the scene unfold as the other men stole out into the darkness, making as little noise as possible (given the fact they were wearing chain instead of their usual plate mail made things a little easier). He watched them slink into an alley and disappear into the darkness. A part of him wished they would do things the honorable way, but he realized they had already passed that point a long time ago.
Suddenly, a large blob of shadow detached from the street near the watchman and bolted towards the fragile shack. The pitiful man was taken completely by surprise as a mass of muscle and metal tackled him and pinned him to the ground. Julius chuckled to himself. "I guess they got it," he muttered as he stole across the street with Nero close behind. They approached the writhing mass of arms, legs and cloaks when it abruptly disengaged, revealing the guardsman on the muddy ground, unconscious. Without a word Hannibal hoisted the body over his shoulder and dropped him off in a dark corner. The men checked each other just in case and stole into the dark entryway afterward.
The darkness was welcome, even though it was also quite cold. They managed to find the trapdoor leading down into the sewers and managed not to make too much noise in their descent. They felt a kinship to the elder Regent, and knew his life depended on their success.
They proceeded down an empty sewer tunnel, hands on their weapons and nerves taut with anticipation. Every corner was taken slowly, every man ready to inflict pain or death upon their enemies. However, it was rather quiet in the tunnels, which worried Ekos greatly. Had they been discovered? Did someone find out about their plot? His mind worked on the problem and found it lacking for a solution.
It wasn't until he sniffed the air that he realized something was amiss. He held up a hand to stop their progress as he sniffed air. He withdrew and moved over to Romulus, whom it was agreed had the best sense of smell. "Romulus, I smell blood. Do you smell it?" Romulus paused to sniff the air and then nodded fervently. The men knew what that meant and proceeded accordingly. It wasn't until they reached an "L" shaped corridor that Julius pointed ahead towards the bend; Ekos could see a thick rivulet of blood on the ground. He edged forward to the corner and looked around for a brief moment.
Blood coated the halls, congealing on the dirty floor, while bodies of thieves lay in the red pools, terrible wounds on their body. They were annihilated, Ekos thought with a shock. He motioned to the others to move slowly and carefully, proceeding ahead to forge a path through the gristly field.
They eventually made their way to the cells where Ekos and Briareus had been incarcerated once before. Throughout the halls the carnage was the same, and it was beginning to resemble an abattoir. They began to investigate each cell, checking for the aged Regent, hoping this massacre did not include him. A hiss from Nero brought everyone over to the cell he was inspecting.
A body lay on the ground, covered with a dirty sheet. At first the band of warriors thought it was the one they were looking for, but Ekos was the first to see the figure was too large. In fact, as the person sat up, he looked almost familiar –
"Ekos? 'Annibal?" Birdie blinked at the group. His face was a mass of bruises with one eye almost swollen shut; his thick arms gave evidence of numerous beatings. "Is 'at you?"
"Yes, Birdie. What in the Twelve Hells are you doing here?"
He scrambled up and limped over to the bars, his face contorted in anger. "After you sorry lot dropped me off, Leonidas thought I 'ad turned parrot, so 'e brought me in t' fin' out what it was I 'ad said. They didn't b'lieve me, as you kin see."
Ekos felt badly for him. "I'm sorry, Birdie. We didn't know they would do that." Nero had apparently located some keys and opened the cell.
"Well, there ain't much else, I s'pose; at least ye' came t' save me." He limped over to a corpse and kicked it in delayed frustration.
"Huh? We didn't know you were here until we saw you."
"Wot? You didn' get my message?"
"What message? We didn't receive any message; we're here to get Estos."
"Estos?! What is 'e doin' 'ere?" he exclaimed, a look of shock on his face.
"Leonidas kidnapped him and we're getting him back," Ekos replied with a bit of irritation.
Birdie looked around at the carnage with new eyes. "You mean you lot didn't do this?"
"No. You don't know either?"
"Nope. I was out cold until recently."
Ekos shrugged. "As long as the Regent is unharmed, I don't think I will shed many tears," he said as he motioned to the other men. "Come on, then. Let's find him."
The group moved into the depths of the warrens, quickly becoming inured to the bloodshed presented before them. Birdie managed to get a small sword and held it in a competent manner. He muttered something to himself, catching Nero's attention. "What is it, Birdie?"
"Well, sir, I've been thinkin'…I'm wonderin' if this is tha' work o' tha' Circle."
"Yeah. 'Ey step in when thieves git too uppity or do sumfin' really bad." His voice held a bit of awe and fear. "Kidnappin' a Regent is real bad."
"Why?" Julius pitched in, his curiousity piqued.
Birdie gazed carefully at a branching tunnel before resuming. "Think 'bout it. A Regent gets kidnapped, tha' Templari git involved. Bad news fer all thieves. Tha' Circle would send one a' their enforcers t' come in an' lay down tha' law an' punish tha' guilty; in this case," he paused as he motioned towards a group of bodies on the floor, "tha' entire den."
"It would take a whole army to do this," Ekos scoffed, "not one man."
"You don't know 'em." His voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. "'Ere's one man they use…No one knows 'is name. Sev'ral years ago one thief den decided they'd kill tha' local Father. The only one 'at survived was tha' guard at tha' door. 'E said a man went in, showin' tha' usual signs. Two hours later 'e come back out, says 'night' an' leaves. Tha' guard wen' in later t' find out why 'e wasn't relieved an' saw ev'ryone dead."
Julius frowned. "Uh, Ekos?"
"What?" he replied irritably.
"There was a guy that went in b'fore you showed up, remember? I tol' you 'bout 'im." His voice held a bit of awe as well.
Nero cut in. "Supposition and possibility, Julius. We don't know if the two events are connected."
"True. Still, it's sumthin' t' consider."
No one noticed Romulus reach down and quickly examine a corpse.
The conversation fell silent until they reached the doors leading into the main chamber. Ekos remembered his time here with a shudder, the memories flooding his consciousness as he fought back the feelings of rage and revenge. With a glance to his men, he readied himself and opened the doors to reveal a charnel house beyond.
Butchery was not the appropriate word, given the circumstances involving the condition of the main room. Bodies lay everywhere, glassy eyes staring out into oblivion. Even the walls seemed to bleed; blood slowly crawled down to mingle with the mess on the floor. In the middle of it reclined the bloated emperor himself; only his prodigious size gave away his identity because his face was scarred beyond recognition. The mass of flesh remained there, unmoving and unmovable, ruler of nothing and no one. None of the attendants had been spared; even the young men that surrounded the dais were brutally slain where they stood. Ekos detachedly noticed most of them were crowded into a corner, as if cut down while cowering in fear. He realized it was an apt, if sad, comment on their fear filled lives. The smell of blood filled the air with a fetid cloud of brutality which gave even the seasoned warriors a moment to pause.
The men, however, were not easily hindered; Ekos remained in the main room while the others broke off to investigate side rooms. Romulus moved over to his side and looked around. "Legionari, some of these bodies still retain a trace of heat within them. This happened very recently," he murmured in a soft voice.
Ekos nodded, also reluctant to speak loudly, "I suspected as much."
Hannibal walked out of a room carrying Estos in his arms; the elderly Regent had evidence of a bruise on his cheek and was unconscious, but was otherwise unharmed. Ekos felt relief wash over him. "Good. Come on, let's get out of here."
The band of men left as quietly as they entered and left the brutal scene in darkness.
* * * * *
"I'm fine, really," Estos protested weakly as Romulus dabbed a cloth on his face. "It is nothing more than a bruise."
"Which can mask other injuries, your Grace," Romulus replied quietly and firmly. "Legionari Ekos and Brother Briareus would not forgive me if you died through my lack of foresight."
Estos mumbled something but suffered through the experience. The Templari investigators had already come and wrote his statement, taking note of the dead pages. While they were initially grateful Ekos and his men had rescued the Regent and eagerly wrote down their witness statements, one of the officers eventually recognized the former pentan and their attitudes became brusque. Ekos and his men were quite aware of the sentiment and quietly excused themselves after their part was done; reappearing once the men had left.
"Just submit to it, your Grace," Nero chortled. "It goes so much easier that way."
"It would appear so." Estos paused, wincing as Romulus examined his head. "So, in essence, this Leonidas fellow kidnapped me to get Briareus? How foolish of him to think you men would stand here and do nothing."
"Very foolish," Hannibal rumbled.
"I regret, of course, my pages were killed during their intrusion," he said in a thick voice. "They had no part to play in this; why in Oolaam's name would they harm them?"
"Potential witnesses," Nero interjected. "They could identify the men in court. It is a sad event, to be certain, but one whose outcome is unfortunately certain."
"Where is Birdie?"
"He's resting in a separate room at the moment. He was worse off than you, but he's sleeping it off."
Estos pursed his lips. "From what you have said I don't think his life has much weight in the street any longer." He sighed, his weariness audible. "He will have to stay here, if only to keep him from being killed. I would not be surprised if he is blamed for this event, even though it is, apparently, this mysterious 'Circle' which has committed the deed."
Ekos frowned while scratching his chin. "I'm still not sold on this idea of this 'Circle', to be honest. You did not see the sheer amount of destruction inflicted upon the men in the warrens, your Grace; it required an army, not one man."
"That may be, Ekos, but at this point in time we must take what Birdie says to be truth until proven otherwise."
"I suppose," Ekos drawled slowly.
Estos smiled wanly. "I can understand your reluctance, even though I was not witness to the scene. Ease your conscience; we do not doubt or contest your wisdom and experience in these matters. Now, gentlemen, the time for discussion is over." He shooed them out, retreated to his cot and sleep soon enveloped his consciousness.
* * * * *
A letter arrived for Estos several weeks later, during one of the frequent thunderstorms that came during this time of the season. The wind howled through streets and across windows while the rain slammed against the shutters in a constant staccato. Estos was working on a translation when his new page knocked on his door, bringing the scrolled parchment when permitted to enter. Estos was grateful for the new pages but a little irritated with their inexperience; in time all of them would know how to work around each other, but in the meantime it was trial and error. He opened the parchment and began to read.
I hope this letter finds you in good spirits. All is well at this time. While on the trip to the monastery I thought of the situation and tried to think of other things to consider. I also wondered if releasing Birdie would be a good idea, as his sudden disappearance may be seen by many as suspicious; he has wronged many people, many of whom would like nothing more than to make him pay. You might want to have Julius check on him just in case.
I am beginning to doubt my position on this mystery. There simply aren't enough facts to support my theory, no hard information upon which to base my suppositions! It is almost as if we are in a cave in the middle of the night, attempting to describe an animal by touching only one part of it. We know there is something much larger beyond what our senses tell us, but we are defied in our ability to define it! I cannot help but suspect I have missed an important clue and/or overlooked a vital piece of evidence. I wrack my brains even as I write to you now, hoping that something will bring it up. Perhaps there is truly nothing more than a simple robbery, but I am inclined to think otherwise, even though I have nothing else to support it.
The information that Ekos and his men have uncovered have only confirmed some of my suspicions; unfortunately, we need more than that. I need to ask you a great favor, Estos: I need you to speak to the Hierarch, if it is even possible. I need to know if his Holiness knows anything, or is willing to reveal the information to us. I suspect he has information that will give us another angle to this confounding mystery. Tell him the Warder is dead and give him the details; I realize this may aggravate his condition, but I must know! I know you will be as kind and considerate as can be possible.
I suspect you have already written me and the letter is making its way to the monastery; obviously I have not received it. Once I do I shall write to you in haste and hope it arrives earlier than I do. The election will continue for a few weeks yet; the mental and emotional dynamic has changed with the passing of various men, so time is necessary at this point. I will wait for your correspondence.
Estos sat back and pondered the issues in his mind. After several long moments of thought he arose, getting dressed in his best robes and headed towards the great temple of Oolaam.
* * * * *
He waited in a small anteroom for an indeterminate amount of time, curious to know why they were reluctant to allow him to speak to the Hierarch. Was he ill? Was he asleep? Could he be, Oolaam forbid, dead? He cleared the morbid thoughts from his head as a well-dressed functionary entered the room quietly and walked over to Estos, bowing perfunctorily as he did.
"If the Hierarch is indisposed at the moment, I can return at a later time," Estos said in a respectful tone. "My business is not that pressing."
"I am certain his Holiness would be happy to receive you, your Grace, if he were in a position to do so," the functionary responded in a voice that throbbed with emotion. "Unfortunately, he is rapidly falling fast."
Disappointment filled Estos' face, but before he could respond the massive pipe organ buried within the chapel began to sound a solemn basso dirge.
The Hierarch had finally departed the mortal realm.