Though two of the Prince's Own still marched coldly by his side, Dairek felt relief rush through his body as he exited the Keep. Not only had he successfully survived dealing with one of the more cold-blooded rulers in the known world- hells, he could still feel the man's expressionless eyes dissecting him- but he'd gotten a job that could solve his team's financial troubles for the rest of their natural lives.
Of course, having taken a quick look already at the map and extracts from Karnad's journal that Rithan had given him on his way out, he knew there was every chance they wouldn't return alive from this venture, much less actually acquire this thing that their employer wanted, but it was better than being executed here and now. Dairek had no doubt that would have been his fate if he'd listened to the Prince's offer and refused.
As they stepped into the square outside the Keep, the guard Captain turned to Dairek. "My men report that your friends are at the inn outside of which we apprehended you," he said. "We will escort you to them."
"Yeah- sure. Thanks," Dairek muttered in response. He turned to take one last glance back at the Keep, and then stopped, staring. A figure was standing at one of the upper windows- a woman with skin several shades darker than his own, her black hair elegantly arranged and her dark gown embroidered around the edges with symbols he was too far away to make out. She regarded him intently for a moment, nodded once, and then turned away and was gone.
"Who was that?" Dairek asked the Captain. As far as he knew, the Prince wasn't married, and though it was possible that the woman was a relative, she didn't physically resemble him- and yet she was dressed as a lady of high station.
The Captain scowled. "No one who concerns you," he snapped. "Now come with us." Dairek growled under his breath at this lack of an answer, but knew he wouldn't get anything more from the man; he turned away from the Keep and the now-empty window and followed the Prince's Own back into the streets.
Licanthil's Temple of the New Gods was situated not far from the Prince's Keep, and though it could not compare to that building's brooding power, it was nonetheless impressive in its own way. The main structure was low to the ground, but with a high, peaked roof in the center above the main worship hall, surmounted by a slender spire and surrounded by six others. The front of the building was marked by three pairs of double doors- the only other decoration was the symbol of the Temple, a silver star with a point for each of the seven New Gods.
The acolyte rushed up the Temple steps and stopped to straighten his robes before knocking once on the central door- as it wasn't a worship day, the Temple was not currently open to the general public. Almost immediately the door was opened from within by another acolyte; recognizing his spiritual brother, he nodded once and gestured for him to enter.
Swiftly, the acolyte made his way towards the Master's study, stopping briefly in the central worship hall to pay his respects to his gods. The hall was the largest chamber in the Temple, nearly as large as the Prince's own audience hall, and it was lined with rows of seats- worship of the New Gods was popular in Licanthil, a severe and austere religion to fit a severe and austere people; even Rithan III professed belief, though it was mostly for the benefit of his image and he rarely attended worship in person. At the head of the chamber was a raised dais on which rested the altar, and on the wall behind it was the Temple's most striking feature- the mural.
It was considered blasphemous to depict the features of the New Gods in artwork, so the painter had portrayed them as faceless figures shrouded in flowing robes, otherworldly and all-powerful. The gods were recognizable only by the items they held; the two most prominent stood in front, Rhaerdan the Judge who leaned on his gleaming sword, and his sister Eledene the Scholar, who held an unfurled scroll in her cloth-wrapped hands. The sun gleamed from behind the gods, a symbol of their divine victory, and beneath Rhaerdan's sword writhed an indistinct shape- Erynd, last of the Accursed Ones to fall. Gazing at it, the acolyte felt a surge of pride- in all the known lands, only the Mother Temple in Pildethis had a depiction more magnificent.
Bowing before the image, he spoke a quick prayer to Rhaerdan and Eledene, and then he stood and exited the worship hall, heading for the Master's study near the back of the Temple. Its door was flanked by two priests with their hoods raised, giving them an ominous look; one of them raised his hand as the acolyte approached. "He is meditating," the priest said. "He requested that he not be disturbed unless the need was urgent."
"It is," the acolyte said. "I have news he must hear- the Prince has found the man he sought."
The two priests exchanged glances, and then the one who had spoken opened the Master's door and gestured the acolyte inside.
The study was a smaller room than one might expect from the workplace of the man who was probably, after the Prince himself, the most influential person in Licanthil. The Master was a true believer, and not one to indulge in physical comforts. The walls were lined with books and scrolls- mostly holy texts attributed to the New Gods or Their Emissaries, commentary on the same, and a handful of mildly heretical works (though those deemed truly corrupting were kept in a vault deep beneath the Temple, which the Acolyte had heard of but never seen). In the middle of the room was a desk, and in front of the desk an old man sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes tightly closed.
The Master was elderly but not frail, and both his face and the top of his head were shaved in the manner of high-ranking priests, though his black robes were indistinguishable from those of his subordinates, save perhaps from being of higher quality. A slender cane lay across his lap, etched around the top and base with arcane glyphs the acolyte did not recognize.
"I gave word that I was not to be disturbed," the old priest said softly, without opening his eyes. "I trust you have a good reason for disobeying me."
"Master," the acolyte said haltingly, "I have news of the Prince… and the man Dairek."
In an instant the Master was on his feet, leaning on the cane with one hand and regarding the acolyte intently with his bright eyes. "Yes, you had good reason," he said. "Now, tell me everything."
The two priests on guard nodded to Brother Mynar as he approached the Master's study; he returned the gesture before opening the door himself and stepping inside. The Master was alone, seated behind his desk with his hands folded in front of him; he seemed to be in deep thought. When he noticed Mynar's presence, he raised his head and motioned for the younger priest to shut the door behind him.
"You summoned me, Master?" Mynar asked as he accomplished that task.
"Yes," the old man replied. "I have an assignment for you- one that is of utmost importance to this Temple and to our gods."
"How may I serve?" Mynar had run errands for the Master before, of course- as a warrior priest sworn to Rhaerdan it was only to be expected, and Mynar was the most accomplished of that order currently in residence in Licanthil. Now, however, there was something about the Master that he had never seen before- the old man seemed worried, and, if such were possible, a little afraid.
"The Prince has found the man he sought, the explorer and meddler in things which do not concern him known as Dairek," the Master said. "He intends to use him to mount an expedition into the Wastes, in pursuit of an unknown item. Whatever it is, it is certain that it must never see the light of day. Rithan is a learned man, but not a true scholar- he collects only that which brings advantage to him. That means that whatever he has hired Dairek to seek, it is dangerous- perhaps the most dangerous weapon yet unearthed from the Wastes. We are the servants of the New Gods, Brother- we are the watchers on the rampart who stand ever vigilant against the Accursed Ones' return. We must not allow this to come to pass."
"We must not," Mynar agreed fervently. "By Rhaerdan's blade and Eledene's wisdom, I shall prevent Dairek from finding his prize."
"Valor is well and good, but the gods teach us that caution also is a virtue," said the Master. "Be wary, Brother Mynar. I sense a deeper hand in this than that of our ambitious Prince and his hirelings. Tell me, are you at all familiar with the Eryndian Oracles?"
"The ravings of a madman," Mynar replied. "Heretical nonsense."
"Heresy yes, nonsense no," the Master said. "Just because something is evil does not mean that it is not also accurate. The Eryndian Prophet's predictions have come true in the past, and the Conclave of Masters in Pildethis informs me that they have studied the fragments we possess, and have determined that a convergence of some sort nears. Soon the world will change, and you must stand vigilant- we all must. The gods demand it of us."
"I shall not fail them," said Mynar. "What are your instructions, Master?"
"At the same time the Prince's Own took Dairek, they also arrested a mercenary leader. Take gold from the Temple coffers and buy his freedom and his services; have him gather his men and accompany you. You will follow Dairek's band to the location they seek, and when they emerge with their prize you will eliminate them and bring the artifact to the Temple for proper study and disposal."
Mynar swallowed and nodded- this was the part he found most distasteful about his chosen path, but one that was necessary- the justice of the New Gods was swift and absolute. "I understand," he said.
The Master regarded him intently with his bright eyes. "One thing more, brother. There is a pale young woman who travels with Dairek- she is said to meddle in powers that by right belong to the gods alone. She is not to be killed- she must be brought alive before the Conclave of Masters, who will decide her fate. That is all; you have your mission, Brother. May the gods go with you."
"Their will be done," Mynar replied. "As always." He turned to leave the study, but as he shut the door behind him, he caught a brief glimpse of the Master bent over his desk and hands clasped in fervent prayer.
Aric sat at a table in the common room of the Blade of the Fallen inn, a half-drank mug of ale sitting in front of him. Tarn sat next to him, and Khaleen was across from him, while Sira sat a short distance away, staring into her own drink which was otherwise untouched.
"We need a plan," Khaleen finally said. "I know Dairek said he'd be fine, but I don't trust this Prince or his guards, and who knows why they went after him specifically. I asked around a bit, and apparently he wasn't taken to the prison, and there's been know word of an execution, which is a good sign, but I still don't like this."
"What do you suggest we do?" Tarn asked, looking at her evenly.
"I say we wait until tomorrow morning," said Khaleen. "If Dairek's not back by then, we find him and get him out of whatever mess he's stuck in- whatever it takes. Any objections?"
Aric was silent- he'd not been with the team long enough to feel he had a place in this decision, though the idea of potentially going up against the Prince's Own made him nervous- and who could tell what Sira thought, but Tarn nodded. "You've been with him longer than anyone," he told Khaleen. "It's your call."
She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could begin the inn's door open and two of the Prince's Own entered, Dairek between them. The guards immediately turned and left, and as soon as they were gone Khaleen was on her feet and had wrapped her arms tightly around her leader.
"Are you all right?" she asked, stepping back with a faintly embarrassed look on her face. "What happened?"
Dairek looked at her, and then over at the others, then sighed. "The Prince wanted to see me because he wanted to hire me," he said finally. "We've got a job to do."