Nether Hallow

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 {Tart Liquor}

It had been a long journey for Harren, Dwarves do not usually venture far from their homes and this was far even by human standards. He had traveled half a country away because of a note. Vague, brief, but a note with a sense of urgency, also it was signed by Sallot Mae. He found it odd this well-known scholar would request his audience with the instruction of complete secrecy, so he wasted no time to answer its call. Emphasizing that he had no time to waste was the human carriage driver that hand delivered the note waiting to assist him with his bags, it inflated his ego to hear this man end every statement with a “yes mister Silverhelm”. Besides he had never met anyone who actually met Sallot that within itself was interesting, and anyone who would pass up an all-expense paid trip for the opportunity to do so would be a fool. Keeping the requested secrecy Harren bid farewell to his father, mother, six brothers, and four sisters; never answering the question on where he was heading with the human carriage driver. He knew that people would begin to speculate, honestly he liked that idea, but the truthful answer was he did not know himself.
The trip North had been three weeks, Harren had grown tired of the snow covered roads and the dangerous drifts that toyed with his carriage, these were annoyances between stops where he was experiencing new things. Seeing much of the Lusparian landscape from his trip he was beginning to fall in love with the surface world. Things were so different out of the mountain, he found adjusting difficult; not out of a stubbornness and refusal but of being a tourist and naïve to new things which there were many. Sunrise breaking the cobalt blue just before dawn, intensified by the white blank canvas that had consumed the never-ending wheat fields, he made every effort to attend it daily waking like a farmer to a rooster’s call. Frozen rivers and lakes, covered bridges, windmills, farmhouses; these were all new sites that he could not get enough of; others called them scenic and plain but the new sights were captivating. Complementing the sights of the open road was a fresh cool breeze nipping at his round nose, a very new and wonderful experience not felt in the stuffy mountain halls of home. There were also things he didn’t like, mostly times when the flatness of the land made him uncomfortable, seeing no end to the plains one could feel as if the sun goddess herself was pulling them from the ground as night beseeched the land. His human carriage drivers felt the same way finding how disturbing the sunsets were on the open plains. That was another thing he was really beginning to enjoy, the human peoples. Sure there were diplomats in all the dwarven cities of Reuluephos, with servants, expensive clothing, impressive education, and overly polite manners, but they were not good specimens to their species. Poets, craftsmen, guards, homeless, each just as different to the next these were the real humans he liked to talk to. He of course had to judge his complete knowledge of humans from whom he met in his clan’s hall deep within the mountain, and more recently at his nightly stops at inns and taverns. It was here he first heard human music; quick plucked string instruments, flutes, harps, and drums. They did not sing the long drawn out low songs that dwarves are known for. These songs had a variety of rhythms, tempos, some had silly words, they most of all were upbeat. Their art was soft and beautiful, not painstakingly chiseled in stone, not all of it anyway; he took time to look at paintings, wood carvings, and tattoos whenever they stopped. He loved it all and wondered why dwarves were so… bland. Continuing with the testament of dwarven blandness was the food of his homeland, he was not sure if he would be able to look at dwarven food in the same way again, after what he was eating during his nightly stops. Dwarven food was good, hearty, and to the point but had little or no taste; boiled cabbage and meat, turnips and potatoes, no his eyes have now been opened. Spices, especially the ginger from Port Julia, rhubarb, all types of berries, fruits, honey braised beef, breaded chicken cutlets, meat pies, and fish, how could he return to boiled cabbage. Ale was the only complaint he had outside of his homeland, some brewers had tasty concoctions, honey mead, sunflower wine, corn whiskey, but nothing could compare to a good strong dwarven ale. If he had to pick the one thing that he missed from home it would be the ale.
His carriage had just past a sign post revealing that the town of Nulpent would be reached by afternoon, the proof that this long ride was soon to end comforted him. The destination they were set for was on the outskirts of the city, and was able to be reached without an unnecessary trip down the city’s streets. In the distance it could of past as a sleeping giant, but the large manor was almost lost in the naked plains that surrounded it, appearing much closer to the traveled road than it actually was. Enormous was the only word that could describe anything of this size. This manor the carriage pulled up to was the thing that impressed Harren the most, surpassing by far anything he had seen on this trip. A long driveway with tall shrubs on both sides led to the water-fountain centered in a pool that separated the drive into a circle. It’s bare chested maidens pouring now frozen water from the carafes they held; it looked frozen in time and frost. The manor itself was painted a greenish color the white shutters were lost under a thin coating of fresh snow, above the front entrance was an extended roof held up by pillars across the drive, creating a canopy for carriages to deposit their passengers without being accosted by the elements. The steep roof was taken over by snow, supporting varying lengths of dangling icicles, smoke plumed out of several chimneys, and the frost glazed windows mocked the cold with reflections of the flaming hearths within. The carriage pulled under the overhanging canopy that also housed a wide light green marble stairway with a dog carved from the same stone perched at both ends of the top stair. Seeing the giant brass dog head that held the door’s knocker he knew this place was very impressive.

Harren stretched before getting out of the carriage, and remembered what his father always told him about first impressions. He tucked his red shirt into his pants, tightened his belt, made sure his long brown braided beard was crumb free and quickly ran his finger across his teeth to clean them. Exiting the carriage he landed in a good size pile of snow covered mud thinking ‘so much for that’. The butler’s arm outstretched was waiting to take his cloak and hat as he opened the door. Harren Silverhelm had not even finished brushing the mud off his black boots when he noticed the old man. He knew Sallot was very old, but this tall man before him looked youthful. “Hello Mr. Silverhelm, I hope the accommodations were adequate.” He had a wide smile, his voice was calming and slow, he was very polite and welcoming. Even the way he presented himself was calming, comfortable clothes, house slippers, and silk handkerchief added to his quite peaceful demeanor.

Sallot would greet the other four guests he requested as they arrived in the same cheerful manner. The second of the remain guests was a quirky human; he opened the door while knocking entering with his face curiously peeking around the corner. “Umm hello sir, Mr. Mae? This is Ibrahm Falscorn you wrote me a letter.” He was not tall by human standards, but the bright garments he wore exaggerated his height while tricking the eyes to slender his width, adding to his false height was his bright yellow hat with a brown cord. All his intense clothing fell short to what he casually had perched on his shoulder, it was an orange fox, and this of course became the focus of everyone’s attention. He had a very serious look to him with the way he waxed the ends of his moustache and raised his brow the way someone seriously thought while agreeing with them. “I know what you’re thinking” he said in a direct no nonsense voice, “is the hat too much, does it really draw too much attention.”

The next guest to arrive was elven at least that is what Sallot said. There was one solid stern set of knocks from the brass knocker, the man that followed them stood upright and military. His tall black boots made no noise and he moved so gracefully one could suspect him to be a haunting specter. The tops of his elven ears looked to be sawed off leaving rough edges, his long brown hair did nothing to hide the obvious deformities, and this only complemented the variety of scars that covered his face and hands. Quietly he walked over and appeared to size up the group without saying a word. Sallot introduced him with “ah Mr. Pierre glad you could attend”. The elf gestured only with a nod.

The last two arrived at the same time. Sallot greeted them by name, though with the addressing mismatched them. Sanford was an above average looking human, a bit on the lite side, but the look of agility and youth about him. He had a big inviting smile that was caught and supported by dimples on both his cheeks all topped off with perfectly white and straight teeth. Dark long curly locks gently dangled to frame his baby face. Wearing expensive looking embroidered dark clothes, a few pieces of tasteful jewelry, and the back of his hair pulled back loose by a leather cord. He was the exclusive nightmare to every farmer that had a daughter, or inn keeper with a similar blight. Lastly there was Justen, another human, slightly over dressed for the weather. Taking off his second heavy coat a small charm of the god of magic slipped out from under his grey shirt which he casually placed back. His hair and beard were auburn, both kept short; his skin was the type of light that a person gets from not getting outside too often. He rubbed his hands together trying to get the warmth back, “So did I miss anything, sorry I am late.”

After Justen, the last of the expected to arrive entered the room, Sallot spoke to the group. “I am going to keep this brief; there will be plenty of time for you to mingle over dinner.” He quickly introduced his invited guests to one another as a good host should, there was small light hearted chit chat and handshakes then dinner was ready. In the dining room all were seated at a long mahogany table with hand carved matching chairs. There was a feast of wild turkey, sweet butter, greens, gravy, and a variety of custom dishes by a top chef fantastically displayed on the oversized table. As the wait staff began to serve the meal a butler entered the room and cleared his throat.

“Introducing Mr. Ritter”

The introduction called forth a short bald aged man, wearing very formal wear, and spectacles too big for his head. Everyone immediately knew that this was Sallot’s star pupil from decades past, now Sallot’s research partner. This man stood properly at the head of the table and waited for all to rise before he took his seat.

The meal was delicious, the desert was to die for, chocolate mousse, and the only complaint was the mood. Mr. Ritter completely had taken away any small talk, jokes, and welcomes from the table and replaced it with the over the top rigidness of strict foreign nobility. They could all tell that he was not native to Luspar, his accent was too thick. Ritter definitely had to be Rilycian by birth, most assuredly that was his native tongue. He struggled with certain words and his very nasally voice was not only funny to listen to added much confusion to what he was attempting to say. After the meal Sallot quickly ushered everyone out of the dining room, trying to regain the more laid back atmosphere he previously created. Passing through an impressive gallery with animal furs on the floor as carpets, paintings lining the walls and white marble statues from an age long ago they entered the master study. The study he led everyone into had two tables, a desk, shelves upon shelves of books, and what looked to be several other chairs that had been added to this room special for this event. One table had stacks of books upon it; the other was set like a desk with a cozy leather topped chair. Everyone noticed that Sallot checked the room they just exited, making sure no one had followed them to this side of the house, he then secured the door. After inviting everyone to sit comfortably he made his way to the desk in the center of the room, Ritter sat at the table that appeared as a make shift desk. Their host produced a bottle of Raspberry Liquor filling the set of small glasses that were waiting for the event and sat in the chair after passing them out to his company. He took a very tiny sip closed his eyes and brought his nose in close to enjoy the aroma. His moment of ultimate comfort was disrupted when he noticed that all but Justen and Ritter had taken their drink down in one large sip. Passing the wide straw bound bottle around again with the instruction to enjoy this, Sallot emphasized ‘in small sips to savor it’. When all the glasses where topped off again Sallot began with what seemed like a speech that he had practiced to include proper punctuation and pauses for dramatic effect.

“Gentlemen now to business. Has everyone heard of Glenester Crowzig?” Everyone nodded in recognition of the inventor and author most famous from predictions of the end of times through visions. “Of course you have. Well, this is hard to explain,” extending his hand in the direction of Mr. Ritter, “we are still confused by this so bear with the minor holes and possible inconsistency in the facts.” He took a deep breath as he looked over the people standing patiently before him followed by a tiny sip from his glass. “We believe that the army of Bannist invaded because they were looking for something. When they invaded their army was spread wider than it should have been. The reports of destruction, looting and murder are not what an invading army that plans to expand their boarders traditionally would do. This is where Ritter and I were brought in to verify the facts and advise on the tactics they may continue to employ. At first we thought the survivors were a few that got lucky, able to find a horse and outrun the pursuit. When wagons of women and little girls began to retreat without any wounds and not pursued we began interviewing every refugee taking notes on their accounts. Several things were consistent with each story, every man and boy was round up after the initial invasion and executed in the street. The only women that were harmed were the ones that tried to defend the males dragged into the street for execution. No major vandalism was occurring, the only buildings that were being burnt down were heavily defended and causing injury to the invading army. There were absolutely no women rapped.” There was another pause as he raised his glass for another tiny sip, the room was deadly quit as the speech paused on such an uncomfortable subject. With starting up again he extended his hand to Mr. Ritter to give him the credit. “That fact Mr. Ritter discovered and disturbed us both. The black army and the demons they control are not eunuchs, when they invade they leave their mark. No women were misused, abducted as slaves, eaten, or abused for entertainment, this was very unlike the demon backed army. Also the looting, originally as they pressed forward very little spoils of war or trophies were taken. For invading armies that is a right. Temples kept their golden idols, coffers remained untouched, the dead laid unmolested with their belongings. They only took two things with the advance, food and weapons. Continuing to venture into the strange was what they did with the weapons, cast them into the centers of ponds and lakes, down deep wells, or disposed of them quickly so they would not be used. For the food, they were traveling lite, eating off the land as they went. This we assumed was the reason for such a wide advance, with no line behind it for resupply. These were the facts Mr. Ritter and I have been trying to piece together. It is well known that the black army without warning or cause began babbling causing a break in their line, inability to communicate, and forcing a retreat. On the unorganized retreat they could not even communicate with each other and this is where whatever plans they had fell apart because of the complete change of behavior. They began to devour the kills they made, women were also getting slain, ransacking and looting keeping weapons and trophies for themself, the demons toyed with their victims providing hours of torture. The one consistent fact was the absence of rape.” Another pause for a small sip. “Through our own investigation and spies we discovered that whatever they are looking for is related to the works of Crowzig, and Bannist had sent spies looking for it. We had organized a group of specialists hand-picked mostly from the group that was assisting with the initial Bannist problem I was assigned to, and a few others that were highly recommended. We sent them to West Nulpent, the town Crowzig grew up over a century ago to find the spies and thwart any Bannist motivated plans. As of now we have not heard from the group in several weeks. This brings us to you.” Sallot gestured again to Ritter as to give him the floor to speak. The small bald man pushed his chair back and stood next to the table almost losing height with the switch of position. He proudly lifted his head and shoulders back like he was a general addressing his army, overdramatic as always. Ritter began again with his very nasally voice. “Master Sallot and I feel our organization may be compromised and employing an outside source would give us time to address that matter. We have selected each of you personally for your individual talent and ideals. We humbly request that you to check in with the first group, assist them, figure out what Bannist is searching for, and report back with any findings. Both my manor as well as Master Sallot’s is in Burgenbees. We are renting this manor to conceal your identities, so please use discretion. We are setting you up with three secure houses in the city of West Nulpent, and a collection of all Glenester Crowzig’s works. Exercise extreme caution with the Bannist spies, we don’t want to scare them off before we know what they are up to. Last of all see this; it is a picture of a red feather in a circle, my design. That image is from us, we, including yourself, are the only ones in the room that know of it. We will address each other in written form with this included, or to get you future assistance. Now if there are any questions.”

The serious discussion that followed was halted by Ibrahm. “I just want to point out that I was in the circus.”

There was an uncomfortable silence and stillness.

Ritter’s nasally voice broke the silence. “That is it! I told you this was a bad idea! These simple circus going peasants will fail and give the upper hand to Bannist. Why are you so sure about the circus monkey anyhow? And two demies, not to point the obvious out here but there are no demies in Luspar! How is a dwarf AND elf going to walk around without raising a brow! I can see sending in the linguist and pick pocket, I chose them for a reason. But the other three are set for failure.”

Sallot’s face grew red, losing any sign of the pleasant old man and generous host, he was transmutated from that caring jovial man into the teacher reprimanding a student. “That’s enough Gunther Ritter-Mitter”.

Gunther Ritter-Mitter’s facial expression changed from arrogance to embarrassment, he quickly attempted regaining his composure. Giving the announced circus performer an unwelcoming stare that all felt would extinguish the study’s hearth, Ritter’s only bitterly spat out word was “Welcome”. Moving quicker than anyone would have expected he burst through the door after fumbling with the lock and damaging the dramatic exit he was trying to achieve. Another moment of silence took over the room again, and hung in the air until a distant door slammed shut.

Disregarding his own instructions Sallot finished his small glass in one large gulp. “All the gods help me.” Refilling the small glass and passing the bottle around again. “You have been picked because you are good and failure is not an option. He means well but his arrogance often gets the better of him, it is a cultural barrier I am afraid. I must deal with this brat now, gentleman good day. Most of all good luck, please feel free to finish the bottle.” He had a difficult time standing on his own as if the reprimanding of his student drained him of the years he cleverly hidden from time. Shaking the hands of his guests and telling them what a pleasure it was to allow him the opportunity to meet them. Sallot exited the room following the trail of open doors the little Ritter left.

This left the five guests and half a bottle of tart liquor alone in the impressive study. “So the circus you say?” Justen asked reaching for the bottle. “Yes that is what I said. I never could settle on a stage name that fit well, Ibrahm just does not rhyme with anything, unfortunately there was already a Butano the Great, so I could not use ‘the great’, I mean how believable would it be having two ‘the greats’ under the same tent, no sir not for the few coppers we charged. I don’t care that he was my teacher and a better wizard, I am still aloud to be secretly jealous.” Sanford perked up, “I’ve seen Butano the great before! I knew I recognized you, you did the thing with the animals.” Sanford looked around the room with the look of being seriously impressed; “He can make a dog appear, walk on his back legs, while balancing a ball on his nose. And he has this spider that shoots these webs at things he throws up in the air. A ball, a hammer, an unlit lantern, that ladies baby! Phew, phew the spider is shooting that web and attaching all this stuff to the tent pole. Very good sir, very funny.” “It was a little person not a baby, I would never throw a baby, for my routine. Thank you.” The elf, dwarf, and Justen’s eyes all met with the unmistakable look of ‘really!’. Justen probed this fun little tidbit further throwing caution into the wind, “So you are a magic user, conjurer possibly?” “That would be correct sir, student to none other than the Butano the Great previously mentioned. I can however do more than summon puppies and bugs. On the open road we must all protect the caravan from highway men, I have been known to do some damage.” Ibrahm twisted the end of his waxed mustache between his forefinger and thumb, and his perched fox stared wild eyed at Justen as if it too was answering the question. Content with that answer Justen spoke, “Alright this is a good idea, let us get to know each other a little before we leave, I am officially curious. We should all just say what we are good with, and let us leave any stories involving throwing little people around for another time. Again my name is Justen, more or less a linguist, well studied in many areas, bit of a book worm, follower of Magicta, also refined in the art of the arcane. What is your story?” Pointing to the very quit elf. Before answering his elven eyes looked over the small audience, everyone could tell he was put on the spot and trying to search for the words. “Well I am not pretty” he reached up and flicked his left deformed ear. “I am a veteran, to you humans I am a ‘tricky elven bastard’, I fought in the land wars between Luspar and Saelaedeu over a century and a half ago.” Flicking his left ear again, “Got myself captured and was subject to human hospitality. Good with those tricky elven tactics.” Pierre left it open and uncomfortable, no one wanting to probe his background further, disappointingly he did not explain why he had a human Lusparish name. Harren took the floor since he was sitting to Pierre’s left and the elf did not make any gesture for the next person to go. “Harren Silverhelm of Bear Hallow, my father is the judge for the city. I am a practiced lawbringer, and diplomat. Do not let the name lawbringer fool you, we are the strong-arm of the dwarven law. As any dwarf worth his weight I know how to use an axe and a shield. I am a strong believer of truth and justice.” He felt the last words ‘truth and justice’ would impress the group, he was completely wrong, they reached no reaction from anyone. Slightly displeased he pointed to the boy faced slender human. Sanford nodded with his dimpled smile as someone embarrassed usually does when they have to talk about themselves. “OK, my name is Sanford, I grew up in Burgenbees, I am good at talking to people, sometimes. Umm, I guess I am good at information gathering.” Justen interrupted, “And you are a pickpocket, according to Ritter.” Sanford’s big dimple smile faded to a sad face, he did not ‘want’ to be known as a pickpocket, but a man needs to eat. They waited the moment for his reply, “How can I answer that, yes I am a street person. I do not wish any of you to think ill of me please. I am here for a reason, it may not be the most admirable reason but it got me here. Trust me I am useful in my own way. I am a street person with some reputation, enough to be scouted to get here anyway.” Everyone seemed content with that answer, and Justen nodded with acceptance. After they had finished the bottle and had a few laughs, the carriages were ready to start their trip. They left after sunset and rode through the night

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