by: Brandon Kerr
The moon was out in full, unobstructed from any clouds hanging in the night sky. Its soft lunar glow captivated everything under its gaze in a vivid blue hue. This illumination was very helpful for one particular man clambering up a set of stone steps, lest he would’ve tripped and fallen back down the way he had come. Such a blunder would’ve taken him back into the beautiful metropolis that was the city on the lake. Ever since he had set foot onto the harbor below he’d been in a state of silent wonder, for he believed the place to be fit for the gods themselves. Most buildings in the city were erected from polished limestone, interconnected by streets that were just as pristine. A myriad of trees and gardens enriched the already serene atmosphere at every corner and venue. Beyond the docks was the great sparkling lake that enveloped the city and further were the mountainous jungles hugging the horizon on the far shore. Yet, the most pleasing feature in the man’s mind were the small pillars that dotted the streets emitting magical lights that lit up the night, rivaling the illumination of the moon.
Trudging through this supposed paradise, the man couldn’t have been more out of place. His dark skin and hair stank of seawater while his leather books reeked of old vomit. He wore a maroon overcoat lined in gold and a shabby pair of amber trousers, all tightened up with a black leather belt. With swagger in his step, he weaved his way past the native crowds bustling about on their nightly business. And what natives they were, he thought, striding proud and upright clad in brightly colored robes. Their features were sharp which complimented their narrow faces. The great majority sported silvery hair which they let flow back behind them in contrast to their stone colored skin. Most striking of all though were their thin but brilliant eyes. They were the brightest shades of blue, green, yellow, and violet that peered through the evening like stars.
Despite the elegance of his surroundings, the man never dallied on his outing. His brisk pace carried a sense of purpose too great to be spent on something as trivial as sightseeing. That purpose took him straight past the more urbanized districts and up the stone steps leading to the acropolis atop the hill. Upon reaching the top, the man allowed himself a brief respite as he took a series of deep breaths. He noticed that these grounds were the prettiest in all the city as the summit only consisted of three large structures, allowing room for more beautification. His eyes briefly passed over the towering pagoda off to the left side of the complex, as well as the shrine on the right. Instead he made his way for the massive citadel down the center of the path lined in blooming trees with pink petals.
Approaching, he clambered up another small set of steps towards a great set of dark wooden doors which led into the hall. Posted near the entrance was an official looking local man, seemingly waiting to receive the foreigner. This man was dressed in a neatly tied up emerald tunic and a white skirt which almost touched his pointed shoes. His eyes had the same yellow shade of a cat, and his long snowy hair was bound in a black thread.
“Might you be Adyamar of Levantas, known as the sea vulture?” the watchman asked with a look of contempt.
“It is as you say,” he replied back with a grin. “I am here to-“
“Minister Hu’Quian is currently conversing with his colleagues and will receive you shortly,” He turned towards the door and creaked it open. “In the meantime, I shall see you inside. Please follow me.”
The foreigner’s grin dissipated as he followed the attendant’s instruction, and together they passed through the double doors. He glanced around the inside of the great hall and found that its decorum was about what he had come to expect from these people. The smoke of incense drifted in the air, magical lanterns hung from the vaulted ceiling, and on the walls were engravings of the city he had passed through just earlier. When the pair left the foyer for the smaller corridors, Adyamar started to hear the echoes of a conversation coming from a large room just up ahead. He recognized the language was that of the people of this city, as each of their phrases flowed like a soothing stream. These words were short and closely strung together, allowing the speaker to tie numerous statements into a sequence of eloquent verses.
Adyamar’s familiarity with the tongue was enough to pick up on the conversation from inside the chamber. The attendant signaled for him to stop right outside of the entryway and allowed for a slight view of the inside. It was much like the rest of the complex, except that this place was obviously used for a specific purpose. Its shape was circular and was topped with a vaulted dome with much of the same decoration. Elevated rows for seating lined the edges of the wall, leaving the center of the floor open for people to conduct whatever business was at hand. Standing in that center were five richly dressed locals, consisting of four men and one woman.
One of the men greatly stood out from the others. He looked much older, as his hair was a graceful mixture of white and gray. The cloak he wore over his black robe was as white as his hair and embroidered with green. His amber eyes put life into his wrinkled face, and his pointed beard gave him an air of wisdom. This man seemed to be leading the discussion until one of his younger associates suddenly interrupted.
“Alas,” he moaned. “It has been a full year since the war ended and not a single thing has been done to repair the damage that’s been inflicted on our country!” he sighed as he tugged on his red robe. “It would seem that the orcs not only murdered our pride, but left our people with a plague of apathy as well!”
Another, more solemn, blue robbed youngster nodded and turned to the elder. “I must agree with Wus’Iam on this matter, Minister. I was present during the siege of Ionar and visited the city not three weeks ago. Nothing has changed, and that includes the devastation to the region of Kyoson. It’s sending northern Vah’Serra into economic turmoil.”
“It would appear,” said the yellow clothed woman. “the greater issue is that we anarran have lost a bit of our edge. Centuries of nothing but disdain for the outside world has left us vulnerable and overconfident. In hindsight we should’ve seen this coming.”
“Oh yes, because the problem lies solely with us, no?” sneered the last man clad in gray. “It can’t have been the fact that nearly all of our allies abandoned us at the height of the war. Jerra and Levantas broke off allegiance for their own convenience, and the damned elves raided our shores even though we entered the conflict on their side! Do not try to cheapen those terrible events by saying that we’re to blame.”
The blue robbed man waved his hand. “Oh, come now, Kin’Naris. You know full well that those two nations were soundly defeated, and that the elven archons are an untrustworthy band of brigands who refuse to work together on anything.”
“Besides,” the woman replied. “How do you explain our inability to defeat the orcs on our own?”
“Over-reliance on our allies abroad,” Kan’Naris shot back. “And idiotic decisions being made at home. If fools such as Ra’Tikar weren’t leading our armies, then we wouldn’t have lost at Ionar. We co-“
“Enough.” said the older man. “Forgive me, my dear friends, but this roundabout banter of yours serve no purpose and is quite monotonous. This isn’t the first time the anarran have lost a war in our lengthy history, and as we’ve done before we shall recover. Regardless, you’ve all been neglecting the most interesting outcome of the war.”
“And what outcome might that be, Minister Hu’Quian?” asked the red clad youngster.
The elder let out a light chuckle as he stepped over to a table in the seating area as his white and green cloak trailed behind him. Spread out over the counter was a map of the known world. Smiling, he traced a finger over the three largest continents whilst his bright amber eyes focused in on various details.
“Can you not guess it?” he asked his comrades. “Tell me, who would’ve ever imagined that an elven led coup in some seedy human port would have caused the most powerful nations of the world to go to war with one another? Across Vah’Serra, Everon, Asharim, and everywhere in between, hundreds of battles have been fought in direct response to this regional dispute.”
“I concur, It certainly did blow out of proportion very quickly.” the woman remarked. “Never before has any conflict had such far reaching effects.”
“Therein lies the crux in all this,” Hu’Quian announced. “For at long last, we’ve reached the return to a singularity with our fellow mortals. There’s no longer any doubt that the distant peoples of the world are now interconnected with one another.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Kan’Naris asked. “Our diplomatic practices have been in place for hundreds of years. Not to mention our economy is tightly linked with that of our neighbors, just ask any merchant down on the waterfront.”
“Ah, but never before has that influence been so prevalent in our daily lives. The fluctuating cost of spice seems a far off trifling affair compared to urns filled with the ashes of the fallen being returned to their families from the battlefield.”
The old man looked up from his map and turned back to his compatriots. “Furthermore, since when have old Rihanni campfire stories been such popular additions to our libraries? How did the elven invention of the spyglass make its way to markets across the sea within a few short years of its creation? Why does the unearthing of a silver vein in the mountains of Everon draw investors from thousands of leagues away, crossing both the sea and the language barrier? Even the reclusive dwarves are now under constant pressure to open their steel doors to foreign scholars and merchants. It is all because we have progressed to a point in time where we have the capacity to interfere in the affairs of others, and while there are severe consequences to such meddling, I tend to find it all the more beautiful.”
“A fair point, Minister.” said the red robed man. “However, you mentioned that this was the return to a singularity, not a fulfilment. In what other time have the cultures of the world been so entwined as you describe them now?”
“The answer lies at the very beginning of our history,” said Hu’Quian. “As we anarran believe ourselves to be descended from the stars, so too do all the mortal races trace their past back to a mystical origin. Accounts from antiquity are filled with tales of a grand exodus from a land very far across the Howling Sea. And as we return to the stars upon death, so too have we reclosed the gap between distant peoples and have become reunited with our ancient brethren.”
The woman suddenly laughed. “Oh good sir, you had me convinced until you mentioned that storybook legend of all things. You should take care in the future not to cite fairytales in your deliberations on serious matters.”
“Oh, but I am speaking of a very serious matter, Lady Wei’Rann. I ask that you trust me when I say that every storybook legend has a sliver of truth hidden away inside of it.” Hu’Quian smiled and gave a short bow to his peers. “With that, I’m afraid that I must take my leave, lest I keep my guest waiting further. Farewell, my lords, and a good night to you.”
The other anarran watched him stroll away with an array of mixed looks, ranging from questionable curiosity to slight suspicion. Even if he could feel their stares on his back, the old man didn’t show it. He had a pleasant grin plastered on his rough gray features which was only matched by Adyamar’s smirk aimed right back at him.
As the elder approached, the attendant stepped forward and humbly stooped his head. “Master, may I present, A-“
“Adi, it is good to see you again,” said Hu’Quian. “Welcome to Kyua. I apologize for not giving you a more appropriate welcome. How was your voyage?”
“It was rather comfortable, thank you for your concern.” the human replied. “I assume you already know why I’m here?”
“It concerns your business proposition, no? I have an idea, though your letter wasn’t very specific.” he waved a hand out towards the hallway. “Let us retire to my study, there you can shed light on the finer details. Vis, would you please prepare some tea for us?”
The attendant gave his assurance and another bow before scampering off to complete his task, leaving the pair of friends to their own devices. They quickly stepped out into the series of corridors towards their intended destination, all while sharing a light banter.
“Now tell me truthfully, how was your voyage?” asked Hu’Quian.
“Fairly horrible, Hu.” Adi replied. “You’d have a much easier time scrubbing scurvy off your cock than you would sailing through the Gyonin Sea these days. Merchant traffic has clogged the straits, which means pirates and those who hunt them are a constant annoyance. I must’ve been stopped at least seven times by military vessels in search of contraband. This was all before we entered the gulf, which has become a madhouse of inept procedures.”
Hu snickered a bit. “Not a very romantic take on your line of work, hmm? I wouldn’t know, being strung along all across this country by pompous aristocrats in need of good counsel.”
Adi smirked back. “No, you have a fair idea. You said it yourself that we’re now more interconnected than ever. The world has indeed gotten much smaller as of late, though I personally don’t find the process very beautiful.”
“It is true that a man will spot the flaws in a work of art much easier the closer he looks. But we both know that you haven’t come all this way just to complain about changing market practices.”
“Indeed, I’m also here to ask you for a number of favors and an unreasonable amount of trust. Though I hope to be worthy of such an investment from the Minister of Internal Affairs.”
Hu stopped short of the entrance into his study and opened the decorative screen door leading inside. “It’s likely that the good minister will refuse your requests outright, however Hu’Quian might be willing consider this pitch of yours if it proves to be an intriguing enterprise.”
The two friends retreaded inside and settled into the more comfortable setting. Hu’Quian’s personal office wasn’t nearly as grand as the rest of the citadel and reflected more of a personalized style. The maple wood floorboards were covered in exotic rugs and comfortable throw pillows. Up on the walls hung various oil paintings of trees, flowers, and mountains. Several candles situated on a nearby wooden desk illuminated the room with a more natural atmosphere than that of the magical lamps.
Adi and Hu sat down cross-legged next to a low, round table placed in the center of the room. They seemed quite comfortable as they stretched up against the floor cushions set next to them. After a few moments, Vis entered with a kettle and two porcelain cups, all nicely placed on a small tray. As the attendant poured the tea, the smell of fresh flowers entered the room and enriched its ambience.
When Vis finally left the chamber and his footsteps grew quiet, Adyamar turned to his anarran friend and spoke up. “I am planning to launch an expedition across the Howling Sea, to Miros.”
Hu calmly sipped his tea before replying. “The graveyard of the gods, hmm? It seems I was correct in saying that the good minister would refuse you outright. You do realize that every foolhardy explorer that has set out to chase that legend doesn’t return, yes?”
“Officially, that is true.” Adi smirked. “However, that only includes guilds and countries that keep certified records of their excursions, and doesn’t cover factions that tend to operate in secrecy.”
“Then one of these shadowy organizations holds evidence to the existence of Miros?”
“In fact, there are quite a few. The Seekers of Jezera travelled there in search of their dead empress. The elven explorer Gyonin made a secret map of the northern coastline. I know that the dwarves have some records concerning the terrain. Even your own countrymen, the mysterious Velaran, sent their officers to verify its existence.”
Hu’Quian raised a finger at Adi. “Who I must remind you, do not officially exist.”
Adi tapped his finger on the table and continued. “The truth is, nearly a dozen small voyages made landfall, five of those managed to proceed into the interior, though in all cases they failed in any further tasks they set for themselves. There were too many obstacles preventing them from achieving their aims.”
Hu raised an eyebrow in curiosity. “From what sources have you procured all of this knowledge? I imagine it wasn’t easy prying these reports from the clutches of those who wrote them.”
“Oh,” the human mused. “Let’s just say that war has a way of unearthing the best kept secrets, and I was quite busy during the war.”
“There’s another excuse for your reputation, you lecherous vulture.” Hu sighed. “And I suppose this explains why one of my ships went missing two years ago. Yet none of this explains as to what the purpose of your little adventure might be. What’s motivating you, Adi?”
The human paused for a moment and sipped his tea. “Three of the accounts.” he exhaled. “Three of the accounts have very similar descriptions of one particularly interesting detail. Each of tells of a lost city, nearly worn away from the passage of time. Surrounding it is a hellish wasteland where the spirits of a lifeless world spread the gift of death. In the center of this city there stands a tower carved from the bones of the earth. Inscribed onto the surface are the verses of our ancestors, and behind the stone lies a gateway into the heavens.”
Hu gave Adi a blank look. “The Obelisk.”
“Indeed.” he replied
“Then this undertaking involves recovering what is quite possibly the most legendary relic in the shared history of the mortal races.”
“Are you certain you can find it?”
Adi nodded. “I have studied all the evidence I’ve gathered over the years and have drawn clear connections between what’s written in these memoirs and ancient mythology. I’m fairly certain that I know where the Obelisk is.”
“Do you have the necessary resources to carry this expedition to successful conclusion?”
“I have a large fleet of ships assembling off the coast of Chiram, several years’ worth of supplies stockpiled on the island of Salkratta, and enough coin to buy myself a small country. Aside from what I’m about to request from you, the expedition will be ready to set sail in a years’ time.”
Sighing heavily, Hu’Quian pressed his fingers against his brow. There was a clear look of uncertainty upon the old man’s face and enough stress on his mind to turn a few more of his white hairs gray. He looked back up at his human guest with a hard expression. “So just to assess the situation. You would have me aid you in this quest to find a land shrouded in myth. To uncover the secrets of a place that has been thought to accommodate the gods and would hold cultural and religious significance for millions, but is unlikely to even exist. While using stolen records from countless countries, including my own, in addition to bedtime stories as your testimony. All under your crooked leadership.”
“I believe that covers it.”
Hu smiled and waved a hand. “You’ve never failed to impress, vulture, and you may count me as among your supporters. Now, what is it that you need from me?”
Adi smiled right back as he put up three fingers. “I have three requests to make of you, the first concerns the purchase of a treasure ship. I understand that the devastation around Ionar has seriously damaged the economy of Vah’Serra and large sum of coin could stabilize the balance a bit. Your countrymen wouldn’t have to provide constant maintenance for one of the largest ships in your navy, and I’d be able to transport large quantities of supplies much more conveniently.”
“Allow me to staff the crew with my own men, and you’ll have your ship.”
“Done.” Adi said rather quickly. “My second request is for a few anarran scholars and their attendants to join me and fill in the gaps of my research branch. I have plenty of specialists in other areas but nobody who is competent enough to serve as an authority for anarran research on the Obelisk.”
Hu scratched his head, relaxing. “I shall send word to our academies and will direct those who are interested to your fleet. You’ll be responsible for their safety on this journey, though I will send Vis to act as their supervisor. He will be my eyes and voice, observing your progress.”
“Agreed. My final request is that you utilize your connections within the Veleran to spread the word of this expedition. I understand that they’re not supposed to exist, yet no association trades information as efficiently as they do. They cannot limit themselves to the courtly circles either, the word must travel all the way down the grapevine to the common folk. That’s where the fighters and soldiers left over from the war will be, longing for a purpose in their lives.”
“Do you not have enough men to man your ships and guard your investments?” Hu asked.
“No, but I will not take the words of those memoirs for granted. If there are truly spirits and monsters waiting for us in Miros as the texts say, then I will bring the best mercenaries, glory-seekers, adventurers, sorcerers, and treasure-hunters to meet them.”
Hu looked mildly impressed as he stroked his sharp beard. “Spoken like a man readying for war. Although if you had only asked, I could’ve provided you with a few companies to fill your ranks.”
“The more shops you regularly barter with, the less you’ll appear to have a favorite. I must appear to be leading an independent venture, lest some empire decides that I’m partial to one country and tries to stop me. Besides, I wouldn’t be very comfortable with a battalion of armed anarran loyal to you stuffing about my ships.”
The old man gave the human a coy look. “You do not trust me, Adi?”
“I find it far easier to trust a man who fights for gold than you, Hu.”
That last remark almost had Hu’Quian spilling his tea as he let out a hearty laugh. He patted Adyamar on the back as they both started to chuckle like little boys playing a game.
“Very good, very good!” proclaimed Hu’Quian. “I shall have the world know of your ambition, and in one year, your flotilla will embark on the most important expedition ever launched in history.” he raised his teacup. “To the best of luck.”
“And to the best of friends.” replied Adi, raising his own.