Kuro-hi strained against her manacles, but to no avail. Again she spewed a stream of curses at Darius, who could now understand them all too well. Darius acted as a translator between the cat-like humanoid and the rest of the group.
“That’s not very nice language for a lady,” the Professor scolded. “After we saved your life and all. Why are you after us, anyway? I mean, I know you want the scroll, but…”
“We want the scroll. You don’t even know what to do with it,” Kuro-hi hissed.
“Why is it so important? Why do you want it so bad?”
“So the Masters can retake their proper place as the rulers of our world.”
“You mean on the moon?”
“That is what you call it, yes.”
“How will the scroll help you?” The Professor’s eyes brightened. “Do you allow visitors? Because I bet there’s all sorts of neat things on the moon, like new chemicals and reagents and… Cheese! Cheese can be flammable, you know, and…”
“You don’t have to translate any more from him, I’m tired of listening to him,” Kuro-hi sighed.
“You’d be surprised how often that’s the case for us, as well,” Darius said, using the creature’s language.
“So what’s with the red and brown? Are you two different factions?” the Professor asked.
“Why should I tell you anything?” Kuro-hi snapped. “Serin will return and you will die.”
“Look,” Darius said. “We really don’t have a problem with you. What we’re concerned with, aside from not liking to be attacked, is what this scroll is going to be used for. We don’t want it to be used against us or anyone else down here.”
The cat-like creature stretched and yawned, relaxing in her bindings. "It doesn’t matter. Soon my master will return, and kill you all. Telling you these things will relieve my boredom.
The Wise Man is going to help us build an army with the scroll, along with the second scroll that he has."
“A second scroll?” Darius asked.
“Yes. Now, what are these people in brown you keep referring to?”
“Originally, the Professor was approached by two people dressed similarly to you, but in brown. We thought we were being pursued by the same people, but you and Serin were wearing red.”
“I wear red because I am Kuro-hi. The Black Fire. Serin wears red because he always has.”
“Black Fire, is that a title, or a name?” Darius asked.
“It is my name. It is also what I do.”
“Well, the man in brown was called Vardamir.” Darius watched Kuro-hi’s eyes narrow.
“Vardamir? General Vardamir? He is of the enemy.”
“Really?” the Professor replied. “He offered to buy the scroll. He didn’t try to kill me.”
“He is of the White Moon,” Kuro-hi replied. “We are of the Black Moon.”
“Look,” the paladin said, “maybe we can work out a deal here. I just want to know the nature of the conflict between your two groups.”
“Very well. It will amuse me for a while. And the knowledge is of no use to you – you have not the power to act upon it.
Long ago, so I have learned in my lessons, the Masters lived here, on your world. There was a great war, a war between the Masters and their science and technology, and the magic of wizards and priests. The Masters were defeated, and most were wiped out. But a handful survived, and using their knowledge, along with a gateway here, found a way to escape to the moon above. There they thrived, and could pursue their quest for knowledge.
Even then, some of the Masters wished to make use of magic, to combine the power of magic with technology. Their pursuit was forbidden. Most of the Masters felt that magic was a corrupting influence. That it would hold back their learning of science.
So when it was discovered that some of the Masters were attempting to learn magic, those who now call themselves the White Moon attacked and defeated those who are now the Black Moon, and banished them to the far side. But, in doing so, they gave the Black Moon a place where they could pursue their studies.
The problem is that magic does not work on the moon. It only works here, on your world. And it is forbidden for those of the moon to even come here. But Black Moon did. And they discovered the metal that focuses magic, creates it."
“Magicum,” the Professor gasped. “Dangerous stuff.”
“Yes,” Kuro-hi said. “It holds great power, but in all but the smallest quantities, it can cause madness, and death. But in small amounts, it can cause beings to manifest spontaneous magical ability. As it did with us, the Neko. We are a genetically engineered species. I was born fully formed, with basic knowledge. The metal caused me and my sisters to become what you call sorcerers. My gift is fire. I am Kuro-hi.”
“And what of this ‘Wise Man’ that is helping you. What is he?” Darius was already guessing his nature. If he were right, it would be dark news.
“He is a powerful wizard, of your world. He is teaching the Masters magic. He is going to help us reconquer our home.”
“Do you know his name?”
“No, he is simply called the Wise Man. I have only seen him once. He wears a voluminous black robe with a deep hood. He possesses the other scroll.
It was my failure, actually, that caused the scroll you have to leave our possession. We recovered the two scrolls from a ruin that dates back to the great war, and we were weakened from fighting the guardians of the place. We were set upon by sea-faring bandits. One of my sisters died protecting the second scroll, but the first was taken from me, and I was left to die. It is a matter of honor to me to recover the scroll."
Darius spoke in Common to the group. “I get the feeling that this Wise Man is Amaroth. It’s just too much of a coincidence, since he was after the scroll.” Darius turned to Kuro-hi and spoke in her language. “Has the Wise Man been looking for the scroll?”
“Yes, he was. But he felt his resources could be better used elsewhere. It has fallen to us to retrieve it. Now, I’m tired. Serin will return soon, and you will all be dead.”
“What makes you think he’ll be any more successful this time?” Wynne asked.
“He’ll bring my sisters.”
Redemption in Pain
Darius opened his senses. He could feel strong evil coming from Kuro-hi. It was strongest in the area of the black gemstone embedded in her skull, in the shape of a crescent moon, points down.
“The gem in her forehead radiates evil,” he said to the group. “Strong evil.”
“Maybe we could take it out,” the Professor offered.
“And kill her in the process,” Darius said.
“What is the nature of the symbol in your forehead?” The Professor asked. Darius interpreted.
“It marks me as a servant of the Black Moon. It is a symbol of power. It is the very source of my power.”
Ingrid knelt beside Kuro-hi. “You are still wounded. I will relieve some of your pain.” She called upon the power of Odin, and touched Kuro-hi. Many of her wounds, healed, but she cried out in terrible pain.
“No more, please! Kill me if you will, but no more!” Kuro-hi curled up tightly, hugging herself in pain.
“Look,” Darius said, “there’s a crack in the gemstone.”
“I felt something,” Ingrid added. “It felt like… possession. I’m sorry, but I must try.” The cleric focused her power into her fingers, and touched the gemstone in Kuro-hi’s forehead. The blessings of Odin flowed into it. And the black gemstone dissolved into powder. A small lump of bluish metal tumbled out, and the hole where it was vanished. It was like she had never had the stone embedded in her. Kuro-hi screamed, then fell unconscious.
“Where am I? Who are you people?” Kuro-hi looked confused.
“What is your name?” Darius asked.
“I am Kuro-hi.”
“What is the last thing you remember?”
“I… I have memories, but they do not seem to be my own. Like I was watching things happen, watching myself… do things.”
“She was likely possessed,” Ingrid said. Destroying the stone took a lot out of the dwarf. “A demon, or devil.”
“I remember a scroll, in a metal tube. Not the one in the bone tube. I was wanting the scroll.”
“Can you read the scroll?” Darius asked.
“No, only the Masters can read that.”
“Well, what’s important is, you’re free!” The Professor smiled.
“I’m not so sure about that,” Kuro-hi replied.
“Serin will not let me live. I… I know things.”
“What things, tell us!” the gnome exclaimed. Everyone looked at him in disbelief.
“We’re going to get in touch with someone who can help you,” Darius offered. “The question is, do you want to go back to Serin?”
“No, he will have no use for me, not even as a concubine. I fear he will kill me.”
Kuro-hi was given a cloak with a hood to hide her unusual features, and the group made their way to the Frosty Troll, a tavern near the Al-Sham neighborhood of Warwik.
Wynne hit the streets, asking around about how to contact Aterus. Someone told her that they would get word to him, and that he would meet them at the Frosty Troll.
Aterus came over to their table about an hour later. “So, my friends, what can I help you with this time?” Darius gave him the rundown of their current situation.
“So let me get this straight,” Aterus said, “you’re telling me that sitting over there is a female humanoid cat from the moon, who was flying around tossing fire at you, so you expelled the demon from her forehead, and now you want someone to take her in because she’s not evil anymore?”
Wynne took a sip of her ale. “We really can’t make this stuff up, Aterus. Yes.”
“Besides,” Darius added, “I believe it was your boss who first told us about the people on the moon.”
“Well, I suppose you’re right. But I didn’t think they were trying to hurt you.”
“They weren’t,” Darius replied. “But these are different. A different faction. We believe they are working with Amaroth. They call themselves the Black Moon, while the first ones we met are the White Moon. And if these Black Moon people are willing to bind demons to created servants and to work with possibly the most dangerous necromancer ever, you can understand our concern.”
“I see.” Aterus touched his chin in thought. “So what do you want me to do?”
“The only thing we really need right now is a place for her to go. She’s been stripped of her magical powers, but is a talented fighter and has a lot of information about the goings-on on the moon. We figured Tiberius would possibly take her in and protect her in exchange for service. We certainly can’t send her back to the Black Moon.”
“I see. Very well. I think Tiberius would certainly be interested. I must say, you do bring me interesting problems. Come along then, Miss?…”
“Kuro-hi,” Darius said. “Let me translate.” He told Kuro-hi of the proposition.
“Interesting,” Aterus said. That language sounds a bit like Karakahn, the language of the Kingdom of Karak, far to the east. I think I can understand enough to communicate basic ideas. Come along, Kuro-hi. I will take you to Tiberius."
The Blue Raven
As the group was planning their next move, they were approached by a courier. “I was told to give this note to you,” the man said to Darius. He continued to stand their, waiting.
“Thanks,” the paladin replied. “Ingrid, can you see if this note is magical? I don’t trust it. Sorry, courier, I’ve just been having a lot of problems lately.”
“If you’ll just give me my tip, I’ll leave.”
“Fine, here.” Darius flipped the man a silver.
“No magic here,” Ingrid said.
The note was in a flowing style of handwriting that Darius had seen before. “I have a different task you can do for me. Meet me at the Blue Raven at sunset.” It was signed with an “S”. Darius knew it was Serson, the brother of the corrupt Duke of Warwik.
“I have someone I need to go see,” Darius said.
“We can go with you,” the Professor said.
“No, this is something I must do by myself. I’ll be back in a while. Stay out of trouble.” Darius left, and made his way to the Blue Raven.
Serson was waiting for him in the back room. “Darius, please, have a seat. I understand your unwillingness to remove Garsen the old fashioned way, but I have another way to accomplish this. Garsen, in his role as captain of the city guard, has his hand in many unscrupulous dealings in Warwik. If someone were to enter his home, there is a great possibility one could uncover some evidence to that fact. With hard evidence, the Duke would be forced to remove him, even though he is the Duke’s cousin.”
“I don’t break into houses,” Darius said flatly.
“Of course not. But I’m sure one of your companions does. Am I right?”
“Yes, there is. Very well. How do I contact you when I have it?”
“Just leave word here at the Blue Raven. I will get in touch with you. Do this, and we’ll consider this mission accomplished. Then I will owe you another favor.”
What She Does Best
Darius made his way back to the Frosty Troll. “I think I have some good news, everyone. Remember when I said a while back that someone who could be a great help to us wanted me to do a task I couldn’t do? Well, he has a different task now. And you, Wynne, get to do what you do best.”
Wynne smiled. “Sorry, bud, I already turned down the job at the brothel.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of breaking and entering.”
“Where and when?” Wynne asked.
“More importantly is who,” Darius said. “Garsen, the captain of the guards, his house.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in stealing?”
“Not stealing. Looking for incriminating evidence. It shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
Wynne took another drink. “Sounds good. I’ll need a few days to case the joint. Are we on a timetable?”
“Not really,” Darius replied. “It should be done soon, however.”
A Meeting of Minds
As the two continued to discuss breaking into Garsen’s house, the Professor noticed two wizards he recognized as regulars from the Explosive Runes tavern. Since he was still disguised, he knew he couldn’t say anything. But, being intensely curious, he found himself listening in on their conversation.
“Are you sure? Is it worth the time and effort?”
“Of course. It only happens once every five years. There will be sages from Tula, Valon, Tarantis, even Viridistan. Not to mention the sages from the City State itself. Look, it’s a two day sea voyage to the City State. I have a cousin who lives there, so I don’t have to find a room – which is going to be difficult for anyone given how many people show up for Sage Moot. And the chance to have one hour of a sage’s time for free? I can’t pass that up. You should come with me. It’s in two weeks. Think it over, at least.”
The gnome thought of the scroll that had been bringing so much trouble his way. Surely there would be a sage at the Moot who could read Logii…
“OK,” Wynne said. “Let’s head back to our ‘lair’, for the night, and we can get started casing Garsen’s house.”
They set out towards the Thieves Quarter.
“By the way,” the Professor said. “We’re going to the City State in a week.”
“What? Why?” Darius said.
“There’s a gathering of sages,” the gnome replied. “We can get this scroll read, figure out why everyone is after it.”
“It might be good to get out of town for a few days,” Wynne said.
“True.” Darius scratched his chin. “I like this plan. And the Professor came up with it.”
“First time for everything,” the gnome said, grinning.
Bad Moon Rising
The moon shone brightly in the sky, casting silver light onto the dirt streets of the Thieves Quarter. The sound of laughter broke the silence.
“Serin, good of you to join us,” the Professor said.
A man with red hair and red clothing floated above the street. Lounging on rooftops around the group were three of the Neko. One wore blue, one green, and one yellow.
Serin spoke. “I like your disguise, Professor.”
“I thought you would,” the gnome replied.
“What,” Serin asked, “did you do with Kuro-hi? Where is she?”
“Yes, she’s dead. Wouldn’t cooperate, you know?”
“I see. Not sure I believe you. Not sure you have the guts. But no matter. I will have the scroll this time. Mizuni! Denkou! Yochi! Kill the gnome. Bring me that scroll.”
Mizuni, clad in dark blue armor, leaped up from the roof she was perched on, and pointed her clawed hands at Darius. A freezing stream of frost streaked from her fingertips and slammed into the paladin. Darius staggered back from the force of the cold magic.
Wynne began taking shots at the flying Neko with her crossbow, but the cat creatures moved too fast for her to aim properly.
The Professor slung vials of acid and stink bombs, burning and sometimes disabling the Neko in their flight.
Darius tossed javelins, and swung his hammer when they came close enough.
Ingrid called down lightning, and gave the blessings of Odin to help with the fight.
Denkou, in green, showered lightning bolts down on her foes, while Yochi, in orange and yellow, blasted away with streams of deadly acid. For a while, the Professor and his friends seemed to have the upper hand.
Serin frowned. “Gnome, uchitoru!” Serin shouted. The Neko began focusing their attacks on the Professor. The gnome found himself backed into a corner under the eaves of a building as Denkou and Yochi landed on the ground and forced him back, blasting away at him with deadly elemental attacks. The alchemist was almost dead.
But the Professor was nothing if not prepared. He fished out a gadget from one of the various pouches and activated it. He vanished from his spot, to reappear behind the attacking Neko.
Ingrid remembered the ring Grond had given her. She summoned the great white wolf and ordered him to attack. In the resulting confusion, Darius and Wynne made deadly attacks that brought down Mizuni and Yochi. But Denkou remained.
The Neko in green showered the Professor with deadly lightning, causing him to collapse to the ground. She hovered over the Professor, and scooped him up in her arms.
Darius charged in. With a mighty swing of his warhammer, he shattered Denkou’s skull. The Professor dropped to the ground, and the Neko sprawled across him.
Serin shouted, “This is not over!” and vanished into a dark hole that formed behind him.
After being healed, the Professor sat up. “What am I doing on the ground? Is it over? Did we win?”
“For now,” Wynne said. “For now.”
They stripped the dead Neko of their armor. And the Professor gathered the small lumps of Magicum that fell from their foreheads when their crystals cracked and dissolved.
A Little B&E Action
The next day, Wynne made her way to the house of the guard captain, Garsen. She forwent casing the place. She had received a note from the Invisible Judge as she slept, telling her that Garsen had no servants, just a cleaning lady that came to the house every other day at noon. Wynne still found it disturbing that the Invisible Judge was able to sneak up on her like that. Thankfully she seemed to be on Wynne’s side.
Garsen’s house was made of stone, and was situated in what was unofficially the “Nobles Quarter”, an area between the Priests Quarter and the Merchant’s Quarter, on the south side of town. Picking the lock was child’s play. Inside was refined, but subdued furnishings. Wynne began searching.
The study was well kept, and very neatly organized. She leafed through journals and loose papers, but found nothing incriminating. Finally, the only place left was the master bedroom.
Again, nothing of note. She turned to leave, and spied something unusual on a bookshelf. It was a small child’s doll. At first, Wynne was very cautious. Was it magical? Was it some kind of scrying device? A guardian that would spring to life and grow into some deadly construct? She finally gathered her courage and lifted the doll from the shelf.
It was heavy. Too heavy for a stuffed doll. Turning it over, she saw that the back was actually open, held in place by a button like a shirt. She undid the button. Inside the doll, along with cotton stuffing, was a large, heavy iron key. What could it be for?
Wynne searched the house, looking for a place to use the unusual key. She found it. In the kitchen. The cellar door.
Wynne turned the heavy key in the lock, and pulled the oak door back. A set of wooden stairs led down into darkness. She lit a lantern and started down. She swept the light of the lantern across various crates and sacks. Between them was just enough space to walk to the far end of the cellar. There, was another door. Again, she used the key, and opened it.
Beyond was a room. There was a peculiar smell in the air. The first thing her lantern revealed in the darkness was a tall bookshelf. It was packed, top to bottom, filling up every shelf, with dozens upon dozens of pairs of shoes. Small shoes. Children’s shoes. She suppressed a chill. Slowly she swung the lantern around the room. Opposite the shelf was a butcher’s block, bloody, complete with various knives and meat cleavers sunk into the wood. Fragments of bone and wet pieces of meat covered the floor around it. Finally, attached to the wall at the back of the room, were chains. At the end of the chains were sets of manacles, too small for adult wrists. She had seen enough.
Wynne raced up the cellar stairs, slamming the door behind her. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw dirty dishes in a washtub on the kitchen counter. She did not want to know where the bones and bits of meat were from.
Wynne was out of breath when she made it back to the underground tunnels the group had taken for their headquarters in the city. She haltingly told the group what she had seen. Darius shook with anger. “Give me your hat,” he said to Wynne. She handed the paladin the hat of disguise. Darius placed it on his head, taking on the appearance of a generic citizen of Warwik. “Wait here,” he said.
Darius stormed into the City Jail. “I need a couple of guards to follow me,” he said. “I’m pretty sure someone broke into Captain Garsen’s house! He might still be in there – we can still catch him!” Two guards rushed in from the other room. “We’re on it.” They hurried out and down the street towards the captain’s house. Darius followed behind.
“Looks like the lock was forced,” one of them said. They began to search. Darius went into the kitchen and yelled, “I think I heard someone in the basement!”
“Wait outside, citizen, we’ll handle this.” The guards crept down the basement stairs. Darius waited outside, knowing what they would find.
Minutes later, the guards emerged from the house, pale and shaken. “Did you find anyone?” Darius asked.
“No… No, we did not.” The guard was confused, unsure of what to do. “Thank you for reporting this. We’ll… We’ll do a complete investigation.” The two guards walked away, slowly.
No Other Course
Darius went straight to the Blue Raven tavern and asked for Serson. Told the bartender it was an emergency. An hour later, the brother of the Duke showed up. Darius rushed him into the back room. The paladin told Serson what they had found. Serson hung his head, and stayed silent for a long while.
“I’m sorry, Darius. I truly am. You must believe me, I had no idea what this… monster was doing. I thought him merely a corrupt official. Had I known… I’m sorry.”
“I’m sure the two guards I led to his house will expose him,” Darius said.
“Don’t be. You have no idea how powerful this man is. Had you been able to retrieve a ledger of bribes, letters in Garsen’s hand, something physical, something… simple, we could have gone through channels. But, to get someone to investigate his home? To prove what will sound like outlandish claims? Those guards have likely quit the guard and left town, if they have any conscious at all.”
“But surely you can do something?”
“I… I can’t. No matter how horrible, how… unthinkable this is… I can’t expose myself like this. I’ve got to think of the bigger picture, the whole future of the city. I wish…”
“Very well.” Darius stood. “Know this. I no longer have any reservations about killing this man. You’ll be rid of him soon. I hope… I hope what you are trying to accomplish will be worth it. I suppose I should thank you. Had we not tried to dig up dirt on this man, he would never have been held accountable.”
“I understand. And I will understand if you never forgive my lack of action. I wish there was another way.” Serson nodded, and took his leave.
Darius set out, his path, his purpose, never before so clear.