Pax Istaria: The Bureau of Observations has decided that no yearly celebration calendar would be complete without properly observing The Great Peace Accords which brought all the Living Races of Istaria together. They have set up tents and special vendors outside Tazoon, just south east of the town walls, for citizens of all the Living Races to celebrate "Pax Istaria".
* Food Vendor with new seasonal foods.
* Petting Zoo Vendor and animals.
* Ticket Merchant to exchange IBM's for Festival Tickets
* Raffle Vendor for players interested in a bit of gambling
* Fireworks Vendor to sell fireworks
The Master Lorekeeper of the Great Library of Tazoon has gathered yet another writing about the the world of Istaria - this time providing the historical events behind The Great Peace Accords.
We, the Living
With an angry cry and a wet, meaty ‘THUD’, Ryson Stormbringer slammed into the ancient rock wall. The impact sent bits of blood, bone, and organ tissue spraying from the gaping holes in his adamantite breastplate. Desperately, Ryson tried to blink the blood out of his eyes long enough to focus on his attacker. He glimpsed a massive form looming over him and gasped, “Wai..” His words were lost as the blow tore him off the wall, crushed the side of his skull, and sent his broken body bouncing and skidding into the scorching embrace of a lava pit. His last thought before death claimed him – again – was, “Yeah, that went well…”
Valkoth bellowed in triumph, bathing the spot where Ryson had gone under with a scorching jet of flame. Despite his rage, he was secretly rather pleased with himself. It was nice to know that he could still get a good distance on his tail whip.
A gentle coughing pulled Valkoth’s attention back to his lair. He glared at the armor-clad figure before him and snarled, “Do you have something to add to your friend’s comments, Vasilion? I could use a little more practice on my back-swipe, if you know any more volunteers…”
Vasilion shook his head, smiling broadly. “No, mighty Valkoth, I think the pinkskin said enough for today. With your permission, I should like to return tomorrow, when tempers are cooler. Is that acceptable?”
“No,” growled Valkoth.
“Yes,” Semeneth interjected. The ancient Helian rose from the floor of Valkoth’s lair and confronted his old friend. “The human was rude, but you were no better. Tomorrow, he will keep a civil tongue and you, old friend, will think with your brain, not your teeth!”
Valkoth growled sharply, clenching his jaw. Semeneth and Vasilion both tensed, but Valkoth’s only action was to turn his back to Semeneth. “Get out. Both of you.”
“OUT!!!!” Valkoth whirled around, fangs bared and claws poised to strike. His hide seemed to ripple for a moment as his scales flared outward, exposing the long, lethal spikes normally hidden within them. Liquid dragonfire spilled from his jaws to form bright puddles of flame on the lair floor. Semeneth stepped back from the enraged drake, startled, but his momentary rush of surprise quickly turned to a growing feeling of honest fear. Valkoth immediately pressed his advantage. Stepping forward, he drew on the might of his hoard and suffused his claws with the killing power of Drulkar’s rage.
“Get out, old friend, and take your filthy blue pet with you! Go back to Chiconis and give thanks to Drulkar that we are friends, because otherwise I would slay you where you stand for even suggesting this… this… alliance!” He spit the word out as though merely speaking it had left him soiled.
Semeneth held his ground. “This is your home, and I will respect your wishes. I will leave you now, but I will return. This conversation is not over. You will see reason, Valkoth, one way or another.” Valkoth snorted in derision, but said nothing.
Ryson was waiting at the Dralk portal when Semeneth and Vasilion arrived. Other than feeling a bit tired, he seemed none the worse for having just been nearly torn in half and hurled into a lake of molten rock. “Should I even ask how it went?” he muttered.
“You can ask, pinkskin, but you shouldn’t have to.” Vasilion pulled out a small flask of fire whiskey and offered it to Ryson. Ryson took a deep pull on it before passing it back with a nod. Vasilion tucked the flask away, sighing. “It went very well after you left. So well, in fact, that Valkoth was ready to kill both of us as well. My people are no strangers to hatred, but Niatha herself would envy the vendetta living in that dragon’s heart.”
Semeneth began climbing the steps to the portal. “I’m returning to Chiconis to meditate on how to reach him. In the mean time, you two should keep working on the others.” He stepped through the portal and vanished without waiting for a reply.
Ryson began climbing the steps as well. “Head back to Kirasanct and let the Protectorate know when your troops are ready to move out. I need to go to Kion briefly; the Emir promised to have a troop estimate today for Latronicus.”
Vasilion nodded. “We will be ready, have no fear.” He saluted Ryson in the manner of the Fiends - right hand raised, fist clenched – and intoned “Prevail, the Empire!” Ryson paused at the edge of the portal and thought for a moment. He quickly broke into a broad grin and nodded to Vasilion.
“That’s good, I really like that one. Prevail, the Empire! – short, to the point, and you can say it with a straight face. I’ll make sure Latronicus adds it to the short list.”
Vasilion bowed slightly, visibly pleased. “The short list? I’m honored.” Ryson waved briefly, then vanished. Vasilion threw his head back, laughing, then shouted, “Prevail, the Empire!” He opened his eyes to find one of the Dralk city guards, Latheron, looking at him in confusion.
“Empire? What empire?” His eyes narrowed with suspicion. “What exactly did you mean by that statement, naka?”
Two hours later, Vasilion appeared on the Kirasanct arrival pad, cradling his right arm. He fell back against the nearest support pillar, grimacing. Without opening his eyes, he braced his right forearm against the cool stone before slamming his left palm down, just below the section of bone protruding from his skin. The pain was enough to knock him to his knees, but he did not cry out. Carefully, he turned to sit with his back to the pillar and waited for his arm to finish healing.
“Oh, yes,” he muttered to himself. “That went well…”
* * *
Even in the middle of winter, late afternoon in Kion can grow uncomfortably hot. Sand and sun work together, heating the air mercilessly until even the moisture-laden winds coming in off of the sea bring little relief. When compared to the scorching, ash-laden air of Dralk, however, Kion was a welcome, even refreshing change. Ryson stepped off the arrival pad and looked around while his eyes adjusted to the brightness. Dralk may have been hotter than Kion, but the haze, smoke, and ash clouds blanketing the dragon homeland also made it much darker. Between blinks, he caught sight of a familiar figure heading towards the city center. “Sethos!” he called out as he hurried to meet his friend.
Sethos Bakari stopped and turned to see who had called out his name. He spotted Ryson immediately and waited for him to catch up. “Good afternoon. What brings you to Kion, Ryson? I thought you were going to be in Dralk, trying to sway Valkoth.”
Ryson nodded. “I was. It didn’t go very well. I’ll try again tomorrow, but in the mean time there are some things I need to discuss with the Emir. Do you happen to know where he is at the moment?”
“Yes, he’s over at the militia offices. We’ve been working on the troop mobilization reports all day. He was going to take a break for private prayers, so I thought it would be a good time to grab a snack. Care for a chocolate mouse?” Sethos grinned at Ryson’s grimace of revulsion. “I didn’t think so. Here, try some of these sugared dates.”
“That would be perfect, thank you.” They ate as they walked, and the sweet snack banished most of Ryson’s fatigue. Unfortunately, it also caused him to remember that he had some unwelcome news to deliver. He stopped in the road and glanced around quickly to make sure that they had some privacy. “Sethos…” he started, then his voice failed. He cleared his throat and continued. “I, ah, we… There was some news about Lem.”
Sethos closed his eyes and sighed. “Do you want me to tell the Emir?”
Ryson shook his head. “No, I’ll do it. I don’t think it will be a surprise.”
“Indeed not, but as long as there is no news, there is still a sliver of hope.” Ryson nodded, but said nothing. Such hopes were common, but only very rarely were they rewarded.
The grounds around the militia offices were full of Saris preparing for war – readying gear, practicing formation maneuvers, doing weapons drills. Ryson and Sethos moved through the multitude wearing cheerful smiles, returning salutes and exchanging greetings, always with warm encouragement and voices full of confidence. Ryson kept his smile in place until they reached the Emir’s offices on the second floor. There, they paused and waited in respectful silence.
Emir Javari Hathos Imra Re-Ihana, Emir of Kion, Caliph of the Iron Claw, Guardian of all Wisdom and by Merrasat’s Grace Protector of Sslanis, was kneeling on an elaborate carpet in the middle of the room, gazing out the window. A well-dressed saris woman and a young cub, perhaps seven or eight years old, knelt behind the Emir, heads bowed, as he recited the last verse of a hymn that was old when the first human city was built.
“Praise unto you, Oh Merrasat, Lady of joyful and mighty countenance! Queen of sand and forest, your fur is adorned with beauteous diadems, glittering like stars in the night. You are crowned with wisdom and glory shines in your eyes.
The Saris are made whole by you when the sun rises and our hearts are peaceful when the sun shines down upon us. In the setting of the sun our voices are lifted in song and love of you is spread throughout the land. In the night you are beloved in the southern sky and adored in the northern sky.
Your beauty captivates our minds and the love of you makes languid our arms. Your beauteous form makes feeble our hands, and our hearts are forgetful when looking upon you.
Praise unto you, Queen of Wisdom, Mother of the Saris, may your blessings be poured out on your people forever.”
The Emir bowed, touching his forehead to the carpet for a moment before sitting back up. The young woman and the cub did likewise. The Emir rose to his feet in a single smooth movement; as he did so, the cub bounced to his feet and blurted out, “Daddy, can I put the rug away this time?” The Emir nodded, hiding his smile.
“Yes, you may, and thank you for asking, Kahdi. If it’s too big for you, ask Kendra for help with it.”
“I don’t need any help,” the cub declared proudly. The young woman, Kendra, rolled her eyes but said nothing. The Emir gave her a wink, then turned to Ryson and Sethos.
“Thank you for waiting, gentlemen. Would you join me outside on the patio?” He didn’t wait for an answer, but immediately walked outside and dismissed the guards. Once the three of them were alone, he said, “We don’t have much time. My son misses me quickly, and stares at me with his mother’s eyes. When he does, every fiber of my heart cries out for me to stay here with him…”
“Honored sir…” Sethos began, but the Emir stopped him with a raised hand.
“Sethos, I know my duty. Please don’t remind me of it. I will do myself all that I have asked my people to do. I will pay the same price I ask of them. Selfishness is one luxury no Emir is permitted to enjoy. Now, what news do you bring of the great alliance?”
“The undead legions have not moved in over a week, except to respond to any skirmish parties Tazoon sends out.” Ryson responded. “They control the whole area west of Feladan Forest and north of Spire’s Shadow, almost to the gates of Tazoon itself. Yesterday we confirmed that the undead are assembling soul collectors and positioning them on the edges of their encampments. On our side, Valkoth is the main holdout. Even if we have the full strength of the Lunus with us, though, it may not be enough. Without them, I believe we will certainly fall. However, it seems impossible to convince him to help.”
“The Mahagrans are another matter. They are quite willing to help, but they’ve elected a Battle-Thane, a fellow named Gautruk Bloodwind. He’s got his people ready to fight, but they’re little more than a mob right now. I’m not sure how much use they’re going to be with this raccoon-minded berserker running things.”
“Then there’s the Sslik. One messenger comes to Tazoon and announces that they are coming, but they have no military force of any kind and every time I try to find out who’s in charge there, they just give me a blank stare. I’m not sure they even understand what’s been asked of them.”
“They understand very well, Commander Stormbringer.” Ryson turned to see the young woman, Kendra, frowning at him disapprovingly. “They sent a messenger with the decision of the tribal elders. Yes, they are coming. The decision is made, yet you keep questioning them on it. They are probably trying to decide whether you are being intentionally rude, or if you’re just slow. I’d tell them that you’re slow; they’ll forgive you in that case.”
Ryson’s jaw dropped for a moment, then he started getting angry. “Excuse me for saying so, miss, but…”
The Emir cut him off. “Ryson, have you met my Advisor of Trade? This is Kendra Jafari, eldest daughter of Qander Jafari and heir to her family’s businesses. Her family has been trading with the Sslik for over 300 years.” He paused a moment before continuing. “All Sslik have warrior training growing up. They have no standing army because they need none. You need not worry about the Sslik; they will come.”
Ryson felt his face getting warm, which only worsened the embarrassment washing over him. “Well, thank you for explaining the situation, honored Emir. My thanks to you as well, Advisor Jafari. Honored sir, may I ask you for the troop strength estimate you were going to prepare for Latronicus?”
“Of course,” replied the Emir. Before he could turn to walk to his desk, Kendra handed him a bundle of sealed scrolls. He looked more amused than surprised, and handed them to Ryson. “There you are. I believe the report for Sslanis is in there as well. Was there anything else?”
“Yes, honored Emir,” Ryson nodded. “Master Golem Keeper Lem has been seen walking again. Several scouts confirm the identification. I’m very sorry, honored one.”
The Emir’s expression did not change. “Thank you. I’ll remember him in my prayers tonight. Please excuse me. I’d like a few minutes alone.” Ryson bowed and re-entered the building with the others. Sethos and Kendra moved to a corner to converse privately, leaving him alone.
Ryson began to walk towards the stairs, until he felt a small hand grab his wrist. The Emir’s son, Kahdi, was hiding behind a large potted palm tree. Ryson kneeled down next to him and asked, “Yes, young lord? Did you have a question for me?”
Kahdi nodded. “Are you one of those who can come back?”
Ryson hesitated for a moment before responding. “Yes, young lord, I am.”
Kahdi nodded, but his eyes were focused on the portrait of a dark-furred Saris woman hanging on the opposite wall of the office. “My mother was not. I stayed up all night waiting, but she never came back.” He turned his gaze back to Ryson. “Is my father like you? Will he come back?”
Ryson looked at the floor for a moment, trying to think of an answer. He could hear the hope in the child’s voice, and it left him helpless. Finally he shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, but I just do not know. Most people don’t know either, until… Well, until something happens and they try to come back.”
“But it’s too late then,” Kahdi insisted. “If you know you can’t come back, you can be more careful not to get hurt.”
Istara, thought Ryson, I serve you in all things, but I really don’t need this right now! Out loud, he said, “One should always be careful, young lord. Your father is very wise, and loves you very much. I’m sure he will be very careful. There will also be many people around him, and they will all watch and be very careful.” Kahdi nodded, looking relieved. Ryson asked, “Does that help you feel better, young lord?”
“Oh yes!” Kahdi nodded emphatically. “If someone tries to hurt my father, you can let them kill you instead. It doesn’t matter if someone kills you.” He gave Ryson a brief, tight hug before running over to his father. Ryson stared after the young cub, then most heartily wished himself home.
* * *
‘Home’, in his case, was the Protectorate’s base of operations in Tazoon, a small building located in the area designated for Feladan-in-Exile. Ryson stowed his armor away in favor of some much more relaxed elven clothing. Once he was changed, he headed to the second floor, where Latronicus, the leader of the Protectorate, had set up his war room.
Latronicus Abiectal and his wife Vesta were working on a large map of the Barasavus desert spread out on the table in the middle of the room. Most of the visible area of it was covered with all manner of marker tokens – coins, stones, dice, interesting pieces of wood – anything that could be pressed into service to help mark troop movements. The markers indicating the forces belonging to the Living Races had grown since last Ryson had viewed the map, but they were still significantly outnumbered. In the corner of the room, a dryad named Meira Nylami – also a member of the Protectorate – was scribbling notes into her research journal. The object of her interest was a large golden orb with a mithril seal at the top of it. She didn’t look up as Ryson came in. Latronicus at least spared Ryson a brief nod of greeting before returning his attention to the map. “What news?” he asked.
Ryson handed him the scrolls he had collected from the Emir. “At least the Saris are taking the threat seriously. I think they’re sending everyone who can hold a weapon. They tell me that the Sslik are coming as well, but you might as well prance naked in front of them as ask them a simple question, for all the answers they give you.” Latronicus looked it over briefly before handing it to Vesta. She, in turn, began assigning unit markers to represent the Saris troops and placing them on the map.
“What of the Lunus?” Latronicus asked.
“Valkoth ripped me in half and hurled me into a lava pool.” Ryson grumbled. “I’d say the Lunus are still pretty much a ‘no’.”
“I hope so,” interjected Meira. “Because if that were a ‘yes’, you need to work on your people skills.”
A sudden, powerful urge to squish the diminutive spiritist between the pages of a large book welled up inside Ryson. He quickly suppressed the urge, but the idea remained intriguing. "I'll go back tomorrow and try a different approach. Valkoth is stubborn, but he's far from unreasonable. I just need to find the right argument."
"Tomorrow will be too late," Vesta noted. "The Aegis will have finished setting up their soul collectors by tonight, or tomorrow morning at the latest. Once they're set up, the attack could come at any time. All of the information we are getting, however, shows that the Aegis forces are waiting for something. Considering that Foundation Day is the day after tomorrow, I have no doubt that Torrin would be very happy to wait an extra day, just so he could crush us and burn Tazoon on the holiday. If I'm right, we need to get our forces into position immediately. If I'm wrong, they should have been in place already."
"Do you have any suggestions for bringing Valkoth around?" Ryson shouted. “Because I have tried every reason and every form of persuasion I can think of to try to get him to understand that our only hope is to join forces, but for some strange reason, IT’S! NOT! WORKING!”
Vesta simply stared back at him, totally unmoving. Ryson looked around the room, seemingly dazed and gulping air. Finally, he began to take notice of the others in the room, also staring at him silently. He held his hands up in surrender for a moment, then let them drop.
“I’m sorry, Vesta. Sorry, everyone. It’s just that… Blessed Istara, I just don’t know how to make him understand.” He slumped down onto an overstuffed footstool, burying his head into his hands. “You know, I don’t even give a piece of festering gruok crap if the Lunus even join the alliance, as long as they come for the fight.” He lapsed into silence, staring at the floor.
Meira snorted. “Did you ever tell him that? Or did you just assume that he was going to be jumping at the chance to abandon centuries of tradition and undisputed hegemonic domination in favor of a hopelessly idealistic vision concocted by a lesser being?”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” he admitted. He rose to his feet and headed for the stairs. “I think I’ll go clarify things with Valkoth. What’s the worst he can do, kill me?”
* * *
“Little naka, I hope you like dying. You’re going to be doing a lot of it!” Valkoth uncoiled from the banks of the lava pool next to his lair and stood, towering over the road where Ryson was standing. “I see you left your pretty armor at home this time. It will make a fine addition to my hoard!”
Ryson held his arms out, palms up, to make it clear he was unarmed. “Valkoth, I came here just to talk. One minute of your time, that’s all I ask.” Valkoth pulled back a bit to consider it a moment, then nodded.
“Valkoth, if the Lunus don’t want to be part of the Empire, they don’t have to be. We’re only calling this... whatever it is… an Empire because we have to call it something, and because the only other suggestion that was made, ‘The Free Peoples of the Living Races’ Democratic Republic of Istaria’, was just too silly for anyone to say with a straight face! Join the Empire, don’t join, it’s your decision. However, if you and the Lunus who follow you don’t come to Tazoon now and join in the battle, it won’t matter if you support the idea of the Empire or not, because the Withered Aegis will have won. If you and your troops do come to the battle, not only will we have a reasonable possibility of winning, you might get a once in a lifetime chance to exact some revenge.”
“Revenge? Revenge against who?” Valkoth asked cautiously.
Ryson smiled inwardly. “Torrin Macalir, of course. Along with almost all of his command staff, if we’re lucky. They expect this battle to be the death-blow against the Living Races. That’s why Torrin hasn’t attacked us yet. He’s waiting for the day after tomorrow. It’s Foundation Day in Tazoon, which, I suppose, makes it the perfect day to utterly destroy the city and our remaining military forces. Of course Torrin will be there! How could he miss the grand finale?”
“Torrin Macalir…” Valkoth muttered. His eyes glittered a little brighter as he savored the thought. It was deeply tempting, but the naka ‘alliance’? Never! He returned his attention to Ryson.
“Why should I not let the Aegis waste its strength on you naka, and then fall upon the undead with the full might of the Lunus? I can be rid of two pests in a single stroke!” His words were followed by a murmur of approval from the dragons gathered around them. Ryson held his hands up for quiet.
“You’re forgetting the soul collectors, Valkoth! The Aegis knows that less than half of the troops we are fielding are known to be Gifted. A good many of those who remain will turn out to be Gifted as well, but newly Gifted are normally very weak and confused at first. They probably won’t be of much use in this battle. The rest, the non-Gifted, will die. And when they do, those soul collectors are going to get charged up very quickly. They will raise our fallen, turn them against us, and look for more. We have to be able to strike in force, overcome the defenders around the collectors, and destroy them. If you wait, Torrin could gain enough power to call up not only our dead, but those slain during the razing of Barasavus as well. We must attack first, and at the height of our strength, in order to shut down those soul collectors. Otherwise, our cause is lost.”
Grudgingly, Valkoth nodded. “I will not deny that you make a pressing argument. But this is a human war! One which has already cost us far, far too much as it is. Yet, you ask me to send more dragons to die protecting your lands and your people. How can I ask that of them?”
“Would you rather the battle be fought here?” Ryson demanded. “Would you rather see the banners of the Aegis marching on Dralk? Because unless you stand with us now, you will see those banners and you will fight that battle here.” Ryson turned in a slow circle, gazing at the throng of watching dragons. “You’re right! It was a war between humans! It shouldn’t be your fight! It shouldn’t be, but it is. Torrin Macalir has declared war on every living being in Istara’s creation. It’s like he’s got some kind of vendetta going against us…” His voice trailed off, leaving him staring and glassy-eyed.
“A vendetta Niatha would envy…” he whispered to himself. Bless you, Vasilion! He whirled around and pointed an accusing finger at Valkoth.
“Let’s talk about vendettas, Valkoth! Let’s talk about revenge! Let’s talk about the day you and Semeneth and every dragon that could fly came through the Feladan portal to fly out to your hidden island south of Harro!” Valkoth’s eyes blazed with sudden fury, but Ryson stood his ground. “Latronicus Abiectal was there that day, and he told me that as he watched your people return from battle that day, he thought he understood their loss. He thought he understood their desire for revenge. But he didn’t. He just didn’t realize that until the fall of Feladan. Seeing his home destroyed, his friends and family slaughtered, everything he held dear laid to waste, he finally, truly understood what it was to want revenge. That was when he realized that revenge wasn’t enough.”
“Revenge isn’t enough because all you are doing is reacting. It’s not enough just to make someone pay for what they did. What you need to do is stop them from doing whatever it was ever again, and the best way to do that is to wipe them out! We all have plenty of reasons to mourn and swear vengeance; how many of you would like to celebrate a victory instead?” Ryson stepped forward to stand right in front of Valkoth, staring up at him. “Well, Valkoth? What is your decision?”
Valkoth gave Ryson a small, almost imperceptible nod before looking up at the host of assembled dragons. He drew himself up to his full height and bellowed, “Children of Drulkar! Prepare for battle!” The crowd’s resounding roars shook the entire city, nearly knocking Ryson off his feet. Valkoth arched his neck back and unleashed a torrent of flame into the air. All around the massive caldera, dragons stood and did likewise before taking wing towards their lairs.
Valkoth leaned in close to Ryson and murmured, “I will make no promises about this ‘empire’, but we will fight beside you.”
Ryson bowed to him deeply. “That’s all we’re asking.”
* * *
Latronicus and Vesta were nowhere to be seen when Ryson returned to the war room. Meira was still up and about, sketching feverishly in her journal. Ryson paid her no mind at first, being more interested in pouring himself a mug of fresh – or at least hot – klava. He was in the middle of his first swallow when he actually looked to see what Meira was working on. He managed – somehow - to get the swallow down without choking or spitting.
Meira’s orb had changed drastically. The body of it was no longer gold, but a dark, burnished adamantite. Looking closer, he saw that the surface was covered with a fine tracery of lines, all suffused with a dark red glow. Meira was recording the lines in her journal as fast as she could. Without looking up, she snapped, “Stay back, please, you’re blocking my oblique light.”
Ryson quickly moved to his left and knelt for a better look. “When did this happen? Has it done this before?”
“It changed twenty minutes ago, and no, in the past century and a half that I’ve been guarding this stupid, heavy, unexplainable lump of useless junk, it has never, ever done this before.” She set her quill down long enough to grab the orb with both hands and rotate it a quarter-turn. “Latro and Vesta went up to the staging area about an hour ago. I was all set to retire and read for a while, when this idiotic puzzle box started chiming and all the gold on the surface just… well, kind of melted together to form these lines. I grabbed my journal & started sketching. There, now you know the whole story. Thank you. I’m welcome.”
“Twenty minutes…” mused Ryson. “That would be about the same time Valkoth committed the Lunus to joining the battle. I wonder if there’s a connection of some kind.” As he peered at the orb, a section of line work caught his attention – an intricately laced ribbon of script that looked oddly familiar. “Meira, have a look at this.”
“What?” she complained. “Make it snappy! You almost made me lose my place here.” Nonetheless, she looked at the area of script he had found. “Wait, I just did this part! This is new!” She flipped a few pages back in her journal and began sketching again, translating as she went.
“The language is Palmyran, but the sentence structure is very odd. It’s done in the same style as the Teachings of Alyssa. It’s like they’re meant to be sung, not read.” She gave the entire orb a quick look to see if anything else had appeared. Satisfied, she returned to the notes in her journal.
“Let me see what we have here... What? That can’t be right… ‘In Blackest Noon/The Selfless Touch/Receives My Blessing’. Are you kidding me?” Meira gave the orb a quick jab with her fist. “Ooh, ooh, I’ve been chosen to carry this oh-so-amazing-artifact-of-unknown-origin into the west while everyone else hides somewhere safe, gosh, what an honor! Decades of hiding and running and looking over my shoulder, and not ONCE does it do anything! Finally, after all this time, an inscription appears! But does it explain anything? No! Ooh, let me add a riddle on top of your mystery here! Aieeegghhgh!” The diminutive dryad hurled her research journal across the room and began ripping the down stuffing out of the closest throw pillow. She finally dropped the remains and hovered in place, sobbing.
Ryson poured a small teacup of Kirasanct vodka and handed it to her, then busied himself cleaning up the scattered clumps of down. By the time he finished, Meira was calm again. She poured her third teacup and said, “Do you think Alyssa will be angry with me for saying rude things about her… thing over there?”
“I doubt it,” Ryson replied. "The temple elders said that Alyssa chose you. To me, that says that she knew what you were like. Without you the Artifact would have been lost with Bachan or gone into hiding with Palmyra. If it’s supposed to do something to help us, it couldn’t do that in either of those places. You got it to us, and it looks like the time for it to be used is approaching.” Ryson refilled Meira’s glass. Handing it to her, he asked, “Are you going to bring it to the battle?”
Without missing a beat, Meira replied, “No, I’m going to leave it here with a big bow made of pink silk on top of it and a card that says ‘Happy Birthday, Torrin Macalir’.”
Ryson snickered a little, but his gaze remained serious. “Are you?”
“We still don’t even know what it is.”
“If it can help us, I don’t care what it is.” Ryson poured himself a small glass of the vodka, twirling it in his fingers as he examined the Artifact across the room. I don’t care what it costs me to use it, either, he finished silently. He raised his glass to salute the mysterious orb, then downed the drink in a single gulp.
* * *
Thirty-two hours later, Ryson closed his eyes and heartily wished for another drink. When it didn’t appear, he sighed & opened his eyes again. Bixben Lindnottin, commander of the New Rachival Defense Forces, was still arguing with the Governor of Tazoon, Jeremiah Trueheart.
“I’m not questioning New Rachival’s combat readiness,” Jeremiah was saying, “However, we are fighting in defense of Tazoon, and the honor of being in the first rank rightfully belongs to the Tazoon Guard. I’m sorry, but New Rachival will have to march in the second rank.”
Bixben smirked. “I don’t give an outgassed thermofuser if your troops want to be in the first rank; that’s fine with me – as long as your troops don’t mind getting rudely poked in their hairy-breeked backsides by the fine gnomish steel my lads are sporting.” Ryson held up his hand to forestall Jeremiah’s reaction.
“Hold on, both of you. We need to build this barn before we argue over what color to paint it. Jeremiah, there will be honor aplenty if we win. In the mean time, your forces take second rank. Bixben, get your people formed up. End of discussion, gentlemen, now go take your places.” Jeremiah bit back whatever he was going to say; instead he simply saluted and excused himself. Ryson waited until Jeremiah was out of earshot before turning to Bixben. “Did you really mean to make that sound so, um...”
“Personal?” suggested the gnome jovially. Ryson nodded. “Oh, yes! I was quite sure he’d find the vicarious image intrinsically motivating.”
“Oh.” Ryson nodded slowly. “I found it a little ‘motivating’ myself.”
“Thank you for saying so,” Bixben beamed. “I need to see to my troops. Prevail, the Empire!” Ryson smirked a bit as the gnome headed off; Vasilion’s phrase was catching on. He shook his head slightly and turned his attention to the next issue at hand.
Just before dawn, Latronicus found Ryson in the Saris camp, going over last-moment updates to the battle plans with the Emir and the Sslik representative, Essiel. Latronicus took him aside and murmured, “It’s almost time. You should say something to the troops.” At Ryson’s raised eyebrow, he continued, “You did the most to bring everyone together. You’ve been solving the problems and putting out the fires. It should be you.”
Ryson rolled his eyes. “Istara bless it…” he growled under his breath. “Alright, let’s get this done.” The two of them jogged back to the command post, where Ryson commandeered a lookout tower to speak from. One of the guards sounded a horn for silence, and soon every eye was gazing at Ryson. He waved briefly, his most confident smile firmly fixed in place.
“Greetings, and the blessings of Istara on you all. In less than an hour, at dawn's first light, warriors from every part of Istaria will, for the first time ever, join together in launching the largest battle in the history of the Living Races. 'The Living Races' - those words should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be divided and destroyed by our petty differences anymore. We must be united in common purpose, fighting side by side for a common goal.”
“It seems somewhat fitting that today is Foundation Day here in Tazoon. Over a century ago, other warriors stood where we stand now, ready to give their lives to preserve the same principle we are gathered here to fight for: freedom. This day, we are not fighting for freedom from oppression, but from utter annihilation. We are fighting for nothing less than life itself. Not merely for each of us, but for everyone, everywhere, in every part of Istaria.”
“When this battle is done and the Living Races stand united in triumph, this day will no longer belong to Tazoon alone, but to all the peoples of the world! This is the day that we the living stand as one and declare in one voice, with one purpose, 'No!! We will not surrender to that eternal night! We will not be vanquished without a fight!' This day, we will survive! This day, we stand together and surrender none! This day, we declare to be Istaria's Foundation Day!"
Roars and applause erupted, echoing like thunder and shaking the ground. Ryson paused to gaze to the south, where the undead legions waited. Against his better judgment, he surrendered to the moment and to the hope it offered. He raised his sword and voice, shouting defiance into the morning sky.
* * *
The deeds of that day passed beyond history and into legend even before the sun had set. The tales told of that day speak of the press of the undead and how the Living Races were driven back to the walls of Tazoon itself. The tales speak of the despair the Gifted felt when the sky began to darken and the green lightning flashed down around them. The tales tell of how Ryson Stormbringer seized up the Artifact, for so long Meira’s burden, and charged alone into the heart of the Withered Aegis command. They speak of how the undead fell back before him until he came face to face with Torrin Macalir himself. They tell of how Ryson broke the seal on the Artifact, and of the blast which annihilated nearly the entire undead horde and scarred the desert for all time to come. The tales speak of Ryson Stormbringer, and all name him Hero.
These tales embarrass Ryson greatly, for they were not the legacy he takes pride in or wishes to be remembered for. That day did not come for another six months, and Ryson gave thanks that Istara allowed him to see it, even if only as a spirit bearing silent witness.
* * *
Full summer had descended on Tazoon, making tempers short and tongues sharp. Jeremiah Trueheart was heartily sick of the endless discussions and arguments that had gone into making the Protectorate’s vision a reality. Every time he brought down his gavel these days, he felt an urge to use it on someone’s head. Most of the time the urge passed quickly; when it did not, he looked across the room at the portrait of Ryson Stormbringer until his calm returned. Sometimes – as now – he could swear the portrait was looking back, smiling and cheering him on.
He returned his attention to the meeting he was supposed to be chairing. Gautruk Bloodwind was still talking about annexing Trandalar for Mahagra, and it seemed the other delegates were as fed up with it as he was. He glanced at the day’s agenda – seventeen items remaining for consideration before the ratification vote itself. Most of them wouldn’t impact the Peace Accords themselves in any significant way; they were, by and large, questions of interpretation and hypothetical circumstances. Jeremiah wanted answers to some of those questions himself, for this was unknown territory for all of them. Working out the answers, however, had already delayed the ratification vote by almost a month.
A cool breeze ruffled the papers in front of him. He looked around, but there was no one near him. He glanced around again, his gaze coming to rest once more on Ryson’s portrait. Jeremiah blinked, then looked again. The portrait seemed somehow more intense, more commanding… It was the look Ryson had worn the last time Jeremiah had seen him, in the predawn hours before the great battle. The last time they would see one another, and Jeremiah had been angry when they parted.
“We need to build this barn before we argue over what color to paint it…”
…build the barn first…
Jeremiah looked up back at Ryson’s portrait. The smile was back. Jeremiah grabbed his gavel and banged it like a warhammer as he stood. “Delegate Bloodwind, please take your seat. Now. Delegates – friends – we should have been finished with this task a month ago, perhaps two! We are being dragged down with minutia and ‘what-if’ questions, and it must stop.”
Questions pelted him from all sides, forcing him to use his gavel again to restore order. “Wait, wait, hear me out. The issues we are arguing about are the sort of thing the bureaucracy should be dealing with, not the council, and not ourselves as delegates! Our mandate was to create the Peace Accords, not to decide questions of fishing rights or land annexes!” He gazed around the room, and saw many nods – of agreement this time, not impending sleep. “I declare a recess so that the delegates may report and confer if needed. We will meet again in one hour for the ratification vote. All issues appended to the Peace Accords will be set aside to be compiled separately and remanded to the Imperial Council once that body is seated. Are there any objections?” He waited, but none came. He brought the gavel down again.
“It is so ordered.”
When the delegates convened again, the meeting room was full to bursting with community leaders, dignitaries, and interested onlookers. Jeremiah had a list of people who had requested some time to ‘just say a few words’ about the occasion. Even if all of them really were as brief as they each promised to be, it would still be a good three hours of speech-making. Jeremiah convened the delegates and spent a moment looking over the list of speakers. He set it face-down on the table and took up the signing sheet.
“Delegates, one at a time, please give us the decision of your people. If the decision is to support ratification, please so indicate by signing this sheet.” He handed the sheet to Semeneth with a nod.
Semeneth rose, returning Jeremiah’s nod. “The Helian faction agrees to the Peace Accords.” He dipped one talon into the inkwell and quickly marked his signature.
Valkoth scowled as he did the same. “The Lunus faction agrees to the Peace Accords. May Drulkar forgive me.”
A weathered and battle-scarred dwarf rose and took up a quill. “Aughundell ratifies the Accords. I, Gulnor, sign in the name of King Dralnok Hammerfist.” After signing, he turned to the elf standing next to him with a smirk. “Do I gotta’ ask how you’re going to vote, pointy –ears?” A great laugh went up around the room, no small part of it from the elf in question.
“No, indeed not! I have dreamed this day for many years. I, Latronicus Abiectal, ratify these Accords in the name of the elven people.” He signed the sheet with a flourish, then held the quill out to the next delegate. “Your dream as well, old friend!”
Ganesh ignored the quill, pulling Latronicus in for a back-pounding embrace. “We did it!” he yelled, touching off enthusiastic applause around the room. He finally released Latronicus, pumping his fist in the air before getting to the business of signing. “I am Ganesh of the Protectorate, and the people of Kirasanct agree to these Accords.”
Bixben Lindnottin took the quill next. “The gnomish people ratify the Accords – especially the part making it illegal for dragons to joke about eating us!” When the smattering of laughter faded, Valkoth turned to Semeneth and asked, “So it’s legal if we’re not joking?” Even Bixben joined in the laughter this time.
Gautruk took the quill from Bixben’s hand and proceeded to sign his name twice as large as anyone else’s. “I, Gautruk, Battle-Thane of Mahagra, ratify these Accords. As do my people,” he added quickly. Without comment, Jeremiah took the quill from him and passed it to Sethos Bakari.
The room grew quiet as the white-robed Saris stood. His mane had begun to grow back in, though it was still jagged and uneven in spots. He had sheared it off himself using his belt knife, and refused to let anyone touch it up with scissors. He reached for the signing sheet and readied the quill. “I am Sethos Bakari, and...”
“Stop.” Kahdi shook his arm free of Kendra’s grasp and strode forward. Like Sethos, both he and Kendra were clad in white robes. His dark fur was shorn from forehead to the base of his neck, as was required for a child, but there was nothing childlike in his gaze or manner. He held his hand out for the quill. “I will not ask one of my people to do something I would not. This is my task.”
“As you command, honored one.” Sethos kneeled, head bowed, offering up the quill with both hands. Kahdi took it and paused, looking at the signing sheet, before he spoke.
“I, Kahdi Re-Ihana, Heir-Designate to the Emirate of Kion, ratify this document in the name of the Saris. May all that is done under these Accords be guided by the wisdom of Merrasat. So let it be written. So let it be done.” He handed the quill back to Sethos and returned to Kendra’s side. Sethos turned the quill over to the silent, plainly-dressed Sslik next to him.
The Sslik ignored the quill in favor of dipping two claws into the ink well, then using them to draw a complex ideogram on the sheet. “Essiel signs this document by the will of the Tribes. The Sslik ratify these Accords.”
Jeremiah took up the quill and turned it gently in his hands. “I should not be the one doing this, but I’m the one that’s here. So I guess it’s up to me. I, Jeremiah Trueheart, Governor of the Free City of Tazoon, and speaking on behalf of the Vandus Confederacy, ratify these Accords for ourselves, for our future, and for those who cannot.” He signed his name, then added the signature sheet to the rest of the Accords. The cheering and clapping became louder, then redoubled when he turned the stack of parchments over so that the crowd could see the first page of Ryson Stormbringer’s true legacy:
We, the Living, in order that we may stand united for our common defense, promote our mutual welfare, and protect the blessing of life itself for ourselves and the children of future generations, do hereby proclaim and adopt the Great Peace Accords of the Empire of Istaria…