The voice came from behind them: loud, booming, and utterly brimming with confidence. As they turned and looked up from their lunch – and up, and up – they saw the source of the voice. It was a minotaur, probably average in height for its kind, wearing a simple mousy tunic, and with a large, black sword at its belt. The sword was straight and double-edged in the minotaur fashion, and had no scabbard. It seemed to be simply thrust into the belt of the tall man. His horns were faintly yellowed as though from exposure to the elements, but the tips still managed to gleam in the muted light of the cloudy afternoon; as did his teeth when he smiled that bovine smile which suggested absolutely no hint of friendship whatsoever.
“I am Anayetopoftka, kensai of the sword school, and I have come to end your life. Stand and face me!” The sheer bombast of his voice was impressive, as was its volume. Reichstag blinked. He had just eaten his second rice ball, and his mind was still very much focused on the story Hunter’s sister Cass had been telling of her escape from the plateau. His earlier paranioa had dissipated, but now he was feeling a whole new wave of paranoia wash over him. He started off by making arguments: “Why me? Surely there is another that could be a better match to your size and skill.” But the minotaur shook its large head, “Nay. Gods have decreed you should fall, and I seek their blessing. You are the mage of whom the bards sing: the one who’s magic hands are dangerous in a fight! I am sure you will be a worthy opponent before I kill you.”
The goblin inwardly cursed that damn bard. “And if I reject the duel?” That only made the minotaur grin all the wider, “Then I shall leave. I shall return to Terrkan, and make my way to Chan Ma Rai, or perhaps Coratka. And at every city and town and village I will make it known that blue dragon mages are…” he paused for effect, “Wussies!” It seemed a silly threat, but Reich nodded soberly. Reichstag did not live and die by honour, as many who followed various codes did. He knew had the challenge been offered to Ashana, she’d have been dutybound to accept it. Odate would likely also have needed to act honourably. Reichstag was a good man, but he drew the line at throwing away his life for the sake of some quaint system of notions. And he knew the blue dragons likewise did not hold much stock in honour. But they did value their prestige highly. This challenge to their standing was unacceptable, and he had to stand up to it. Having said that, he also didn’t want to die. He began wracking his brain for a solution to this quite curly problem. His eyes briefly scanned over to Hunter, who gave him a nod that said everything. Hunter was also of the opinion that honour was overrated, and would gladly stab this cow in the ass the moment his back was turned. But Reich shook his head briefly. He’d rather take another course if possible.
In the meantime, the other members of his party kept the kensai busy. Well, the kender did. Sage had never seen a minotaur before, and had not knowingly ever met a kensai either. Certainly not long enough to ask them questions. And so Sage began pouring them out like a firehose: what’s it like being a minotaur? What’s a kensai? How is that different to being a fighter? Why did you choose just a sword? Do you practice much? Why do you want to fight a duel? What’s a duel? Why don’t you fight triels instead? If you were to fight a triel, would you have to take turns? Would it be different to fighting a tree? Anayet answered these questions with an increasing level of barely contained frustration. He drew the line at “Can I touch your sword?” but did get drawn into answering at least several of the web of questions that were brought forward in rapid succession.
And it was one of those answers that gave Ashana an idea. While Sage peppered the minotaur with questions around the topic of “How do you buy shoes for those hoofs?” the paladin stated, “In Fiiel, the code of duelling states that the one who accepts a challenge may determine the weapons by which the duel is fought.” And at this, Reichstag saw his opportunity. He needed to defend the reputation of his dragons… but that didn’t mean he needed to play by the kensai’s rules. Minotaurs are, after all, from Fiiel – though not the lovely green plains, but the far colder and more forbidding Winter Pines area. “Will you abide by the Fiiel code of duelling?” he asked, both hopeful and a little more confident than earlier. The minotaur sighed, clearly disappointed. “If I must. But I would really rather we just fight normally. And I must insist the battle be to the death. The gods want you dead, and I will not receive their blessing otherwise.”
To this Odate now spoke up, “To which gods do you refer? And why would a kensai, famed for seeking to perfect their own skill to its limit, seek the assistance of the gods in doing so?” Anayet gave a snort, “Tu’eva and Ba’ya both seek his demise. And who said the blessings I sought have anything to do with my skill at arms? I am a kensai, but that does not mean I lack other… urges.” At that he gave the Qodeshi cleric a wink that instantly made Odate wish he could bathe in holy water.
Reichstag finally stood to his feet. “I will accept your duel. We will fight to the death. But your size and brawn mean that a physical contest would scarely be right or fair. Therefore, our weapons will be our wits alone.” The minotaur rolled his eyes. “Really? Are you sure you don’t want to just have me stab you?” Reichstag was sure. “Fine, fine, wits. And how, oh great and clever wizard, will this deadly battle of wits take place? I assume you do not mean a magical duel. That would be most unsporting.”
Reich hadn’t actually thought of quite how. He held up a finger, pausing for a moment. Two moments. Ten moments. Moments started bleeding from time like a wound, and when the kensai started to tilt his head questioningly, Cass decided to speak up and finish her story. This caused everyone to turn back away from the minotaur, much to his chagrin, and pay attention. After all, they didn’t want to miss out on the rest of the tale.
Cass was standing atop the desert plateau, watching her fellow slaves make their way to freedom and back to civilisation. She waved, and she watched, and then she turned to see what the rest of her life held for her. The answer was precious little. The desert was not just sand – that was an easy assumption to make, given the regular fall of sand over the edge – but in fact had a sparse covering of shrubs and plants that seemed mostly to clump around the edge of the plateau – probably where the most rainfall was. She looked at one of the plants close to her, and as she approached it, its flowers opened – brilliant blood red petals – and she reached down to pick them. There she sat, flowers in hand, when a shadow seemed to pass by her vision. Looking up, she saw a bird, but a bird unlike she had ever seen before. For one, it was enormous – easily 20 feet tall from tail to beak. Its feathers were a gorgeous gradient from yellow at its wingtips, through orange to red at its shoulders and finally a brilliant blue on its chest. It looked at her, and introduced itself to her as Phoenix in a chirping, squarking voice, before asking what she was doing on the plateau.
Now, any human who grew up in a city is well aware that sentient races take all shapes and sizes, and when you’ve had a mushroom squirt its speech into you via spores you have a fair bit of resilience. So whilst she was surprised, she was hardly alarmed, and decided to answer truthfully: she had climbed up there to lead her friends to safety, and now she was stuck, and didn’t know what she was going to do. The bird looked down at her over its golden beak, its eyes sharp but understanding. It said to her, “That is quite a sacrifice you’ve made.” Cass hadn’t really thought about it that way, but gave a shrug and a nod, “Yes, I suppose it was.” The bird nodded again in that head-bopping way that birds have, which made Cass unsure if it was agreeing or simply doing its pigeon act. But then it replied, “That pleases me. Let me help you get down.”
With that, the bird spread its wings. The colours on its feathers began to shimmer and sway, blending together almost as if the colours themselves were alive. Then the colour started bleeding off the feathers, rising up like a heatwave, and Cass felt like she could actually feel the heat. It was as though the bird were aflame, as if it were growing larger and larger – and yet not the bird itself, but the fire that was growing from it. As the fire grew and grew, the phoenix became the blue pilot light at the centre of the flame, and the waves of heat seemed to stretch up into the sky – and yet there was not a gasp of smoke from the bird (although some of the bushes nearby did catch alight, and they certainly smoked). Cass stood staring in awe, until suddenly the bird just seemed to explode, a wave of force escaping from the centre of the huge bonfire with such strength that it knocked Cass off her feet, off the cliff, and sent her hurtling towards the ground.
Yet even on her way down, Cass knew that she wouldn’t be harmed. She wasn’t sure how, but she knew that the phoenix was noble, and good, and that this was somehow meaningful, even if she couldn’t quite work out why or how. As she approached the ground, she felt peace, and as it turned out rightly so: the wave of energy that had pushed her off the cliff seemed to rebound off the ground, and became a cushion for her as she neared the earth, so that she could safely touch her feet to the ground with no more force than if she had alighted from a carriage. She was back on the plains, and the words and actions of the phoenix still puzzled her. But she could now go home, and for that she was thankful.
Hunter just had to interrupt at this point. “The flowers were probably poppies,” he said with rank disbelief. “You ate them because you were hungry, or thirsty, or just desperate, and then you tripped out, and then…” obviously he still couldn’t explain how she safely got back down, but he tried anyway, “You climbed down. Or something.” He shook his head, though, clearly not accepting the story. The others chimed in their own two copper pieces: Sage definitely believed it, because she’d seen lots of amazing things and thought it sounded great. Ashana and Odate also believed it, considering that it had a ring of truth, despite being unlikely.
Even Reichstag was expressing his opinion on the matter when Ayaet the minotaur bellowed, “Are we duelling or not?” and Reich nodded with a start, and took two cups, filling them with water, and turning to hide his placement of the poison. When he turned back, he hesitated, and Odate said some words to him in Goblin. “I hope you aren’t loaning the goblin your wisdom, cleric,” said the kensai, to which Odate shook his head, “I simply told him that regardless of what happens, he should know that he can trust me.” With that, Reich nodded, placed the cups down, side by side, before his foe.
Ayaet barely hesitated. He reached out, grabbed the drink that came to his hand first, and lifted it to his lips. Reich swallowed as he watched – and nearly choked when lightning shot down from the clouds and struck the cup, shattering it into pieces and vaporising the liquid within. Everyone gasped as they felt the thunderclap of the strike, with the exception of the kensai, who stood motionless for a moment, before slowly drawing the jet black sword from his belt and thrusting it into the soft ground in front of him blade first. As soon as he let go of the hilt, he changed: one moment there was a minotaur, and the next a human standing in a blue robe. Before anyone could comment, lightning struck again, this time hitting the hilt of the sword; but instead of dissipating, it continued to crackle and spark, licking up and down the blade as energy poured down out of the heavens. Then, with a roar that seemed to split the sky, down from the clouds, circling the bolt of lightning, came a dragon on the wing.
Its scales were a brilliant azure, shimmering like precious stones as the light of the electricity reflected off them. Its head was the size of a small shed, and its mouth could have easily fit a human inside with one bite. The long neck snaked down to a muscled torso, and a flicking tail seemed to help guide its gliding form down towards the ground with grace. It landed with scarcely a sound, before its wings creaked back behind it. This was Xminr, Scourge of the Student, Tester of Apprentices, Gatekeeper of Blue Magic. Nobly he sat, exalted above them in his enormous form, neck arched like a swan to look down on them. Reichstag and the human mage knew the drill: they prostrated themselves instantly upon the dragon’s landing. The others hesitated a moment, and a single word came from that deadly mouth, ridged with wicked teeth. “Kneel.”
With that word came a wave of awe-inspiring fear that was barely shy of forcing everyone to plant their faces into the dirt. All knelt, and willingly after a fashion: after all, there were not many things on this planet with the bearing of naked power that surrounded a dragon, and respect was certainly due. All bent the knee… except Sage. Sage was frozen, but not with terror. As her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates, she said slowly, “This… is… AWESOME!” and then the questions started pouring out, but even the kender’s quick tongue couldn’t keep up with the brain, and the words just came out in a mashed stumble of mumbles. Xminr’s head craned towards the little ranger, and its eyes narrowed. Lightning began to crackle in its throat; but the human mage, whose name Reich would later share with the party was Seeker, spoke a few quiet words in the dragon language, and from then on the great beast simply ignored the kender.
When it spoke, it was as though thunder were rumbling and roaring from its mouth, “Reichstag, you have successfully completed your test. However, your trepidation at deciding to defend the reputation of your dragon is noted. From this moment on, you will be known as Reichstag the Slow.” The dragon took a moment to snort in rebuke, and the wind that came forth blew back peoples’ hair and had a distinct scent of petrichor. “For your choice of using your mind and other objects to obtain your victory, rather than physical prowess and mastery of magic directly, you will be hereby considered as an Enchanter of the Blue Dragon Disciples. The test is complete!”
With that, Seeker rose and handed Reichstag a leather bag and a scroll. With that, he mounted the shoulder of the mighty dragon, and the two of them disappeared upwards into the sky. Within moments, the clouds had covered them, and they were gone. Everyone got up slowly, except for Sage, who was staring up into the sky and pointing and saying over and over again, “Did you see that? Did you SEE that? Did you see THAT?” Reich patted her on the shoulder, and said with a smile, “See Sage, I told you if you hung around with me you’d see a dragon.” Sage just hugged him with joy in reply.
Once the dragon fear had subsided in everyone’s stomachs, it was Cass who spoke first. She told Hunter that while she was so very glad to see him, and so thankful that he had come all this way to help her, she felt that she must go her own way, take the Pilgrim’s Path, and go to the Singing Mountains to study and become a bard. She felt that she needed to tell the story of the phoenix who had saved her life with his own, and that was the best way she could think how. Hunter just nodded, putting his arm around her shoulder, and saying, “I believe you now.”
For two more days they travelled together, the party heading north, seemingly unwilling to part ways with Hunter’s sister. After all, they had been looking for her for months now, and yet they were saying goodbye so quickly. But Soncho came to the wilderness looking for a new gift from a new race, and his best evidence for such was the information about the stone pig that had come from the swamp mountains to the west. So they all gave her a fond farewell, pooled a share of each of their rations and a handful of coins, and gave her what equipment they could. Hunter gave her his last fighting dagger, leaving him only with his throwing knife to spare, and the rich tablecloth he had purloined from Reich’s wedding feast. She accepted both gratefully, and then with a wave, and a mutual wishing of luck between them, she headed north, while the rest of the party started west.
It was two days later that Soncho stopped with a start: “Wait, your sister said she met a talking bird. A new race. With a new gift.” He stared around at them all, “Why did we let her leave!?” Everyone just stared at him dumbly for a moment – they weren’t sages after all, with the exception of Sage – and he let out a low, long groan before walking over to the donkey to get a parchment and a pen. “I’m just going to have to write down everything I can remember about what she said about the phoenix. Maybe that will give me a clue. But I suppose we’ll have to keep heading west now.”
Five days the party spent trekking through the northern plains. They were quite different from the rest of the Manxigan flood plains: out here there were no settlements, nor was there a resident damp to the ground. Grass overtook the ground, rather than rice. It had even gone three days without raining now. They had passed large stands of bamboo, and they had even seen a herd of elephants – although Sage had gotten just a little too close to a baby one, and had received a bull charge from one of the big males, so that the party had to give them all a wide berth. This led them towards a large burrowed hole in the ground, which seemed to cause the ranger to go into conniptions, sure as she was that it was a hole for giant ants. She led the party a good distance from it, giving them a lecture on how dangerous and deadly and awful such large insects were, right up until the ankheg attacked.
As ankhegs go, this was an averagely brutish specimen, but thankfully not full grown. About 10 feet and two legs sprouted suddenly from the ground, and a sickly green chitinous body topped with a large, bug-eyed head with chomping mandibles spat a searing stream of acid towards the ogre. Odate held up his shield to protect himself, but thankfully the spit went wide, leaving a scorch mark in the grass. The kender flung herself towards the creature with weapons drawn, striking at it with a mix of fervour and skill. Odate called on Qodesh to bless them as they defended themselves and to prevent them being lunch. Ashana likewise drew up her shield and attacked, but the chitinous armour of the ankheg was alarmingly strong, and it bent over to clamp her firmly in its mandibles. Hunter had thrown his last knife, but it had gone wide and landed behind the thing.
Then Reichstag started slinging fire arrows.
It was quite a sight. They’d never seen Reich use anything other than lightning – and rightly so, him being a blue mage and all. But nor had they seen him wield the kind of power that a real wizard has access to. Reich had been studying the scroll he was given, and this was the first spell he had used from it. Arrows formed from flame darted from his fingers, striking into the body of the ankheg and causing it to squeal – though whether from pain or due to the heat making its ichor boil and whistle out from between its chitin plates they weren’t sure. Two rounds of those, and the creature was soon retreating back into its burrow, and the party were able to breathe, and look on their mage with a newfound respect.
On the sixth day, they saw some vultures circling to the south. Given the ground might be a bit firmer nearer the plateau, they thought it would be a fine idea to scout out what the vultures were interested in, and moreover to travel closer to the harder ground. As they approached the massive walls of the plateau, they saw that a group of vultures had already landed on one corpse: a large, bulbous mass of goo that had once been some sort of sickening looking grub creature with tentacles around its maw. It was three or four feet in length, it gave off a smell of rot and death, it had savage tears along its body, and watching the vultures tear into its jiggly flesh was not at all pleasing, so they quickly moved on to where the circling vultures still flew, a little further to the west. As they moved, Odate told them what he knew about the creature. They had the name of carrion crawler among the clerics of Qodesh who oversaw graveyards and mortuaries. Apparently the grubs sought out the taste of dead flesh, but rarely got as large as the one they had seen. Which was clearly a good omen.
As they approached where the vultures were circling, they saw the large birds getting lower and lower. Soon they saw what they had an eye out for – a large body, perhaps the size of a horse, but feathery, and seemingly still. But when the vultures began to descend, up shot a large, sharp beak, out came a shrill, piercing shriek, and with a few snaps the vultures were flapping and cawing and returning to their holding pattern. It was a giant eagle, and it was still alive. At least, for now.