|As the smoke clears on the foothills of the southern Middle Mountains
Our heroes stand forlornly amid half a dozen (got my earlier sums wrong) bodies that litter coarse scrubland around the stone shrine. Two score yards away, smoke continues to pour from the low stone structure before rising like a dark column in the clear, brightening sky. Far to the east, the sun’s first rays have begun their inexorable rise. Within moments, the dark mountainside is soon bathed in a weak orange glow. Dozens of objects lie scattered among the scraggy heather; broken, charred or abandoned. Juergen kicks one before lifting a small wooden box that seems oddly unfamiliar. “Its mine!” snaps Gregor before spitting on a nearby corpse.
In the background Malimir quietly slips into the nearby mountain stream. Werner stares pensively at the sky. Juergen’s gaze turns to the track and western horizon. Malimir emerges from the stream dripping wet, wraps himself in his mysterious cape and heads straight for the wayside shrine turned smoking oven. Werner stares at his crippled mount. ½ mile below the forest lurks more menacingly than ever. Above them, somewhere among the snow-capped peaks, the rumble of thunder seems to be fading and a new day begins in the Middle Mountains…
Werner squats down to study the footprints left by their attackers before sniffing the air as if to catch an elusive scent. He stands and turns to the others busy sorting through the remains of their trappings.
“Brothers it has become clear to me what is happening here. I think it is more than the fact there may be larger than usual number of fell creatures in these forests.”
He looks over at Malamir “But what you said about that is true. No, I believe that what has happened here’s a sign that the forces arrayed against us and the masters that they serve are on the move.”
He looks around the group “Recently our dreams have been pointing us to the truth both for ourselves and that for these lands and the peoples that inhabit them. This battle last night was not just fought here it was fought between the gods themselves; Lord Ulric and those gods that move against us were watching this battle. Given the number of attackers we could have died here but yet with the gods looking over us we did not, remember a victory with no risk or adversity is a hollow one.”
Vladimir cries out into the desolate landscape that surrounds them “Is that it? That’s all that was left by those stinking mutants?!”
Kicking the remains of a tattered saddlebag in frustration he gazes off to the east basking in dawn’s first rays. Releasing a long sigh he turns to Werner “Whatever you think your gods were playing at, Ranald’s pulled a fast one on us. Gah! Whatever possessed us to think we could pull off a trick like this? We’ll be lucky to make it to Bergsburg on time now. And what chance have we of recovering any of our trappings now? The rights to the ship are gone, all of my tools, money, everything. I only hope this patron of ours, the Graf, pays as much as we’re worth! I’m seeing a lot of sacrifice, for not a lot of gain here… What say you Juergen? I think we’re putting a lot of faith in the words of a complete stranger at the moment and I can’t see the payoff here.”
Malamir emerges from the burning temple carrying something small and shiny. Handing the knuckledusters to Gregor he smiles grimly “At least we all live” is all he can think of to say.
Malimir spends the next few minutes studying his companions, particularly Juergen and Gregor. Walking up to them both he says in a solemn voice to them both “I do not know what lies ahead, and although I care little for material things, I understand the intense effort you both have put into this venture. In some ways this journey with you both has shown me that looking such a long way into the future does not always achieve what is possible. Know this, that should Graf Todbringer fail to ensure you recover your losses, I will remain committed to recovering them myself until such time as they are repaid. A few years work is of small matter to me should things not turn out so well. Take heart my friends, for I now call you both such, this I but one small setback on your way to success. I may not be able to predict the future like Magda, but I know we four together have the strength, cunning, and sheer tenacity to build those things we wish for”
Juergen smiled to himself with grim satisfaction at the sight of the dead beastmen. He honestly hadn’t had that much fun in ages, but the cost… oh the cost had been great this time. It’s true he had a great respect for the Order of the Knights Panther but something didn’t feel right. They were being sent to do the bidding of some distant master who probably couldn’t care less if they lived or died as long as the mission got done. This wasn’t the romantic vision that the experienced ranger had pictured, this was not the glorious order bringing chaos to its knees and restoring the empire to its former glory. There were no rewards, there were unlikely to be thanks, it consumed all the resources that Sturmcrowe-Ludovich had acquired so far, it was just not sustainable.
Juergen had to quit or lose it all… he had to give all this up and go find Larissa. It would be an important time for his daughter, a time that she would need her father around. The professor and the others had been kind enough and Robillard would ensure she got fine tutors growing up to be every bit a lady that her mother hadn’t been but it just wasn’t the same thing was it.
He gazed out at his companions, 3 wise men of the world, great men who had achieved much; they had defied the odds and survived attacks by dark elves and dragons, assassins and rat-ogres not to mention crazed mutants. Hmm… Dammit he couldn’t just leave these men, his friends behind, he wouldn’t be able to look Larissa or the prof in the face again. Maybe… just maybe… he could keep them alive long enough for them to pull off the heroics that he knew these great men were capable of. Maybe this lot would save the whole damn empire and become the heroes they deserved to become… or maybe he would be dead before the next rising off the black moon as the prophecy foretold… and he would never know or see Larissa again…