Northern Riches

Chapter 3

Aurelia ducked her head underneath one of the tunnel’s support braces and glared at the guide ahead of her. “Are you sure this is the best way to get the arms market?”

The short, kanthyri man looked back at her with a smirk. “With what you’re looking for, missy, you don’t have many options.” He eyed her again before turning to find his way through the tunnels.

Aurelia narrowed her eyes and her fingers brushed the handle of her new sword. If that Kithlanan even thinks about touching me, she thought, I’m gutting him like a fish. Not that anyone would care about another dead Kithlanan. Normally the thought of killing someone would make her feel ill, but the vision of this little worm writhing in his own entrails in these abandoned tunnels brought a small smile to her face.

They were traveling through a series of tunnels built under the city. Even down here, the delicate curves of elven architecture could be seen in the walls and corners of the tunnels, and in the supporting arches overhead. Noticeably to Aurelia, there were no rats down here, something that caused her to stop in shock briefly before continuing on. Having grown up in Milasylla, the lack of rats disturbed her on some deep level.

As they progressed further, the construction of the tunnels seemed to grow more simple, less elegant. Elven script and scrollwork could still be vaguely seen on the walls, but grew less prevalent. Aurelia noticed that they had been slowly traveling downward as they moved.

After about an hour of travel, the tunnels open up into a large underground market lining one side of the tunnel, lit by glowing red torches. A violet tabard was strung up from the ceiling, covered in dry blood. Tiny stalls crowded against the wall, showing off some of the wares while a few dozen patrons walked along the other wall.

“Your basic goblin market, which House Nathos ‘knows nothing about’. Got it?” her guide asked. Aurelia nodded. She passed by a stall with a series of concoctions in glass tubes, all different colors.

“Hey, are there any sages down here?” Aurelia asked her guide. He turned back to look at her quietly for a moment before responding. “Yes, there are a couple. This way.” He pointed toward the far end of the market and pushed through the crowd. Aurelia followed closely behind. On the way, she noticed a couple of stalls selling runed hats, odd-looking boots, and strangely decorated armor pieces. “Is everything sold here magical?” she asked.

“Not all, but most of it, yes.” The Kithlanan replied. “It’s the expensive stuff that makes smuggling past NLTC customs worth it.” He pushed his way forward, then turned sharply into one of the narrow side tunnels. The tunnel was barely eight feet tall and about as wide. As they got about sixty feet down the tunnel, Aurelia stopped.

“Where exactly are we going?” she asked the Kithlanan suspiciously.

He turned around and chuckled lightly. “Right here, missy.” He reached for the club on his belt. Behind Aurelia, two more figures appeared out of thin air. Both were kanthyri men who were wearing tattered leather armor and hadn’t appeared to have washed in a month. They too had clubs in their hands, and ugly grins marred their faces.

Aurelia looked between the three men and shook her head. “You really, really, don’t want to do this.”

Her guide chuckled. “That’s where you’re wrong, miss. I think we do.” The other two men chuckled lightly and moved toward her.

Aurelia sighed and gave a light shrug. “As you wish.”

***

A little over a minute later, Aurelia stepped out of the side tunnel and back into the underground market. Blood sprays covered the left side of her cloak and leather tunic, and her boots left a trail of red footprints behind her. Aurelia ignored the faint sound of gurgling coming from the tunnel behind her, and the merchants near the tunnel, after looking at her and glancing at the side tunnel, chose to ignore the sound as well.

She moved through the market tunnel, slowly, taking in each stall’s wares closely. Many of the stalls were in ill-repair, and were displaying items such as smuggled liquors and foodstuffs, swords and daggers, scrolls, maps of varying accuracies, oils and perfumes. The busiest stalls were selling “elven” artifacts, trinkets that may or may not have belonged to the previous occupants of the city.

The other patrons glanced at her as she made her way through the bazaar, and on seeing the blood, did their best to avoid her. As she approached the end of the market tunnel and was beginning to despair of finding anything useful, one of the larger stalls managed to capture her attention.

The stall was in good repair, contrasting strongly with most of the other stalls in the market. The items on display weren’t the usual fare of smuggled luxuries and faux-elven baubles, but well-designed traveling gear. On stepping closer for a better look, she saw runes sewn into most of the items, with the faint green sparkles in the thread that indicated the use of the rare mineral levethex for permanent enchantment.

“See something you like, lady?” Aurelia looked up at the shopkeeper, a younger Deltaran man who spoke with a faint accent. As he stepped closer, Aurelia noticed that he heavily favored one leg. He also seemed to be deliberately ignoring the blood on her clothes.

She nodded down at the belt in front of her. “This belt looks interesting. Magical, I believe?”

The young man smiled. “You could say that.” He picked the belt up and made a small twitching motion with his hand. The belt had turned into a leather-colored gladius within moments. With another twitch, the sword had disappeared, and a grappling hook with rope appeared.

“A very useful magical belt, my lady,” the man said as he laid the belt (once more in belt form) back onto the table. “I have more items like that if you are interested?”

“I am,” Aurelia nodded. “I am a little curious, though: these are obviously useful wares, but… how do you stay in business? I can’t imagine all that many people would be in the market for this stuff.”

The Deltaran nodded. “I can see your point.” He lowered his voice and leaned closer to Aurelia. “I regularly outfit Master Parethian and his expeditionary groups. Every time I do, I have enough money to last for months.”

Aurelia’s eyes turned cold as she stared at the Deltaran man. “What do you mean, ‘expeditionary groups’? More importantly, why would you tell me something like that?”

The Deltaran man gave her a smug grin. “Miss Oreseus, its already well known that you work for the Company. Everyone knows that the Company sent an experienced agent up from Milasylla to find Parethian and his crew. I wasn’t sure if it was you, though, until I saw how you reacted just there.” The Deltaran chuckled.

“Yes, miss, the old man never traveled alone. If anything, the Company wouldn’t let him; he was too useful. So he had the full package with him at all times: guards, porters, translators, mules, wagons, scribes, local guides who had been bribed, hunters, trappers, the works. His last expedition had no less than forty people.”

Aurelia did her best to keep her face neutral. Duvayne had said nothing about an expedition with Parethian, and she wasn’t exactly getting much for support. “Okay, mister. I’ll take the belt, and any other items like it that you might have.” As the Deltaran man smiled and began to collect gear, she turn to him and asked, “Say, do you know of any sages specializing in the elves of the area?”

***

The northern ward of Ere’Vaasra appeared to have been originally designed for the defense of the city. A great seawall overlooked the main harbor, and within the wall were walkways atop walkways. Tiny arrowslits in the wall itself let in the breeze from the sea, and gave its occupants an advantageous view of the Gulf of Vaasrai. The wall, and the narrow ward connected to it, extended from the main part of the city up to its northernmost keep, a defensive structure built out of a hill of shale and sandstone.

The breeze entering through the openings in the wall facing the sea created a continuously swirling symphony of whistles and roars, something the elves alluded to in the faded carvings along the wall itself.

Aurelia was sure the music the wind created through the wall was as amazing as the carvings indicated, but she couldn’t hear it through the wails and moans of the people occupying the northern ward. Company guards had regularly rounded up the poor, the homeless, the pilgrims who had come to Ere’Vaasra for a better life but lacked the skills to contribute (at least to the Company’s standards), and forced them into the makeshift tenements that now made up the northern ward. The exit to the ward was blockaded by Company guards, who took a dim view of any of the inhabitants coming too close to the barriers.

When Aurelia had entered the guard post on her way to the northern ward, she had been warned that the guards would not be able to assist her out there. She had also purchased an amulet that would allow her to re-enter the city when her business was done.

Now, as she passed along the wall, she began to regret her decision to make her way to the northern fortress. The hood on her cloak was completely up, her head tucked down, as she passed by one ill person after another. The ward was now well beyond overcrowded, and it appeared nearly impossible for the people forced to live here to keep up with sanitation.

The residents who were moving did so listlessly; most of them just sat and stared off into space, ignoring the flies buzzing around. Nearly all were gaunt from starvation, and most had open sores welling up on their exposed skin.

As she approached the northern end of the ward, she saw more people moving. They were forming a line that appeared to lead to the entrance into the northern fortress. As she passed the people in line, she imagined that she felt their exhausted, pleading eyes boring through her hood. Aurelia began to hurry her pace to the exit.

At the end of the line were six guards wearing white tabards and about a dozen men and women in dirty white robes with a worn sunburst sewn into the chest, offering the locals stale bread and weak broth. Guards and acolytes of the state religion of the Empire, the church of Millona, Our Lady of the Sun.  The men and women of the cloth all looked exhausted, the guards wearing the disassociated gaze of those who have seen or done too much regret in their lives.

As Aurelia approached, one of the guards lifted his club and pointed it at her. “Authorization papers, ma’am,” he said with a hint of resent in his voice. When she pulled her Company scrolls out of her cloak and passed them over for the guard to examine, his eyebrows raised slightly in surprise. Aurelia heard a bit of a commotion behind her, but she did her best to ignore it and continue to face forward.

The guard quickly rolled the papers back up and passed them back to Aurelia. “You’d best go through quickly, ma’am.” As Aurelia nodded and moved past the guard, she felt a stone hit her armored back.

“Company bitch!” the voice was female, and came from deep in the crowd. More slurs began to come from the crowd. Within moments, someone was calling for Aurelia to be lynched. She ran into the fortress as fast as she could while the guards pulled swords on the crowd and began to force them back. Aurelia glanced back as she entered the fortress, seeing only the dark looks the acolytes were giving her.

The entrance to the fortress was taken up with supplies for the acolytes and the guards. A couple of people were sleeping on hammocks set over barrels of water and sacks of flour. One opened her eyes as Aurelia entered. “Who are you?” she asked accusingly.

“Aurelia Oreseus. I’m here to speak to Aron Gaire.” Aurelia did her best to stay hidden under her cloak and avoid the gazes of the other people waking up.

The lady who had spoken to her, a bald kanthyri woman with a large scar across one eye, looked Aurelia over and made a disdainful face. “‘Docent’ Gaire is down in the tunnels underneath the fortress. If you see him, tell him the living could use more attention than the dead.” The lady closed her eyes and seemed to be doing her best to ignore Aurelia.

Aurelia sighed and made her way over a stack of flour sacks and crude wooden utensils. The stairs heading downward were lined with even more barrels and crates, making the trek down slow and treacherous. At the bottom of the stairs was a wooden door, braced open by empty barrels.

Past the door was what looked like it had once been a storeroom. Empty shelves lined two of the walls; the far wall, however, had been torn down, and a reinforced tunnel dug through the dirt beyond. Light came from a pair of ever-burning torches giving off a pale red light.

Aurelia grabbed one of the torches and began to make her way slowly through the tunnel. Dust filled her nose, and while no breeze blew through the tunnel, she felt as though a breeze were blowing through her, chilling her bones and giving her goose bumps. The flame from the magical torch was dull and entirely devoid of heat. Aurelia gave the torch a momentary glare, half convinced its heatless flame was taunting her.

After a few minutes of walking, Aurelia saw lights ahead in the tunnel. Up ahead the tunnel narrowed and appeared to go through a worked stone wall. Past the opening was an older leven human, with short blond hair and a blond beard, dressed in dirty miners gear with a wool jacket and hood. As she stepped into the room behind him, he turned around and greeted her with pleasant surprise. “Oh! Hello there! Who might you be?” he asked cheerily.

Aurelia smiled at the gentleman. “Aurelia Oreseus. I was hoping you would be able to… to…” She stopped, speechless, as she looked around the room they were in.

The walls were worked stone, with the barest hint of scrollwork remaining at about waist height. Another entrance to the room lay on the far side, filled with dirt and rock. Taking up most of the room itself were eight black metal cases on stone pedestals. The cases were about the size and shape of wide coffins, and the sides and lids were covered in intricately carved runes and scrollwork.

“Good to meet you, Ms. Oreseus. My name is Aron Gaire, Docent of House Talaudrym and Senior Lecturer at the Dinora branch of the Imperial Guild of Arcanists. I specialize in the, umm, history of the kesir, err, elves, that used to live in this area. This-” he gestured at the room, “-is my current project. I call it the ‘Mausoleum’, for lack of a better word at the moment. I’m deciphering the writings on the, umm, coffins, if you will.”

Aurelia blinked at the Docent, confused. “What do you mean by ‘deciphering the writings’? I thought anyone in the Empire with a halfway-decent education could read elven?”

“Oh, yes, indeed! Of course I’m proficient in elven. The thing is…” he paused, “…this isn’t contemporary elven writing. This is much, much older than that. No, this writing, this room… this is all at least five thousand years old!” He glanced over, and on seeing Aurelia’s disbelieving look, smiled. “Yes, Ms. Oreseus, before humans ever landed on this continent, the elves were living here, right here! in Ere’Vaasra! While humanity and the halikari were fighting over dead sands and poison seas, while our gods fought and died in the skies above, the elves were already here.”

Aurelia continued to give Aron a skeptical look, but asked, “Why were they here? The rest of their lands were so much richer in resources.”

“That’s the thing!” Docent Gaire exclaimed. “Before humans came, the elves would regularly come up here, to this city, on pilgrimages. Every elf would come up here at least once in their life.”

“But…why?”

“I… I don’t know,” Aron confessed. “That they did so is well-recorded. They just never say why they did so. I was hoping these coffins would offer some explanation.”

“Coffins?” Aurelia stepped slightly further away from the black metal cases.

“Yes. At least, I believe they are coffins. The writing I’ve deciphered so far seems to indicate such. The metal they’re made out of is unique as well. Not very strong, really.”

Aurelia shook her head. “Well, Docent Gaire, I was hoping you could help me find out more about this item.” She reached into her pack and pulled out the dark sword she had picked up before leaving Milasylla. She passed it over to Aron.

The older mage took the blade into his hands and sat down on the stone floor of the elven room. He examined it for a few minutes, at one point viewing the sword through a rune-encircled monocle and harrumphing.

“Well…” he spoke slowly, as if cautious of saying the wrong thing. “It is definitely of elven make, even if the normal rank and family scrollwork is missing. The inscription on the side simply says ‘Stillness’. No obvious glyphs of magical enhancement, at least by any known system of di arma enchantment I’m aware of. And yet, the blade resonates magic. No less than 5 mQ per second, even. Yet, there appears to be no levethurgical decay… most interesting…

“And the metal!” He stood up and began to pace. “The metal appears to be the same substance the ‘coffins’ are made from, and yet, it’s so much sturdier and flexible, like steel.” He stopped his pacing and passed the sword back to Aurelia.

“I wish I had more time to examine this, Ms. Oreseus, but I would hate to ask you for the weeks I would want to properly test it. I can assure you, though, that the blade you have in your hands came from this area, and is definitely elven in origin. I’m not sure how it holds its magical power without the proper enchantment bindings, but it seems to be quite powerful indeed.”

Aurelia nodded, slightly disappointed. “Well, thank you Docent for your assistance.” She turned to leave, then paused, remembering the chaos that had started as she left the northern ward. She turned back to Aron. “Excuse me. I hate to ask, but is there any way to get back to the city without-”

By this time the mage was already back to deciphering the inscriptions on the ‘coffins’. He waved his hand, interrupting her, and muttered, “Oh, yes, quite.” His voice changed, deeper and more resonating as he spoke a dozen syllables in precision staccato. The air pressure seemed to change slightly with every sound he made, and she could feel the striking tone of the consonants he spoke through her boots.

Before she could react, her vision blurred and her stomach rose and then fell at the brief loss of gravity. She opened her eyes to find herself lying on the floor back in her room at the inn.

“Well,” she muttered to herself. “That… was… convenient.” She barely made it to her bed before passing out.

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