Among the peaks of the Skynest Mountains lay Shag’rilan, the highest settlement in the world. Yet even here amongst the peaks the thin air was tainted. As far as the eye could see the big village was surrounded by groves of liftwood trees.
Despite the best efforts of the big chested locals the groves were not thriving, many of the trees had brown and dying leaves.
There was much soul searching and worry occurring in the halls of the liftwood growers association. They were meeting regularly in their lavish headquarters building in the centre of the village. They had tried many things and consulted with the finest mages in the world but nothing was working. The groves continued to decline. And the rate of decline seemed to be accelerating. This year the trees had not seeded.
So today every able bodied inhabitant of Shag’rilan between the ages of sixteen and thirty-six was gathered in the central plaza watching the chairman of the liftwood growers association reach into a pottery urn and fetch out a small wooden cylinder. They were watching the drawing of the lots with a mix of apprehension and excitement.
Tsomo Ryatem unscrewed the top of the little cylinder he had just drawn from the urn. He fished out the scrap of paper and squinted at the writing. Then he passed the scrap of paper to the village crier.
“LHEKSHEY ORATEM,” bellowed the village crier.
From the middle of the crowd Lhekshey made his reluctant way towards the steps leading up to the growers association building.
= = O = =
Gardenia Stracanis looked up in irritation at the knock on her door. “Come in!” she barked.
Folssana Mirabilis poked her head in, “Sorry Guild Master, but there is a most urgent message from the council at Conimbriga.” Folsana looked worried as she edged into Gardenia’s inner sanctum. She was carrying a well filled folder.
“Humph, and what do those self satisfied idiots want now. Aren’t they the ones who refused the guild master we appointed?”
“Yes guild master,” concurred Folssana as she placed the folder she was carrying on the desk.
“Don’t leave dear,” hissed Gardenia, “sit, sit.”
Folssana gulped and did so, albeit gingerly. She watched apprehensively as Gardenia perused the contents of her folder.
“Right! Folly love, please see to getting Conimbriga and the surrounding area scanned for dungeons. I don’t trust anything that acting guild master Kennings sent us. Find out what you can regarding the Arena of Blood dungeon.”
* * *
Gardenia Stracanis glared at the door to her office, ‘How can a knock sound hesitant?’ she thought to herself. Sighing in irritation she barked, “Come in!”
Folssana Mirabilis edged her way in leading the guild’s chief mage. Bolithico Pasmado stroked his carefully cultivated and waxed mustachios. A habit that told Gardenia he was nervous and unsure of himself.
Gardenia narrowed her eyes at them and said, “Please be seated.” She waited impatiently until they were then asked, “So, what do you have for me?”
“Two things guild master,” said Bolithico smoothly. “As for Conimbriga, there are currently between fourteen and sixteen dungeons in the town and not the ten we were informed of by the local guild.”
“Why the uncertainty? Are there fourteen or sixteen. I thought your scans were more accurate than that. And why do I think the other thing you have to say is going to be – worse?”
“I wouldn’t say worse exactly, unexpected and surprising yes. Not worse.” Bolithico looked hopefully at his guildmaster and realised that he had better continue with his explanation. “Um, yes well, I believe one of the dungeons has three exits and is actively seeking to hide. I seems to be rather deep but I, we could be wrong and it might just be three similar dungeons.” Bolithico smiled hopefully.
Gardenia looked at her assistant, Folssana sat up straight in her chair. “We have the two remaining arenas, the race track, the two principal markets, the arsenal, the naval shipyards, the city palace, Ashleigh’s and the self styled Arena of Blood. And four others.”
“So that incompetent idiot missed four dungeons ... any word on Yuuliox, Bonehead or Cinders?”
“I’m sorry to say Yuuliox and Bonehead were killed by the Arena of Blood. As for Cinders, she recently left Conimbriga. She is working as a bodyguard for a roving noble.”
“Unfortunate, so we have no trustworthy local adventures we can tap.” Gardenia turned her head slightly causing Bolithico to stiffen, “I haven’t forgotten you, what is this – interesting, bit of information you have for me?”
“Err, we found a new dungeon. It must be very powerful as it’s far from Conimbriga. It’s close to the equator in the Ithampar Ocean.” Bolithico smiled hopefully again, “Err, we caught an echo of it when we scanned ... like we catch echoes of the other two Godlike dungeons ... we scanned for it and found it. It occupies a patch of ocean about fifty miles across.”
Gardenia looked daggers at Bolithico, he wilted slightly and seemed to squirm in his chair. “Are you telling me, that the guilds oh so talented mages managed to totally miss a dungeon until it hit godlike ranking?”
“Erm... Yes,” admitted Bolithico. “But we can’t be sure it is a godlike dungeon until an evaluation team has verified it guild master,” he added hopefully.
Gardenia hit her desk with her fist several times making everything on it jump. “And. Just. How. Do. You. Expect. An. Evaluation. Team. To. Handle. A. Patch. Of. Ocean?”
* * *
Bolithico Pasmado was feeling very hard done by. He had finished packing and now he gave his comfortable quarters one last look. He was not looking forward to the next few weeks or possibly months. It would be far too long before he would be able to rest in his comfortable home again.
Shoulders slumping slightly Bolithico made his way to the rooftop landing pad followed by two porters with his bags. ‘Damn her, I’m too old to be trotting around the world putting out fires for the Guild. And our guild master Gardenia Stracanis knows that only too well. This is her idea of punishment for missing that dungeon.’ Bolithico fumed and wracked his mind for a plan on how to evaluate that dungeon. ‘How are we going to do it? It’s in our charter, so how can I evaluate a dungeon from the outside, without examining the core?’
Bolitico blinked round at his team, the cabin of the guild cutter was crowded with the six of them and their gear. He looked round, cleared his throat, and began, “I trust you are aware our task in Conimbriga is to assess the difficulties the Guild will face. We are tasked to chart the location of all the dungeons present in that city, both domestic and wild...”
“Wild!” Exclaimed Fertadacto Felmeiras as he sat with head bent due to the – for him – low celing.
“Yes wild. The local acting guild master has informed us of ten tame dungeons, one of which has broken free and needs subduing. However, our scans indicate that there are at least four more dungeons present in Conimbriga.” Bolitico looked round at his team, “I must empathise that we are not present to subdue or destroy the Arena of Blood. That task will fall to a properly constituted and equipped Raid Group. Then we will have to proceed to – check out – yes check out a dungeon we only discovered a few days ago.”
“Surely we’re a bit overqualified to evaluate a new dungeon,” suggested Leemanda Stracanis as she looked up from her prayer book.
“On the contrary Leemanda, your aunt ordered us not to enter unless invited. It showed up as an echo when we scanned Conimbriga. Just as Diamond Point and Titan Deeps show up as echoes on most scans.”
It was a thoughtful group that boarded the passenger liner Princess Royal from the guild cutter as they made their way to their berths.
= = O = =
Captain Bordal Vitrius held the Silver Sparrow in place as the customs cutter approached. He watched in appreciation as her captain brought her alongside so the local customs officer could come aboard. After seeing how his employer and the elves had disappeared underwater he suspected there was a lot more to Zeehaven than this small island and the small town he knew.
He watched as lieutenant Coryphaena came aboard, his green hair blowing in the wind. Bordal smiled wryly as he watched one of the more pleasant custom agents of his acquaintance jump onto his deck.
“Good afternoon captain Bordal, what have you done to the old girl? Long time no see.”
“Welcome aboard Cory. Had a run in with pirates and had to accept a charter. My employer had her fixed up to his taste.”
“Charter? So have you anything to declare? Are you still in the market for gems and spices?”
Bordal sighed, “For myself, Yes. Sir Rich Burton has two sea elves, I think he’s returning at least one of them home.”
Cory stilled. His eyes flicked around the deck of the Silver Sparrow. “So where is your charter?”
* * *
Rich was standing by the window of his cabin, he grinned at the sight of Minnow pouting at having to carry that ugly whip hanging from her belt. Carver was seated at their small table head in hand.
Rich recognised the knock on their door and said, “Come in captain.”
Bordal opened the door and gestured for someone to enter. Rich watched as a tall uniformed sea elf stepped into the cabin and stumbled. Carver shot to his feet and embraced the newcomer. “Young Cory, It’s so good to see you again.”
Rich smiled, and his smile grew into a grin when he noted Minnow taking an involuntary step forward. Obviously his friends liked this newcomer and were glad to see him. The newcomer for his part looked incredulous.
“Saltor You’re alive! Bonadur said you’d been killed by a band of sky pirates that raided the splithead isles.”
Carver, or Saltor closed his eyes as a look of pain crossed his face. Minnow hissed and radiated anger. Lieutenant Coryphaena’s glanced in the direction of the hiss. “Little Minnow? But Bonadur said...”
“We were drugged! We were sold to slavers. Uncle was invited to display some of his works and took me along...”
“But Bonadur said, the two principal trade pavilions were destroyed, burnt, there was blood and Bonadur said, and several of his guards were killed,” protested lieutenant Coryphaena.
“The two principal trade pavilions on Grand Splithead isle?” asked Saltor bitterly. “So now Bonadur owns the most important trade pavilion on the isles. And what happened to Fantail and Finnair?”
“They... They were killed defending their pavilions and goods.”
“Right! Poor old Fantail who had hit his millennium and was getting feeble fought and died. And I bet Lesstander and Fintail died with their father too and that slimy thing Poplectus inherited?” scoffed Saltor/Carver. “Minnow’s right. We were drugged at the select reception Bonadur held for a group of promising artists he planned to showcase.”
Cory stepped back looking troubled. “Please promise me you won’t make those accusations public Saltor. You won’t be believed. Bonadur was appointed the council representative for the Splithead Isles. And Poplectus is the head of the Fantail clan and is being mooted as the successor to Epigonus the current minister of trade.”
“Don’t worry uncle, I can always place them under a ban,” interjected Minnow with a sharklike grin.
Cory glanced at Minnow, he was obviously puzzled by her statement.
Rich chuckled, “Now that would be interesting Minnow. I like it.” Then Rich looked at the lieutenant and noted his look of incomprehension. Smiling again Rich bowed slightly, “It’s with great pleasure that I present Minnow, the chief priestess of the Balancer, known by the drow as Little Fish and everyone else as Blue Lagoon, Mother of Monsters and Blackbeard’s Bane.”
* * *
Minnow meditated in the middle of the partially ruined former temple of the Sea God. It was a blocky stone building set in the middle of overgrown gardens. She did not approve of it and she knew Mary wasn’t impressed either.
It had been three days since their arrival and she had been unable to find any former priests of the vanished god, and there seemed to be no trace of his faith left. Even his name and titles had vanished. It all suggested an intentional, and apparently successful effort to erase his presence.
Minnow rose and worked her way out of the overgrown gardens and made her way down the cobbled road towards the sea. The walk took her several minutes. She looked back at the unsightly ruin squatting on the top of the raise.
« Yes it has a lovely view of the sea, but it’s too far inland. It’s absurd to have a temple in a predominantly sea elf settlement that doesn’t embrace the sea. » whispered the voice in the back of Minnow’s mind.
« Aren’t we going to claim it then? »
Minnow could almost feel Mary’s shudder of distaste. « No! Somethin’ is just plain wrong ’bout that place. »
Minnow stepped into the surf and dove through the breakers. She stopped as she trod water and looked back at he rise. « How about a temple to Little Fish? Dig into the rise and set up the inner sactury below the water table with a tunnel to the sea? »
Minnow felt Mary’s amusement. « That might work but I still don’t like the place. No we’ll leave that eyesore alone. And Blackbeard’s got his claws set here. That place feels like a trap. Tell your uncle to gather those who wish to move. I’ll send a ship for them. »
« And a temple? »
« Find somewhere under the sea, nowhere on the surface feels – right. »