“Wake up squatbones! How’s my little quail this morning?” The jailor sneered. He was fat, bald, with a greasy black beard, and beady black eyes. His chain mail armor was dull and rusted in spots. Over his right shoulder a black crest was emblazoned with a howling, scarlet wolf head.
Mabu sat cross-legged in an 8 foot by 8 foot jail cell. For a Karrnathi it would have been cramped. For Mabu, the cell was quite spacious. The cell’s bars were the same color as the guard’s armor, and spotted with the same patches of rust. Its walls were a slimy wet stone, a color somewhere between rotting flesh and rainclouds. From Mabu’s vantage point in the cell, Fort Zombie had been aptly named.
“Why don’t you come in here again and find out how edible I am? I’m tasting squeal-flesh. Are you tasting quail?” Mabu grinned. His eyes were the color of cold dead earth, frozen in the desert’s midnight frost.
The guard grimaced, and fingered a week-old bite on his right arm. He had learned first hand that it was dangerous to get too close to the Halfling.
“Listen quail, seems you got some friends in high places. Brelish friends. Bren ir’Gadden. You still claiming that you’re not a spy? Because we’ve got enough evidence now to execute you within full rights of the Treaty. If I were you, I’d admit to it. It might go easier on you.”
“I am no spy. I am hunter. Have always been hunter. Hunted trails for Cyre. Hunting trails for myself now. And I have no friends, squeal-flesh.”
“All right quail. Whatever you say. But your lack of friends have pulled some strings. Seems I’ve got to release you. Give you back your things. Let you go.
Do me a favor? When I open this cell give me a reason to arrest you again.” The guard’s eyes were a pool of boiling tar, thick and angry. The jailor had been forced to do more than set Mabu free. Fort Zombie provided Mabu with a letter, a number of prepaid tickets for the lighting rail, and identification and travelling papers. It had been a lack of those papers that had put Mabu in the cell in the first place. During the war Mabu understood that he had needed papers to identify him as an employee of the Cyran army. How would a Cyran soldier know whether Mabu was a friend or foe without some sort of papers? But wasn’t everyone supposed to be at peace now? Why would someone need papers to prove that Mabu was Mabu? Who else would Mabu be? Big people were strange sometimes.
The first thing Mabu did after being freed was head back into the plains. When they had caught Mabu, Dovi got away. The jailor kept telling Mabu that they had found and killer her, but Mabu knew better. He would have felt her depart for Dolourrh if that was the case. He hadn’t. She was out there somewhere. After twelve hours of tracking he found her. Or maybe she found him. Sometimes it was hard to tell. Either way, the young clawfoot didn’t leave Mabu with a scar this time. She settled of on pouncing on the Halfling and running a long tongue across his face.
The letter and the train tickets were from Bren ir’Gadden. The Halfling had not heard the name in four years. Since then much had happened. Since then Mabu had lost everything. The letter invited Mabu to attend a ceremony. Something to do with the Day of Mourning. A memorial or some such. There was an address in Sharn. Mabu had heard the name before, but he had never been there. The lighting rail tickets were to Sharn as well. At first, Mabu thought about ignoring the invitation. Mabu appreciated being bailed out of prison, and the Day of Mourning had been a great tragedy, but it was not the tragedy that haunted Mabu’s dreams. The murder of his tribe did that.
Still, he had lost the tracks of his tribe’s murders. All he had was a piece of cloth with an insignia on it. Mabu didn’t know who it belonged to; but Sharn was supposed to be an important city, maybe someone there did! And whoever Bren was now, he was important enough to get Mabu pulled out of prison. Maybe Bren could help Mabu discover who the insignia belonged to. Sharn, then, would be Mabu’s destination.
* * *
Mabu boarded the lighting rail at Fort Zombie. He hoped he would be seeing the place for the last time. One stay with the fort’s hospitable keepers was more than enough. The tickets for the rail were not first class, but it didn’t matter much to Mabu. He had never ridden the lighting rail before. The accommodations provided for him were still far more lavish then he was accustomed to. But, when Mabu tried to bring Dovi into the car where his rooms were, the staff threw a fit. Apparently Dovi had to travel in the stable car, so Mabu slept there as well.
The trip was long. Mabu saw all sorts of sights and landscapes from the stable-car’s windows, but the Halfling seldom left Dovi’s side. Buying a number of journeybread rations from the from the dining car, Mabu would eat with Dovi as well. Then, finally, the trip was over. Sharn was like nothing Mabu had seen along the way, or ever before in his life. The city was huge, its towers stretching up well into the realms of the glidewing. Bridges arched between towers, connecting them up in the skyway above the Halfling. For once, the Halfling truly felt small.
If he wanted to find Bren he would have to rush. After the time he spent locating Dovi, and the jailor’s general slack attitude, Mabu’s lighting rail had probably been the last one to arrive in time for the ceremony. By now, by Mabu’s count, he had only a couple hours to find the venue before the memorial started, if it hadn’t begun already. Only luck had prevented the Halfling from missing the ceremony entirely.
A lightning rail porter helped Mabu decipher the directions int he letter. Once shown the way, it didn’t take long for Mabu to find the tower in which the ceremony was taking place. At its entrance a thin man stood in a finely cut black suit, with a white frilly shirt, and greasy, slicked back hair.
“Greetings,” the man said, looking down at the Halfling, “Can I help you?”
“I am attending a ceremony located here.”
“I see.” The man’s eyebrow raised quizzically. “Do you have an invitation?”
Mabu pulled a crinkled piece of paper from his belt pouch.
“It seems you do.” The man’s lips pulled taunt. “Well, up you go then. I’ll see to your … mount.”
Dovi was still too young to ride. She spent her time walking by Mabu’s side. But she was close to riding age. Mabu could understand why someone not familiar with clawfeet might mistakenly call Dovi a mount. Still, why the man thought Mabu would hand her into the care of someone who could not even tell that she was still too young to be called a mount was beyond him!
“No, that’s fine, thank you. I will take her up myself,” Mabu said.
“Up! Oh my, no. There are no animals permitted up there! This is a formal event! I’m sorry … sir … but you will have to leave her down here. I promise our stables are first rate. We will take good care of her, and provide her with fresh feed.”
Mabu was less then pleased. But, if he wanted to find Bren, he would have to acquiesce to the strange man’s demands. He nodded, briskly. Then, rubbing the beast’s nose, he said, “Follow the man Dovi, and don’t make trouble. Please.”
The man eyed Mabu’s weapons and seemed about to say something else. But, after a glare from Mabu, the doorman instead motioned for Mabu to step past. A short hallway led to set of stairs that ascended to a rectangular rooftop terrace. In the center of the terrace was a fountain, the water leaping into the air and falling into the large basin surrounding it. A support pillar held up the lip of yet another balcony that overhung the area where the main ceremony appeared to be unfolding. A doorway behind the pillar led into a room that Mabu assumed must lead to the balcony above.
Several invited guests had gathered on the pleasant roof top. It was a warm day, and bright sunshine illuminated the patio. Mabu considered both the warmth and the weather to be a blessing. In the plains, at this time of year, the wind had a chill bite. And, from his trip on the lightning rail, this part of the world seemed to primarily exist in a state of heavy rain. Mabu hadn’t seen as much water fall from the sky in the rest of his life as he had in the last couple of days.
At first Mabu sat and stared over the edge of the balcony. Thirty to forty feet below other rooftops ringed the building he was in. Out beyond the edge of those balconies the tower dropped sharply down to what he had taken to be a street, but now could see was only another bridge spanning an expanse between two larger towers. Mabu’s stomach pitched, and he turned away from the railing. To his surprise, Vimalk was standing behind him, speaking with Ketu. The two looked much the way they had four years ago.
“Mabu! A pleasure to see you!” Ketu stated.
“Indeed. It seems many old friends are reunited here today,” Vimalk agreed.
“Ah. Yes. Greetings. It is nice to see you again,” Mabu said, trying to muster a pleasant attitude. He had nothing against the two. Indeed, it was nice to see that they had survived the last four years. But after seeing the corpses of his father, mother, and sister, Mabu had trouble expressing any emotion but rage and grief. Thankfully, neither seemed to notice.
“Well, well, well. If it’s not you three washouts,” a voice projected in lilting, mirthful tones.
“Arweal!” Ketu chimed.
“Sergeant, it is a pleasure to see you alive!” Mabu stated, genuinely surprised and pleased to see his old companion. “Last I saw you were heading over the Brey River and back into the mist with a couple of the Cyran survivors we picked up. I thought you were dead! What did you see? Did any of the others make it back out with you?”
The Eladrin’s face drained of its momentary mirth. “I saw nothing I wanted to remember, Mabu. The place was a land of nightmares and corpses. I am the only one that made it back out. You were right, heading back in was a mistake.”
“There was no way you could have known,” Mabu stated, and then muttered, under his breath, “The world outside the mists turned out to be little better…”
“Excuse me, would you four be Arweal, Mabu, Ketu, and Vimalk?” asked a youth, wearing a well cut set of white stockings, brown knee length breaches, green vest, and white shirt. At their nods he continued, “Ah, excellent, Some letters were just sent for you four,” the boy said, handing them a set of envelopes.
Breaking his open, Mabu read to himself:
Most sincere apologies, but I have been held up in Wroat on business and, sadly, will be unable to attend the ceremony this morning. Please accept my invitation to dine with my family at Rochet’s tonight at eight o’clock.
Your brother in mourning,
“Well, it seems that we will be left to enjoy this morning without our host’s company,” Arweal stated.
Around the group, the guests of honor — displaced Cyran nobles and generals — sat arrayed behind the fountain as grizzled war veterans droned on about remembrance. Suddenly, the door beneath the balcony slammed open as sickly gray mist wafted out.
“Has the Mourning come to the City of Towers?” Someone screamed.
Following the mist emerged an enormous ape, fangs barred and muscles rippling. The creature seemed to be formed of the same grey mist that flowed onto the terrace. Screams followed, but only long enough for the living mist that surrounded the creature to flow into the mouths of nearby bystanders. Anyone too close to the creature fell to their knees, clawing their throats, desperate to breath through the thick mist.
“Damn. My spear. I left it by the doorway. Cover me!” Arweal yelled.
Mabu grabbed his mask, tipping it down over his face. With his other hand he yanked his boomerang and launched it at the creature.
Ketu mumbled a prayer, light launching itself at the beast, as the rest of the group suddenly felt filled with a sense of hope.
Vimalk let out an rumbling roar, and his spirit bear rose from the glazed tiles of the terrace before the ape, attempting to maul the equally ephemeral creature. As the bear bit into the ape’s misty flesh, a third arm formed out of the ape’s shifting body and crushed the bear’s throat, dispersing the spirit companion. Beside Mabu, Vimalk grunted, obviously feeling the pain of his companion’s disappearance.
By the time Arweal managed to double behind the balcony, grabbing his spear, a number of the guests lay dying or dead. Having noticed what the creature did to the bear, spear in hand, the Eladrin rushed through the doors up the second balcony overlooking the terrace. Mabu continued to hurl his boomerang, each strike passing through the ape’s body and tugging a bit of the mist-stuff free with the whirling weapon.
Vimalk’s spirit bear refromed and attacked again, tearing misty flesh away from the creature with its translucent claws. Ketu’s prayers continued to invigorate the group, and keep the beast at bay. Finally Arweal appeared on the balcony above. Tossing his spear over his shoulder he grabbed his shortbow, and began to launch arrows at the attacking monstrosity.
The creature continued to move around the platform and more attendees succumbed to the choking mist that accompanied it. Vimalk raised his long spear above his head and Mabu could hear him beseeching the spirits for their aid. An unnatural wind rushed past them both, pushing the large apparition back towards the edge of the balcony and dispersing the deadly mist surrounding it. The wind roared and the ape passed right through the railing that protected guests from the steep drop. Mabu held his breath, hoping the threat had been neutralized. But the mystical ape just sat there, hovering in mid-air. With a inarticulate roar, the creature rushed back towards the firmer ground of the terrace.
“Kill Mabu!” It cried.
The Halfling gulped, and ran for the doors to the upper balcony that Arweal had recently entered. Without Dovi, Mabu was not willing to enter into close proximity with whatever that creature was supposed to be. As he reached the top of the balcony, Mabu prepared to throw his boomerang again. The ape disappeared in a puff of smoke, but hearing a low grunt behind him, Mabu turned to see the mist reforming into the beast on the balcony before him. Arweal hefted his spear and stepped in front of the beast, attempting to protect his small companion. It might have worked had the beast not simply grabbed the Eladrin and tossed him over the edge and down ten feet down to the terrace below. With a gulp Mabu leaped off the balcony, following Arweal, rolled, and ran for the other side of the fountain.
Quickly raising to his feet, Arweal grabbed his spear and prepared for the creature to follow them down to the lower terrace. Sure enough, the giant apparition vaulted over the rail and landed softly on the tile below.. Soon Arweal and Vimalk’s spirit bear were once again engaged in melee.
“Kill Arweal!” It screamed.
Understanding dawned on Arweal’s face. “The letters! Throw away the letters! That is the only way it can know to attack us by name!” He cried out.
The group did so, but still the beast pursued the Eladrin. Each time Arweal got too close and attacked, the beast’s body would shift, retaliating with limbs that had not been there moments before. And the beast would then disperse and reform in a different location. Soon a mighty fist smashed into Arweal’s face, leaving him unconscious and bleeding.
Ketu rushed to aid the fallen soldier. The mist born gorilla-like monster jumped forward and bit deeply into the boy’s flesh. He too collapsed, his blood staining the terrace tiles.
Turning its eyes to Vimalk, the creature pulled back its teeth in a terrifying smile.
“Come and get me,” the goliath said, standing as calm as a mountain in the face of a storm.
It dashed forward, its massive hands a blur, its teeth sinking into the goliath’s flesh, but Vimalk stood unshaken and untouched, the blood of the Shadowcrag Mountains singing in his veins. The goliath displayed his own teeth in a fierce grin and struck back with his long spear.
“Balinor, please…” Mabu muttered, throwing his boomerang again. It whirled through the creatures head, and for a moment it looked like its entire form would dissipate.
The goliath retreated in front of the creature’s continued onslaught. As the two neared the edge Vimalk’s spirit bear appeared, leapt forward, caught the ape by its midsection, and carried the two ephemeral beasts tumbling over the edge of the terrace. Both vanished in a swirl of mist, leaving behind only a pale design hanging in the air.
“By the spirits.” vimalk exclaimed. “That symbol. I’ve seen it before! It is same as the rune from the tower, on the Day of Mourning. Look, all of you.” And then the symbol vanished.
But Mabu was busy, leaning over Ketu, trying to stop the boy’s bleeding. Once he had succeeded Mabu walked up to the fountain, dipped his hands in, scrubbed them of Ketu’s blood, pulled his hunt-mask off his face, turned, and slumped down against the wall’s of the basin.
“I’m going to kill the porter,” he muttered, attempting to catch his breath.