The Stacked Deck

Copyright Ronald Soller © 2005

Edited by Nicholas HM Caldwell for The Guild Companion

"You will be his lackey or you will be dead."

Leaving the Nest: Part 1

The steam slowed to a wisp as the hiss died down from the water trough. Paul grabbed a cloth from the bench and wiped his sweat-drenched brow. The soot and salt smeared on his forehead revealing heat-reddened skin. He draped the cloth over his shoulder and reached down to pull the sword from the cooling trough. He looked over the keen edges on both sides of the blade for any flaws. He smiled with satisfaction as he took another cloth from the bench and wiped the moisture from the weapon. Five weeks of work had gone into this, the final project of his apprenticeship. All there was left was to sharpen it on the grinding wheel and put the finishing touches on the hilt. He slid the dried blade into the sheath that he finished the night before and set it on the bench. He quickly washed his hands and face and dried them on a clean portion of the cloth he pulled from his shoulder. He reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a small item wrapped in a piece of leather. Paul unfolded the leather and picked out the stone sized ruby, and admired it in the glowing light of the forge.

"Time to put you in your new home," Paul said with a smile.

He palmed the gem, grabbed the sword and headed out the exit, en route for the jewelers workshop.

"It is a most extraordinary piece of work," Paul's master inspected the blade as he spoke. "One of the best I have seen from an apprentice. I congratulate you on its completion." Stragen placed the blade on the desk in front of him. The ruby in the pommel sparkled in the sunlight that shown through the window.

"Thank you, master." Paul said as he reached for his weapon.

"You have done well throughout your training, and have met all the tasks I have set before you." Stragen leaned back in his chair, quiet for a few moments as he looked at Paul, then he continued to speak, "I must ask you. Why do you intend to leave now and not finish creating the other three talismans?"

Without waiting for an answer, Stragen stood up from his desk and walked toward the only window that this small room had. "I worry that you head back out into the world not knowing the dangers that await you."

Paul didn't respond immediately. He didn't know what danger was lurking for him outside the compound. He just knew that it was there, waiting, watching. Stragen would not give it a name. Paul also felt that what ever it was, it has not been very attentive lately. Something has distracted it, and that meant that Paul had a chance to escape, to get as far away from here as he could.

Stragen turned and looked at Paul. Paul's attention was drawn to Stragen's eyes, there was sadness found in those eyes, almost as though they held no hope for Paul. "If you think you can run from these walls and escape him, you are mistaken. He will run you down and take you."

Stragen's eyes then became stern. "You will be his lackey or you will be dead."

The eyes softened, almost pleaded, "Please stay for a little longer."

Paul was touched, and felt like maybe he should, but he knew better.

"I cannot stay. These walls will not protect me for much longer, and then you all would be at risk. I must make my escape, if not for myself, than for the sake of you and the others." Paul's voice was full of determination and confidence, even if his heart was not.

Stragen returned to the desk and pulled open the drawer.

"Your powers as a Tarot Mage are not enough to protect you yet." He pulled out a small wooden box that seemed heavy, and handed it to Paul. "Take this and go to the Navigator's Obelisk. This will get you a jump to nearly anyplace you want to go. Just make it far from here."

Leaving the Nest: Part 2.

Paul put the last of his gear in his rucksack and tied it off. Then he grabbed a worn deck of cards and put it in his tunic pocket. With a big sigh he sat on the cot next to the sack. He reached over to grab Stragen's small box off the shelf, then he remembered that it was heavier than it looked and brought up his other hand to bring the box down to his lap. What made it so heavy? He opened the lid, and let out a gasp. His eyes widened as he realized that the box contained a small bar of White Eog. Although he had never seen this material before, he had learned about it in his smithing and craftsmen studies. Eog was the most powerful and rare of all the magic metals. There were two different kids of Eog; black, which was based in evil and white, which was good. Few knew the techniques to work such material, and even fewer could craft Eog into more than just the simplest forms. Stragen had given him a mighty treasure with which to fund his escape. Paul closed the box back up and put it in the pouch on his belt. After he stood up and put the rucksack on he scanned the room for anything he may have missed. As he neared the door, he reached out for a large stick that shows the signs of being worked. It was a beautiful piece of Yew wood that was about 4 weeks away from being his second talisman. He shrugged the pack to a more comfortable position, blew out the lamp and headed out into the hall.

As he approached the gate at the wall that surrounded and protected the compound, he noticed that there were three people at the exit. Standard duty called for only a single sentry, what was going on here? Paul walked up to the gate. He recognized Treya right away. She was a Knight, the elite honor guard of the Delvers, the mystic order that Paul now belonged to. She was also one of the combat instructors for the apprentices, and Paul trained under her. It was also rumored that she performed a number of quiet actions for the Delvers.

"Treya, is there a problem at the gate?" Paul asked.

"We are here to make sure you get to the obelisk safely", was her response.

We? Paul realized that the guard standing opposite Treya was wearing a dark cloak over his livery. Treya wore one too, and had a third draped over her arm.

Treya held the extra cloak out to Paul, "Here put this on and pull the hood up, that way all three of us look the same."

Paul took the offered cloak and put it on.

Treya looked at the other guard, "Dumar, you take the lead."

"Sentry, the gate please," Treya said as she motioned to him.

"Wait!" Paul held his hand up toward the rest. "The obelisk is only in the middle of town. It takes all of ten minutes to get there. Is all this protection really necessary?"

"Stragen's cards have foreseen trouble and we are going to see that you avoid it. Now pull up your hood and let's go." Treya signaled the sentry and the gate opened. Dumar stepped into the night, and a few moments later a quiet whistle was heard. "Let's go." Treya said, and they proceeded out the gate.

Leaving the Nest: Part 3

The darkness seemed thicker than usual. The night sky was full of clouds; one could not even tell which moon, Orhan or the evil Charon, was in the dominating position that night. Those same clouds seemed to linger in the streets, they felt like cold clammy fingers on their exposed skin. The wisps swirled around their hoods as their breath interacted with it adding a very eerie effect. Dumar held up his hand in warning and Treya immediately stopped and put her arm out to stop Paul. He had already done so, and was slightly annoyed by the gesture. Paul quickly got his mind back to the present, no time for petty annoyances. Dumar was peering around the corner of a building. The street had a number of guttering lanterns hanging on various business fronts that winked and sputtered as the fog tried to choke the life out of them. Dumar put his back against the wall and Paul caught the glimpse of a dagger in his hand as the guard stood straight. He looked like he was trying to meld with the wood. Paul and Treya were squatting a few yards away in the shadows of the alley. Paul's hand went to the sword at his belt, but Treya pulled on his arm and whispered, "No." She remembered his sword training. For now, Paul was better off with that sword in its sheath. "If a fight starts, you run. Get to that obelisk."

Noises broke the eerie silence, they came from the street. Boot steps dully echoed and the sounds of a muffled conversation. All three peered at the direction of the sounds. Two men and a woman, all wearing cloaks walked down past the building. Bar patrons headed home for the evening most likely. The dagger disappeared back under Dumar's cloak. The guard looked around the corner and then motioned the others to him.

Paul suggested that they wait for the noise of the stragglers to fade off, and then head toward the obelisk. Maybe someone would mistake them for the same group they just saw. Dumar looked to Treya, and she nodded her agreement. They glanced around the area one last time and then moved out around the corner. Paul peered up the street, and could see the square where the obelisk was located, but the fog kept the area too obscure to make out any details. The trio began to make their way towards the square.

Treya spoke up, "I think a little muffled conversation will help our little deception."

Dumar suddenly stopped in his tracks. His head jerked around like he was trying to spot something flying around his head then his head went straight back Treya, was backing off slowly, and Paul had a look of complete shock. As Dumar lowered his head they saw a wicked smile on his face.

A deep voice came from his throat that resonated like it was spoken under a dome, "Your little deception can't fool one who is already in your presence."

Treya pulled her sword and gave Paul a shove toward the square up the street. "RUN!"

Turning back to Dumar, or whatever was controlling Dumar, she spoke. "Picking on the boy would give you little challenge. Why don't you see if I am a little more sport?"

"Because he does not want me to waste my time on you, the boy is one who can change fate, you are nothing," was the response.

Paul had broken into a dead run toward the Navigators Obelisk. He could see outlines begin to form in the fog. He untied the strings to the pouch on his belt to get the payment ready for his jump. Then he realized that he had no idea where to make his escape to....

Treya moved towards the possessed Dumar. "So what kind of demon are you, that you can posses others and bend them to your will?" She pointed her sword towards his chest to force him to either parry or stop moving forward.

"I am his servant. His will. You shall feel his wrath", was the response.

He reached out his right hand, closed his fist and squeezed. Treya's blade started to grow warm. She swung it around over her head and brought it down towards Dumar's head turning the blade flat to limit the damage. He turned to the side at the last second and her blade only cut through fog. As she pulled it back for another attack she realized the sword had grown so hot that her leather glove began to smoke. With a snarl she held on and lifted the sword for one last swing. The glove burst into flame and Treya yelped in pain as the glowing red sword clattered to the ground. She shook off the glove as fast as she could to reveal a hand was still smoking, red and blistered.

"You leave him alone!" she growled as she pulled a dagger with her other hand.

Dumar slowly shook his head as that wicked grin grew back on his face. He put his hands together in front of his chest. They began to glow and he suddenly threw them out like he was pushing something. With a huge grunt Treya suddenly left the ground and flew back about twenty feet before landing hard on her back. She flopped around like a rag doll and then failed to move anymore.

Paul was standing in front of the obelisk and was reaching out to touch it when he heard the grunt made by Treya. He turned around just in time to see her hit the ground. "No!" Paul didn't even look at Dumar; he knew he was already on his way to stop his escape. Paul turned back and touched the obelisk. "I require a Navigator." Nothing happened. He looked around and there was no one there. With his heart pounding he turned to face Dumar as he could hear him approaching.

"How do you intend to pay?"

The voice to his left startled Paul. Still he didn't take his eyes off Dumar, whose hands had begun to glow again. "Wh.. with this." Paul held out the pouch with the box from Stragen. It was grabbed from his hand.

After a second the voice said, "Where to?"

Dumar replied, "Nowhere Navigator, he is coming with me...."

Suddenly a word popped into Paul's head; a place he had never heard of. Paul whispered that word in answer "Quellbourne."

Dumar's glowing hands reached out and grabbed at the air. Paul felt the strength of the magic grasp, and it began to pull.

Then suddenly all went black.