58. My brother the butcher
31st of Pharast, 4708 AR – Sunday – 189th day in Varisia
Kaijitsu Manor, Magnimar
Finding Karzoug had become personal. That was clear enough. If my brother truly was in Xin-Shalast as Harsk’s magic told me, I had no misconceptions about it being a coincidence. I briefly considered the possibility of him being on a mission there, but Harsk’s vision where Macharius had simply sat on a throne surrounded by untold riches, a golden greatsword on his lap, whispering to something or someone, made its probability slim to none. He was there willingly or against his will, biding his time. Karzoug or one of his minions had him imprisoned.
Making the conclusion was purifying. All my doubts dissipated, a confidence of sorts took root. I was filled with a renewed sense of purpose. I knew what needed to be done, where I needed to go. Of course, I was filled with a sense of dread, for I didn’t know why he was in Xin-Shalast. But that fear was better than the harrowing anxiety of not knowing where he was, or being afraid if he was alive at all.
It was raining outside, and I was lost in my thoughts, standing by a window, watching droplets hammer the glass in the library room of the Kaijitsu Manor. All the others were there as well, sitting on the comfortable couches and chairs, discussing ways to find out where Xin-Shalast was.
Saffron was speaking and waving her hands to emphasise her points. “I’ve gone through my books and all the sources I have got my hands on, and there is very little of Xin-Shalast available. I remember reading about two dwarves, brothers, who according to the story had found Xin-Shalast. Regrettably, I can’t find the reference and the dwarves seemed to have disappeared without a trace.”
Alfred was grinning mischievously and pulled a little, worn-out book from his backpack next to his chair. “Not without a trace”, he said and guffawed. “Here’s something I found yesterday when I was visiting the Pathfinder Society.” Alfred’s visiting Pathfinder Society on his own, I thought, the end times are truly nigh. “It’s a collection of histories of Varisia, and one of them details that same story about two dwarves. They were mining in southern Kodars, at the banks of river Kazaron to be exact. The only reason why they ended up in the book was that they had bragged about finding the riches of the city, and looked for traders to support their endeavors to claim all the riches of Xin-Shalast. But they vanished before realizing their plans.” Alfred was looking mighty proud of himself as he passed the book along. Saffron and Alice in particular were interested.
“How about searching the ancient library under Jorgenfist for other secrets about Xin-Shalast”, Harsk asked. Alice shook her head as she watched Saffron devour the pages of the story of the dwarves. “I am pretty sure we got everything we could last time we were there. The city stands upon Mhar Massif, the highest peak of the mountains, and a bridge to the nightmare dimension of Leng, and the area is infused with ancient, powerful and dangerous energies”, she explained, again from memory. I never saw her write anything down.
“But that river, Kazaron, that’s a start, right?” Alfred offered. “If we can believe the stories of two upstart dwarves, yes”, Saffron shrugged and gave the book to Alice.
Harsk leaned forward in his chair, towards a low table between them. On it was my map of Varisia, rolled open for all to see. “The river flows from the Kodars, but it is at least 400 miles long.”
“That’s too much for conventional means of searching. And we don’t know how far from the river either Mhar Massif or the city is.” Alice noted.
“How hard can it be to spot the highest peak of the area”, Alfred grunted. “We can fly, yes?”
Alice narrowed her eyes at the sellsword. “For a limited time. But not long enough to search thousands of square miles efficiently.”
“Master Harsk”, Saffron addressed the god-touched, “how about your deity? Would Iomedae be willing to assist us?”
The cleric cleared his throat, and began to say something, but he stopped short. Seconds later, I heard his voice in my head.
It is time for you to come clean, friend. Your brother might be the key to finding Karzoug. Harsk was messaging me, like he had during the giants’ raid against Sandpoint, linking our minds for the span of two thoughts. I knew I could respond to him.
Even as I formed the short answer, I began to see the sense of Harsk’s proposal. I cursed him for it. But he was right – my brother could be a beacon for us to follow. I turned from the window to face the others. Were they worthy of my trust? I had fought with them for a while, but could I share my deepest shame and weakness with them?
“What was that?” Alice asked, frowning, looking at me and Harsk. “Yes, I was about to ask the same”, Saffron added, cocking her head to the side. They had sensed Harsk’s magic. The cleric did not answer, but looked at me expectantly.
“She has already”, I began, feeling weary, overpowered and above all resigned. Again, Ilori’s soft voice called out to me beyond the planes. You have to trust some people, Alpharius.
As the rain pattered on the windows behind me, I went through my story, uninterrupted. None of them spoke or threw pointy comments at me, having the sense not to make fun and letting me speak instead. I did not tell them every detail, like I hadn’t told Harsk, but I explained my – our – past in Canorate and how I had ended up in Varisia. How I had searched for him between our quests. How we had found out he was in Xin-Shalast, and how we could try to narrow our search for the city using my connection to my brother. I finished with my hypothesis about why he was there, and made it certain that whether he welcomed or resisted me when we met, he would leave the cursed place alive and healthy.
“So scrying works”, Saffron contemplated, half-asking, half-thinking. “Not very well”, Harsk replied. “Either he has a superbly strong will or his mind is shielded somehow.”
“But it is our best option”, Saffron noted. Harsk shrugged. “I mean, I can both perform a scrying and then teleport to us to the location I have seen through Master Alpharius’s brother’s eyes”, Saffron was quick to add. I’d appear at arm’s reach of my brother? The thought felt both exhilarating and dreadful at the same time. Not the happy reunion in a shady tavern or on a forest path like I had dreamed so many times before.
The red-headed witch gazed me with her yellow eyes. “Would you be willing to join me in my home, so I could try a scrying?” I just sighed. “What the hells, I’ve told you all that matters to me already. Let’s try it.”
Back at her home somewhere in Musfens, Saffron cleared a space for me to kneel on and placed a broken piece of mirror before me. Candles were lit around us, offering the only light besides some last rays of the day that shone through tiny windows. As the witch had prepared her spells, I had recounted various details of my brother, exactly as I had done for Harsk. As I did, Mister Jenkins the man-faced rat kept staring at me from a table. I couldn’t tell what but something was wrong with that creature, in addition to its appearance.
“I will ask you to remain unmoving and breathe peacefully as I perform the rites”, Saffron began. She was standing behind my back and without a word rested her palms on my bare head. I flinched at the sudden touch. “Pardon”, Saffron apologized, removing her hands. I shook my head. “No.. go ahead.” She replaced her palms, and immediately I felt a tingling feeling in my neck. “Think about your brother”, she told me, and the surface of the mirror shard went matt-black.
Words unfamiliar to me, spoken in a foreign language, filled the air, feeling almost physical, an all-encompassing fog. The candles flickered as if touched by a breeze of wind. I closed my eyes and focused on my brother, exhaled, inhaled. I waited.
“Darned!” Saffron spat the soft expletive and pulled her hands off my head as if being burned. I felt nothing. “Definitely warded”, she muttered to herself and Mister Jenkins let out a faint screech in distress. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. “Not getting through?” I turned my head and asked her. She shook her head and looked like she had let the world down. “It happened nine times to Harsk too before we finally established a connection”, I said, trying to assure her. “We must try anew later. Tomorrow.” She was adamant, like she had been give a duty she would not fail.
The sixth bell had rang when I arrived to Happy Sailor that same night. It was another Sunday, the fourth after my briefing to the bounty hunters, and I allowed myself to hope someone would arrive to the tavern and share some news. Despite what I knew then, I had decided to keep my original plans, as any information about my brother could be helpful in determining how he had ended up in Xin-Shalast. I could even come across knowledge that could help me free him. Also, I didn’t want six more gold-hungry bounty hunters on my trail – the queue behind me was long enough as it was.
I walked to the counter, ordered water and some red wine and glanced around. Immediately, my eye caught Blondie who had chosen to visit Riddleport. She had seen me enter and was approaching with a self-assured grin.
“I thought you’d never show up”, she said in a way of greeting and came stand next to me. “I had some other businesses to take care of”, I replied, smiling under my skull mask.
“Hopefully important enough to keep your boss waiting for word of his or her target?”
“Rest assured, important enough.”
She nodded and let her eyes wander around the inn. “I have something”, she began with a certain nonchalance, “about Macharius. Or Belon, whatever.”
“Backed with evidence, I hope?” I asked. She sucked air between her teeth.
“Multiple witnesses. I have signed statements with me.”
“You’re a hard man to do business with, you know?”
“Just tell me what you learned and I’ll consider if you’ve earned the extra hundred gold sails.”
Blondie tried to read my intentions but chose well to relent. “According to the people I talked to, your man was seen fighting in the streets of Riddleport some fifteen months ago. The accounts vary but everybody agreed that he faced ten seasoned fighters, alone, and butchered them all.” A strangely proud smile began to rise on my lips but it died a quick death as she went on. “Everybody also remembered him wielding a massive sword made of gold, two-handed.”
I willed my heart to continue beating and my mouth to open. “Anything else?”
“Nothing. After the fight, he vanished.”
I considered the news. The greatsword made of gold fit perfectly with what Harsk had seen in his vision. It could not be a coincidence. My brother had left Fort Rannick two years ago, and ended up in Riddleport, gotten his hands on a golden sword somewhere in between, and then poof. Gone.
“Soo… do I get the extra gold?” Blondie asked and brought me back from my thoughts.
“I think so”, I muttered, and reached to my pockets. “Platinum is acceptable?”
Blondie’s eyes went wide. “Yes sir.”
I handed her a tiny pouch filled with fifteen platinum coins, which she accepted with an excessively graceful bow before examining its contents.
“It has been a pleasure doing business with you”, she said with a smile that seemed genuine, disarming even. I realized her confidence and no-nonsense manner combined with her charm was quite attractive. She had really nice blue eyes and a pleasant smile.
“Likewise”, I bowed my head in reply. “What is your name?”
She chuckled and winked. “Not telling before you tell yours, stranger.”
I admit I was grinning like a fool. I don’t know what went into me. “I am Cael.” My real name came out unbidden, before I could realize it.
“I’m Ayre”, she replied and offered her hand. I took it and we shook hands. Her touch was soft yet firm. “I’d be more than happy to work for you in the future, given how exceptionally well you pay your employees”, she admitted, still holding my hand.
“I’m afraid I don’t have anything else available at the moment”, I told her and actually felt a bit chagrined about the fact.
“I’ll keep you in mind if the need arises”, I promised quickly. An empty promise, but I felt I needed to say it for some reason. Just like I had made the promise to Shayliss months ago. She let go of my hand. “Maybe we’ll meet again. I’ll be.. around”, she said, that something in her lingering eyes, and turned to leave.
I watched her go and sighed.