The Failed Expedition
When Zedin and the expeditionary party arrived in the Ironfist Stronghold, they were told to report to King Rugolth's chambers. The messenger stressed that the matter was important. Zedin simply nodded and waved the dwarf away. The events of their journey still weighed heavy on him and his party. They had arrived in Maljara and had made contact with the Leoss and the Tortuns, but that was where their fortune ended.
Along the way to Caillin, they had lost Gnark, their guide, Wrath forces had assaulted them at every turn, and they had been ambushed by Kanen and the Stitched on Maljara. Of all these misfortunes, there was one that had ruined the entire expedition; the disappearance of Magnus Hahndor. The party spent two months searching through the dense jungle for the Inquisitor. A week into their search, Inquisitor Korin had fallen ill and was forced to return to Gharivol where she fell deeper into her malady. Zedin and Inquisitor Tasro had continued their search. They had combed the Snarling Tangle, cutting through Kanen every step of the way. By the time they had reached the end of the Tangle, and they had found no sign of Magnus. They began their trek back to Gharivol.
When they arrived, the Ironfist Expeditionary Force had landed on Maljara. The Inquisition party was relieved of their duties and told to return home. Without any real progress made and with Magnus missing the Inquisitors believed they would return to answer for a failed excursion. Korin remained behind in Gharivol; Medics had deemed her unfit for travel. On the trip back to Ironfist Stronghold Zedin and Tasro had a month to gather their thoughts, grieve, and prepare to give Magnus' sister, Isran, the bad news.
But first they would have to answer to King Rugolth directly. The Ironfist Kingdom had much to gain from their Leoss allies and the failed excursion would be a terrible disappointment. This meant that the Inquisition was removed from the Maljaran expedition. Zedin looked to Tasro, as the two ventured into the Royal Quarter. He didn't want this to reflect on Magnus or on Tasro, and certainly not on little Issie. Zedin had decided it on the Leviathan: if there was any blame for Maljara, it would fall on his shoulders.
When they arrived, Feofil was waiting for them. When he saw Zedin enter, he grinned.
"You know dwarves hate waiting, Zedin," chuckled Feofil, nudging him with an elbow.
Zedin didn't respond. Feofil shifted as he waited for him to respond. Tasro decided to interject; the man hadn't said much since their arrival in Seljichan.
"We were told the King wanted to speak with us," said Tasro.
"He does, but I wouldn't fret much. This is the best I've seen him in a long time."
"We should go see him. There is much to discuss."
Zedin remained silent as they made their way to the Royal chamber. The whole time, his face was fixed in a scowl. He didn't fear the King of the Ironfist Stronghold or any scowling dwarf that demanded an answer. He feared answering to Isran, to explain why her only brother was lost in the Maljaran jungle. As they stepped inside, Zedin held his breath.
King Rulgoth sat at his throne, his face glowing as Zedin and Tasro entered. He leapt up, took their hands in his, and began to shake them with intensity. His beard was stretched across his grinning face. Zedin searched the chamber and found two more dwarves: a Construct-shaper named Olan Pewterblade and Paladin Commander Gedden standing beside him. No Isran.
"It's good to see you both. We heard you passed the Tower at Thoringard yesterday and we've been waiting ever since," Rugolth said, " It's those legs of yours. They're too long! Must have taken you a week just to get out of Seljichan!"
Rugolth was laughing. Again, Zedin didn't reply to the joke.
"Where is the Grand Inquisitor?" he asked.
Rugolth's grin began to fade. He stared up into Zedin's eyes; the man wasn't here to crack jokes. He turned and hobbled back to his throne. There was no answer, so Zedin asked again.
"Where is Isran?"
Rugolth waited until he was sitting on the throne. When he lowered himself down, he answered.
"She won't be joining us. She needs to sit this one out, Zedin. You know why."
"I'd like to speak with her now, if this can wait."
"She's completely beside herself, Zedin. When she heard Magnus wasn't with you, she just about caught fire."
Rugolth leaned forward in his throne.
"We had to relieve her. She was dangerous, with all that fire in her belly. And an entire army at her disposal? She would have put the entire Stronghold to war!"
"I came to answer to her, Rugolth. If you've got nothing further, I need to find her." growled Zedin. He turned from Rugolth and was prepared to leave.
"Hold your dogs, Zedin. I summoned you here for a reason, now let me speak."
"What is it?"
"I wanted to talk about Maljara."
The three dwarves were glowing. Their eyes were wide, ready to burst from their tiny skulls. The king had risen from his throne and was standing in front of Zedin again.
"We've heard there's Nora on Maljara, lots of it."
It was Tasro that told them about the abundant Nora fonts on Maljara. Her voice quivered as she spoke of the jungle. Zedin knew what she saw when she told of Maljara. She could see the Kanen, blood-soaked and gnashing rotten fangs. She could still see the crude traps, waiting for the careless. She could feel the first trap, closing around her leg and pulling her into the jungle; the one Zedin had to cut her from while they swung wildly at stray mongrels. She could see the little poxxing Stitched that stole from the dead, pulling each gory material into their grotesque collection. The nights spent awake, listening to Kanen howl, and Korin's panicked mumbling. The Nora fonts were barely an afterthought. They had come across several, as they searched for Magnus in the jungle. Zedin watched silently, as the three dwarves flocked to Tasro. They were like children, listening as their mother told them fables; listening with mouths agape, eyes glazed with wonder. He could feel his face burning; his teeth clinched tight as a boar trap.
"And they were really that potent?" asked Olan, "You could really feel the Nora from a hundred paces away?"
"By the gods, you're telling tall-tales! That's unbelievable!" said Gedden
"They must be sitting in piles of globes! Imagine what we could do with all of that! A construct the size of the Stronghold! A battalion of Faultbreakers!"
Olan was giddy.
"And you could lead us back to one of these Nora fonts?" asked Rugolth, one hand clutching Tasro's tabard.
Tasro was silent. The three dwarves waited for her answer. Only Zedin could see that her shivering.
"Well? Out with it, girl!"
Tasro pushed Rugolth's hand away and retreated to Zedin. She grabbed at his tunic and began to scream.
"Al'Mara save me! I don't want to go back! No more!"
She turned to Zedin, met his softening scowl with her wild and shifting eyes.
"No more, Zedin, please! I can't go back!"
"What in Sheoul has gotten into you?" said Rugolth as he approached her.
She turned to the dwarf, still clutching to Zedin. As he approached, she recoiled.
"It's not worth all the Nora in the world! I'm not going back!"
Zedin took her and left the chamber. They sat in the dining hall, Zedin's arm over Tasro's shoulder. Her hands were pressed against her face, covering tearful eyes. The warrior he had fought beside, the fearless Kanen killer, began to sob. They sat in the hall for quite some time, Zedin watching snowflakes drift in through the windows.
"I looked for him, Zedin. I did what I was supposed to. I just want to go home. I want to go back to the Sarnghaver. If I stay, they'll want me to go back to Maljara."
"You're not going back, pup. Settle down."
Tasro looked up at him.
"But, they want that Nora. They don't know about the Stitched or the Kanen or-"
"You're not going back."
"I'll make sure they send you home."
They moved to the hearth in the dining room and watched the snow fall. Zedin began telling his old stories and Tasro listening quietly. He told the one about the savage wolf that fought with spears in its flank and the one about the child that tackled a griffin to the ground. He had already told them on the way to Maljara, but he knew they were her favorite. The dwarves could wait another day.
When Zedin agreed to return to Maljara, Rugolth wasted no time in preparing for their journey. This time, he would travel from Seljichan. Zedin would make the journey to Gharivol alone and meet up with the IEF on the island. From there, they would travel into the various regions of Maljara and survey the land for areas of interest. Any Nora fonts would be claimed for the Protectorate. The moment Zedin was prepared, he was escorted to the front gate. By evening, he had already made his way to the tower at the Thoringard.
As he walked through the Centaur Plains, he noticed a figure chasing after him. Before he could ready his partisan, the stranger had pulled a longsword to his throat. Through a tattered cowl, he could see two clear-blue eyes and black hair. The face emerged and the eyes were worn from sleepless nights. The scowl he had seen a thousand times, but it was made monstrous by the seething anger that boiled behind it. A familiar voice growled from the stranger's throat, a voice akin to a Hahndor's temper.
"We're going to Maljara. But, we're not going to meet the dwarves there."
"Shut up and keep moving. Our Tortalleon leaves by week's end."
She returned her longsword to her scabbard and continued down the path.
Isran turned, her glare as vicious as before.
"Apologize to Magnus when we've returned. I don't want to hear it."
He sighed and followed behind her. She was right; their focus was Magnus. They would find them. They would fix this mess.
When Korin awoke, she could feel a breeze cooling her face. She wiped sweat from her forehead and rubbed it between her fingers. Then, she felt the sickness rolling into her stomach again. She pushed herself up from the extravagant gurney and dropped to the floor. The IEF medic told her to drink more water, but it all tasted like metal, the faintest hint of blood. She needed the breeze and the sound of the ocean. She needed them, so she could stay. These things anchored her in her world. She crawled along ornate towards the open window. The pain was coming, she could feel it sneaking in through her back. Then, the visions would overwhelm her. They would sneak into her eyes and push out the calm night. She clawed her way to the window frame and looked out at the moonlit sea. The sounds of the crashing waves were slowly fading away. There were faint whispers now, just beyond her, creeping their way into her ears. He would be there soon.
She braced herself against the windowsill, holding her body in its frame. She thought of the breeze in her hair and the smell of the sea.
They used him because they knew. They knew everything about her and they would use this knowledge. Somehow they knew. She could feel the pain in her chest, the throbbing of her heart, and the smell of the dead.
"Korin, come to me."
She gritted her teeth and felt her arms shaking, the very bones giving under stress. She had to hold on. The visions were almost in place. She had to be ready. She looked out into the sea, saw a tortalleon sleeping at the docks. There were tortuns talking to elves at the tavern down the street, their laughing and shouting barely reaching her ears.
"Korin, why won't you join me?"
"Stop this, Magnus."
The feeling of the cool breeze was fading. This was it.
"Oh, Korin. Let me show you what I've seen."
The port was gone and all that was left was gray earth. She was clinging to a charred tree. And now the abominations were all around her. Each one was a cobbled mess of different corpses. Each stared from behind ornate masks. Each moved forward with awkward and jerking mobility, each movement planned and purposeful. They chattered and clacked as they approached. Their arcane language floated over their heads in glowing symbols. They tugged at her with mangled hands. Korin gripped tightly, the bark rubbing off in her hands. She closed her eyes and tried to find the port again. She looked for the tortuns and elves, for the sleeping tortalleon, and tried to feel the breeze. Then, Magnus was beside her. His touch had a piercing chill. She couldn't bear to look at him, at what they had made him. She wanted him to leave.
"Korin, we can help you. Don't resist. Please, join us."
He stayed with her, kept his chilling hand on her shoulder. The Stitched continued to tug at her gown. Korin's screams carried through the night.