Present, Late November 707 CR, the woods outside of Kendalas, Western Lom Shi'Un:
What could he have done so wrong or carelessly to have fallen into The Hunt? He was Always so careful about who would be allowed his little hints about worshiping Aedra instead of Lilith or any of the other Daedra. Could it have been a noticed lack of Daedra worship? Could it even have been a communication from Lilith that told them he wasn't really one of them? Enough! he thinks, Mulling over that now isn't helping to evade the hunters.
The hunters returned with their prey trussed up on a pole carried between two of them and marched to the temple. This was a fairly short one, it only took them a couple hours to catch that Artela-follower. I told him he was being too careless about his worship. In the Lom Shi'Un Dynasty, if your Aedra faith is found out (or sometimes even just suspected) instead of Daedra you become eligible for ritual sacrifice. Under Lilith's priesthood, the sacrifice candidate is sent out into the woods with just a dagger and standard survival supplies to be hunted by Lilith's faithful and returned alive for the sacrifice. A couple years ago the hunted evaded his hunters for the prescribed three days before returning, at which point the priests praised him as an exemplar of Lilith's ethos and "given his freedom". Yeah right! Exiled is more like it. And how can you praise a nonbeliever for a particular god's attributes? Anyway, this poor soul was on his way to Lilith's altar, may Artela comfort his soul. Time to slip way, a human sacrifice is unpleasant enough to see without watching the priest eat the victim's heart too.
Early this morning:
Finishing his devotional meditation he heard more noise outside his home than usual and was getting up to see what the commotion is when the door slamed open. Before he could get any spells up, he felt the disconnected sensation of a mage block taking hold, cutting him off from using his magic.
"Quickly," the fourth man through the door said, "bind him with those damping shackles before he unravels your block! Then remove any magical items on his person." The second and third rushed forward, producing some manacles and leg irons with numerous runes inscribed on them and snapped them on, setting an even stronger block against magic use. They removed a couple amulets and a belt knife, tossing them off to the side. The man in charge continued, "Thanh Tan-mos, you have been found guilty of worshiping Aedra. By standing order of Lilith's Priesthood, you will participate in The Hunt and thereafter be sacrificed to Lilith. Your prescribed Hunt is to last five days, or until you are caught, whichever comes first. You will accompany us to the edge of the woods where you will be issued a weapon and supplies for The Hunt."
As the group exited the house, they were observed from a block away. The watcher halted his previous course toward Thanh's house and feigned interest in the nearest shop while keeping an eye on the group. Once it was determined they were going the opposite direction, the watcher started following until within view of the house, which now had a Hunt notice pinned to the door. Five days!? They must think they need the extra time to wear him down for capture, the average Hunt is three days! Entry into the house was easy as the lock was broken, in fact the door wouldn't even latch against a breeze pushing it open now. Closing the door and propping a nearby chair against it, a cursory search indicated that apparently nothing was missing other than Thanh and a cloak. The inspection continued into Thanh's study and laboratory, still finding nothing obviously out of place or missing...
Thanh pulls his cloak tight around him again, despite the noon sun poking through the clouds. Though his exertion helps to keep him warmer, it's colder than average weather for a late November day, ice still rimming any puddles he comes across. Breaking twigs and other rustling catches his attention for the fourth time since The Hunt started this morning. Damn! How are they finding me so quickly each time? None of that group looked very adept at woodscraft, and the amount of noise they make while trudging through these woods seems to support that notion. City boys! Finding a sheltered spot to watch from, he feels and reaches for a local energy node and gathers enough for a couple quick spells, which he prepares and holds while also replenishing his reserves. As he starts to pick out movement in the direction of the noise, he picks a few trees as possible targets of one spell. Just as the group becomes visible from his position, a small gray form seems to just appear, take a couple steps and stop in their midst, startling them. As it starts talking to them, the apparent leader bends over to pick up something he dropped when the imp startled them. I hate imps. Nothing but trouble, even on a good day.
Thanh hears mere bits of the conversation, something about update, how long, more help... The leader gets more animated at this last, gesturing wildly at the imp and, after glancing at the dropped and retrieved object, in Thanh's general direction. Uh-oh, did they put a tracer on me somewhere? No time at the moment to check, with them so close. The imp shrugs its shoulders and takes a couple steps back toward town before vanishing. After an awkward moment the leader exclaims "I hate imps!" then turns his attention to the object in his hand and turns toward Thanh to continue tracking. That does it, I'm checking myself and supplies for a tracer at the first safe opportunity. He's following me, not my trail. When the hunters reach a suitable position Thanh releases the first spell between two moderately sized trees, causing a lightning arc between them a foot or two off the ground, shattering the trunks and causing the hunters to retreat from the falling trees. Without watching them further, he then activates the second spell, enhancing his speed and woodland stealth and he takes off in a sweeping curve to end up traveling in a different direction than he had been. After a few minutes the spell wears off and his run slows to under half the speed he had been going since casting the two spells. Slowing further to a searching pace, he looks for another place to hide from the hunters while searching for tracers to disable.
Ten years ago, Chai Enu, Novice Mage School:
"As you exercise your mage-sight more, you will be able to pick out finer details and filter out the extraneous fields around the magic you are examining. When proficient enough, you should also be able to detect and see through masking spells, those that hide the enchantment on a person or object." The Moon Elf instructor Tanisean Dwinnddare produced three spheres of identical appearance and placed them on chest-high pedestals in plain view of all the students. "Your current task is to pick one of the spheres and write a description of what you think its enchantment is. You have an hour.
Twenty minutes later:
Thanh asks, "Master Dwinnddare, is the sphere supposed to have a redundant spell cast on it?" The elf looks from one sphere to the others for a few seconds and responds, "no, it's not. it appears one of the journeymen is pulling one of their pranks again. Very good spotting that, young Thanh Tan-mos. Now, back to the assignment." The other five students looked with confusion at each of the spheres before returning to whichever one they chose for their assignment.
A month later:
"Very Good, Thanh, you're mastering unraveling simple to complex spells." The human-shifted dragon stepped around her desk, approaching her lone student. Salerna Walderan Zelarus enjoyed working with individuals who significantly surpassed their classmates in the general mage classes. While the latter were generally usable as support mages, the former were a joy to teach... and later, watch in their own pursuits. "Now we will work on loosening them for adjustments without destroying them."
In the relative safety of the rock overhang he found and after setting a few simple alarm traps, Thanh spreads his gear out for inspection. After finding a couple apparent decoy spells on the pack contents and unraveling them, he finds the tracer, a weakly powered but tightly packed knot of self-masked magic in a shoulder strap buckle of his pack. Rather than undoing this spell, he loosens its knots just enough to slip it off the buckle and onto a copper coin held in direct contact and cinches it back down tight on the coin. Refining his senses, he gives the spell's linking thread a snap, detecting a resonance back from the tracer compass. Sensing that the hunters are still at least several minutes away, he repacks his supplies, goes another half mile farther in his last direction and throws the copper into a hollow in an old tree before circling back to a side to let the hunters get ahead of him.
While waiting, he finds a suitable focus and starts working on a familiar link. Once the link and its connecting spells are ready he activates it on the river-smoothed quartz pebble.
A few months ago:
Binh had been begging on the streets of Kendalas a couple weeks now. It had been three weeks since his family had died in a lutin attack outside the Great Shi wall. They had been picking berries to sell in the market when a band of lutins stumbled upon them and attacked. Binh was off in another thick patch and so was missed as he cowered there. After the attack, he heard the lutins grumbling among themselves. "Why we go so far just for berries? We too close to Lom lands, far too close to great wall, Loms come kill we." The apparent leader backhanded the complainer in rebuke "Shut mouth, you know we staying far from Nasoj after losing again to Metamor. He foolish for making winter attack, lose too many just getting there, then in Keep, then again in Keepers' attack. We no more fight for fool mage. Lutins go own way now."
After the lutins had their fill of berries and looting the bodies (not that there was anything worth taking), Binh took off running back to town, forgetting his own basket of berries.
Now alone and homeless, he had to find a way to survive beyond autumn. Perhaps he could find someone willing to give him occasional work in exchange for shelter, particularly as winter approaches again in a few months. Scrounging the rubbish bins for food works in warmer weather but in winter you need some way to thaw it if you're not quick enough to get it while still warm, or at least unfrozen. And you need some place warm to sleep.
As he looked longingly at the fifth market booth that morning, he was startled by a firm hand on his shoulder. "How long has it been since you've had a decent meal, lad?" He turned to look at the man addressing him. His hair was shoulder length, straight and dark brown, his eyes a shockingly cool blue, yet showing concern. His garb, while not blatantly extravagant, was of a fine cut and well cared for, hints indicating possibly a mage.
Gathering enough courage to address his better he responded, "I had a crust of bread yesterday afternoon, Master... mage?"
"A crust? For a whole day?" the mage asked incredulously, "And what before that, when?"
"That won't do at all, come with me." Leading Binh toward a nearby inn, he continued, "My name is Thanh Tan-mos (and yes, I am a mage). What's your name, and why do you wander wistfully through the market but eat mere scraps?"
"Well, Master Thanh, my name is Binh Miwen and my family was killed by lutins three weeks go and that left me with no place to live, nobody to go to. I've been hoping to find some odd jobs in exchange for a bit of food and shelter."
"Lutins you say?" Binh noded, "Berry picking?" another nod, tears now streaming a bit from his eyes, "Dreadful case, and that was an area known for excellent picking. Well, I think we can do a bit better than odd jobs for you, my boy." Thanh continued at more of a whisper, "You see, while I've noticed you about town the past week or so, I've also noticed that you may have the talent to become a decent mage yourself." as they entered an inn and had the best meal Binh could remember ever eating.
That evening in Thanh's home he handed Binh one of two small amulets and placed the other one around his own neck. "If you decide to help me out as well as try to learn what I have to teach, we'll want a way to occasionally communicate when far apart. One of my teachers showed me this handy far-speaker enchantment by which we can talk not across town, but across many leagues. All you have to do is hold or wear it and think of the other person then start speaking normally when you feel the connection. The communication comes directly into your head, so nobody else will hear that side of the conversation unless they're in direct contact with the amulet too. I've also added a direction finder to it. you'll feel a slight pull in the direction of the other amulet... unless it's within ten feet or out of range. I haven't yet determined the distance limit for either function, but they should both be about the same."
Feeling a connection made and a doubled same-direction subtle pull he calls out "Binh, are you all right?"
"Master! I saw them take you away. did you escape?"
"No, I'm still out in the hunt but I've eliminated the tracer they hid in my gear and am about to turn the hunt back on the hunters. since they've been tracking me magically with a tracer compass, I doubt this bunch knows anything about real tracking. Now tell me, have they been guarding or searching the house?"
"No, all they did was post a Hunt notice on and barely shut the door."
"Good, now I'm going to rely on you to make preparations for my exile but it will be on my terms, not their 'only what you can carry' terms."
"Master, are you leaving me behind? What will I do without you to continue my studies? Surely they will confiscate and sell your belongings and home soon after The Hunt."
"I have been contemplating my destination assuming I got out on favorable terms. If you choose to come with me it will be a long hard journey over most of the winter through Nasoj's territory to Met... Hold on, I need to start eliminating the hunters now. I'll get back to you in a while."
Thanh drops communication to start tracking the hunters who are noisily passing just 200 feet away toward his discarded tracer. The wildlife had silenced a couple minutes ago, giving him advanced warning. Following after them with a silence cast on his feet, he watches for opportunities to weed out the stragglers while causing the rest other hardships to distract them. First he weaves an illusion of dire wolves circling at the limits of visibility, then when he finds the first hunter alone he hits him with a stun spell and drags him away to finish him off.
After returning to his overhang and erecting another illusion, this time of brush, he reestablishes contact with Binh. "All right, I've given them something else to worry about for a while."
"I'm happy to hear that, Master. Where were you saying we're going? I thought the only thing past Nasoj's lands was the Great Western Sea."
"That's to the West, and from what I've heard, he is losing control of Arabarb now. No, my aim is South to Metamor. With Lom Shi'Un trying to sacrifice, or failing that, exile me, I'd rather go where Nasoj has had the most trouble with his plans. Perhaps they will be more appreciative of my talents and tolerant of my beliefs."
"M-M-Metamor? Isn't it full of half-animal demons?"
"No, Binh! They are not demons, they are men. Their form is the result of Nasoj's magic in his failed attack eight years ago. Their mages fought his magic, but not without cost. But enough of that now, I need you to start preparing for the journey before I return to harassing the hunters. We can speak of these other things later."
"Yes Master, I'm sorry. What do you need to start?"
"That's alright, first locate my travel trunks, there's two matched pairs stacked in the Northeast corner of my study. Don't be alarmed by the trunks' small sizes for the possessions and supplies you'll be gathering, they'll all fit with room to spare. Locate, but don't yet pack my strongbox, it's in the bottom of the larger wardrobe cabinet in my bedroom. Open it with the key hanging in the other wardrobe and take out a small bag of gold. You'll take it to Tuan's stables and ask for two sturdy horses to be picked up later. Tell him that I instructed you to pay his opening price and not haggle, he'll understand the seriousness and not cheat us on their quality. Then gather our clothing and put it all in one of the smaller trunks. If you think you can move the strongbox, put it with the trunks for now. When you have that much finished, contact me, though you might have to wait for a response if I'm busy. Oh, and use the back door to reduce the chance of anyone noticing you coming and going from a Hunt posted home."
"Yes Master. I'll do as you instructed and try to anticipate more."
"Good boy, now get to it, we'll talk later." Dropping the connection, Thanh released the illusory brush and went back out in search of his hunters to weed more of them out.
Five years ago, Chai Enu Library:
"Good afternoon, Mistress Chau." The librarian looked up from her ledger, meeting Thanh's gaze. "Might you direct me to a copyist, one well-respected for accuracy and attention to detail? There are a few volumes in your library I desire for my own collection. Besides the copyist's fees, I am prepared to make a donation toward the library's continued upkeep.h
"We have our own copyist department here,h she said, gand they are among the best in the land.h Gesturing to the back wall, gGo through that door and ask for Master Phong. He will handle your requests.h
"Thank you very much Mistress.h
Three years ago:
Junk dealer Trai's wagon was tightly packed with numerous objects of dubious value and origin but that was the nature of such. You never knew if you were going to find utter garbage or some lost treasure. What Thanh was looking for would be considered garbage to most, even among the very well educated. "Master Trai, how are you doing this fine day."
"Ah, Master Thanh, it is good to see you, I am well. Since our last meeting I have found some more clockwork pieces as you asked, some even larger than the last time. Come, let me show you." Trai opened the lid of a small crate still in the wagon.
After rummaging a little in the crate and consulting his notebooks for a moment, Thanh closed the lid and turned back to Trai. "My friend, you can't know how happy I am with your latest find. How much for the whole crate?"
Just one hunter is left, the leader, the rest having been picked off one by one. He had long ago given up using the tracer compass when it only led them to a tree and had been blindly wandering the woods in an increasingly incompetent search for their now his quarry. Ever since their second loss of manpower, he now feels like prey, not predator.
The connection comes up again "Master Thanh? I've finished the first preparations."
"Good. Wait." Thanh says quietly and continues silently approaching his quarry. When he is only twenty feet from the last hunter, the imp appears out of nowhere, taking two last steps as if it merely walked a few paces from wherever it had come.
"Don't do that!" the hunter screams as he also jumps nearly out of his skin, "Do you know how creepy that is?"
"Where is the rest of your party?" it asks, looking around, "You would be more successful working together than all scattering to hunt on your own."
"They're gone, dead, picked off one by one! Why didn't you give us enough..."
Thanh pours a quadruple charge into a lightning bolt, striking the imp squarely and throwing the hunter back several feet, stunned. He carefully steps up to take stock of the results, almost staggering as he feels the heavy toll the attack took on his reserves. While the hunter is lightly singed but still very much alive, the imp looks like some animal that had fallen off the spit and into the fire for a few minutes. He turns back to the hunter and makes a swift end to him before he can make more trouble. He then searches for and finds the tracer compass. Examining it he finds that it too has a tracer like the one he found on his pack. This time he carefully unravels it completely while leaving the rest of the compass' functions intact, though detuning its tracing resonance.
Feeling the connection still active, gAlright Binh, I'm done out here but it'll take me a while to get back, taking out that imp took a lot out of me. You'll need to try to pack what you can for me while I walk back.h
"Just tell me what you need me to pack, Master. Tuan even offered his boys' help if we need it.h
"You'd better go and get at least one to help then, some of the packing will be too heavy and awkward for you to handle alone, and I want to spend as little time sneaking into and back out of town as possible. But before you go, look at the larger pair of trunks. Open the lid of one and lift out the tray. See the latches in the back corners?"
"Yes, I see them. What are they for?"
"Loading and unloading. Unlatch them and pull the front out until it stops sliding out. It triples the opening for oversized objects. You'll need that for the book cases, some just have doors swung all the way around to the sides that close up and others will fold into packages that will fit the opening. You'll need the help getting those in, but make sure all the books I have out are put away first. Now, go get that help so it's mostly finished by the time I get there."
"Yes Master, right away."
A couple hours later, after dusk, Thanh circles and approaches Kendalas from another direction than where The Hunt started, noticing that the town gates have not yet been closed. He spends a little of his recovered energy to spin an illusion altering his appearance to that of a beggar and continues on. "Hey nitlump ," laughs one of the guards, "what're you doin' out so late? We almost closed the gates on ya." Thanh mumbles something about berries and mushrooms as if arguing with someone else accompanying him instead of talking to the guards who let him pass otherwise uncontested.
"Binh, how goes the packing?" he continues after getting some distance from the gate.
"Great, Master. These chests are a wonder, we got all your books in one and are in the process of packing your laboratory."
"Good, good, don't forget the crates I have in the southeast corner. Though I got their contents from junk dealers, their value is inestimable, if only for research purposes. I'm inside the gates and should be there to finish up our packing, then we can get a little sleep before leaving at dawn. Make sure you have some good sturdy traveling clothes set aside. I'll stop by to thank Tuan and tell him when we'll need the horses on my way in."
A couple hours after dawn, outside Kendalas and the Great Shi wall:
A pair of apparent merchants lead their horses along the west road to Veddakar, which resides just inside the newly reduced border of Nasoj's reign. "But Master, After Veddakar, why are we going to Camlain? Wouldn't it be shorter and quicker to take the south road to Noril?"
"Yes it would, but Camlain has something I've been wanting to get for a while now, and I doubt we'd get any opportunities again once we've passed South into Metamor Valley. I'm sure anyone traveling North from there would attract plenty of attention as assumed enemies of Nasoj."
"What can you tell me of Metamor, Master?"
"Not a lot, I'm afraid, and what I do know may be inaccurate and incomplete due to the distance and number of times the stories have been passed on to reach us. I do know however that the Metamorans have repelled Nasoj at least three times in the past decade, one was even a preemptive strike on mobile siege towers and the road his forces were building. I hear it was only one mage and a scout that foiled him that time."
"Just two against an army? How can this be, are the Metamorans that powerful?"
"Perhaps, or perhaps just lucky, or maybe a little of both."
"And what about the beast men of Metamor?"
"Actually there's more than just beast men. When Nasoj cursed them, he used three spells, turning some men into animals, some into infants and some into buxom women. The Keep mages countered his spells in part however and those animals, women and children still fought off his army with the same vigor as when they were still men." Thanh chuckled, "You know, I heard that within a month of the destruction of his siege road last year, another Keeper stole a powerful artifact of his from his allies in Arabarb. I feel sorry for anyone within ten leagues of Nasoj when he heard of either of those events."
Around noon, temple of Lilith in Kendalas:
A sorry looking half-charred shape stumbles out of the shadows into the study wheezing loudly for its size. "Bghtrd! Where have you been all night? I've been waiting for your progress report on The Hunt since last night, and here it is already noon." The Priestess of Lilith for Kendalas turns from her lunch toward the imp, "What happened to you?"
The imp wheezes, "Mistress Ard'ashe, when I arrived the second time, the mage had already killed all but one of the hunters and then dumped a massive lightning bolt on me. It took me this long to recover enough to return. When I awoke, the last hunter was dead. The compass is gone and I can't find its own tracer resonance, only the one it was tuned to." It holds out its hand with a penny resonating with the tracer that had been in a buckle.h
"That wasn't the tracer we had on him, it was a buckle on his pack.h
"It's the same spell Mistress, just displaced.h
"Displaced? How did he... Augh! Very well, let's see if we can catch him at home to officially close out The Hunt and send him on his way.h
A little while later the priestess' guards kick in the door, throwing the chair holding it shut across the room. With the priestess following them in with her imp, they make a quick search of the premises, determining that nobody is there. They also report to her that some rooms appear significantly cleaned out, particularly the study, lab and bedrooms.
On a dining table she finds a note but hesitates, feeling a slight tingle before she would have touched the note. Leaving it where it is, she reads, "To whom it may concern (I suspect I know who is reading this), I reject your terms of my exile and have exiled myself on myterms. Goodbye. P.S. this note will self destruct in five seconds."
"EVERYBODY OUT, IT'S A TRAP!" she screams. Before anyone could take more than a couple steps, the note went up in a small brilliant flash of flame... followed a couple seconds later by several explosions around the walls, severely weakening them. Only one guard gets out of the collapsing house without a scratch.
A week later, Approaching Camlain:
"Master, I hope this town is friendlier than the last, my skin was crawling with the way they looked at us.h
"I doubt any town currently or even formerly under Nasoj's rule will be friendly to outsiders. We shouldn't be here much longer than Veddakar though, I'm only looking for a staff made from Camlain's famous hard wood, then we'll continue our journey.h Looking to either side of the road within sight of the clearing ahead, "I do hope though that they are much friendlier than these Deathbush. Those two foot thorns would make formidable impromptu daggers.
The pair finds Camlain's central trade clearing little friendlier than Veddakar, if at all. They find an inn for the night, haul the trunks and other bundles to their room and tend to the horses. Then Thanh asks after the best workers in exotic wood products for the next morning. He experiences some resistance at first but after buying a few rounds of drinks and casting small bribes about, he gets a few names to check with in the morning. Setting wards on the door and window, they then settle into bed.
After an uneventful night's sleep, they eat breakfast and head out to meet the woodworkers. The first deals mainly in furniture, which while of high quality, Thanh has no interest while traveling.
The second dealer has various outdoors goods, snowshoes, skis, tents, et cetera of both mundane and exotic woods and other materials. Here he decides to purchase a tent, as well as snowshoes and skis for both of them for the coming winter. The weather has been tolerable so far but considering the meteorological meddling Nasoj's mages did last year, it's prudent to be ready for considerable bad weather.
The third has weapons. Here Thanh takes more time examining the options, particularly those of the local rare and very mysterious very hard wood. "Excuse me sir, are you familiar with the San Jie Gun? I don't see any of the three section staffs in your collection." He draws out his old one to show. I would like to purchase one made from your local rare hard wood.
Asara Raron looks at the visibly used weapon, three approximately two foot poles attached end to end by short chains, "I have heard of this but have not until this moment laid eyes on one."
"How long would it take to have one made with rainbow colors, bright at the ends?"
"Rainbow, not a single color? Well, either way it'll take a couple days to make. I need to get the blacksmith to make the hardware for it. Could you meet me there in an hour to show him this one so he knows what is expected?"
"I was hoping to get on with our journey today or tomorrow morning at the latest, but I suppose I will have to endure this delay to get this made. I'll meet you there. While you're making this, would it be possible to have a bow like that one over there colored to match?"
"It'll take a little more time to do both, but I have bow blanks already and can dye them both at the same time and ready by the end of the day after tomorrow."
"Very well, we'll go with that... oh, and a quiver or something similar for a sheath or scabbard to carry it." as he puts the San Jie Gun in its own on his back.
They conclude business for that day and Thanh goes on to the fourth dealer named. This one has more decorative wares than anything else and he nearly gets out without a purchase but he finds a beautiful small dragon figurine that reminds him of his ancient teacher Salerna in her natural form. He spends a couple gold on it before leaving to see the blacksmith.
The next two days, after unpacking some of the books, Thanh continues some of Binh's mage instruction and starts training him with his old three section staff, which will now be Binh's. Late on their second full day he pays Asara the agreed upon 300 gold, and takes delivery of his new bow and San Jie Gun.
On the third morning, as they leave Camlain by its south road on their way toward Noril to skirt around the Death Mountains before continuing eastward, Binh asks, "Master, how much longer will our journey take to reach Metamor?"
"If we were going during Summer, I estimate it might have taken well under a month, but with winter approaching I can't say for sure. It may take over a month, maybe even up to two months, depending on the weather and other unforeseen events. But we will get there."