The Wizard and the Senator
The early evening air was crisp and rife with the smell of smoke as the fighter arrived at the campsite. Traces of blood and pixie dust were strewn all about the place, alongside what appeared to be the ashes of a charred shelter. But the only sound in the clearing was the faint crackling of the fire and the gentle rustling of the leaves. And not a soul to be seen, save for the druid Urakis sitting peacefully on a log, her hands held out above the fire. The skirmish, evidently, had ended. All at once Jedd noticed a grumbling pain in his stomach – it felt like he hadn't eaten in days. Taking one last look around to make sure there were no other brigands lying in wait, he placed his glaive on the ground and grabbed some oat meal cake from his pack.
He then noticed that Urakis's eyes were glued to his meal. "Hungry?" he asked.
She nodded with enthusiasm. "Can never say no to home-cooked food."
"Perhaps this was cooked at home," he said, "but if so, it certainly wasn't cooked at mine." Jedd leant over to pass the druid a slice. "A treat from Andris."
"Thank you very much. I've just fish steaks... mostly burnt."
"Speaking of which," said Jedd, "I was on my way there currently."
At that moment, a newcomer emerged from behind a nearby outcrop. He was garbed in robes as black as night, with a purple wizard's hat fixed atop his head. He drew near with slow, determined steps, his eyes fixed on the fighter.
"Forgive me, strangers," the man said, "but I overheard you speak of Andris?"
"Yes, my good sir." Jedd straightened his back in a posture of deference.
"Are you from that... great city?"
"Hmmm." Jedd thought hard. Something told him that he would need to choose his words carefully here. Something about the man's demeanor, and that tone... did he detect a hint of sarcasm? Best to play it careful. "I am from all cities and none," he said. "I have been keeping a close watch on the Red City, these days, what with the recent attacks."
"Attacks?" The stranger smiled. "Oh how awful."
"And privateers!" Urakis said. "Or so I've heard."
"Tell me, O 'all cities and none' dweller, what attacks do you speak of?"
This gave Jedd some pause. Had he not heard? "The Black Hand, or at least the latest iteration of it, is responsible."
"Is it now?"
"Brigands," said Jedd, "under the command of a druid, I believe."
Urakis coughed. "Not me, I promise."
"Yes – Fyod was his name."
"Oh? Tell me more. I am intrigued."
Something was definitely off. Just who was this man? There weren't too many people that were simultaneously so uninformed yet so interested. Either the man knew more than he was letting on, or else he lived underground. Perhaps he was in hiding, unable to show his face in the city – in which case, the need for caution was dire. It was time to play ignorant. "The reasons for the attacks remain a mystery to me, I'm afraid. But I believe they are after a certain individual, some sort of thief."
Urakis nodded. "I mean, recently my half-sister Jacquelinne faced off against some brigands by umm... that 'F' town. Fohaun?"
The conversation was momentarily interrupted with the arrival of Amere and Mustafaa. Pleasantries were exchanged, and all attention quickly returned to the stranger.
"You have brought friends," he said, with the ghost of a smirk on his lips. "What a pleasant surprise."
"Who's this guy?" Amere said. It was a question that Jedd had been itching to ask, of course, but one that his cautiousness wouldn't allow.
"What is your name, stranger?" asked Urakis.
"Stranger? Am I?''
"I am not so certain." Jedd's brain was positively spinning. He turned to the Royal Guard. "There had been a brigand encampment in the area, Amere."
"This gentleman was telling me of the Red City," said the stranger. "Clearly he is a man of valour."
"And, yes, we were discussing the attacks on Andris. With the elections drawing near, the attacks worry me all the more."
Amere began to walk about the scene of the battle, pausing once he came to a sad-looking pile of pixie corpses. "Do you know what the brigands were doing here?"
"No, I'm afraid," said Jedd, as Amere pulled up beside him. "I believe they were attacked by a local nest of pixies. Or was it the other way around..."
The stranger waved his hand dismissively. "Tell me of these elections."
"Yes, well..." Jedd wracked his brain, thinking of ways to answer the incessant questioning without giving away too much to a potential enemy. Common knowledge, give him common knowledge!. "Well," he said, "the Senate seeks to replace a vacancy. Two candidates have been cleared by the city. One man a worker, the other... a bit of a layabout, I'm afraid."
At this, the stranger let out a hearty laugh. "A layabout! So the mighty city is falling. And what vacancy is this?"
Jedd held his tongue. It wasn't a particularly devious question, but this was getting far too one-sided. He needed to flip it around. "Pardon my question, but are you from the Red City, yourself?"
"Me? Oh, nevermind about me. I am so dull your friend is asleep."
The fighter turned around to see Urakis completely knocked out on the ground, reclining against the log. "Oh..." He turned back to the stranger, who was wearing an infuriating smile. "She has had a long day, I suppose."
Suddenly, the druid awoke with a violent sneeze, and jumped up to her feet. "Pardon me... quite a long day. You're not boring at all. Just tired from running away from brigands and zombies."
"So," the stranger cut in, "many senators have died?"
"The Black Shadow assassin murdered two of the senators in cold blood, some years ago," said Jedd. "Senators Anderson and Ellychas. And Senator Morgans went missing not long afterwards."
"Morgans is missing, is she?"
"Has been for a bit," said Urakis.
"So I had heard, I admit."
"Oh, yes?" Jedd said, doing his best to keep his enthusiasm hidden. "Have you heard anything else about her whereabouts?"
The stranger raised a haughty brow. "And if I had?"
"Then we would love to hear what you've heard," said Amere.
"Each of us – as far as I can see – has two ears." The stranger stepped idly to the side. "But only one mouth." Suddenly he swiveled back on his feet. "Does the Red City wish for Morgans to return? Or have they grown tired of gingerbread?"
Jedd was astonished. Who on earth could this infernal man possibly be? Who in Andris would not wish for the return of Morgans, the very face of the city? He felt like he must have been standing there for a minute, dumbstruck, before he finally managed to open his mouth again. "I...cannot speak for anyone but myself, but it is almost certain."
"Almost," the stranger said. "I see. But you do not serve Andris?"
"Not in any official capacity." Jedd thought back to the time when he acted as an unofficial agent for the Red City, and of the countless days and nights he spent buried in research for Senator Muqities, may the Goddess bless his soul. But those days were long past. "Perhaps you would be inclined to speak with a member of their Vanguard?"
"Perhaps, O you of 'all cities and none'. Perhaps. Now, I should like to know more of this thief."
"I'm afraid there is little to tell," said Jedd. It was a lie, of course. "I am not even sure what he might have stolen – chocolates?"
"Chocolate? The stuff from Gohoran?"
Before Jedd could manage an answer, Amere gracefully cut in again. "What of yourself, wizard? I would like to know more about your story."
"Wizard? You flatter me."
"Is that not what you are?" Amere gestured to the man's hat.
Just then, Urakis marched right up to the stranger before shuffling back just as quickly – perhaps to examine him, or smell him? Jedd could not be sure. The druidic arts had always been baffling.
"Careful." The stranger glared at the druid. "I do not like to be threatened."
Urakis looked around nervously. "It was mostly an accident... sorry."
"We mean you no harm, sir," said Jedd.
"We don't?" Urakis blurted out.
Jedd stole a quick glance behind him, just to make sure that Mustafaa was still there. And indeed, the silent fighter remained standing alert in a full suit of armor, just a few paces back.
The stranger stuck out his pointer finger in the direction of Urakis, still looking at Jedd. "Is this creature yours?"
"Creature...?" Urakis's face tightened up into a scowl. "I'm no creature."
"It bared its teeth at me."
"Let's all relax a bit," Amere said calmly.
Seeing an opportunity to help defuse the situation and cut short this bizarre interrogation, Jedd walked over to the firepit with practiced casualness. The flames had long since died out, but the embers were now beginning to shine a little bit brighter in the rapidly darkening sky. "Pray," he said, "the hour grows late – are you venturing to the Red City, stranger?"
"Perhaps. But you, O servant of all and none, you will go to the Red City."
Jedd looked back toward the stranger. "Would you care for a message to be delivered, then?"
"A message? Perhaps. Yes, a message." The stranger clasped his hands together. "I should like a message. I wish to know of this thief. What is it that has been stolen?"
"Yes...I would hope to find out soon, myself." Jedd stooped down to gather up his belongings.
"It would be... most kind of you. O servant of all and none."
"Will that be all?"
"Leave me a note at the house of the man who lives in the forest. The man with all the... bones."
Jedd stood up straight, pack slung around his shoulder, and bowed his head ever so slightly toward the stranger. "You may expect a response from Jedd the Fighter."
"For good information I will reward you most handsomely, O Jedd, servant of all and none." The stranger held up his hands. "Enough!" he shouted, and then suddenly he was gone, vanished into thin air, leaving in his wake the faint echo of three magic words: Mora Olsen Preldian.
"Wizard," said Amere.
Jedd breathed a heavy sigh of relief. A wizard indeed, and a dark one at that – but at least he was gone. Purposely withholding information had always been exceedingly difficult for Jedd. Somehow, he'd managed to do it fairly well today – though it took just about all of his strength of mind to do so. Such was the curse of knowledge, he supposed. It was far from the first time that some disreputable character or other had sought him out for information, and it probably wouldn't be the last. But it had been a little bit easier this time around, seeing how the man had been so downright detestable. Disrespecting the missing Senator Morgans, treating Urakis like some sewer rat...
And then there was that nickname the wizard had given him. The servant of all and none. Jedd supposed that he had come up with it himself, but the stranger sure found it interesting. And as odd and pompous as it sounded to his ears, he couldn't deny that there was some truth to it.
Jedd put his helmet back on and started walking to the south. Putting aside conjecture about the wizard's identity, the present mission was now clear. Get to Andris at once and deliver the news of their encounter, and then from there to the house of the cannibal, to leave a purposely vague report. Should the need arise, perhaps some sort of trap could be—
Suddenly a deafening crack of thunder exploded behind him, lighting up the night sky, and an ear-piercing voice echoed through the forest.
"Your soul will feed me!"
Jedd spun around and sprinted toward the campsite. A pack of bone mages was emerging from behind the outcrop to the north. Mustafaa and Amere were several steps ahead of him, swords in hand. Jedd unstrapped his glaive and charged for the nearest mage. He struck the mage's bony rib cage, knocking the thing off balance, but it wasn't enough. The mage rose up with its staff held high, eyes now fixed on Jedd. The fighter scrambled away and threw himself behind a tree.
"Burn... burn... BURN!" The mage cackled wildly. Another terrible crash of thunder and blinding light, and Jedd's tree bursted into pieces. The mage lifted his staff for another spell, but at the last moment Amere swooped in, cleaving the thing into two.
"Any idea who that was?" asked Amere as he swung at another mage.
The fighter rushed back in, laughing. "I have one now!" He knocked the mage aside with a particularly well-aimed strike. "I must confess it came to me earlier. Even before the mention of bones." Jedd swiveled around to find the next mage, but there was no more movement, and the forest quieted down again.
"Did he summon them?" asked Mustafaa.
"I knew it." Urakis snarled. "Blasted evil."
"Right." Jedd looked over the scene of the scuffle. Definitely the work of a necromancer. Maybe even Black Hand – the timing of the wizard's appearance had been more than a little bit suspicious, after all. Could it be Marthonis himself? No, not with that purple hat. And besides, he would've in all probability sent one of his Bone Lords instead. Perhaps some other underling or associate.
Amere kicked aside a shattered skull. "To Andris, then?"
"That would be ideal," said Jedd, before taking off toward the south, Amere not far behind.
He hadn't gotten far when Urakis called out after him. "Wait, Jedd..."
Jedd signaled for the other fighter to go on ahead and then turned around. "Yes, Urakis?"
"That man..." The druid's voice lowered as she drew near. "He made me angry beyond belief... something about him smelled off."
"Yes, I agree."
"Called me a creature, same as the brigand." Her eyes narrowed. "Almost made me want to switch forms."
Just then, the sky lit up with another deafening thunderbolt. Jedd and Urakis raced back over to the other fighter, who was chasing after yet another blasted bone mage. This one, oddly enough, was covered in gray robes. The unwitting mage ran straight past Jedd, perhaps not seeing him in the dark. The fighter struck it from behind, and the thing came crashing to the ground.
Urakis ran up to the pile of bones and inspected the robe. "Robe of resistance."
"Interesting," said Jedd. It wasn't like them to walk around adorned with such valuables. Whoever this necromancer fellow was, he was certainly the attentive type. Amere patted the dust off the robe and placed it into his pack, when another bolt of lightning sounded in the distance. And then, the unmistakable moans of an approaching horde of zombies. Jedd nodded at his two companions – where had Mustafaa gone off to? – and turned around to steel himself for the oncoming charge. It was going to be a much longer journey than he had thought.