The sun had already begun its descent behind the northern mountains as Jedd trod heavily through the gates of the Keep, eager to be done with his trek in the sultry summer air. The fighter wiped the sweat from his brow as he entered the hall and made his way toward the hearth, swinging his pack over his shoulder and setting it down on the warm tile, off to the side of a bowl of bread dough that had been set out to rise, and that now looked to be in need of a good kneading. Warding off the temptation to tend to the dough with his grimy hands, he walked over to the kitchen, from which the sound of cheerful whistling emanated. He stepped through the doorway to find a familiar figure busily chopping away at a bunch of herbs.
"Good evening, Ms. Amayza."
"Oh! Welcome back." The older woman smiled warmly as she continued to chop, never turning her gaze from the cutting board. "How did the expedition go?"
"It went well enough, I suppose, considering that we somehow managed to set foot inside the void, of all places."
"Well, well, now isn't that something," Amayza said, scooping up the pile of herbs with her hands and sprinkling them gingerly atop a steaming platter of what was undoubtedly her famous mushroom flatbread pizza. "Now then, dear, would you mind fetching Lans for me?"
And as if on cue, the cleric's unmistakeable voice came in from the hall. "I'm here, don't you worry!"
Jedd peered back into the hall to find Lans already seated at the far corner of the table, flipping through a tattered volume with an illustration of a tufted-ear cat on the cover.
"Hello there," the fighter said as he walked over and pulled himself up a chair across from Lans.
"Hey!" Lans shut the book. "You're back."
"Aye. It turned out to be quite the adventure...I have much to tell."
"And I have much to eat – first things first!"
The sound of laughter emerged from the kitchen. Jedd turned to see Amayza strolling in with the platter of food balanced on one hand, and a stack of plates in the other. She set both items down gently in front of the others and then took her seat at the head of the table, breathing a sigh of relief.
"Mushrooms!" Lans cried out. "The surest way to an old cleric's heart."
"Indeed. And what's more – correct me if I'm wrong, Ms. Amayza – mushrooms harvested from our very own northwestern soils."
"Right you are! Lans, dear, would you care to bless the food?"
"Ah, but of course." And with that, Lans unsheathed his holy dagger, slicing the flatbread into delectable bite-sized portions. "Well, friends, let's eat!"
With a collective murmur of assent, the three of them each took a slice. Jedd paused to savor the smell of sautéed garlic while the others dug in, and then he too took a bite, at once being overcome with a sensation of sheer delight. Lauded as his own skills were in the culinary department, he still could not muster the ability to craft a dish as palatable as even the lesser of Amayza's creations, try as he might.
"Now, what's this about you visiting the void?"
Lans raised a curious eyebrow at the fighter.
"Aye, our hunt. We had put the den of the forest dragons behind us, and were just beginning to return down the northern side of the maze, when I felt a most unusual gust of cool air. Someone – I believe it was Rieven – caught a fleeting glimpse of a blink hound."
"Ah," Lans said. "Not native to those parts, if memory serves."
"That's correct. Knowing that it's unwise to linger when one's path is crossed by a hound of shadow, I suggested we push forward to the river. It would be best to put a body of water between ourselves and the hound, if the old stories were to be believed. Unfortunately for us, the old stories turned out to be just that – stories. No sooner had we crossed the river than a bloodthirsty pack of blind hounds descended upon us."
"The battle was anything but. Somewhere along the way, I was separated from the others. Outflanked by the ghastly hounds, I was forced to fall back. It was then that I heard a blood-curdling scream from back where we had crossed, further downriver. I charged my way through, dodging the deadly jaws of the hounds, and when I turned the corner of a rocky outcrop, I found myself mere feet away from a particularly massive specimen of blink hound that had its eyes set menacingly on Cara. Unable to stop my momentum, I crashed into the hound – and went tumbling straight through it. I fought to get to my feet as best as I could, but before I had hardly moved a muscle, I was slammed back down to the ground by the force of razor-sharp jaws clamping down on my left foot. It is to Yendu's credit that her bear reacted so swiftly, swatting the hound off to the side and saving me from a gruesome death in the process. With a few magic words from Cara, I was on my feet again in short order. The monster hound had seemingly vanished, but the rest of the pack was quickly closing in, and so the skirmish raged on.
"After some time, things were beginning to look up for our reunited party of four, when an air-rending howl filled the forest: the alpha had returned, and was charging straight for me. It lunged for my throat, but I managed to sidestep before swinging my blade, which connected with the hound's ribcage. It rolled to the floor from the force of the blow, but was instantly back on its feet, almost as if it had never been struck. I stole a quick glance over my shoulder to find Yendu and her bear fighting their way through the remainder of the pack. Returning my attention to the alpha, I steeled myself for another charge, when Rieven emerged from the shadows and plunged a dagger deep into its back. As it recoiled with a howl of pain, I swung my blade straight at its neck, and at last the thing collapsed to the ground – only to disappear immediately.
"I had no time to ponder whether we had actually killed the beast or not, as from every direction came a sudden burst of crackling magical energy, and then all went white. Beset by motion sickness, I fell to the ground – it was as cold as ice. When my head cleared, I looked up and found myself in a dark and desolate landscape, the ground covered in snow and ice as far as the eye could see. To my side lay the fallen hound, a small portal, and my three companions. Something caught my eye, a glint of metal just a few feet from my face. I crawled closer to have a look, and almost completely buried there in the snow was a leaf of finest silver. As the others picked themselves up, they too spoke of finding all manner of jewels and treasures strewn about. But there was one lesser treasure in particular that captured all my attention, and confirmed all my suspicions: a small fragment of the moon.
"It was then that I realized we had fallen into the void. As you might recall, not more than three or four years ago the agents of ARDENT constructed a temple in Foehan, using moon fragments as was customary in the days of yore. This temple, however, was in reality a portal, one that supposedly connected to the void itself, where Senator Morgans and Lord Edgard IV had gone missing. And like any portal, to activate it would require a key, which in this case was the same material that had been used to craft it: moon fragments. So, realizing that I had an opportunity to potentially uncover the truth behind the disappearances, I set off on my own while the others sorted through the treasure trove. Getting lost was not part of the plan...supposedly, if I just walked a straight path, no harm could befall me. I'm not quite sure just how long I walked, but when I finally turned around, the portal and the others were nowhere in sight – just miles of the flat, disorienting expanse of snow, and to make matters worse, my boots had left no tracks on the frozen ground.
"And so on I went. There's no telling how long and how far I wandered through that dreary wasteland. Time and again I would come across some ancient ruin: a collapsed wall, a fallen pillar, a bare foundation. Surely, I thought, if Senator Morgans or Edgard had ever wandered through this realm, then they had left it behind years ago. At some point, I came at last to an elaborate portal, this one still standing. It appeared to be an exact replica of the newly-consecrated temple in Foehan, and no doubt it was constructed at the same time, yet somehow it seemed to be eons older, the inscriptions more illegible, the limestone more weathered. It was there that I decided to rest, hoping that the others would eventually find me. And find me they did, much sooner that I ever could've hoped, apparently owing to the tracking prowess of Yendu's bear. I stood back while the two magic-users in our party examined the portal, and in particular the runes and words that began to blink on and off at the top of the central archway. Yendu spotted the word "return", at which point the portal started humming with magical energy. And just as suddenly as we had arrived in that dreadful place, we found ourselves standing in the very same patch of earth where our battle with the hound had come to pass."
At this, Lans clapped his hands inaudibly as he worked down the last slice of the flatbread.
"My, that was quite an adventure after all," Amayza said with a gentle smile. "But Jedd, dear, your food is getting cold!"
"Oh, bother. Shame on me."
"Don't worry, friend. We can always just feed it to Luna, she'll eat it right up!"
"Your cat? She'd turn her nose up at even the finest of Ms. Amayza's cooking, if it wasn't fresh out of the oven. Nay, I'll just finish it in my quarters." Jedd rose from his chair, picking up his plate. "I've some reading to do, and a cold dish is of no worry to me." He turned to Amayza and bowed his head. "Many thanks for the meal – it was most enjoyable."
"You're very welcome!"
Jedd pushed his chair in and walked out of the hall, past the library, and into his quarters. Setting the plate down on his desk, he stepped over to the open window to take in the cool evening air. There on the windowsill lay the resting Luna, her soft purring accompanied by the perpetual yet peaceful rhythm of crickets chirping quietly outside. The fighter looked on as the last vestiges of daylight vanished beyond the horizon, before moving to the armchair to rest. It was then that Lans wandered in, his book in tow.
"I suppose you'll be wanting reports of your findings sent to all the libraries, as usual?"
"Aye, that would be ideal – but on your own time."
"Ah, fine by me." Lans started to go, but then stopped and turned back. "Friend, you look worried. Something eating you?"
"Nay, I'm merely...disappointed at my inability to learn anything useful about Edgard or the senator. However, a most intriguing thought did occur to me during my travels."
"Oh yes?" Lans took a seat on the edge of the fighter's bed.
"The Foehan temple...we know that ARDENT used pieces of the moon to construct it. And we've always assumed that they had taken the time to amass a stockpile of ordinary moon fragments that had fallen from the skies. But this was no ordinary temple – it was the void gate, a portal like no other we've ever seen before or since. And this was the same ARDENT that almost certainly was responsible for the disappearance of Marali's piece of the fabled moon curio."
"The curio? There's no indication that it was ever put to use."
"And no record was ever made of its return – or at least no record exists in the archives. The guardsmen plead ignorance of any such theft, which worries me, but I find it encouraging that no earth-shattering calamity has yet transpired. To put it plainly, I believe the construction of the void gate represents the first instance since the days of Elara that the moon curio was actually put in the service of good!"
"Well, if not for good, then at least for something that isn't expressly evil."
"A curious theory, friend, for curious times." Lans stood up to go. "Who knows, you may have just gotten one step further in solving this mystery. But you look tired. You can always come back to it in the morning – a man needs his rest."
"Aye, I suppose you're right...as usual."
(Day 143 of the Red Moon, Year 446)