Chapter 1: Prologue
It has been two years since we arrived in the continent of Rhespal. I apologize for not getting back to you sooner, the long journey was not without its setbacks. We are now settling in nicely and keeping to ourselves - in other words, I am keeping the boy as safe and out of trouble as I can. I am not as concerned as I was before, he seems easy enough to please thank the gods. I regret to say, however, that things have changed politically around these parts since the last time I passed through, and not entirely for the better.
The continent is under the new rule of Lawmaker Elion Bannor, the booming city of Tarsis that I told you about is not as welcoming to all type of folk anymore. There is talk of slavery rising in the South near the continent of Trax (where I’m told many Orcs have been held against their will), and the Northern region of Lostoloth. They say the dark elves are behaving abnormally, perhaps they found a new god to follow? I would not complain, almost any other god would be an improvement from that beguiling Goddess of Spiders. On the topic of wild animals, there has been hardly any communication with the wild peoples of Feyreach in the Western woodlands, and it hurts just to write it down in words but I fear the druids may have been wiped out. I lack the information necessary to find the answers I seek, and would not dare leave the boy alone to go find out for myself. He's so young, I just want to wrap him in a magical blanket and hide him away from the dangers of the world.
I have decided we will stay permanently in Hopewell. It is close enough to the border that he won’t be in danger, but I can still come back to defend my homeland at a moment’s notice. There is much I need to teach him here before he leaves to live his own life.
I have also spent days giving careful thought on how to essentially raise this child, for I know how much you want to be a part of his life and yet cannot. I find myself recalling that day we spent in Glazdore, the first time you saw me cry. I remember you scolded me for hiding my face from you, I believe you said “I think it’s beautiful for a man to cry, you should be able to express your emotions like anyone else.” If I leave any impression in your mind of how this boy will grow up know that it will be a life with love, where emotions are expressed without fear or judgement.
With fondest regards,
Your oldest and most entrusted friend, B.
P.S. Try not to be a stranger. He doesn't know it yet, but he will need you in his life.
Chapter 2: Humble Beginnings
“You said you have never been to Tarsis, and I haven’t stepped two paces out of Mayfield in my life. We won’t know anybody.”
Ross gives Arin a side smile. “We’ll know each other.”
This story starts on a road that truthfully looks more like a track or a path than a road, but no one cares much about what people call it because it’s in the Deadlands. One could argue that no one in the continent of Rhespal bothers to put the Deadlands on their maps anyway, at least not accurately.
On this path-road-track in the middle of the Deadlands is a duo of adventurers, a human and a halfling that are slowly but surely making their way closer to the low mountain sides that mark the end of Freyden Valley.
The Halfling is chattering away as he half walks and half jogs to keep pace with the Human. The Human keeps his gaze on the path ahead while not-so-subtly tuning out his shorter companion. His senses are on high alert; his hand is resting casually on his weapon’s hilt, his chestnut colored eyes are darting from the remote trees to the jagged rock walls with barely contained paranoia. He’s halfway through mentally calculating how much time has passed since an enemy last appeared when his ears pick up his friend’s voice raising an octave higher than he thought possible.
“- And you’re not even listening to me! Wow! No wonder you’ve never had a girlfriend.” The halfling huffs, he crosses his arms in disappointment.
“Hey!” The human retorts, scandalized. “I told you that in confidence, you can’t make fun of me for that!”
The halfling rolls his blue eyes, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “You make fun of my height all the time, nothing is sacred with you.”
“You are three feet tall, Ross.” He deadpans, coming to a full stop to face his friend. This is the third time they’ve shouted at each other since they left Mayfield. He had hoped they would get used to traveling together by now, but at this point he is coming to accept that this is just their brand of friendship.
“I am three foot one, Arin!” Ross shouts, his pointed ears turning red.
“My mother measured you, she told me-”
Ross shushes him with his hand, his eyes suddenly serious and trained on a spot behind Arin. The human tenses, resisting the urge to whip around with his sword drawn like a paranoid idiot. He watches quietly as Ross lowers his hand and reaches into his black cloak, he wants to act but instead he waits for Ross to say something first.
When he speaks, he does so in Halfling so only Arin can understand. His foreign words are spoken in a soft whisper. “I think I see a bugbear hiding behind a group of trees directly behind you. What should we do?”
“Go for the crossbow as soon as you see it and aim for the legs, you don’t want to get too close to these things. They are stupid but strong. They also don’t venture out alone… Do you see another anywhere?” Arin responds. His accent might need work based on the twitch of Ross’ mouth, but he’s fluent enough to string sentences together in a pinch.
Ross’ gaze shifts between the different trees in the area, probably scanning for possible hiding places, his halfling instincts are taking over. “I only see one but I can hear something from behind me, can you see where it is?”
Arin squints at the bushes behind Ross, his heart jumps when what looks like a wooden club with metal spikes peeks out from between the leaves. “Definitely bugbears. I think it’s just two, the one I see is behind the biggest bush.”
“How do we draw them out?”
Arin rubs at his chin in thought, it would be smart to expose them to a loud noise, something that bugbears don’t like. A wonderful idea comes to mind, he grins at his friend whose expression is caught between suspicion and amusement. “You know that noise you make that sounds like an Achaierai?”
Ross’ eyes widen. “No. I’m not doing that. It’s too embarrassing.”
“Come on, it’s just us out here! The bugbears won’t laugh at you.”
Ross shakes his head and points at Arin’s chest. “I hate you and I refuse.” he mutters in Common before expertly taking out his crossbow and shooting the creature right in its thigh.
“Do you think we made a mistake by leaving Mayfield?” Arin asks. He’s currently pulling his blade out of a bugbear carcass. Arin should feel relieved there were only two of the hairy goblinoids, but the reminder of his curse just makes that paranoia in his mind grow stronger.
“What do you mean? This was all your idea.” Ross narrows his eyes on Arin. “Are you having second thoughts?”
“I don’t know Ross.” Arin lazily kicks the bugbear at his feet and shrugs, his thoughts making it hard to articulate himself. “It feels like it’s too late to go back at this point, but I just have this bad feeling in my gut. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Ross takes a moment to tug his arrow out of the beast on the ground but he accidentally jerks it at an angle and it snaps in half like a twig. He looks disappointingly at his broken arrow and tosses the useless piece of wood on the ground, then shakes a bit of green blood off his fingers. Arin can tell he is carefully thinking before he replies, though whether he is trying not to hurt Arin’s feelings or genuinely does not know what to say is unclear to him. At this point, Ross is fairly familiar with Arin’s anxious tendencies and what not to say when he’s having irrational thoughts. It’s part of what Arin thinks makes them a great pair despite their shouting matches.
“Can you pinpoint exactly what has you so worried?” Ross asks.
“I don’t know.” Lie. “I just… have a bad feeling, that’s all.” Another lie. Arin physically shakes his head in an attempt to ignore the voice in his head. “You said you have never been to Tarsis, and I haven’t stepped two paces out of Mayfield in my life. We won’t know anybody.”
Ross gives Arin a side smile. “We’ll know each other.”
“I guess.” Arin concedes. He resumes walking through the valley and his small friend follows suit. It warms his heart how close he and the halfling have become over a rather short period of time. Ross is the closest thing to a friend that Arin has.
For nearly twenty years Arin felt like he didn’t truly know anyone around him, and vice versa. He loves his parents very much and always has, but sometimes he wonders what they think of him. He wonders if when they looked at him, what they saw was a stranger that Arin fabricated over the years or the version of himself that he keeps hidden. He never talked to them about his dreams, or more importantly, his nightmares. He never told his brother about what happened that night the carnival came through Mayfield all those years ago. No one knows what happened that night except Arin himself, and that was for the best.
When people asked him about his well-being it was always better to give a vague answer. The best responses were the ones that can be misinterpreted, but still placate the people around him.
It didn’t help that they treated him like some kind of hero. The very idea of him being a hero makes Arin scoff. If only they knew.
But that is the point, the voice in his head prods him. They cannot know. No one can know.
“You okay there champ?”
Arin snaps out of his stream of consciousness at the sound of Ross’ concerned but gentle voice. He runs a hand through his soft hair and sighs. “Yeah I’m good.”
Ross doesn’t seem convinced, but he lets it go. “Good, cause we’re finally there.”
“How do you know?” Arin asks.
Ross gestures his head around the massive tree they are walking past, Arin rushes ahead to look around the corner and gasps.
Stretched about forty feet ahead of them is a massive white arch made of what looks like marble stone. This arch looks old, and it's clear that nature has taken its course around it. There are dark green vines snaking their way up from the ground creating a stark contrast against the white stone, wild bushes with blue mountain flowers are growing outward from the bottom. The arch itself is about seventy feet high, the stone is fading in some places to a dull grey and yellow where the sun shines on it the most. Standing on each side of the arch are two marble figures perpetually standing guard over the Tarsis border.
On the right is a female with a flower crown and a crescent moon on her forehead, she has her eyes closed and she holds a bow and arrow. On the left is a strong looking male with a crown that looks like the sun, and his wings peek from behind his shoulders.
His eyes are wide open and Arin cannot look away. He tries to, but for a moment he feels inexplicably locked in a staring contest with this statue. He starts to get goosebumps up his arms, he can suddenly feel the warmth of direct sunlight on his skin.
Arin finally tears his gaze from the figures and takes a moment to brush off the odd sensation he just experienced. He glances at Ross to see if he is reacting the same, but his shorter friend seems too occupied with retying the unnecessarily complicated laces on his boots to have seen Arin's awkward staring contest with white marble. The human sighs and returns his attention to the arch itself rather than the statue figures that guard it.
The arch appears to have words engraved into it. He squints at them, but even if he could see them perfectly it wouldn’t make sense as it is not in the Common language. Which is odd, since most signs nowadays are written in Common with the general knowledge that most dwellers of Rhespal, and even the world for all Arin knows, predominantly speak and write in that language for the sake of accessibility. Not everyone deigns to teach themselves to read, so mapmakers and scribes have to make it easy to understand no matter where you hail from. If an entrance arch has script written in a more exotic language, what does that mean for its history?
“What does it say up there?” Arin asks Ross, his Human eyes failing him.
Ross shades the sunlight from his eyes with his hand and squints up at the arch, his lips moving silently as he reads. Whatever the words mean, he seems unsatisfied. “It’s in Celestial.”
“Can you read Celestial?” Arin asks hopefully.
Ross looks unimpressed at Arin for a moment before he throws his satchel at his friend’s arm.
Arin cradles his arm and shouts “Ow! What do you have in there that's so sharp?”
“Arrowheads obviously, but that's beside the point! Boy! Why would I know Celestial? I’m a halfling from Solace, not some fancy elf from Harth!”
“Weren’t you raised in a temple?” Arin asks, rubbing his attacked shoulder.
“We worship Eldath in Sylvan not Celestial.” Ross rolls his eyes. “Although, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you didn’t know that, Mayfield doesn’t really have temples does it?”
Arin shakes his head and walks closer to the arch, taking in the sight of the two guardian statues. Their faces are so detailed... so lifelike, despite the damage that hundreds of years must have done to it. Arin’s gaze falls once more on the stoic expression of the man, but he feels a strange pit in his stomach the longer he looks.
“Are you sure you can’t even guess what it says?” Arin persists.
Ross sighs behind him. “Celestial uses a completely different alphabet, so it would be like handing me a page of triangles and asking me what kind of rectangles they are. It’s nonsense to me Arin.” He picks up his satchel from where it fell on the ground and he shrugs as he keeps walking. “It probably just says something like ‘Welcome to Tarsis’ or something touristy. Let’s keep moving.”
Arin takes a second to look up at the letters again and wonders at a group of symbols that looks particularly interesting. He pulls out his scroll from his explorer’s pack and quickly sketches out the word before following Ross. He doesn’t think it says something touristy, but he can’t explain why, so he remains silent and follows his friend to the massive gate.
As they approach, a person sitting on the other side stands. It’s a man in armor, they can see a spear in his hand from where they stand.
As the two approach the guard Ross nudges Arin’s leg and whispers, “Don’t tell him where I’m from.” Arin is confused, but he nods minutely and pretends nothing happened. By the time they are five feet away the guard crosses his arms and speaks in a droll monotone voice.
“State your names and business please.”
Arin spares a quick glance at Ross before answering, doing his best to keep his voice even. “I’m Arin, this is Ross, and we both come from Mayfield. We’re travelling to see the sights and stay a few nights. Maybe longer if we like the city?”
The guard shifts his weight from foot to foot and scratches at his helmet. Arin wonders why he does this since he won’t feel it through the metal, but is too nervous to point that out.
“Uh, sorry to say I’ve never heard of Mayfield kid. Whereabouts is that?” The guard asks them.
“Right next to the border of Solace and Pelora, sir. It’s real small and boring, I’m not surprised you don’t know it.” Ross interrupts. He ignores Arin’s questioning look and appears aloof, probably trying to look as bored as the guard does.
The guard thinks for a moment, he looks at Arin, then back at Ross, then shrugs. “That sounds about right. Never went to Solace myself, whenever I was to be stationed there I’d ask for a transfer. Heh heh, I’d rather do next to nothing in Pelora than have my hands full in that region.”
Ross seems to relax at this, and he gives the guard a knowing look. “I don’t blame you, all the horror stories I hear about that place are enough to keep me on the Pelora side for sure.”
The guard chuckles, then he reaches for something in his pocket. Arin breathes easier when he sees it’s just a skeleton key. “Come on in boys,” he says, pulling open the gate. “You seem alright to me.”
“Thanks!” Arin replies.
They pass through the gate and the guard pushes it closed once again.
As they walk away, Ross elbows Arin. “Hey, guess what?”
Arin smiles down at him. “What?”
“You can now say you’ve been to another region in Rhespal other than the Deadlands.”
Arin’s smile widens.
Southern Tarsis is nothing like Arin expected it to be.
Beyond the gate there is a winding path made of stones, they twist and turn around the trees and hills that surround the area. They follow the path this way and that way, there are no signs, no houses, no people. Beyond the sound of birds chirping and bugs buzzing, he can’t hear much of anything.
When Ross described living in Solace, he said the one thing he didn’t miss was the noise of a city, the sound of carriages and vendors shouting sales in the streets mixed with the echoes of shoes hitting floors above you, below you, and outside. Arin stops walking. Ross takes several steps ahead before he realizes, and he gives Arin a confused look. “What?”
“Where are the houses? The city streets? Are we going the wrong way?”
Ross takes in the way Arin tilts his head like a lost puppy and, despite his efforts, he laughs. Arin pouts, which only makes him laugh harder. “Just wait five more minutes of walking, then you can ask me if we’re going the wrong way, farm boy. Trust me.”
Arin does trust him, he has since they met, so he keeps walking down the path at Ross’ heels. The ground begins to slope upwards and the trees begin to part, Ross pauses, he looks excited.
“Someone back in Solace told me if I ever go to Tarsis that I should take this path because it has the best view. Are you ready?” Arin nods, and they finish their trek up the hill where the trees part and they see the expanse of Tarsis laid out before them for the first time.
Arin thinks that if he looked at this view for hours it still wouldn’t be enough. Never before in his life has he seen so many buildings, so many towns, even the mountains past the city look surreal, like they were a painting rather than actually there. Arin wishes he had some way of capturing the sight forever, that he could somehow copy exactly what he sees and have it wherever he goes.
He can see fields, crops, rivers, bridges, streets, a temple or two, and most importantly, he can see a glimpse of even further beyond that. He can see the horizon, the peek of trees and valleys that remind him that there’s so much more to the world than one small village. But in between is what looks to be the main city of Tarsis, the capital where most people live and where the most interesting things happen according to rumour. In the middle of the buildings stands a massive tower, the Tarsis Sun Point.
“Still think we’re going the wrong way?” Ross smirks and Arin shakes his head.
“No, this is more what I imagined.” He replies, his eyes on the sky. “It looks so far away still, are we really gonna walk all the way there?”
“You’re the one who refused to bring some of Maurette’s horses with us.” Ross reminds him.
Arin groans, they had this argument already. Ross must be as tired of it as well because he throws his hands up in surrender. “I know, I know, they belong in Mayfield, it just would have been nice to give my feet a rest.”
“Yeah tell me about it!” Arin huffs. “I feel like my right foot is just one big blister at this point.”
Ross frowns and pushes Arin away in disgust. “I didn’t need that visual! You’re so gross.”
“But you love me.” Arin counters.
“Shut up.” Ross’ cheeks warm up and he punches Arin hard in the leg. This is a usual occurrence with the Halfling, he must balance out affection with violence or risk losing his reputation as a Rogue. Arin fondly recalls the day he kissed Ross on the cheek for the first time and got shoved for it. Ross hadn’t realized at the time, but there was a flight of stairs nearby and Arin went tumbling down. That was not a good day for Ross, he spent hours apologizing to Maurette and Lloyd, trying to explain why he inadvertently shoved their son down some stairs.
He never said he hated the kiss, so Arin didn’t stop giving them and Ross didn’t stop him.
“So where do we start, oh great hero?” Ross asks in present time. He gestures to the view before them and says, “Pick a town, any town you see. We can figure out our way to the main city from there.”
Arin shields his eyes from the sun and strains to see the different towns ahead. He considers the one on the left, but there seems to be more flowers and plant life in the one on their right. It also has more buildings, and if his eyes are seeing correctly, there are a couple stables for horses in that direction. “That one!” He says, pointing at the nearest town to the right.
They make their way down the hill in that direction. As they walk, the town looks nicer and nicer. Once they reach what looks like a main entrance, Arin spots a wooden sign off the side of the road that looks like this:
TOWN OF NORBURY
“Agricultural… No wonder why it’s so green.” Ross comments.
Arin’s reply dies in his throat when the sound of a horse drawn carriage passes by. He feels an odd sense of excitement when he realizes that he doesn’t recognize the driver, the person its carrying, nor will he recognize the people that walk through the streets. Arin gives into that excitement and rushes into the town with a smile on his face and a bounce in his step, Ross yelps and scrambles to follow.
There are shops and bakeries left and right, Arin spots a clothing store that specializes in formal events and has to hold back a laugh. The closest thing to a clothing store that Mayfield has is a thread store that sells the most basic of garments, and one set of leather armour. He is practically glowing at the prospect of getting a new set of armour, maybe in a different colour. His grey armour pieces function well enough, but they itch in places they really shouldn’t, and he can see holes in them. His parents sent him with enough platinum pieces to buy something really nice.
“Where do we go first?” Ross asks.
Arin is about to suggest the clothing shop when a cat whimpers and hisses from a nearby alleyway. “Did you hear that?” He asks Ross.
“Yeah, it was a stray cat. Let’s keep going-”
“No.” Arin insists as the cat meows again. “We need to help it.”
Arin goes into the alley and Ross rolls his eyes so hard he gets a headache. He pulls out a knife, just in case, and follows.
In the corner of the alleyway with nowhere to go, there is a tabby cat with a couple scratches on its face. It is frightened, and surrounded by three goblinoid reptilians that look like they’re about to have that cat for lunch. When they hear Arin and Ross arrive, they screech and point their weapons at them.
Arin unsheathes his sword and slashes a cut into the creature nearest to him, it falls to the ground and another comes running at Arin but he just gives it a swift kick that sends it flying into a wall, it sits on the ground unconscious. The third one makes to flee, but Ross tosses his knife and it buries itself into the back of its head. It croaks and stumbles to the ground, Ross walks over to the body and uses his foot to hold it down as he retrieves his knife. He frowns at the blade, it’s covered in green blood.
Arin looks at the cat, he kneels and outstretches his hand to it, making small noises with his tongue. The cat twitches its nose at him, then slowly crawls from its hiding place. Arin smiles when it comes out and sniffs his fingers, then deems him worthy of a few licks.
“Arin, give me your cloak.” Ross demands.
Arin absentmindedly pulls his cloak from his pack, his full attention on the cat that is purring under his hand. “This cat is adorable and I want to keep it.”
“Yeah well, it’s not yours so you can’t keep it. Here’s your cloak back.” Ross hands him the cloak and Arin grimaces when he feels that it is sticky. He would ask what he did to it, but he knows full well what Ross did. And he finds it disgusting.
“Harlow!” A man yells from the street. He runs into the alleyway and the cat meows happily before sprinting into his arms. He scritches the cat under its chin, and looks up gratefully at Ross and Arin. “Thank you, you saved my Harlow from these…” He trails off as he takes in the appearance of the lizard-like creatures on the ground. “What are they?”
“They’re Kobolds, the smaller and more stupid cousins of goblins.” Ross answers.
The man frowns at them. “I thought Kobolds were supposed to live in the Underdark?” His cat hops out of his arms to go to Arin, it rubs the side of its face against his hands and purrs louder. Arin looks like he might cry.
“They probably heard that Arin was in town and decided fuck it, let's go stir up some shit.” Ross jokes, and like a loser, he chuckles at his own quip. “I’m Ross by the way, and this is my servant Arin Hanson.”
Arin doesn’t protest because he isn’t listening, he’s too busy having the time of his life petting this cat. The owner extends his hand and replies, “I’m Ronan, it’s nice to meet you boys. Are you new in town? I’d be happy to repay this favour somehow!”
Ross shakes his hand and smiles. “Excellent.”
An hour and one horse drawn carriage later, they are all on their way to Central Tarsis. Arin sits cozy next to Harlow and Ronan is sitting in the driver's seat with the reigns, Ross looks relaxed.
“Southern Tarsis is a lot prettier and greener than I expected.” Arin says as he takes in his surroundings.
Ronan glances back at Arin before looking back at the road, he looks mildly uncomfortable. “Better be careful who you say that to, eh?”
Ronan shrugs. “It’s no skin off my teeth, but some folks around here were alive during the Holy Wars, back when the name Tarsis wasn’t even a thought. When this region changed to ‘Southern Tarsis’ some people were furious, said the name change was disrespectful.”
Arin frowns at this. This must be why that sign had crossed out Southern Tarsis, but he still didn’t see the point of that. “It’s just a name, isn’t it?”
Ronan shook his head. “Names are pretty important around here kid, some say names hold a certain magic even.”
Arin falls silent at this. He pulls his legs up on the bench and hugs them to his chest. This whole day has been reminding him just how little he knows of the world. Harlow licks his hand and he smiles down sadly at the cat.
“What do you know of the Holy Wars?” Ross asks.
Ronan looks somber, he clears his throat uncomfortably. “I know that they ended a hundred years ago, that the bond between mortals and the Celestials is fractured at best, that ever since the Celestials left we’ve been livin’ in a broken continent with no counsel and a shaky political system.” He sighs heavily and ties the reigns to the driver’s seat so he can stretch his muscles. “I don’t know what business you kind folk have in Central, but if you want my advice? Be discreet. You never know who’s listening to your conversations. If you’re in a public place and someone is asking you questions, just play dumb until you’re in a safe place.”
Ross nods. “We’ll stay out of the spotlight. We’re only going there to do some research and enjoy the culture for a couple nights anyway.”
The atmosphere in the carriage lightens, Ronan looks excited at this. “Well in that case, can I recommend the Bearbell Tavern? It doubles as an inn, you can rest your head there!”
Ross shrugs, they didn’t have any other options in mind anyway. “Sure, why not.”
“Oh you won’t regret it, they have the best entertainment for the best prices. The inn is just north of the main square so you can do all your shopping on the way.”
“Thanks.” Arin says. “We appreciate all your help.”
“The pleasure’s all mine.” Ronan winks at Arin and Ross hides his smirk under his hand when Arin’s face turns red. He kicks Ross’ shin in retaliation and looks away, embarrassed. He enjoys the view, to the beautiful sounds of Ross in pain.
Arin rests his chin on his hand and looks ahead, they are so close. So close to the main city he’s never seen but heard of so many times. The city he hopes will have answers for him.