Chapter 21: Samanao
The trip to Liamland did wonders for the group's morale. The four returned to the Mad Hound and told Captain Marbeley and his crew of what they had found. The ship almost exploded at the news. Finally, there was clear proof of what everyone had been working so hard for. Many of the crew proclaimed that it was only a matter of time that they would find the last two orbs, prove the power of the Archfiend, and unite humanity against it. And just as had happened twice before, the forces of humanity would win.
The group wasted little time setting off for the shrine Mathias had mentioned. Alice teleported the ship to Eginbear. The village where the Soo lived was much closer but the village was surrounded by twisting rivers and mountains that would have added days to the group's trip. From Eginbear the Mad Hound could take a straight line to the shrine.
The group traveled joyously, telling stories, singing songs, and playing games with each other. In particular, the four shared with the crew the song that the elven women at Liamland had been singing and soon enough the whole crew was singing it. The group even took out the Echoing Flute, the only musical instrument on the ship, to add to the crew's voices. While the group was careful to keep the flute away from Alice it found its way into Ron's hands. Everyone was quite surprised as he played the flute quite beautifully to go with the song.
"You never told us you could play the flute!" Alice had said after the song had finished.
"None of you ever asked," said Ron bluntly. Thomas snickered at the remark.
"Tom's been rubbing off on you," replied Alice indignantly, walking away as she did so.
After Alice was out of earshot Thomas spoke up, "Not macho enough for you?"
Ron stayed silent, which caused Thomas to continue, "You really shouldn't worry about that. There's nothing wrong with a little music. Not to mention you more than prove your masculinity in battle. And after today, I'd much rather you carry that thing than Alice."
Thomas cringed as though the memory of Alice playing the flute alone was too much. Ron chuckled and prepared to play again as the crew had gone into another song. Meanwhile, Alice had decided to go looking for Suzanne. After some looking, Alice found her below deck looking at some maps.
"I thought I was in charge of the maps," said Alice, feigning anger. "Why aren't you above deck? They're having a blast up there! Did you know Ron can play the flute?"
"Did you just say Ron can play the flute?" asked Suzanne surprised.
"Yeah," confirmed Alice. "He's pretty good too! He better play a song at my birthday!"
"Your birthday's a ways away yet, Alice," replied Suzanne with a smile. "Tom's birthday hasn't technically come yet."
"Hey stop dodging the question, Susie! Why aren't you above deck having fun like everyone else?" asked Alice.
Deciding not to point out that Alice had sidetracked them off that question, Suzanne replied, "Just studying what I can about Samanao's layout. We may have to flee quickly once we get there but we may not be able to rely on teleportation. It's difficult since we don't have the best of maps of the area and we don't know anything about the towns and villages there. Nevertheless, I'm trying to figure out what I can from the geography alone."
"That's a good idea, Susie!" agreed Alice. "But can't you do that another time? You don't want to miss out on the party upstairs.
"I'm just not in the party mood right now," answered Suzanne. Quickly realizing that Alice was not going to let the topic drop, Suzanne continued, "I don't have a good feeling about this mission, Alice. We've gone into hostile area before, even toppled some tyrants. But now we're going to a country that will likely be outright hostile to us and they might do more than just kick us out. I just have a feeling that something bad is going to happen."
"All the more reason for you to go upstairs!" exclaimed Alice. "Come on, fearless leader! You of all people should know the importance of morale. These maps won't go anywhere. I can help you look at them too."
"You're not going to let it drop until I go upstairs, are you?" asked Suzanne with a smile. Alice gave an enthusiastic shake of her head.
"Okay, Alice, you win. Thanks," said Suzanne.
After three days of traveling the group arrived at the triangular shrine they had encountered during their hunt for the Final Key. The three Traveler's Gates within still functioned and this time the group could open the doors they led to. The four tried the Gate on the west side first. They found themselves in a tunnel. Upon walking to one of the two ends they quickly realized they were at the Romaly-Portoga border. The group then returned to the triangular shrine.
Next they tried the Gate on the north side of the shrine. They were taken into another structure a bit smaller than the shrine. Upon opening the sealed door they found that the structure was occupied by another person. The occupant was a young man dressed in light, leather armor. Upon seeing the four armed figures burst into the room the man immediately grabbed a sword and ran for the door.
"Wait!" called Suzanne. "We mean you no harm!"
The man stopped and turned to the group, holding his blade towards them. "How do I know I can trust you?"
"A good point. Guys, go back through the Gate and take five," ordered Suzanne.
"Are you sure that's wise?" asked Thomas. "What if he's really a villain?"
"Remember the Test, Tom," replied Suzanne coolly. Thomas opened his mouth to argue again but realized Suzanne had more than made her point with that statement. The other three slowly retreated back into the Traveler's Gate. After they had left, Suzanne slowly put her weapon on the ground though she did not put her hands in the air.
"Well then, is that better?" asked Suzanne. "We can talk but unless you put that sword away you will keep your distance or I will take precautions."
The man looked quite surprised at Suzanne's actions. He kept his sword out but relaxed out of his ready stance. "Who are you?" the man asked.
"My name is Suzanne," introduced Suzanne. "The three you saw earlier were Ron, Thomas, and Alice. We are travelers on an important quest. As of right now we intend to go to Samanao. Is that where we are now?"
"No. We are between the Norls and Naxly Seas, which form part of the official border of the Zilcof and Dalmath continents," replied the man. "To be more specific we're on the northern edge of Dalmath."
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" asked Suzanne.
"You first," said the man. "Why do you want to go to Samanao? What is this 'important quest'?"
"Have you heard of the Archfiend?" asked Suzanne. "It's a powerful threat. My friends and I are trying to convince the world's leaders of that fact, get them to take action against it."
"Wait, you're those people?" the man asked as he put his sword in its sheath. "I've heard of you! I come from the southern end of the continent. I heard a story about four adventurers that saved a pepper merchant's granddaughter and her fiancé and they were on a mission against the Archfiend."
"May I ask your name?" asked Suzanne.
"Sonny," replied the man. "I'm a bard. My favorite form of entertainment is storytelling. That's actually why I'm here. I've been investigating a story I've heard that originated right here."
"Before you continue, I better go fetch my companions," cut in Suzanne. "Otherwise they'll come in blades flashing and spells burning in about three minutes."
Suzanne quickly went through the Gate and fetched the other three. As they returned, Thomas still watched the man with suspicion but felt no need to keep his weapon out with three skilled spellcasters against one man. Sonny introduced himself to the group and picked up his story where he left off.
"About four years ago, there were two young lovers from a village not far from here," began Sonny. "Olivia and Errol were their names. Errol spent a lot of time away; he was a sailor. But their love was true and could not be broken by such trivialities as long absences. Unfortunately, being a sailor is a dangerous profession in this day and age."
"Errol's ship was attacked by pirates," continued Sonny. "But they did not kill him. A small group of men managed to escape and told the villagers what happened. The pirates took Errol and any survivors of the attack and pressed the survivors into their service. Olivia was devastated when she found out. But her belief in her love was so strong that she was sure they would meet again someday. From that time onward she would walk on the beaches of the seas, hoping for a sight of the pirate ship that took her love or to see him coming towards her after a successful escape."
"Then came the night of a terrible storm," said Sonny, his tone now somber. "As the wind raged and the lightning struck, Olivia knew that something terrible had happened to Errol. The very next day debris and bodies were found on the shore. The witnesses from the pirate attack confirmed the pirate's insignia on some of the debris. It looked as though the ship was totally destroyed. Nobody could have survived."
"So filled with woe was Olivia that she walked the sea shore only one more time. She went just north of this very building and cast herself into the sea. The villagers would say she simply could not live without her love."
"But that is not the whole story," said Sonny dramatically. "Olivia still believed she would meet Errol again. However, after the storm she realized that it would not be in this life. She cast herself into the sea to speed herself to her love. Alas, cruel fate would again conspire to keep them apart. The pirate ship was cursed to keep sailing, even after its destruction. It sails even now, a phantom ship upon the waves."
"Wait, a phantom ship?" asked Ron. "That sounds like what Celia's group told us about? You think it could be the same one?"
"It's possible," said Thomas. "They don't make phantom ships at the shipyards anymore."
"Poor Olivia," said Alice sadly. "Even in death she couldn't be reunited with her love."
"It won't be for lack of trying," commented Sonny. When the rest of the group gave him a look he continued, "Her spirit now haunts the waters of the Narls. Any ship that tries to sail her waters will be pushed back to shore. The same for any ship that tries to come from the Naxly. Somehow, none of the ships that have been pushed back have been harmed. They are returned to either land or the Naxly without a scratch. And as they are pushed back they hear moaning voice of Olivia, calling for Errol."
"Remarkable," said Thomas. "Much like Tedanki, it would seem Olivia still has something to accomplish in this world."
"Wait," said Suzanne. "How come we've never heard of this story? The empire borders the Narls Sea."
"I can answer that one," said Ron proudly. "When I was emperor I had the opportunity to review some of the Romalian Empire's trade policies. There's not much for them to trade with around the Narls. The empire does little trade with any of the villages or city-states of Dalmath on the southeast shore and the northeast shore leads to wild lands, unsettled as far as anyone knows."
"You were the Romalian Emperor?" asked Sonny.
Alice rolled her eyes as Ron beamed at the comment. "It's a long story," said Alice.
"Well I'm always in the mood for a long story," answered Sonny with a smile.
The four spent some time chatting with Sonny and sharing stories before they decided to proceed with their journey. They returned to the triangular shrine and used the only Gate they had yet to try. They found themselves in another structure similar to the one they had met Sonny in. As before, they unlocked the door that had previously turned them away and found the structure occupied.
"My goodness!" cried the occupant, an old man wearing long crimson robes, "How did you break the enchantment on that door?"
"We mean you no harm," said Suzanne hastily, a phrase she was ready to repeat several times in this trip. "Is this Samanao?"
"It is," answered the man, "But this is not a land for outsiders. You had best turn back and leave the way you came. Now."
"We understand your concern. We heard that this land is not fond of outsiders," said Suzanne. "We don't wish to stir up trouble. We came to pass a warning to the king and if he doesn't like what we have to say we will leave."
"More people starting riots about the Archfiend!" exclaimed the man. "Please, I beg you, turn back! After the last time, the king cracked down hard! I took this job to be as far away from the capital as I could."
"How has he cracked down?" asked Suzanne.
"Any mention of the Archfiend or of anything but praise for the king has dire consequences," replied the man. "People are executed almost daily for being caught speaking against the king. He has spies everywhere. Businesses are forced to close for being accused of being the place where people plot rebellion, often with little proof."
"Wait a moment," cut in Thomas. "If the king is so strict, how can you afford to tell us all of this?"
"Like I said, I took this job to get away from the capital. Most of the unrest is there," explained the man. "I didn't want to take part in the executions or arrest people when I knew what their fate would be. I have some talent in magic so I convinced the king that I was one of the few that could maintain the seal. That's allowed me a few liberties as well."
"It's also allowed me to be here in case my worst nightmare were to come true," continued the man. "And here you are. Please, you must turn back. If more outsiders enter our land I fear it will touch off the people. We are frighteningly close to civil war as it is."
"So some of the people are thinking of standing up to the king?" asked Suzanne.
"Yes some, but not enough," answered the man.
"Not enough? You've been talking like you want everyone to just grin and bear it," cut in Alice. "But you want more people to rebel against the king?"
"Look, you don't know what this country has been through in the last few years," answered the man, now angry. "I don't like working for the king or sitting still and watching people get executed or ruined but it takes power to overturn a government. If the whole people were united in this the civil war would likely be short. We could create a better life for ourselves."
"But there aren't enough people to guarantee a short war," Ron concluded the man's thought.
The man nodded, "Some people are like me. They're content to live with the status quo so long as things don't get worse. They won't risk taking action. And there are many who agree with the king's ideas. Not necessarily with his methods but the king has convinced many that outsiders will only bring woe to this country, and so great pains must be taken to keep them out. Anyone who wants to reintroduce Samanao to the world is either too stupid to live or a villain. Our nation is divided."
"That's terrible," commented Ron.
"So you'll leave?" asked the man hopefully.
Suzanne sighed and replied, "I'm afraid not. Our mission is too important. We need to at least try and get Samanao's support."
The man looked devastated at Suzanne's reply. He seemed about to weep when Ron walked up to him. "We're not mindless brutes, sir," Ron comforted. "We've worked with politics before. That's kind of the nature of our quest really. We know how to run around hostile territory without starting a fight."
"Speaking of which, any help you can give us for blending in will be much appreciated," said Suzanne. "If we can be identified as outsiders it'll make things very difficult."
Their words did little to ease the man's sorrow but he realized he could not stop the four. He grudgingly began telling the group what they needed to know about the area.
The four spent the rest of the day and some of the next morning, which happened to be Thomas' true 19th birthday, learning what they needed to blend in. The four knew that learning enough about a culture to pass oneself off as a local takes much more than a day but decided they had better get moving. They did have one excuse to fall back on: Samanao was decently large and the group had indeed arrived about as far away from the capital as they could. The land they were on was separated from mainland Samanao by mountains and a large river. Due to this, the culture of the area was somewhat different from the mainland and so the group could use these differences to explain any behavior of theirs that would appear odd.
"So let's review," said Alice. "We're from a small village on the eastern side of Samanao called Waysville. We're going to the capital to pay tribute to the king. And while we're there, we'll be looking around because we want to see if we can find new opportunities in the big city."
"Sounds right," confirmed Suzanne.
"And our covers' names are Tracy, Matthew, Patty," continued Alice. She then turned to Ron and rolled her eyes, "…and Rob."
"Short for Robert," said Ron smiling. "Shouldn't draw any second glances."
"But Rob?" asked Alice. "Why even use a fake name if that's going to be it?"
"That's what I was saying in the first place! He told us Ron would be fine!" protested Ron.
As the two began to argue, Suzanne shook her head and said to Thomas, "I thought they settled this already." Thomas just shook his head and scowled.
After only a few more steps Suzanne warned the group to shush as she saw two figures coming at them from the distance. A huge blue-green gorilla and an old woman with purple skin, wearing crimson robes, and flying on a broomstick approached them. The four took out their weapons and prepared for a fight. But instead of attacking the woman motioned for the gorilla to halt. The gorilla obeyed and the woman took to circling the group while flying.
"What have we here?" cackled the woman. "Some mighty suspicious figures wondering about. And what's this I hear about a tribute?" When the woman observed the surprised on the group's face she cackled and continued, "Yes I heard the whole thing. How about this, you give me that tribute you mentioned and I'll forget I ever saw you."
"And if we refuse?" asked Suzanne.
"Well my pet here hasn't had breakfast yet this morning," laughed the woman, her grin full of malice. "Come to think of it, neither have I."
"Reminds me of that group near Tedanki," whispered Ron with a scowl.
"What is your answer?" demanded the woman.
The group's answer was to fight. Alice opened things up with her staff, sending a stream of fire at the gorilla. She tried to catch the woman in the flames but the woman quickly flew out of the spell's range. The woman quickly retaliated with her own spell, mirroring Alice's stream of fire. The four were engulfed in the flames but between their enchanted armor and their conditioning, were easily able to continue fighting.
Since the woman was out of reach for melee weapons, Suzanne motioned for Ron and Thomas to take the gorilla. Ron ran up and grabbed the gorilla's attention. He easily baited the gorilla into making an ill-advised attack. Ron easily dodged by rolling in between the gorilla's legs while Thomas ran up and slashed across the face. While the gorilla began to thrash in rage and pain, Ron took advantage of its distraction to make a devastating jumping strike to the creature's back. The strength of Ron's blow was enough to destroy the large gorilla's spine.
While Ron and Thomas handled the gorilla Suzanne decided to show the woman a spell of her own. Not wanting the woman to escape on her flying broom and tell others about what she heard from the group, Suzanne decided to try and take her down with one shot. A bolt of lightning came down upon the old woman. The woman's cruel grin was quickly replaced with a look of complete shock. She and her broom fell out of the sky, the woman dead before she hit the ground.
"How did she hear our conversation?" asked Ron. "She was nowhere near earshot when we were talking!"
"That guy wasn't kidding when he said the king had some good spies," said Alice grimly. "She must have used magic to expand her hearing."
"We better hide the body," said Suzanne, her voice now low.
"Hide the body?" asked Thomas, disgusted. "Like a group of murderers?"
"We don't have a choice, Tom," argued Suzanne. "We've heard some awful things about the king. There might not be much tying her to us but the king might choose someone at random and execute them anyway. We don't want to take that risk."
Thomas merely nodded his head and went along with the idea. The group found some nearby woods to dump the body in. As they continued on their journey they were on high alert and deathly silent.
As they neared the capital they saw some men wearing the same crimson armor they had seen on the men they had encountered at the Tower of Arp. But the true blast from the past came on the second day of their trip from the triangular shrine. The four spotted a group of soldiers in their crimson armor along with two figures dressed in normal clothes. Not wanting to run into any soldiers, the group went for some nearby hills to hide. They were able to keep out of sight and still keep an eye on the group. At first the group thought these were soldiers escorting some prisoners. But then Alice noticed something strange.
"Hey guys," she whispered. "Those people's skin is crimson."
"Geez, I'm beginning to wonder why they haven't turned their sky that color," commented Ron.
"It's not just their skin," pointed out Thomas, and the other three could tell he was angry at what he saw, "Look at how they move. Those people are no longer among the living."
"Zombies?" asked Alice. "Are you sure?"
"The weird skin, the weird movements, I'm sure," said Thomas.
"So now they're parading zombies in their own country in the middle of the day?" said Suzanne. "This king is looking worse and worse every day now."
Suddenly the group heard a yell right next to them. They saw Ron falling backwards with his shield having been knocked to the side. It looked as though he avoided the worst of the blow but, having been unable to get his shield in its proper position, was unable to hold onto it. His attacker was a large grey bear.
The bear was not alone either. Before the other three were able to react one of them had bounded up and took a swipe at Alice. Unfortunately she was unable to get out of the way and took the bear's sharp claws to her midsection. Even worse, the force of the blow along with the fact Alice had tried to backpedal out of it caused Alice to fall off the hill the group had been on. She rolled down the side of the hill, making her already serious wounds even worse.
Suzanne managed to fend off an attack from a third bear with only a minor hit to her side. She had seen Alice get knocked off the hill and was worried about how she fared after taking such a tremendous blow but at the same time, Ron was still in a prone position with a bear hovering over him. There was no way he would be able to pull back to Alice's position. Suzanne made the split second decision to rush into battle with the bears.
"Tom, cast a quick spell to cover us and then help us out!" yelled Suzanne. She rushed to fight with Ron's bear. The bear saw Suzanne coming and tried to swipe at her but Suzanne managed to plant her feet and block the attack. She returned with a deep cut to the bear's arm. While the bear was distracted, Ron managed to get up to his feet. However, one of the other bears ran at him and Ron could tell the last bear was about to come in as well. Ron made an impressive roll under the bear's attack and then stabbed into the bear Suzanne had already wounded. It was a risky move but Ron knew they had to try and eliminate this bear to thin out their numbers.
The bear was finished off by Thomas' spell. He conjured up a large whirlwind that swept through and hit each bear with a harsh, cutting wind. The wounded bear fell to the ground dead. The other two decided to round on Thomas. Ron and Suzanne managed to cut one of them off and they also managed to cut off one of that bear's arms as well. The bear still tried to swipe them with the other arm but its pain caused it to miss wide.
Meanwhile, Thomas still had to go one-on-one with the other bear. The bear swung at Thomas with its wide arms. Realizing he would be unable to dodge, Thomas braced himself for the attack. However, the bear's attack was so strong that it nearly knocked Thomas off his feet. Due to this, he was unable to mount a return strike and so the bear pressed the offensive; a vicious flurry of claws that Thomas could only hope to block and dodge for so long.
While Ron finished off the one-armed bear, Suzanne ran over to help Thomas. Since the bear was putting all its might into trying to tear Thomas apart, it did not even notice Suzanne. Suzanne ran the bear through with her sword. Even through that wound, the bear still managed to claw at Thomas one last time but its strength was no longer in the blow, allowing Thomas to go under the swing and run the bear through from the other side. He then quickly side-stepped out of the way before the bear fell on him.
"Where's Alice?" asked Ron, once the threat was taken care off.
"She fell off the hill," answered Suzanne. "Come on Tom, she's going to need your help!"
"I'm fine," came Alice's voice, as she finished climbing the rest of the way up the hill. She still had visible wounds on her torso, visible through the holes in her armor the bear had made. "It's a good thing I know some healing spells. Nevertheless I would like Tom's help. And make sure these don't scar this time!"
Relieved that Alice was alright, the group patched up their wounds and continued on. Fortunately, they were far away enough that the group of soldiers and zombies did not notice their fight. They decided to stop watching them and to just climb over the hills.
On their third night away from the triangular shrine they came within view of Samanao Castle Town. Remembering what they had been told about the strict laws they camped outside of the town rather than be caught out about the town after curfew. The next day they went into the town.
Even though they were prepared for a reserved atmosphere after all they had heard, they were still surprised by what they saw. The castle town was almost a ghost town. Very few people walked the streets. There were no shop stalls outside and those people that did enter a shop or other building ducked inside as though they were hiding. There were not even many soldiers out and about on this particular day.
After some wandering around, the four finally saw a large group of people. The group was inside a graveyard huddled around one of the graves, likely a funeral. What made this funeral strange was that there were a large number of soldiers at the funeral. Suzanne decided to check out what was going on, but did not want to raise the soldiers' suspicions. After some looking around, she found a man observing the funeral outside of the graveyard.
"Excuse me, why are there so many soldiers at that funeral?" asked Suzanne.
The man eyes Suzanne suspiciously. "You're not from around here, are you?"
Trying not to betray that she realized she may have just screwed up, she did her best to sound casual as she answered, "I'm from eastern Samanao, a village called Waysville. I take it this is common in the castle town?"
"Yes. Soldiers often frequent the funerals of executed men," explained the man. "In fact, they often make arrests at such funerals. The mourners of the deceased are not always in control of their tongues."
"I see. Were you a friend of the man who is being buried here?" asked Suzanne.
"I was his brother," answered the man.
"I'm sorry for your loss," said Suzanne. "If I may ask, why was he executed?"
"For badmouthing his royal majesty, the king," answered the man. The man actually did very well in hiding his anger and resentment but there was still enough there that Suzanne realized why he kept his distance. It was then Suzanne realized their conversation was being noticed by one of the soldiers. Suzanne bid the man goodbye and left to rejoin the other three.
"They send soldiers to funerals to try and arrest and execute more people?" asked Alice, disgusted.
"Keep your voice down!" warned Ron.
"Things seem to be even worse than what we heard," said Suzanne. "We need to plan out how we're going to do this. Just talking to the king is going to be extremely dangerous."