Crossing the Threshold
Vylasgarden was feeling the serious pain from the assault but what ailed her the most was the betrayal of Llorva, or princess Azariah as her true name came to be. She did not know how to feel about her or Riker anymore. On one hand, she understood their defensiveness. They all had only known one another no more than a handful of days. Still, she felt there should be some kind of trust after all they’ve been through. At least their true names. Vylasgarden decided to try and distance herself from them. Perhaps then she can justify to herself leaving in the future. Theod-Rah Personally escorted the party through his halls; and by personally, a legion of guards closely followed behind.
“Do you want to tell us what it is you want us to retrieve now?” Riker asked.
“Patience,” Theod-Rah insisted. “First you must understand what happened and to do that we must avoid prying ears,” He said before taking a lit candelabra handed to him by a servant and lead them all down a spiraling staircase that took them underneath the palace. The stairwell was in plain sight however, and it did not occur to any of them that it offered any significance until the emperor began descending it. They all entered and followed the orange glow of light. Darkness soon swept over them and Vylasgarden had to have Kruzco help her step down the stairs. She winced against the pain with every step.
“A few days ago, a creature intruded my palace and stole something very valuable from me,” Theod-Rah began. His voice echoed and bounced off the stone walls.
“What was the creature?” Azariah asked.
Theod-Rah stopped then turned his head a bit to make sure they all could hear him speak.
“Something of necromancy,” he paused and let the words hang in the air before he continued his path down the stairs. Riker and Azariah exchanged looks then followed behind.
“You mean something under the influence of dark magic came into your palace?” Riker questioned.
“My clerics call it a revenant but later we discovered that it is much more…” he paused again. “specific.” The party remained silent as they followed the emperor deeper into abyss. “History knows it by the name of ‘The Dark Realm Dwarf’ but its followers called it a different name,” Theod-Rah continued.
“What did they call it?” Azariah asked.
“Its followers were an ancient race of dwarves called the dvergar. They gave it the name, ‘Nekodarz’, meaning ‘necromantic dwarf’ in their tongue.” Vylasgarden was familiar with dwarfish but she had never heard of this name before.
“The creature that infiltrated your palace was an undead?” Riker followed.
“Not just any undead,” Theod-Rah replied just as they all reached the bottom of the stairwell.
“How could it have gotten near your possessions without being detected?” Vylasgarden asked.
“The current theory is that it had possessed one or many of my guard and received protected information, but none of them recalled any uncanny happenings until the attack on the vault,” Theod-Rah replied. “The night it infiltrated my palace, it nearly killed seventy men without a single person noticing.”
“Sounds like it was done by professionals, not a soulless corpse,” Azariah followed.
“That is what initially caught my attention after hearing the descriptions of the creature,” Theod-Rah’s said plainly.
“What do you mean?” Vylasgarden asked.
Theod-Rah snapped his fingers and a guard handed him a leather bounded tome. “This is one of only three documentations of the creature dating back many centuries ago. The men that survived the attack said that they noticed the stench of what they unanimously agreed was a ‘heap of dead bodies decaying on a summer’s day’,” he open the text to a specific page. “Read this line,” he said handing the book to Vylasgarden with his finger on a line written in common tongue.
“‘The creature reeked of a hundred dead men. It is said that the stench alone would be enough to render any creature unconscious’,” Vylasgarden read aloud.
“Witnesses that saw it mention that it looked like a stout yet gaunt corpse with decayed flesh that resembled wet coal, and that its eyes were of pure light that stunned them. Now read this line,” Theod-Rah pointed to a different line on the same page of the book and Vylasgarden read it aloud.
“Warriors, heed this warning. Beware the Nekodarz’s presence for its ethereal gaze will hinder the wisest of men mad and confused.”
“This could possibly be just a coincidence,” Azariah insisted.
“I thought so too,” the emperor followed. “Until my spymasters discovered what it took from my vault of treasures.”
“What is significant about that?” Riker questioned.
“Only one thing in recorded history associated with the Nekodarz’s desires,” Theod-Rah replied.
“The Phoenix Flame,” Vylasgarden whispered while considering the book. She knew of the Phoenix Flame from her studies at the monestary. The Phoenix Flame is believed to be a feather from the Phoenix demigod that had fallen onto Veterumterrum millions of years ago and plagued the world with mortality. Only those who possessed the feather could halt death or return someone from death. “It has to be the Phoenix Flame,” she insisted. “The book even mentions it as being one of the most sought after relics in the world.”
“Indeed,” Theod-Rah said pleased with her revelation. There at the base of the stairs was the end of a wide hallway chamber that was only illuminated by the three lit iron chandeliers hanging from its ceiling. On either end of the hall was a row of guards standing straight and facing the opposite wall. They worse bronze armor, and animal inspired helms. They all were ready to defend what was whatever behind the vault door at the other end of the stairwell. The vault took up the entire wall and upon recognition of their emperor, the guards at the end began the long process of opening it.
The guards bowed as Theod-Rah and the party passed by. Each saying “Your grace,” as their ruler strolled past them.
“Do you know what is interesting about the difference between humans and elves?” Theod-Rah continued; obviously referring to Riker. Riker only looked at the emperor but did not respond. “Elves can live over nearly seven lifetimes, but with their longevity comes the resistance to change,” he balled his fist. All ten fingers wore elegant rings. He then turned around as they all approached the vault. As four guards pushed the heavy iron door open as he continued with his monologue. “But we humans are forced to keep evolving; we fight for our existence on this hostile realm. Everything either wants to kill you or enslave you, which is why I remain resourceful. Resourcefulness is why we are everywhere,” We, referring to humankind. “It is why we rule the world.” Vylasgarden recognized a few things instantly when the vault was finished opening. Weapons and shields but not just any kind, they looked as if the most skilled smiths and artisans created them from the purest of ores. “Wha’ is ’his place?” Kruzco asked with his jaw wide opened.
“This is my personal vault of rare and powerful items,” Theod-Rah replied as if impressed with himself. The emperor strolled into the vault with the party following behind. Vylasgarden took a moment to count the head of guards in the vicinity. Twenty-eight, she thought to herself. Twenty-eight men reserved for guarding the emperor’s precious vault. Whatever it is that Theod-Rah is guarding in this vault must be very important. The vault not only featured an arsenal of weapons but also held busts, statues, and other forms of human art surely made centuries ago. As a guard went around lighting candles in the vault, Theod-Rah lead the party to the back of the vault where an empty brazier rested. The guard lit the last candle near the brazier revealing that right above it was the mounted head of a dragon on the wall.
Vylasgarden shook frightfully, “Oh…My…” she said in horror under her breath, for at first glance the large head resembled that of a sarkany person; but she then realized that it was too large and the snout was too far elongated. Nevertheless, it was a disturbing sight for just about everyone except the emperor and his guards. Vylasgarden noticed Azariah giving pause and staring at the head; She assumed it was the first time that Azariah had seen a dragon, or what was left of one. Its sharp rows of teeth were as large as knives.
“This is where it was last kept,” Theod-Rah stated referring to the brazier and ignoring Vylasgarden’s reaction to his dragon’s head.
“How it ge’ Phoenix Flame an’ not ge’ burned?” Kruzco questioned.
“Magic perhaps,” Riker replied.
“Perhaps,” Theod-Rah followed.
“What would the Nekodarz want with the Phoenix Flame?” Riker asked. “I would imagine the Nekodarz and its followers were not worshipers of the Phoenix because their connection to necromancy.”
“That is for you all to discover in the documents,” Theod-Rah replied.
“The book does tell of the flame being used to resurrect dead mortals,” Vylasgarden announced. “Like the ljosalfar elves of the old age.”
Thod-Rah nodded and said, “Though legend tells of the flame extinguishing, my ancestors found this brazier in a cave with coals in it that never died,” he said pointing to the empty brazier. “I never paid it any mind till recently when that creature came and took it from me.”
“What would the Nekodarz want to resurrect?” Vylasgarden asked.
“Again, you will have to do your research. I do not have the time to enlighten you. I do have time however, to address my expectations.” Thod-Rah stated. “I trust that the four of you will find and bring the flame back to me.”
“What if we refuse?” Azariah asked. Her voice was stern and authoritative. “You are asking us to potentially risk our lives over an ancient trophy.”
“If you refuse princess I will have you all executed and your corpse returned to your father,” He replied without hesitation. “You do not seriously think that I would show you my secrets and let you walk away with a choice, do you?
“You fool. Killing Azariah will only be a means of war with the elves,” Riker quipped.
“None of your lives matter to me and since the princess of Flos Sergens has gone missing, no one will question finding your dead body in a ditch somewhere in a forest near your kingdom.”
“You ask us for help and you dare threaten us before we accept your request?” Vylasgarden questioned. The surrounding guards direct their weapons to her. Theod-Rah chuckled for a moment then stepped forward.
“The best lead I have to offer you is the creature’s mausoleum located on the East Coast of the Zion Province. If my predictions are true, then the gates to the Nekodarz’s resting place should be wide open. That and this book of documents be all you need to find my flame,” his voice was smooth and low. Riker looked around the room then redirected his attention to Theod-Rah. “The most powerful man in Veterrumterum cannot stand against a group of strangers without his dogs.”
Theod-Rah’s smug smile melted away, “You will spend the rest of the evening in designated rooms and will be given a second horse at dawn,” he said before storming off to the stairwell leaving the party with a company of guards.
Baron Von Riker
Riker and Kruzco settled into their temporary room. Admittedly, it was larger than any room from an inn either of them had ever stayed in before. Kruzco kicked off his boots and clothing as he walked about the room with curled toes because the marbled floor was very cold. “I feel like I died and joined the aether,” he said as he stepped into the hot water of the bath tub.
“It is nice,” Riker said plainly as he laid out his belongings from his pack. Kruzco began to hum as he eased himself into the tub. After a moment, Riker interrupted him. “I do not trust him.”
“Theod-Rah, I do not trust him. The very idea irks me.”
“Why?” Kruzco questioned.
Riker hushed his voice. “I am wondering what happens if we bring the flame back to him. I suspect that regardless of our result, he will execute us anyway to keep his secrets.”
“Aye,” Kruzco replied. Tis best not worry now. Now, we worry ’bout flame,” he whispered loudly. Riker indulged in Kruzco’s peace for the moment but could not help but to ponder further.
“Perhaps if we are successful we then should seek refuge in Flos Sergens,” he followed. “Azariah’s family will surely protect us from Theod-Rah if we bring them her and the Phoenix Flame.”
“Wait,” Kruzco started. “She really is princess?”
“Yes!” Riker whispered. “She was in hiding the whole time.”
Kruzco stared into space for a moment then reached for a towel that sat on the floor nearby and unfolded it on his lap.
“She ran away from home and now she is unhappy with me because I told her secret,” Riker said as he sat on the floor against the bed with his legs spread across the floor.
“Azariah wild cat when angry,” Kruzco said eventually.
Riker chuckled. “You are right my friend, she will have to get over it. It is amazing that we made it this far.” Kruzco gave a firm nod.