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         Copyright © Randy Bowers. All rights reserved.


Adventures of Xavier: Part II - "Friends Upon a Time"

Xavier teleports to the edges of the dilapidated manor of Ephemerdes, the mystic that lives at the heart of the great Dall swamp. His nose is assaulted by wafts of sulfur and methane as well as a hint of rotting flesh. The canopy lets in little light and Xavier thanks the gods again for the blessing they gave the elves in their sight. His gaze quickly sweeps the broken courtyard and finds it like he remembered it from his last visit here with Garben. Vines and roots threaten to overwhelm everything.
    The prince loosens his sword in its scabbard in case any unfriendly guests wish to make themselves known. He wraps his cloak tighter about his shoulders as if to ward off those that creep in this bog. His boots make almost no sound--another blessing--and he begins to make his way hurriedly through the brush.
    Off to his right, Xavier hears a shuffling sound like a wet sack trying to walk. His eyes can just barely make out a shape, but Xavier doesn't trust it to be a friend. He begins to make his way at a near-run towards the doors of the keep. Suddenly, another shape looms just ahead of him and Xavier nearly gags.
    Before him stands a rotting man looking to be someone who, long ago, might have held position in life. Flesh hangs from bones that should have gone to dust long before now. The undead's mouth hangs open in a sardonic twist of a grin. His clothes are shreds that hang loosely about him and his hands seem to have taken on a claw-like rigor mortis. He smells as though he has been dead for a long time during the heat of an endless summer. The once-man's eyes are hollow, black pits that seems to gleam with the delight of a new guest.
    Xavier steps back and draws his silver sword. The first shuffling getting louder all the time. He runs to find a position where he will not be attacked from to fronts. With his back to a fallen column, he faces the advancing ghoul. The creature strikes at Xavier, his claws baring glancing from the gleaming breastplate. A counter strike from the former priest lands with a soggy thunk into the chest of the creature. Xavier fights desperately to destroy one before it becomes two. He fails.
    The first is joined by the second and the two attack as one in a kind of undead harmony. Countless blows rise and fall to batter at the Wayward priest. Xavier manages to parry and sidestep and finally crushes one to the ground. He faces off with the abomination and after what seems like days manages to strike a fierce blow, severing head from rotted shoulders. Xavier gasps for air and leans against his sword for a minute to compose himself.
    His relief melts away when he notices that before him looms the massive form of Ephemerdes' steward--a behemoth beholder. The creature measures nearly 40 feet in diameter and focuses all of its multitude of eyes on Xavier.
    "I wish to speak with Ephemerdes. Please take me to him," fear and an air of nobility mixed into a juxtaposed tone.
    Instead of answering, the beholder floats effortlessly toward the manor. Having no choice but to follow, Xavier strides behind the creature. As he progresses through the courtyard, he hears the sound of more shuffling coming behind him. Another ghoul-like creature appears from the shadows followed by two more. The prince is frantic, but tries to hide it.
    Finally, the steward reaches the massive iron doors to Ephemerdes' keep and...passes right through them. Xavier tests the doors with his hands to see if they are solid finds them to be most unyielding. Now he realizes that he is trapped with nowhere to run or hide from the abominations as the close in on him. The first reaches him and raises a hand to strike.
    Suddenly, Xavier finds himself in a corridor that seems to extend in two directions forever. The walls seem to be covered in some for of green gelatinous goo that is constantly moving. He doesn't move himself, but he does sense that he is traveling down the corridor seemingly by the volition of the slime. Another heartbeat blinks by and he sits in what appears to be a study. The chair he rests in is comfortable, but only for a short time before he has to shift to find a new way for comfort. A chair meant for visitors who are not meant to stay long.
     A voice from behind Xavier sounds like old leather stretched for the first in a long time. "I don't get visitors here very often. Why do you come?"
    "I wish to learn the ways of your art, Master Ephemerdes," Xavier stifles a start when a gnarled hand rests on his shoulder.
    "You could not find power with one of the Brothers Khan so you come seeking it from me. You have forsaken the power of your god so you come seeking it from me. Hmm. Why should I teach you even how to leave here?"
    A moment passes before Xavier can answer being startled by how much the man knows that most of the world doesn't have a clue about. "I have learned from my transgressions and seek knowledge from one who has it. I understand the temptations of power and how easy it is to fall victim to them. I no longer have the yearning for power by itself, but as a tool to help rebuild that which was lost."
    "You say you do not want it for yourself, then what do you want it for?" Ephemerdes walks around the room and as he passes, it seems as though Xavier catches glimpses of parts of another room. A rather unnerving sensation.
    "I have told you what I want the knowledge for," Xavier says, a bit impatiently.
    "You repair that which is lost and then what? Do you forget all that you learned or do you use for your own gains?"
    "I had not thought that far ahead, Ephemerdes."
    "Go out into the world and create an icon of perseverence on your own. When you have shown me that you can do such without the use of the arcane, I shall reconsider whether or not I wish to teach you."
    "What do you wish my icon to be?"
    "Follow your heart. I cannot tell you what you will persevere to create for yourself. Be it an object, ideal or union, do it with only yourself. You may leave tonight or stay until the morrow, but no longer."
    "May I stay within your care so that I am not accosted by those that guard you walls? I would leave this minute, but the device I have permits travel but once a day."
    "You may stay outside. I shall...arrange something for you."
    Xavier suddenly finds himself in a cramped hut with a bedroll, small writing table with the necessary implements and a door leading to the outside. Xavier decides to look outside and finds himself to be on a small island in the middle of the swamp that seems to be untouched by the vines and murk of the bog. Sunlight filters through the canopy and spills onto the area that the hut is on. Not to trusting of where his host has left him, the young prince climbs in an attempt to discern his location. When he gets to the top to the tree, he notices that the sky is thickly overcast and no sun shines in the sky.
    Hopping down from the tree he begins to reassess his surroundings. This cannot be as it appears he think to himself. As soon as he fixes that truth in his head, everything changes and he finds himself standing in a rear courtyard of the mage's manor. This yard is walled off in all directions and would appear to be safe...or at least, safer that the surrounding marsh.
    Xavier sets up his tent and attempts to get some sleep before he must travel again. His sleep is fitful with often dreams of strange creatures starring at him through sightless eyes. He is awakened by the feel of something on his face. Slowly, he opens his eyes and finds a spider the size of his fist perched on his face. He grabs the beast and throws it from him. Looking around, he sees hundreds more around him. Desperately, he teleports to Tel-Akbar.
    The day has not dawned yet and he notices that few of the taverns and none of the inns are open. Finding an inn, Xavier sits to drink and talks of the latest events with some of the City Guard that is off duty there. He buys them all rounds of ale and patiently waits for time to slip by. The relief of being able to do so is lost in the worries for those he has left in Elestinlor without him there. Slowly, the day dawns and people begin to move about on the streets.
    Xavier goes to the Lion's Rest and asks the gaunt desk clerk if there are any rooms to rent.
    "Nope. They're all full." The clerk says in a self-important tone.
    "Is there a Garben or a Selden in the registrar?" Xavier asks with a tilt of the head in the remembered look of self-righteous nobility.
    "No." The clerk seems to be able to hold his own with those that are obviously more important than he.
    Just as Xavier turns to leave the inn in search of another, the half-elf known as Selden walks down the stairs.
    "Xavier," the rogue says with a bit of happy surprise. "What brings you to Tel-Akbar?"
    Xavier fights back the fear that he holds for the man, "I have come to find you, Selden. I feel it is time that we solve the petty bickering that has gone on between us for far too long now. I would have you work with me if it pleases you. I am willing to pay you a tidy sum of gold to ensure that you get what you've always wanted and that I have always had." The prince allows himself a small grin as he thinks of how smooth he's become when backed into a corner.
    "You and I work together? Ha. I should kill you right now and take from you what I want."
    "Do you honestly think that I am fool enough to bring the merchandise with me, boy? I will meet you in a day's time out front. From there we can see about getting what you want."
    "I think that you are a fool to show yourself to me. You know as well as I that I could easily kill you and yet you seek me out. I find that difficult to swallow." Selden reaches for his wicked looking dagger.
    "Take it outside. I'll have no blood spilled on my watch," the clerk's tone is now over-filling with self-importance.
    I'll have to teach this one a lesson one day, Xavier thinks to himself.
    The two walk outside as though nothing's the matter. Suddenly, Selden turns on Xavier and says, "I have no reason to trust you and think that you are trying to find a convenient way to get yourself out of dying today. I will go with you today and keep you company."
    "You have no need to worry about trusting me any longer, but if you insist..." Xavier waves his hand in the direction he intends to go, beckoning Selden to walk with him.
    The two walk through the busy streets of Tel-Akbar for a good while until Selden finally asks what else has brought Xavier to the city. Xavier calmly tells his companion that he is searching for a bard, but does not say why.
    "I have a test for you, Xavier. I will be back in one hour and if you aren't here when I get back, I'll hunt you down and kill you," Selden seems to smile at the possibility.
    "I have better things to do than to wait here for you. I intend to leave at dawn tomorrow and that leaves me with little time to get done what I plan."
    "It's your choice. You may leave after I do, but if you are gone when I get back..." The rogue rakes a finger across his throat as though slitting it.
    After Selden leaves, Xavier searches the nearby taverns for a bard that might have some bit of talent at storytelling. At the predesignated time, he returns. Selden appears moments later from the opposite direction from which he left. "I have found you a bard. Now, what do you want him for?"
    Xavier offers to buy Selden a drink and tells him his plans of spreading a story to mask his location. As the plan is laid out, the rogue sits back and drains his flagon.
    "I don't think you'll leave me. I'll meet you in the morning as planned with our new-found bard, partner."
    The emphasis on the last word sets Xavier's teeth on edge.
    The rest of the day is spent buying new clothing and getting much needed rest to heal his battle-sore body for the next few days. The day dwindles down, but Xavier is happily unaware as he sleeps in a room not far from the Lion's rest.
    The next day dawns to find Xavier, Selden and the bard--Shale--in front of the Lion's Rest as planned. Xavier acquaints himself with the rough-looking bard and, handing him a copy of his story, tells him of his plans.
    "Well, I see you fancy yourself a play-write, but how much do you expect me to take to spread this and to where am I supposed to go?" Xavier really is beginning to get tired of the self-importance in the voices of all the commoners that he meets in the city.
    "I expect you to take this story along the coast...Tel-Akbar and Zeaburg mainly. And I expect you to agree to 30 gold marks to cover it. No more and not a penny less." Xavier is happy with his ability to be generous as well as stern when needs be.
    "I suppose that will cover traveling expenses--"
    "That will cover everything...including your fee."
    With a look to Selden, Shale agrees to take the money and the story.
    With that done, Xavier bids the bard a safe journey and gives Selden a bundle with the garb of the elves of Greentree. He explains that that is their destination and that Selden may want to make him look more like his elven half. Selden agrees and, after a bit of grooming and the like, they are ready to be off.
    Xavier whisks them to his hotel room in the capital of Greentree where he has kept the majority of his belongings. The young prince gives Selden the agreed sum of money to get him on his way to having a mode of transportation of his own. The duo then travels down to the streets of the city that sleeps amongst the trees. Elves of all stations mingle in the early morning mists that hang amongst the huge oaks and ash that tower above with houses and inns. As they walk, the prince explains that he has companions that are expecting him later in the day. Also, Xavier mentions that the shadowy character Falcar is known to appear in the most unusual places and times, so suggests that Selden might follow to track Falcar's comings and goings.
    Later in the day, Xavier meets with Kinnowyer to spend a day in revelry and merriment amongst the other elves in the festivals to honor the completion of the new emperor's palace. The two young elves discuss where to begin their day and, after some coaxing, Xavier agrees to watch a hypnotist entertain a group of people. The pair finds places to sit on the logs that have been arranged for people to sit in the middle of the glade auditorium-style.
    Kinnowyer and Xavier listen as the hypnotist explains that all of the onlookers should relax and--to Xavier's glee--suggests that everyone rest their head on the person sitting next to them. Xavier takes a bit of enjoyment out of having Kinnowyer rest her head on his shoulder. The prince glances over to his right to see who he is about to rest his head on and notices that he is a rather dirty, unkempt fellow. So, instead of being like the rest of the crowd, he decides to rest his head on the shoulder of his companion--to his left.
    In order to adjust for Xavier's change in order, half of the crowd leans to the left and the other half leans to the right, with Xavier and Kinnowyer in the center. The hypnotist looks at them ruefully, but says nothing. As the rest of the audience settles and begins to listen to the performer, Xavier hears a hoarse, yet familiar whisper pitched only for his ears, coming from the unkept man to his right.
    "Hello, my former-lord."
    Xavier tries to hide his shock, "Hello, Falcar. What brings you out in the open and in this get up?"
    "I like to meet people on my terms. It keeps you on your toes," Falcar says and Xavier can feel him give a small smile, "besides, I'm... in disguise, you like it?"
    "I was wondering when you would be showing yourself. When do you intend to let me introduce you to the rest of the group?"
    "I'd rather introduce myself then have you do it for me, even though I am sure that my former lord's introduction would be so much the more eloquent then my own," spoke the raggedly dressed man mischievously.
    "How are we to ever work as a team if you are always working in the shadows, Falcar?"
    "Have no cares good sir, with time and any allowances you offer me, all will work out to the profit of both of us." He spoke with a soft whisper.
    "Well, we will be leaving in the morning at dawn, with or without you, but I would rather you joined us openly."
    Hmm...." The other man smiled wryly.
    Suddenly a bright explosion flashed in the crowd being hypnotized and cascading sparks erupted everywhere. The entire gathering snaps from its revery and looks around in amazement. As Xavier returns his attention to the man sitting next to him, he finds that the rogue has disappeared.
    "What happened?" Kinnowyer seems to be curious, but not alarmed, assuming that it just part of the show.
    "Oh, just a little fireworks to liven things up a bit. You know how they like to keep us on our toes," thinking grimly at the irony of having just echoed a man he doesn't trust. He does remind me of Garben in many ways, though.
    The two spend a mundanely eventful day together and then separate. Xavier tells her to be ready to leave in the morning and to inform Arrimar as well. She smiles and says she cannot wait to see what he has in store for her life. A quick squeeze of his hand and she's off.
    Xavier walks back to the hotel, half-expecting Falcar to jump out from behind a tree as he has numerous times before. The rogue never shows himself, though. Odd, Xavier muses.
    The next morning dawns with a grey mist hovering among the boughs of the trees and dew clinging to everything. Few sounds are audible, but some of the revelers can still be heard drifting through the trees. Xavier washes quickly and dresses himself in garb suitable for Tel-Akbar. He wakes Selden and tells him to get ready. After the two have broken fast for the day, they meet Kinnowyer and Arrimar at the base of the huge oak in which the hotel is built. Xavier asks the two new-comers if either of them speak Thennish at all. They both reply in the negative. To alleviate some of the language problem for the two, Xavier lends his magical ring of tongues to his lady and says that he'll help translate for Arrimar unless he needs to go off on his own and then he may use the ring.
    Xavier's three companions gather around him and, in the blink of an eye, they stand in front of the shimmering golden walls of the Citadel of Light. The waters of the moat swirl unnaturally as though the very waters live. Atop the walls, the guards walk in rigid formation with armors polished and weapons at the ready. The guards' attention is focused instantly on the new-comers. From atop the walls, a guard bellows, "Who goes there?"
    "It is Xavier Leonidas with invitation from Lord Gilthanis. Please inform him that I am here," Xavier fumes a bit at the fact that he must wait on the outside of the keep that he once helped to defend.
    "Wait here." No show of respect is shown by the guards who once would have taken orders without question from the man before them.
    As the group waits, Xavier explains to the others who they have come to see and that he is to be shown respect at all times in the strictest fashion for he has a flash temper. Kinnowyer and Arrimar seem to remember from the story that Xavier told them of his life that they need to ask no further questions.
    After an hour or so, Lord Garben Gilthanis arrives alone with a face that could chip stone. "Why are you here, Xavier?"
    "I came as we agreed after the Council of Lords meeting. You promised the help of a fist of your rangers in exchange for 30 marks of gold. I assume that you are still agreeable to this proposition?"
    "I remember our bargain. I assume that you will also be agreeable to the condition that should any of them be killed, you will pay their families 10 marks? Also, that you will not order them into some senseless battle for no cause other than to defend your sorry hide," the last seems more a command than a question.
    "Of course, Garben. I would sooner see them live long, uneventful lives. On another matter, might we trouble you for places to stay for the evening?" Neither lord gives any sign of deference to the other. Merely a completely business-like tone. Xavier does seem to give a bit of way to Garben as he remembers just how much honor he owes the young rogue.
    "I suppose we might find you rooms. Selden, you may stay in the keep proper. The rest of you, I shall find guest cottages for you."
    When the rest of the group is escorted into the Citadel, Xavier asks Garben to walk with him a while. Garben grudgingly relents and walks with his former knight. They walk for a good while in silence; each keeping his own counsel. Finally, Garben breaks the silence.
    "What is it you want of me, Xavier?"
    "I would like to assure you that there will be no more between us like there has been in the last few months. I have spent a good while searching my soul and have come to realize that, if not for your generosity, I would be dead. Also, you and I have fought on the same side for a good while and I will not allow those memories to fade from my mind's eye easily. I wish us to be as we were before."
    "Do you expect me to welcome you into my hold with open arms after all that you have done? Do you expect me to trust you like I have in the past? It all takes time. It will take time for me to trust you enough to let you come and go as you please. You led an army... into my lands. You are not a dim-witted man. You can see the caution I see fit to take."
    "I understand what you must think of me. I betrayed you and, for that I will always be shadowed by the dishonor. If ever you have need of me, I am at your call. Thank you, my lord Gilthanis," Xavier gives a small bow with his arms at his sides.
    The action takes Garben by surprise, but merely says, "Time, my former-knight. I have other things to attend this day. Until the next time. The rangers will be assembled tomorrow. Be ready to teleport us to your lands at dawn or I will take your money and leave you naked outside my walls for wasting my time."
    "May I ask one favor of you, Garben?"
    "What is it, Xavier," Garben's voice verily oozes with annoyance.
    "Might I have the passage to take my two companions on a tour through your Art Gallery?"
    "I will arrange for them to be taken on a tour, but you may not pass over the threshold of my keep until told by me in person." With that, Garben leaves in a blink that Xavier knows all too well as one of Garben's many abilities. The rest of the day passes uneventfully. Xavier spends most of his time explaining further what will happen when they get to Elestinlor and what he thinks should be the first thing for them to do. The rest of the time is spent in meditation and self-inflection.
    At dawn, the party meets in front of the keep-proper to be received by Garben. He has his mirrors ready and his men stand silent in the livery of the Lion's Pride. Garben greets everyone diffidently and asks if this can be gotten done with quickly. Xavier assures him that it should take no more than five minutes to be done with it.
    "Well then, let's do it," Garben says gruffly.
    Xavier steps closer to Garben and the two teleport to where the ruined pile of rumble that used to be the capital of Elestinlor. Garben sets up his mirror and steps through. Moments later, Kinnowyer, Arrimar, Selden and the others walk from beyond the reflection in the mirror. Finally, Garben walks back through and grabs the sides of the mirror. With a brief nod to Xavier and a hand resting lightly on the hilt of his gilded short sword, he and his fantastic mirror wink out of existence.
    The young prince addresses his charges with the unerring certainty of his duty and theirs. He speaks of what must be done and how he wants searches conducted by the rangers. In no time, the party is cutting trees to fashion buildings and stores. Even Xavier rolls up his sleeves and begins to work as he directs. Selden grumbles constantly about having to work, but Xavier eventually makes concessions for him. The sun continues through it arc until midday.
    Selden is hacking at a fir when, suddenly, a man steps out of the tree. The young rogue stops mid-swing to avoid cleaving him in two. The new-comer dressed in robes that match the surroundings tells Selden to stop what he's doing and take him to whoever is in charge. So shocked by the words and actions of this man is Selden that he complies without comment.
    "Xavier, this man just stepped out of the tree I was cutting and asked to speak with you," the rogue says with a half-hidden grin of amusement.
    "Who are you that would stop my work?" Xavier inquires with a bit of noble-ominousness.
    "I am the one that has charge of these lands and will not allow you to disfigure them. I would ask you to leave," the man's voice sounds like the wind, yet strong.
    "These are my lands and I will say who stays and who goes. I intend to rebuild my nation here on lands that my family has owned for generations." I really am getting better at being noble.
    "These lands have had no owners since the Black Scourge ripped through them five years ago. I have taken them into my charge and the very earth you stand on will swallow you whole, if I but ask it to. Now, I say again, please leave these lands. If I may be of assistance in your departure, I would be happy to accommodate." The lands rumbles slightly when he mentions the earth obeying him.
    "I see that there will be no questioning your edicts in these lands. You will do fine here as guardian," Xavier says the last as though he were the one to place him. "Where would you suggest we go? I have a large group and need all the necessary requirements for life."
    "I will take you there myself. Gather your men and we shall go."
    After a bit of searching, all of the rangers are found and gathered together. The druid asks that they all huddle a bit closer together and then, they are somewhere else. Everyone looks around with astonishment at the fact that they are now what seems to be nearly twenty miles closer to the foothills than moments before.
    "This shall suit you all just fine. I am not for or against your reconstruction, but do not return to my charge without knowing that I expect that the land be respected," the woodman says flatly.
    "This shall suit us. Know this, Druid. If you so much as touch the monument that I have raised to honor the dead at the base of my former keep, I will kill you and raze your charge." Fire growing in Xavier's eyes.
    "I don't care about any monument or the people that once walked the lands of the forests. I will not touch a courtesy. You did ask so nicely. If ever you need me, enter my charge. I will know you are there." With that, the druid disappears.
    When Xavier gets his troupe settled into their new home, he recommences the Reconstruction. After a few days of supervision and a need to buy supplies, Xavier takes Selden back to Tel-Akbar. That way, he can come and go as he pleases.