Saturday, 12 August 2017

Epilogue.36: Agent of the Twelve

Sharn, Breland
Barrakas 7, 997 YK

Portray a fantastic world

Airships clustered around the Lyrandar Tower in the centre of Sharn. Unlike Newthrone or Thaliost, Sharn was a city of towers; the largest city in Khorvaire, it was build on a narrow headland and had grown upwards instead of outwards. The Lyrandar Tower was merely the tallest tower out of hundreds, and even that did not make it the highest point of the city; the richest neighbourhood, Skyway, floated far the tops of the tallest grounded towers.

Vaalyun’s last visit to Sharn had been over twenty years ago. As an elven house, House Phiarlan was adapted to the long lives of its members, and it was not unusual for an assignment to a chapterhouse like Thaliost to last for a hundred years. Yet Vaalyun’s life had changed more in the few months since meeting Anaya and Esthana than in the previous twenty years of service.

Vaalyun had called in a favour to get here: Captain Michnas’ airship had picked him up and brought him to Sharn as a particular favour to House Phiarlan. House Tharashk had not been happy to lose the services of the airship for a week, but House Lyrandar had agreed to the request—partly for the money, but partly, Vaalyun suspected, because they were unsure about House Tharashk and had been intrigued by Vaalyun’s offer of information to the Twelve.

Folas d’Phiarlan was waiting for him atop the tower. Like Vaalyun, he was dressed in formal House robes, blue and decorated with hydra’s heads. Folas spoke in Elvish, though with a Brelish accent. “Shade and safe passage to you, Vaalyun d’Phiarlan. The House welcomes the return of one that wanders.” He completed the formal greeting with a bow.

“An emissary humbly returns to the place of elders, returning with news for the House.” Vaalyun returned the bow.

Folas turned immediately, leading Vaalyun away from the crowd forming at the gangplank as sailors and other travellers began to come ashore. Four human mercenaries wearing the heraldry of House Deneith, that had been standing behind Folas, took their places around the two elves as they moved towards the steps leading down the side of the tower.

Lordly Calibre(Vaalyun): Vaalyun is a big deal in the House already - master of the main enclave for Phiarlan in Q’barra

“Your arrival has been much anticipated,” said Folas over his shoulder. “A meeting of the Council of the Twelve has been convened in two hours’ time.”

“How necessary are the guards?” Vaalyun was not surprised at their presence; given the attempt on his life in Newthrone, the protection was appreciated.

“House Tharashk, at least, knows that much is riding on the meeting; they need the support of the other houses to continue to pursue the dragonshards in Q’barra. We do not think that they would move against you here, but we did not wish to leave it to chance.”

“We will say no more until we are in our own enclave.”

By Hospitality Sustained(Vaalyun): Scions of Dragonmarked Houses are not subject to the rules that apply to commoners

The steps led to a lift—one of the levitating platforms that were one of the main modes of transport in a city where places were primarily separated by altitude. There was a guard collecting fares to ride the lift, but a quick flash of the signet ring of a dragonmarked house ensured that they were waved on without charge. As the lift descended, Vaalyun looked at the sprawl of the city below them; it was already mid-afternoon, and the streets of the middle city, running on bridges between the towers, thronged with people from dozens of races, dressed in fashion from across the Five Nations and beyond.

After descending for several minutes, the lift arrived at the main level of Dragon Towers, the most prosperous neighbourhood of the middle city. This was where the dragonmarked Houses, the Twelve, had their enclaves; more of the economy of Breland was managed from this district that from the capital, Wroat, hundreds of miles to the north.

Vaalyun and Folas, with their guards around them, walked away from the Lyrandar tower, following a broad boulevard through the district. On one side the edge of the street was guarded by a low parapet, beyond which you could see down to the darker streets of lower city more than a hundred yards below. On the other side, the grand fortified tower of House Deneith stood watch over them; into the columns outside the entrance were carved the shapes of lions, rams and dragons, taken from the emblem of that house.

Further down the street they found the tower occupied by House Phiarlan. The tower itself was a simple tower of stone; in lieu of physical decorations, luminous moving images of the most famous elven actors and bards that worked for the House were projected onto the face of the building, and bursts of fireworks continually erupted over the street outside the tower. Vaalyun knew that the House’s greatest illusionists had worked on creating this display, using their dragonmarks to bind their work to the dragonshards embedded around the tower.

The two elves passed into the tower, leaving their Deneith escort at the door. They passed out of the grand entrance hall into a richly-furnished antechamber, where Vaalyun found another noble of the House awaiting him.

“It is an honour to see you, Alyssia.” Vaalyun bowed deeply; he had met Alyssia d’Phiarlan once, on his last visit to Sharn; he had been a young and minor agent of the House in those days.

Folas closed the door behind them.

“It is good to see you in person, Vaalyun. You have been calling in some substantial favours in the last few months.” Alyssia was standing and only nodded slightly to return his greeting; she was middle aged, perhaps six hundred years old, taller than Vaalyun and had a noble bearing.

“Yes, I have.”

“Your information about the Overlords—particularly the Overlord in Q’barra—is disturbing. Our agents in Aerenal have been able to confirm some of your general information about the threat.”

“And I have personally seen the prison of the Overlord in Q’barra. What do we know about the views of the other Houses?”

All in the Family(Vaalyun): You know the general disposition of the other houses of the Twelve

“Lyrandar, Cannith and Ghallanda are known to side with Tharashk, and several other Houses, while officially neutral, benefit from the trade in Dragonshards. House Medani and House Deneith side with us.”

Vaalyun raised an eyebrow. “House Deneith always sides against Tharashk—no-one likes a competitor. House Medani’s support is unexpected, however.”

“Breland is concerned about House Tharashk’s closeness to Droaam, and House Medani is influenced by their chosen nation.”

Vaalyun nodded thoughtfully. “I have hopes that House Sivis will support us. The Templars used the speaking stone station in Newthrone to communicate with Flamekeep; it is likely that the gnomes will have intercepted those communications.”

“That would certainly be helpful in the coming meeting, though they will not reveal their source directly.” Alyssia looked thoughtfully at Vaalyun. “You are very confident, for one so young—remember that you are not in the provinces any more, Vaalyun. You will be meeting senior members of all thirteen Houses.”

“Facing and defeating an ancient dragon does tend to boost one’s confidence.” One detail of the events in Khyber had been too sensitive to risk sending even via the secret channel of the shadow mirrors: Vaalyun related the last moments of the fight with the dragon, and how his Dragonmark had enabled him to manipulate the taint on the ancient creature.

Alyssia was openly shocked—something that one rarely saw in an elf of her age. “Nothing in the history of our house has ever suggested an affinity with the powers of such a creature. For the Mark of Shadow to have this power—this is an amazing discovery. We must find a way to explore this power further.”

“To experiment on the Overlords themselves would be much too dangerous,” said Vaalyun. “But now that we know that their tainted followers can be touched by our power, opportunities will arise to apply this knowledge elsewhere.”

The Tower of the Twelve was one of the smallest in Dragon Towers. While the other more grandiose towers stood to demonstrate the wealth and power of the Dragonmarked Houses, the Tower of the Twelve was a neutral meeting place, used by the Twelve to strike secret deals out of the sight of the courts of the Five.

Vaalyun had never been in the tower before, and certainly not to the main meeting room at the top. There was only a large mahogany table surrounded by chairs; inlaid in the table was a large map of one hemisphere of Eberron, including Khorvaire, Xen’drik and Aerenal. Around the wood-panelled room hung the crests of the dragonmarked Houses. Two chairs were provided for each House; Vaalyun sat down at one of the chairs under the five-headed hydra of House Phiarlan, and Alyssia took the seat next to him.

The room was only half full. House Tharashk had not arrived yet, and several of the other houses had sent only one emissary to this meeting—perhaps they had little interest in the Tharashk’s scuffle in Q’barra. Two human women, dressed formally in the white and silver colours of House Cannith, had already taken their seats and one of them gave Vaalyun a disapproving look. Of all the Houses, Cannith was most involved in the manufacturing that turned dragonshards into useful tools; they would be strong supporters of House Tharashk’s endeavour.

Most of the delegates were waiting silently for the conference to begin, so two newcomers talking as they entered the room drew everyone’s attention. Vaalyun looked over to see a half-orc and a human enter the room, and cursed inwardly as he recognised House Tharashk’s delegates. Haganur Aashtur and Borurol Torrn looked much as he had seen them before, still dressed in the fine leathers embossed with the dragonne of their House, though by convention they had left their weapons downstairs. Both Borurol and Haganur gave Vaalyun menacing looks as they walked around to sit on the other side of the table, under Tharashk’s coat of arms.

Pagna d’Sivis, the only gnome present, called the meeting to order. “We have representatives of every House present, I see, and I believe that we can begin. As House Phiarlan is party to the dispute that we are here to debate, House Sivis claims the right to chair the proceedings.” Pausing for objections that did not come, Pagna continued. “Borurol Torrn, you seem eager to speak, and are the most directly involved in this venture in Q’barra—perhaps you would like to address us first.”

Borurol stood, sneering at Vaalyun briefly before turning to look around at the other assembled delegates. “There is little to discuss. House Tharashk, with the backing of the Twelve, has been harvesting dragonshards from the jungle of Q’barra. There has been local resistance that has stiffened in recent months, but we are deploying a larger force to Newthrone to brush this resistance aside and continue the trade in dragonshards. All of our houses,” he said, gesturing around the room as he did so, “benefit from this trade.

“Then this agent of House Phiarlan arrived in Newthrone and chose to travel into the jungle and met secretly with the lizardfolk there. Although House Phiarlan raised no objections before, their agent has been working against us in Q’barra—and now that House tries to move against the will of the Twelve and prevent the pursuit of the dragonshards. We call on the Twelve to insist that House Phiarlan’s interference in our trade cease immediately, and impose penalties on that House in light of the breach of the agreements that bind our Houses to cooperate in the pursuit of trade.” Borurol sat down, affecting an air of impatience—although, from the way his eyes glanced around to gauge the reaction of the delegates, Vaalyun inferred that he was not as confident as he pretended.

“House Phiarlan, what is your position on the venture, and how do you respond to House Tharashk’s claims?” asked Pagna.

Vaalyun stood. He had never stood before a gathering of people with such great influence before, but he had spent his life affecting confidence in places of power, and it came naturally to him once more in this place. Putting his hands behind him, he addressed the delegates.

“House Phiarlan made no objection to the pursuit of Dragonshards in Q’barra when it was originally proposed, as we were not aware that any danger or conflict was likely at that time. However, in the time that I have spent in Q’barra, I have learned of a great danger that would follow from the continuation of that trade. The dragonshards in Q’barra are imbued with the essence of the Silver Flame; they are part of the seal that keeps one of the demonic Overlords trapped in Khyber beneath the jungle of Q’barra, just as the Eternal Flame in Flamekeep binds Bel Shalor there. Extracting the dragonshards from Q’barra will be a short-lived trade: as more are removed, the Overlord will in time be loosed and its demonic servants will seize control of the jungle. While House Phiarlan stands to gain from the trade of dragonshards in the short term, our House has always served as diplomats and emissaries between the peoples of Khorvaire; we would not see an entire nation cast down for the sake of some short-lived trade.”

Haganur had been growing visibly agitated at this speech and interrupted as Vaalyun paused for breath. “Spare us this superstitious nonsense. The Silver Flame is a church of fanatics that worship their precious fire; I did not know that your kind believed in such things,” he said, sneering. “The tales that impress the gullible farmers of Thrane have no place at this gathering.”

“Secondly,” said Vaalyun, more forcefully, “House Tharashk’s description of their venture understates the actual difficulties on the ground. The lizardfolk of Q’barra were once a fractured people, split into tribes; but, due to the threat of House Tharashk’s incursions, they have united to defend the jungle. There are over a hundred thousand lizardfolk in Q’barra, fighting in their native jungle that they know better than any invader. House Tharashk’s ten thousand mercenaries, shipped across half the world to an unfamiliar land, will never conquer them.” Vaalyun sat down.

“United by your interference!” said Borurol angrily. “You have worked against us, against the will of the Twelve. And the lizardfolk will not last long against us—with the forces in this room working together,” he said, gesturing with a sweep of his arm, “we could subdue any nation in Khorvaire; the primitive tribes of Q’barra certainly cannot defeat us.”

“Borurol, you will have an opportunity to speak again; but first let us hear the opinions of the other Houses,” aid Pagna. “House Cannith wishes to speak, I imagine.”

One of Cannith’s representative stood, and spoke for a minute about the importance of the dragonshards trade and the benefits to all of the Twelve that the continuance of the venture would bring. As she talked, Borurol looked at Vaalyun smugly, apparently confident that he had the support to win here. Vaalyun met his gaze evenly and kept his expression neutral; he was mentally rehearsing for his final argument. I’ll wipe that smile off of your face before we are done here.

House Vadalis chose not to speak, which meant House Deneith spoke next. One of the Sentinel Marshals of House Deneith, an old man wearing his armour bearing the sigil of his house—Vaalyun had to resist rolling his eyes—stood and spoke against House Tharashk. Borurol interrupted him twice, objecting that House Deneith only opposed the venture because House Tharashk was leading it—true enough thought Vaalyun—and had to be put in his place by Pagna.

Once the sentinel was seated again, Pagna called on the next speaker. “Chervina d’Ghallanda, what do you say?”

The halfling woman stood—she must have had a footstool before her seat, as she stood with her waist nearly above the table. “House Ghallanda withdraws its support for this venture and calls on all present to do the same. We believe the danger in Q’barra to be a threat to all of civilisation in Khorvaire. We had not known until now that the dragonshards were connected to the return of this Overlord, but now that this one”—gesturing to Vaalyun—“has discovered their purpose, we will now deny any help to those that continue this trade.”

Chervina sat, leaving the room in stunned silence. Vaalyun was as surprised as everyone else—or perhaps not everyone, as he noted that Pagna did not seem particularly shocked at this sudden reversal in House Ghallanda’s position. Suddenly the words of the Prophecy came back to Vaalyun—“Shadow and Flame meet Nymm in the timeless jungle”—and he realised that House Ghallanda was also, somehow, bound up in the working of the Prophecy here. Perhaps they too were aware of its contents?

Borurol was glowering at Chervina, but Pagna continued. “House Medani, what do you say to this?”

A smartly dressed half-elf stood up and spoke. “We oppose this venture. When House Tharashk was pursuing a peaceful mining venture, we had no great objection, but their ambitions have grown far beyond that. The lizardfolk are the most powerful and numerous force in Q’barra, but House Tharashk proposes to crush them to take the dragonshards from their land. Where does this end? By the time Tharashk can defeat one hundred thousand lizardfolk, their army in Q’barra will outnumber the human inhabitants; they will have in effect conquered the entire land. If they could even do this, what would the Five Nations think of such a move? Will Breland or Karrnath stand by while a dragonmarked house conquers a country, and wait quietly to see what the Twelve wants next?

“But I have a question to Vaalyun d’Phiarlan. The Silver Flame is a common faith in parts of the Five, but it is strange to ask us to believe in the danger of the Overlords that the Flame has so often preached about when few of us follow that faith. Why do you think that the danger is real?”

Vaalyun replied, “I have been to the prison of the Overlord, in Khyber, beneath the ancient fortress of Haka’torvhak in the jungle of Q’barra. I have seen it for myself and saw the many demons imprisoned along with the Overlord. We freed the ancient dragon, the one-time leader of the lizardfolk, that it had imprisoned there. I do not come before you today with any second-hand information.”

It was a version of the truth, close enough for his audience. The delegates exchanged looks.

“Preposterous!” said Borurol. “You are the most city-bred elf I have ever seen. You have never seen Khyber.”

“But you are wrong, Borurol,” said Vaalyun. “I travelled there with two Templars of the Silver Flame for protection; their martial training proved vital, as you may imagine. As to Khyber, I saw it thanks to your help.” Reaching into his robe, he withdrew the book with the druidic runes on the cover, and tossed it across the table to land before Borurol. “This comes from your office in the Tharashk guildhouse in Newthrone. We followed the map inside to find one of the many entrances to Khyber that it describes, and used that to gain access to the prison of the Overlord.”

Borurol grabbed up the book and looked up at Vaalyun. “You stole this from my desk?”

Vaalyun chose his words carefully; being too blatant could have repercussions for his House, but he also didn’t want to lie too openly in case the shrewder delegates around the table picked up on it. “I didn’t say that I stole it. You should know that we had to fight many aberrations and demons, imprisoned below in Khyber, before we reached the Overlord’s prison.”

Borurol looked shocked. It was a long shot, as he had had no way of knowing how seriously Borurol took the legends of these Gatekeepers, but Vaalyun hoped that his possession of the book meant that Borurol believed in their legend. From the way that Borurol was staring at the book now, Vaalyun wondered if he might have struck a chord.

“I will speak next, for House Sivis,” said Pagna. “As ever, our House is keen to bring facts rather than opinions to our discussions. We have information from Flamekeep that the Council of Thrane, and the Silver Flame Templars, do believe that the Overlord in Q’barra is real. We can also confirm Vaalyun’s information up to the point that two Silver Flame Templars have been in Q’barra for months. Given the first-hand account that Vaalyun himself brings, and the opinions of other Houses expressed here, House Sivis will now oppose the continuance of the dragonshard trade.”

Haganur protested. “At first you said you were neutral in this argument, and now you declare that you are taking a side?”

“We are still allowed to listen and to form our own opinion, Haganur,” said Pagna. “And information relevant to our discussion ought not to be withheld.”

Several other Houses spoke, but it was clear which direction things were going. House Lyrandar, presumed to be an ally of Tharashk, instead declined to offer support, and the other Houses lined up to join House Phiarlan to oppose the venture; House Jorasco, in particular, spoke strongly against it, due to the potential threat so near to their own homeland of Talenta. Tharashk and Cannith were the only houses in favour.

Having completed a round of the table, it fell to House Tharashk to speak again. Haganur looked angrily around the room, while Borurol had set down the book and was looking thoughtful. He did not stand this time, but leaned forwards to speak.

“We withdraw our request for action in Q’barra at this time—”

Several delegates stood at once and began talking over each other. Haganur was livid, standing and shouting at Borurol and at the other delegates; one of House Cannith’s delegates stood likewise, as did the Sentinel from House Deneith. Vaalyun remained quietly seated and risked a discrete nod towards Pagna d’Sivis—who winked back in return.

After a minute of confusion, Pagna managed to restore order. “As even House Tharashk now appears divided on the correct course of action, the matter before the meeting lapses. There is no consensus and no general support in the Twelve for the continuation of the venture. House Tharashk may convene another meeting if they wish to engage our support again. I call the meeting to a close.” The two House Cannith delegates stood up before she was even finished speaking and stormed out of the room.

“That was a remarkable piece of work, Vaalyun,” said Alyssia, as they walked back to House Phiarlan’s tower. “I have never before seen the Twelve persuaded to abandon a venture with such great potential profit.”

“Pagna d’Sivis deserves the credit as much as me. I had hoped for her support, but she manipulated that meeting masterfully.” Vaalyun was truly a little envious; he still had some things to learn, it seemed.

“You obtained the information that made it happen. Newthrone may be a little too hot for you now, however; Tharashk still has a strong hold there, and you did not make much headway with the King either. We will send someone to take your place. I have another assignment in mind for you.”

Vaalyun’s forehead creased a little; to lose his position in Newthrone, a position that he had worked hard for, was unexpected.

“You have done a service for the Silver Flame it seems,” Alyssia continued, “and you are already familiar with the customs of Thrane. You will be our representative in Flamekeep, our liaison to the Keeper of the Flame, and take charge of all of our operations in Thrane.”

Even Vaalyun, ambitious as he was, would not have aimed so high. The highest representative of House Phiarlan in Thrane—chief liaison of the House to one of the Five Nations! Alyssia was right: he did know much about Thrane’s politics from his service in Thaliost, and his work against the Overlord meant he had done more against the Flame’s greatest enemies than most Templars had ever had ever done. The possibilities were staggering.

Alyssia added “Perhaps you should start by helping the Church to negotiate with its new allies in Q’barra. From your account, their own delegation fared poorly with the lizardfolk.”

Another intriguing thought; Alyssia had this all worked out. Vaalyun, for once lost for words, struggled out a reply. “House Phiarlan... has always excelled at diplomacy between the different peoples of Khorvaire.”

Alyssia smiled. “You will do well I am sure. And I am sure that I do not need to remind you to keep an eye on this Templar that you worked with. Lady Anaya is an exceptionally powerful individual and will be a substantial force in the Church now. Her friendship should prove a valuable asset in the years ahead.”

“Of course. I will be honoured to represent my House.”


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