The train arrives in Edhen and most of the party decides to alight and continue on. As they regard the Elven capital, a convey emerges to meet them. The party is drawn into the city. But as they await in luxury they begin to think the Elves may have hidden their intent as well as they've hidden their city.
Days 59 - 65
Night descends. The cabin is large. There is food and beds and comfort in a space that's fully theirs. Ferran is hours out of sight. The train is in motion. The landscape is a gradually darkening blur. The rhythmic vibration and pulses of acceleration are hypnotising and consoling, and they are pulling the party down into unconsciousness. They're exhausted. They pass out without bothering to set up a watch.
The train flies on. Days pass. They spend hours, hypnotized, looking out the window at the expanse, identical in all domains of direction. It's a palette of two colors: amber and blue.
A thin line of a mountain range rises and then grows rapidly. Continental slabs of rock and ice seize larger and larger chunks of the sky. A few scraggly trees fly by, the sea of grass crashes against rock, and the train begins its ascent.
The party begins to worry about slowing things down. Surely the city must lie ahead. List and Orryn take the controls and try to regain authority over the train's movement. Nothing works and they pass into an incompatible dance of competition, reaching over and past each other, trying to flip switches and turn dials. List tries a new combination. There's a whine behind them in the power car. They speed up.
Small scrubs and pines are replaced by larger trees and the density of green and brown blocks their port and starboard lines of sight. Bars of trees flash in a continuous repetitive pattern. They're fully in the woods. The grade of the ascent increases. Their ears pop.
Arcos first sees the rising walls of Edhen through the slit of passage cut through the forest. List and Orryn are floundering. They're indiscriminately slamming controls in a panic. Orryn finds a underconsole knob and yanks it.
There's a loud pop and shutter. Power is cut. The train slows.
Gravity settles their movement. The train stops five- or six-hundred yards away from panelled, dull-gray walls of a fortress as formless and joyless as a concrete floor. The track terminates through an oval opening up ahead. They've arrived.
It looks like an underused military fortress, plain and utilitarian, preserved like a basalt statue stumbled upon during a mountain hike. They expected opulence, something worthy of the capital of the Elven kingdom. Arcos is confused. He's sure they got on the train headed towards Edhen.
But they're here and they can't stay in the train forever. There isn't an alternative. They'll need to descend and move forward.
They look out the viewports. They're still a fatal fall above the ground. There are a few trees a little further away than a good leap from the train body. They could probably sling a anchored rope over a limb. It might be their only option to safely descend and it should be safe.
While they chat and plan the train slips a step back down the hill.
Balcazar and Arcos get out their ropes and tie hooks to the end while everyone quickly packs. Archar pulls Plakk aside and they conference in a corner. They glance over at the rest of the party but otherwise don't say a word beyond the range of their ears. They don't pack. The train inches backwards into a steady crawl.
Orryn walks out the back door of the engineering car, into open air, and tosses a hooked rope over the nearest branch twenty feet away. He gestures to the rest of the party. Balcazar holds the end while they move across the gap, one by one and hand over. Orryn, Hardy, Arcos: all proceed across slowly but without issue. They reach the tree and safely descend down through the stepped branches onto the pine needle carpet.
Balcazar lets out more rope as the train continues to move and re-anchors his body. List grabs the rope both hands and wraps her legs about its diameter. List has tried to avoid physical tests after her permanent affliction and injury back in Ferran but she doesn't have a choice now but to proceed. She carefully pulls herself along, but the distance is getting longer as the train moves. She pulls faster, the rope scraping her legs.
She doesn't make it. She slips near the tree and drops, bouncing off the branches and landing in an heap. She's hurt. Arcos attends to her wounds and wraps her fractured ankle.
Balcazar, Plakk, and Archar are left. Archar and Plakk both step forward to talk to Balcazar. It's a short conversation. Balcazar shakes his head, shrugs, and hands the rope to Plakk and Archar to anchor, and heads across the gap. As soon as he safely reaches the trunk, Plakk and Archar drop their end rope. They glance at the party and head back into the cabin. Balcazar descends.
Balcazar, Hardy, Arcos, List, and Orryn watch the train crawl back. It slowly picks up speed. Hardy asks Balcazar what the hell is going on with Archar and Plakk. Balcazar says they won't be joining. "They didn't give a reason. They just said we're on our own."
Arcos springs about. He is overjoyed. He's in the woods. It gives him life. It's the simple pleasures of smell and the give of ground under his feet.
The party1 needs to decide what to do. They're in a strand of trees. List is upright but limping. The plain walls of Edhen are a ten minute walk up the hill and through the buffer of a short-grass meadow. There are no signs of life. The fort has no obvious front gate.
First, however, they would rather get clean. They stink. They're still covered with effluent and filth. Arcos and Orryn go to find a source of water.
Arcos and Orryn appraise the landscape. Water shouldn't be hard to find if one understands the contours of the land and they do. They're both scouts. This should be easy. They set off.
Their search path is keeping them mostly perpendicular to the fort. As they walk, they keep catching flickers of movement in the direction of the walls, but they can't find the source. There's motion there but it's always out of sight. It's an aggravating itch in the otherwise understandable forest. They feel tracked. The paranoid builds as they walk until they have to sit down to stop the spinning world of thought.
The slip happens first for Orryn and then Arcos. First, movement out of view. Then a searching glance. Nothing. Then another spark of movement. The walls of fortress are vibrating. Orryn closes his eyes, breathes, opens them again. The effect grows, the landscape is convulsing in a hot mirage haze of bent rays. Orryn looks to his left.
Reality snaps. The city walls explode forward and condense into great tablets of opaque dark glass. The plain meadow shrivels and divides. A thin walkway bridge spans a deep crevice that abuts the walls and delicately threads through a pair of tree-tall doors, slender in width, expansive in height. There's script over the doors that moves in motion imagery welcoming all Elves in.
Orryn looks over. Arcos is transfixed. The peripheral artifacts have ceased. The plain walls are gone and subsumed into the glorious, glowing city of Edhen.
At first Arcos and Orryn miss the Tower but there it growing from the base of Edhen like a great tree, taller than any tree of yore or fable. The pines that surround them would stand around its base like a small mouse to a mighty oxen. They can't see the top. The clouds have obscured it. Or maybe it doesn't have a top. Maybe it reaches to the heavens.
The tower appears and disappears. They have to focus to see it. They have to squint like it's far, out of range, instead of dominating their view. It gives them a headache.
The power and magic necessary to hide away the Elven world deeply scare them. They turn back to finding a stream, which they do, and return back to tell and guide the party.
Orryn and Arcos try to show the rest of the party the city, point out the walls, the tower, the moat, the guards they can now see walking the walls, but the rest only see the same drabness. They try, but there isn't an itch of incongruity. It's disconcerting to Orryn and Arcos.
They address their immediate needs. Orryn and Arcos lead the rest of the party to the stream and they wash up. They clean out the bag of holding, and partially fill it with clean water. The clean water flows brown downstream.
As they clean, they work up a plan. The party decides they'll head to the front gate. Orryn and Arcos know where it is. Ferranian rumors were that a traveler didn't require the same passes to get in and out of Edhen. Perhaps the difficulty is finding your way in and Arcos and Orryn have.
Clean, clothed, and prepared they climb back up the hill and towards the front gate.
As they pass by a mount of piled leaves, they catch a movement in underbrush. A large pile of roots and plant matter beings to pile into a mount. Arcos identifies it as a Shambling Mound. It lunges at the party and they're forced to engage. It's a brief fight. The Shambling Mount is killed and the party moves on.
Twenty Elves on horseback, in light armor, poised and armed with bows and long swords move across the bridge in formation and onto the meadow. Arcos and Orryn watch the patrol head out through the front gate at an orchestrated clip. Up on the walls they see teams of soldiers are guards, grouped in observation.
Orryn and Arcos warn the party. Orryn and List decide to hide and they do, both assuming they've hidden themselves well. The group of riders suddenly materialize to Hardy, Balcazar, and List four hundred yards away. The three are momentarily stunned.
The Elves study their faces and clothing. Balcazar, Hardy, and Arcos step forward to greet them.
The head of the group unmounts.
"I've come on Edhen authority to request that you accompany us back. My men and women will guide you."
They've surrounded Balcazar, Hardy, and Arcos. They're well armed. Hardy says "All right." The Elves realign themselves and together they walks in silence towards the front doors. List and Orryn watch them leave.
Balcazar and Hardy are suddenly surrounded by the city. They were in the meadow, heading towards the wall, and then were hit by the sudden scene of city color and expanse of civilization, as if they had fallen unconscious and awoken, still standing, in a foreign land. Arcos watches as they approach the gates and tries is his best to feint surprise at his new surroundings.
Feigning surprise isn't hard. The city is gorgeous. The buildings, roads, everything is a play upon the design of nature, improvements even, taking common forms and making them grand. Or maybe it's the opposite way around. Maybe the dullness outside the walls escaped and propagated and this is the epicenter of all life. It feels like it. The buildings fill the space like trees, their wide branches walkways, their broad roots entrances. The roads are dark green and gold.
The Tower briefly pops into view, Arcos suppresses a gasp, and then its gone.
Balcazar, Arcos, and Hardy have just a minute to enjoy the view before they are shuttled through a secured door and into a smooth wood and metal hallway. At the end is a single door. That door is opened and they are led into a circular room with comfortable bench seats and several additional doors without handles. There are several closed, woven boxes on a low, central pedestal.
An Elf says "We need your weapons. We'll return them of course, but it's a safety protocol we must follow. You'll need to wait here for a while. There is food and drink in the middle. Help yourself. The benches should be wide enough to sleep if you'd like."
Balcazar, Hardy, and Arcos hand over the weapons. The Elves leave. The door closes behind. It's quiet. There are no sounds beyond the ones they create.
Outside, Orryn and List fret.
Their wait outside becomes into several tense hours. List and Orryn bicker and wait. Orryn debates walking up to the gates.
The group of mounted elves emerge for the second time and head directly towards List and Orryn's nooks. They approach their space and both List and Orryn know they've been spotted or maybe had always been under observation. They pull themselves up to a standing position.
An Elf says, "You're friends are waiting. Please come with us."
Like the others, Orryn and List do. There isn't another choice.
Everyone is united. Orryn and List hand over their weapons. They sit down. The party is left alone. Orryn inspects the boxes in the middle of the room. They're open and filled with bottled fruit juices and baked goods. Orryn tears into the food. List pokes around, more cautions of their circumstance.
There's a click, the sound of metal movement, and a peripheral door opens. Two guards step out and to the side.
A third guard walks into the room and requests the party follow. Everyone collects themselves, Hardy grabs chunk of bread to go, and they step through the door, down a short hallway, and into a plain, large room with a single desk and several facing bench seats. Behind the desk is a middle-aged elf in tailored silk with rugged hands. He remains sitting as the party enters and gestures for them to sit.
After they sit, he gets up walks around his desk and addresses the party. He asks for the party's name and everyone gives them their true names.
He speaks, "My name is Vaalyun," he says. I hope you are doing well."
"Thank you for sitting. I'm am very, very interested in your story. We all watched the train come in and watched you descend—well not all of you, we're puzzled about that—and show up, right here at our doorstep. We're all wondering why? What's the story."
"I'm here just to ask you a few questions. You're here on your own free will and will be free to leave."
The party gives a short background of their story. Vaalyun listens attentively. Hardy notices a few guards around the periphery straining to listen in.
The minutes click by and to Orryn it looks like the conversation is going to drag on. He's getting restless and talk seems like an awful way to get the point. Are they going to be let go, killed, put into forced labor. Orryn doesn't like the pretext. Orryn stretches and then deliberately slips under a bench and out of sight, and moves, like a cat, slowly and without sound. He suddenly pops up behind Vaalyun. The guards that ring the room raise their weapons. Vaalyun smiles and gestures Orryn to sit back down.
"I appreciate he showmanship. I used to be out and about like you, but now I have a desk job. But I think I'm better at the first."
"I will fulfill our promise to let you go and I won't lie to you, but unfortunately that won't be today. There's lot to talk about. We'll provide excellent lodgings. The guards will escort you. You're weapons will be waiting for you."
"There's a way you might be even more helpful," he smiles. "Elves and Dwarves aren't know to be the best of friends. We have a couple of what we call simulations we'd like you to try. They're relaxing, like being in a dream. They're another way of communication, sometimes better than conversation which your small friend appears have grown tired of. If you're willing to participate, we would reward you with something appropriate. Good magic items. Whatever you might want."
It's good to be wanted but everyone in the party is suspicious. They don't really have time to discuss. Hardy, reading the situation, says "sure". Vaalyun says "Great. We'll continue our conversation tomorrow."
He sands up. He tells the guards to bring them to Hotel Two.
The guards escort the party out of the room and back into the waiting area. They walk up to a locked and unopened door. A guard pulls a clear rod from his pocket and places into a camouflaged keyhole in the wall. The door slides open. Everyone walks through.
The passageway terminates in another door smooth door. The key is inserted, the door opens.
Framed in the door is a beautiful enclosed courtyard and garden surrounded by a covered walkway and open-door rooms. A large, breezy red oak spreads under an open sky. It smells good, of wood and open air. Shrubs bow under branches heavy with fruit.
A guard leads the party in and walks with them through the space, by the furnished rooms, the kitchen area stocked with cured meat, vegetables, and fruit, by an open, bubbling cistern with clean water. He says everything will be kept fresh. It's wonderful and luxurious.
The guards say that Vaalyun will be back tomorrow.
The guards gather and walk out. They close the door behind them. It clicks softy closed. The party can barely make out the line that differentiates the door's outline from the wall and as they watch even that disappears. There's no sign the door was even there. It's just another part of wooden wall, that feels and responds like wood, and that responds to a balled fist like any other spot.
The party completes a walk around the periphery. Eight rooms, a full kitchen, warm blankets and sheets, but no exits.