Chapter Four: Just an Average Tuesday
The companions stumbled back to the town of Nightstone on tired feet. They discussed Xolkien at length with Morack, but the townspeople choosing between either homelessness in a larger city or returning to their homes and finding peace with their new leaders, simply chose the latter. The stone which the town was named after had been stolen by the cloud giants in their attack, but Morack and the other townspeople couldn’t tell them what is was for or why it was taken, only that it was displayed in the centre of town as a monument.
The townspeople scattered inside the town gates and went to their respective homes. Their party joined Morack to his inn and he provided them with private rooms and beds for the night. Roon performed his nightly prayers, staff in hand, then snuffed out his candle and went to sleep.
Morning came, and the party convened downstairs, where Morack served up some fresh loaves of bread. He explained that some of his provisions had been safeguarded from raiders in a hidden cellar beneath barrels of refuse. While his good wine and most of his prepared foods were taken, he still had a good portion of what he owned. “Thankfully, goblins aren’t the cleverest of folks,” he said in his gruff, thick accent. “They don’t go lookin’ too hard for anythin’.”
“Is there anything we can do for the people of Nightsone, to help in the town’s recovery?” Kilian asked the dwarf.
Roon looked up at his friend dubiously. “Kilian, why are you always trying to volunteer? We need gold. We’re not a charity,” he whispered. Roon knew the consequences of altruism, and he dared not make that mistake again.
“This is my home town,” the sorcerer said, “and these people may need our help. Shouldn’t we help the people who need it?”
Roon shrugged in response. In watching this exchange, Morack said, “there are those who did not survive the attacks, and their families have yet to be notified.”
“Can’t you use a pigeon for that?” Thia asked.
“Thia,” Kilian said in surprise, “would you want to be told by a pigeon that someone in your family was dead?”
The elf sighed and scratched her head. “I suppose there could be better ways of finding out.”
“Okay,” Roon said, “but we don’t know any of these people or their families, so how are we supposed to find them?”
With that, Morack began listing off family names and where they lived, most of them nearly a thirty-day journey from Nightstone. After some discussion, they decided to go to Triboar to notify a woman of her ex-husband’s death. “There are rumours of fire giants in the area, if you still pursue that course of action,” the dwarf told them.
“Then it’s settled,” Thia nodded.
“Great,” Roon said sarcastically. “I’m super excited to, once again, not be paid any gold and probably be killed by something much bigger and stronger than us.”
“Now, Roon,” Kilian said instructively, “it’s good to save lives. As a cleric, you should know as much.” He leaned down to the gnome and also whispered, “and it’s good to be paid. We’ll find someone to give us gold for our services.”
Roon nodded appreciatively, though he still couldn’t rid himself of the visual of a giant squashing him underfoot, his body left as unnoticed jelly in the grass. To them, Roon was an ant. A very clever, handsome, hilarious ant, mind you. But still, small by giant-ish standards.
“I would like to kill things,” Evelyn added hopefully.
Roon placed a friendly hand on her elbow. “I think that will definitely happen.”
Kilian smiled down at Roon.
With that, they went outside in search of Xolkien with Morack in tow, Kilian offering to introduce him to the new, self-appointed leader of the town. The town was busy with men and women dressed in uniform, displaying the Zhentarim emblem: a flying snake in the shape of a dagger. They were carrying in supplies for the town’s people and distributing them to the various homes. By the looks of it, they were actually helping people.
“Perhaps they’re not so bad,” Kilian thought aloud.
“Xolkien’s still an ass,” Roon said, and Thia vocalized her agreement.
Kilian took a woman aside. She was carrying a crate with the Zhentarim emblem stamped on her chest. She stopped and looked at him, her hair out of place and sweat beading her brow. “Your leader, Xolkien. Can we find him somewhere?”
“He should be around,” she shrugged unhelpfully at the various people milling about.
“Where can I find him?”
“Has anyone seen Xolkien?” the woman called out impatiently, and another man passing them with a sack of potatoes over each shoulder nodded his head eastward and said, “he’s that way.”
Kilian nodded in thanks and the party headed across town. Xolkien stood in all his frowning glory at the base of the eastern tower, pacing slowly as a shorter man with a sparse mustache read a ledger aloud to him. When Xolkien noticed them approaching, he held up a hand and dismissed the man.
“So, I see you’ve returned, your duty fulfilled,” he said, nose turned up.
“So, I see you’re still the worst,” Roon muttered under his breath, and Thia shot him a reprimanding look.
Kilian gave Xolkien a nod. “We did as you demanded. So, tell me. Why this town? What plans do you have for it?”
“You don’t need this information,” the leader said stubbornly.
“Yes, but it might ease my mind,” Kilian said, brushing back his dark hair streaked with silver. “Some of these people are old friends of mine.”
Xolkien eyed him slowly, his gaze then tracing over the rest of the group. “They will be well taken care of,” he said finally.
“Alright,” Kilian said thoughtfully. “One last question, then.”
Xolkien dipped his head.
“These giants appearing—they wouldn’t have anything to do with you, would they?”
“No,” the man said, shaking his head. “They are something else entirely.”
“Then, it appears my friends and I will be leaving. Here is Morack, owner of the town’s inn. I trust that you will keep the people of Nightstone safe, and I hope we never meet again.”
“Hold up,” Roon said, and Thia sighed dramatically. “We deserve to be paid for this. We nearly died to get these townspeople to safety, just so you could rule over them. Look at us. Look at Evelyn,” he gestured to the girl, her clothing tattered, and her arms scarred from her many unhealed cuts. “If you really are as altruistic as you claim, you will pay us what you’re worth in character.”
After a few moments of consideration, the flicker of a smile crossed Xolkien’s pale, thin lips and he gestured for the man with the ledgers to return. The man approached hurriedly. “Pay them each twenty gold.”
The small man divvied up the funds nervously.
“Very generous of you,” Kilian said, though Roon could sense the coldness in his tone. It was the underlying pressure of the raging storm within the sorcerer. It spoke of rainier days and swirling ocean winds.
“Goodbye,” Xolkien said.
With that, Kilian turned on his heel and gestured for everyone to leave, which Roon gratefully did after flipping a rude hand gesture in Xolkien’s direction. The man raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Roon took issue with men who thought they deserved to rule just because they had the power to take something into their control. Roon tucked his gold into his cloak and continued on after his friends.
“So,” Kilian said when they were all away from Xolkien and Morack, who stayed behind. “Are we still in agreeance? We head to Triboar to inform that woman of her loss and perhaps take on news of these roaming fire giants?”
“Fire giants sound nice,” Evelyn said pleasantly.
“Do you think you could fight one, Evelyn?” Kilian asked, and Evelyn shrugged.
“I would like to make some money,” Roon told them.
“What about you, Opal?” Kilian asked the genasi.
“I will follow whatever course the group decides,” she said in her dreamlike voice, her hair shimmering in waves of colour as she tossed it over one shoulder.
“You’re a very agreeable person,” the sorcerer nodded appreciatively.
“Money might be nice,” Evelyn said, looking over at Roon, who winked.
“Remind me to teach you proper gambling,” he told the girl.
“Money is on my mind as well,” Kilian said.
“Any direction we go will have better opportunity for money than where we are right now,” Thia said thoughtfully. “So, I say we move on. Today.”
“North?” Kilian confirmed. “To Triboar?”
“I’m ready,” Roon said happily, planting his staff firmly in the ground. “Let’s go kill some fire giants.”
Evelyn nodded, excitement showing in her usually bored expression.
By the afternoon, the group gathered what provisions they could and headed out onto the road.
They had nine days of provisions on them and agreed to hunt for whatever else they needed. Being a city boy, Roon hoped the genasi knew what she was doing. She said she knew the forests well and Roon accepted that, so long as he didn’t have to skin or de-bone, or whatever, any of the animals himself. So long as they came to him already cooked, he would be an agreeable camper.
Their first day and night of travel passed uneventfully. On the second day, Roon shouted for them to stop again.
“You have to go again, already?” Thia asked.
“It’s only natural,” Opal said sing-songedly.
“I dunno what to tell you,” the gnome shrugged, jogging to the sparse treeline and unbuttoning his breeches to relieve himself. “Somehow, this bottle of wine ended up in my pack.”
“You didn’t have to drink it,” the elf scolded. “And in the morning, no less.”
“Um, hey everyone, I think I see something…” As Evelyn said this, everyone looked up and turned at the sight of a massive, floating stone tower, moving with the clouds and coming slowly in their direction. Roon quickly buttoned his pants and ran to the road with the rest of them. The tower seemed to be floating on the clouds he could now see, and, strangest of all, was the massive, floppy black and white wizard’s hat that sat atop it.
“Everyone can see that, right?” Roon asked uncertainly, pulling out his half-drank bottle of red from his pack and inspecting the label for hallucinogens.
“It is there, alright,” Kilian said in disbelief.
“I don’t know if that’s a relief, or…”
“Have any of you seen anything like this before?” Kilian asked the group as the tower continued slowly toward them.
Thia, Opal and Evelyn all shook their heads together. “That would be one of the floating castles that Kella warned us about that attacked Nightstone.” Thia said.
“Well,” Kilian said, eyeing the sparse patch of trees to their right. “We are out in the open, and there’s not much space to hide. I say we hail them as a friend and see what comes. What say the rest of you?”
“It looks like they’ve already seen us,” Opal said softly. “We can try. I like new friends.”
Evelyn drew her blades across her arms, drawing blood and flames as the tower finally reached them where they walked. It stopped, floating above them, and a spiral staircase slowly descended and nearly touched the ground, hovering there. The steps were of a human proportion. Kilian stepped up to the base of the stairs and shouted up. “Are you friend, or foe?”
“I think we go up,” Opal whispered excitedly.
Evelyn nodded, the light of her drawn blades reflected in her eyes.
“I’ve always wanted to walk on a cloud!” Opal said, clasping her hands before her.
Roon rolled his eyes and Thia pushed ahead to step up first. The cloud stairs held her weight, so she continued up carefully, Kilian following hesitantly at her heels. Finally, the rest of them followed, Evelyn taking up the rear.
They climbed at least a thousand feet with laboured breaths before they reached the landing. It opened onto an empty porch with a large, wooden door.
“I suppose whoever is up here couldn’t hear me yelling from all the way down there,” Kilian said thoughtfully, reaching for the massive door to test if it was locked.
Roon stood at the edge of the cloud and sent a steady stream of piss into the air over it. At Thia’s disgusted look, the gnome smirked and said, “it’s not every day you get to do that!”
She shook her head and turned as Kilian pushed the door open with some effort. It led into a marbled foyer, which was empty and had more steps leading up.
“If the people in this tower are evil, we should hijack this thing and take it to Triboar,” Roon said in a hushed voice. “Faster than walking.”
“Do we know how to steer a giant floating castle?” Thia asked, and Roon shrugged.
“What if they are the people holding this thing together?” Kilian whispered. “I know clouds. I make them. And none are so substantial as this.” He gestured at their surroundings.
“I don’t know, Kilian,” the gnome said confidently. “Maybe these are Northern clouds. We haven’t been all the way North. Who knows how things work up there?”
Kilian looked back over the edge of the cloud at the ground far, far below, and seemed to pale, his ice-blue eyes widening. Roon patted a hand on his leg comfortingly, sensing in the human a similar feeling he had felt that first day in Nightstone. It was fear of the unfamiliar.
“Well, there’s no sense standing out here,” Thia said, and walked up the stairs. “It’s time to greet our guest. Hello?” She called out, her voice echoing up the tower. The rest followed behind her again, Evelyn’s swords still burning brightly.
They entered a wide, octagonal room, and towering high above them was a massive hole in the dome of the ceiling. Then, as if from a whimsical dream, down floated a fifteen-foot tall cloud giant from a balcony. He slowly drifted down to land in front of them, cloaked in a black and white toga reminiscent of the giant hat atop the tower.
“Hello!” he said happily in a friendly, booming voice.
“Little people!” He gasped. “How nice!”
“Hey!” Roon shouted up at the tall figure as he landed lightly on his large feet. “I’m not that little. I’m three-foot-one,” he said proudly.
“Hello!” Opal said happily.
“Hello!” The giant said again.
“Hello!” Opal imitated his exact demeanour, down to the wane smile.
“That’s good, I think.” Roon said, holding up a hand to the genasi and rubbing his temple with the other.
“Hail, great giant!” Kilian said, dipping his head. “Master of the skies.”
“And what’s your name?” The giant asked kindly, leaning down his big, greyish head.
“Kilian,” said the sorcerer. “And whom do I have the honour of addressing?”
“My name” the giant said with a toothy smile, straightening, “is Zephyros.”
“Hello, Zephyros. My name is Thia,” the elf bowed.
“So, Zeph—can I call you Zeph?” Roon asked without waiting for a response. “Where are we going, since you clearly picked us up for a reason.”
“Where are you going?” the giant asked.
“Did you pick us up for any reason?” Thia asked tentatively.
“I just like little people!” The giant shrugged.
“I like your staircase!” Opal exclaimed.
“Thank you!” Zephyros smiled again.
“We’re headed to Triboar,” Thia said, gazing up at the tall figure.
“Triboar, you say? Hm,” the giant nodded his head thoughtfully. “Perhaps this isn’t a coincidence.”
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Roon said, arms folded.
“I visited another plane,” Zephyros said. “I was told by the entities that I would meet some people heading to Triboar, and that I should help them.”
“Oh,” Thia said in surprise, looking around at her companions.
“Yes,” Zephyros said seriously. “You must be the ones who are going to fix everything with the giants.”
“I—I didn’t realize we…” Kilian looked at Roon helplessly, who grimaced in response. He knew what the sorcerer was thinking. They hadn’t signed up for a world-shifting, prophecy-making, all time giant-slaying kind of thing. There were just here to get some gold and maybe help a few people, at Kilian’s request.
“What’s happened to the giants?” Roon finally asked.
“And what have you done to help it?” Thia added.
“Ah, well,” Zephyros shrugged, “I was told by the entities to have more of an indirect influence on the war to come.”
War to come? Roon thought, panic swelling. He came to the mainland for adventures, not death. Certainly not to become part of a prophecy. Baravar, what do you have to do with this? He wondered.
“What can you tell us about it?” The elf asked.
“The ordening has been shattered,” the giant’s tone grew heavy.
“What was the catalyst to this shattering?” Thia asked.
“The storm king has disappeared,” he sighed, sitting down on the ground in front of them, floating to his seat rather than dropping.
“And the others are trying to usurp his throne?”
“Uh, where did he go?” Evelyn asked softly, her blades lowered but still crackling with flame.
“I don’t know,” the giant said sadly, then perked up and stood quickly. “Let’s go to Triboar so you can fix it!”
“Do you know how to defeat a fire giant by any chance?” the elf said quickly.
“I think if you stab it enough it should work,” he said helpfully. “I don’t know. I tend not to use violence.”
“Do you have any useful spells?” Thia prodded.
“I have books,” he answered, to which Thia’s eyes brightened with excitement.
“Any pet snakes?” Roon asked. “The last people we met had flying snakes.”
“I have pet griffins! Ah, don’t go upstairs,” the large figure shifted nervously as he said this.
Opal’s face fell. “Do they live in the hat?”
“Uh, yes,” Zephyros told her, then said again, “but don’t go up there.”
An awkward, serious silence followed.
“Do you know what happened in Nightstone?” Thia asked.
Zephyros looked at her questioningly.
“Cloud giants attacked the city,” she said. “They destroyed it and stole their stone, and sent the people running for their lives.”
Zephyros gasped in what seemed to be genuine surprise. “That’s an atrocity.”
“That’s exactly what we thought,” Kilian said, looking more troubled.
“Could they be relatives of yours?” the elf asked hesitantly.
“I don’t know,” Zephyros shook his head. “This is the first I’ve heard of this.”
“Who are these entities that speak with you?” Kilian asked. “They told you nothing of this attack?”
“I don’t know who they are,” the giant smiled apologetically.
“Are they voices you hear in your head?” Roon asked. It was best to cover every possible road, especially when dealing with mainlanders.
“No, no,” he said. “I just do a magical spell and everything gets spacey, and then I hear them speaking to me.”
“Oh,” Roon said slowly, casting a sideways glance at his friend.
“So, what is your position in the—the ordening?” Kilian asked.
“I am a cloud giant,” Zephyros said.
“Are you closely associated with many of your people?” Thia asked.
“I try to stay out of conflicts. King Hecaton barely held the ordening in control, and once he disappeared…”
“Right,” Kilian said in understanding. “Thank you for offering your help, Zephyros.”
Zephyros dipped his head and began to float a few inches off the ground. “Don’t go upstairs,” he reminded them with a smile.
“Do you play games?” Roon asked quickly. “Games of chance?”
“I could play a game,” the giant said slowly, “but then I need to get back to the navigation room. To steer.”
“Oh, right,” Roon said. Games were the best way to get to know a person. To learn their bluffs, their mannerisms and, most importantly, their strategy in the long game. “I’ll just play with myself,” he said, and Evelyn looked over at him with embarrassment. “What?” Roon whispered at her in defence. “Everyone does it.”
She blushed even harder and looked away, stifling a giggle.
Kilian looked down at Roon and rolled his eyes.
“Could I see the navigation room?” Thia was asking.
Zephyros examined her for a moment and said, “sure, I guess so.” Without waiting for the rest of them to speak up, he grabbed Thia gently by the middle and lifted her up in one large, grey-knuckled hand, then flew up and disappeared beyond the giant balcony far, far above them.
“Kilian,” Roon said quietly, staring up in awe. “I think we should try to go upstairs.”
“And die?” Kilian hissed.
“I could use my illusory magic to disguise myself.”
“As a cloud giant?”
“Well, no. I can’t do anything that large quite yet. But, ah—perhaps a rabbit?”
Looking around, they saw the bottom of the tower was quite empty except for a massive, unadorned mahogany desk against one wall with no drawers or papers. The walls were finely designed but revealed no hidden doorways or passages.
“Can we go upstairs?” Evelyn asked impatiently. “There’s nothing down here.”
“I want to ride a griffin!” Opal said.
“How will we get up?” Roon wondered. “Can any of you fly?” They all shook their heads, all except Kilian, who gave Roon a look.
“There are no stairs,” Kilian said, “and I fear this may be a fool’s endeavour.”
“Hey! Um, Zeph?” Roon shouted, his small voice echoing up the tower.
“Yes?” Zephyros’s head appeared over the balcony.
“Can we visit your library? You said you had books. Where are they?” Roon gestured to the empty room around them.
“They are upstairs,” the giant said.
“Can you bring us up there?” Roon asked hopefully. “We’re too small, and I don’t see any stairs.”
“Hm, do you read giantish?”
“I do, yes. Definitely yes.” Roon lied.
“I could bring you a book if you would like. What subjects interest you?”
“I like to browse,” the gnome said.
“No,” the giant answered. “No, I think it’s best you stay down there, where I won’t accidentally step on you!” With that, the giant’s head disappeared from sight.
“There’s something off about that fellow,” Roon muttered, then sighed in boredom. “There is nothing to do in here. Everything is too big and out of reach.” He pressed a hand to the ground and made it tremble using his thaumatury spell.
“Please,” Kilian said in a strained voice, rubbing his silver-streaked hair nervously through his fingers, “don’t disturb it.”
Roon stood. “Kilian, are you afraid of heights?”
Kilian shrugged uncomfortably. “No.”
“It’s alright if you are, Kilian.” He leaned in and whispered. “I’m a bit afraid of women, if that helps.”
“I simply prefer sea level,” he muttered.
With that, they settled in with resignation, unrolling their bedrolls on the hard floor and sitting back.
“Um, Roon,” Evelyn said hesitantly, “could you teach me a card game?”
“Oh, sure,” he smiled, patting the ground across from him and drawing out a deck of cards, shuffling them expertly between his hands. “Have you ever heard of Fifty-Two Pickup…?”
When Thia eventually returned to them, she was not keen on Roon’s plan to try and sneak to the upper part of the tower.
“We have found a gracious host—albeit, one that could easily kill all of us if given a reason—and I don’t feel the need to step on any toes.”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious?” Roon demanded in a hushed voice, looking at each of them accusatorily. “How is it I’m the only one who wants to figure out what he’s hiding? Me! Have I become paranoid about everything, or is there some truth in my fears?”
“I’d like to know too,” Evelyn said.
“Thank you, Evelyn!”