The air isn’t warm, but it is not the chill most people would feel in winter. The sky is gray, but on the ground amid streets of sandstone buildings and colorful awnings crowds bustle and move, caught up in a million different adventures.
A man in a spidersilk coat leans against a well, arguing some matter of price with Korred wearing furs while inspecting a glimmering wand of ancient origin. A woman with buttons from her hat too her boots spills out of a barway door, laughing up a storm while an orc is thrown out behind her, disgruntled and every bit as inebriated.
Life thrives, free and unstoppable, nestled against the edge of the Sands. The Free City of Ket is never truly still, even as the North comes to a stop in the Winter cold.
The City of Ket is no one thing, but is certainly a little bit of everything. Some of those things are coming together… quickly.
A handful of figures in loose fitting and lightly colored trousers and shawls stalks through the trees of an oasis. Through the brush they see a trio of figures standing around a circle of unnatural ice shards, which glow faintly.
Two of the figures, a man and a woman, are wearing menacing masks made to look like draconic beings. The woman’s skin is the light gray of a Frostrime Orc. The third is dressed more plainly, with wraps around their wrists and pant legs, and a scarf ready to keep sand out of their face and hair. He stands off to the side, waiting and watching.
The pair in masks begin to chant, and the circle glows, the shards of ice growing and splintering outward. Power crackles through the air, and shards of ice begin to break off, flying up into the sky, growing as they rise.
One of the small party spying on this ritual, steps back in aprehension, not even knowing they did so, but as they do a branch cracks beneath their feet.
The man who stood to the side turns, quickly, to the sound, locks eyes with the frightened spy. He raises a fist in the air and speaks. Dark magic spills out from a word of command, and throughout the oasis the groans and rustling of the living dead can be heard, rising in anger.
Tall sandstone arches and columns line a subdued side corridor, where a few scribes shuffle back and forth, bent over contracts and scrolls. At either end of the hall is a pair of figures that at first appear to be wearing a dark colored armor with gold trim, until closer inspection reveals that they are not Gifted in armor, but walking armor themselves.
A pair of scribes hustle toward a guarded door at the far end of the corridor, paying no heed to the watchful metal guardians as they approach.
On the door, a simple gold placard reads: “Office of the Seneschal of the Majestic of the Free City Ket.” Below that, on a wooden sign, another message: “All appointments to speak with the Seneschal of the Majestic of the Free City of Ket must be scheduled with the Assistant to the Seneschal of the Majestic of the Free City of Ket three weeks in advance, unless Special Permissions have been granted by an authorized delegate for an Expedited meeting.”
One of the two knocks, as they exchange a nervous glance.
From within a curt voice responds, “Enter.” As the scribes do so, the main, dressed plainly, and seated at a desk with scrolls and writing implements before him, does not look up. “You were nearly late.”
The two scribes don’t speak, instead exchanging a glance. One starts to speak, quietly muttering, “we’re five minutes earl…” before trailing off at the silent but frantic insistence from their peer. With a roll of their eyes, they speak, “what did you require of us?”
“Nothing. The City of Ket, however, requires your guild to see to the delivery of the invitations here within the next day,” still focusing on the parchment at the center of his desk, he pushes a stack of papers toward the scribes.
“Sir… that is a hefty stack, and a short time frame. Obviously we are eager to serve the Majestic-”
“Good, you will be provided Elite Protection Services from the Mercenary Guild for your couriers per the agreed upon rate between this office and their Guild. You are also to inform them of this.” The Seneschal does not look up as he says this.
Flustered, the scribe pauses to plant their feet, as if bracing, before speaking again, “Sir, we aren’t your on demand courier service, and -”
“Correspondence intended for reception by Recognized Heads of State is to be carried through the Scribes Guild of Ket. Correspondence deemed sensitive to manipulation by potential threats to the Free City of Ket are to be handled within twenty-four hours. Diplomatic Engagement on the part of the Scribes Guild of Ket is to treat all parties as equal when conducting negotiations which involve both the Admiral of the Seven Charters and the Crown of Blacktallow.” The two scribes look back and forth, confused. “The first two are from your contract with my office. The third is from a contractual arrangement made by your guild in facilitating another matter, but which still applies.”
“Wait… are we contacting the Admiral?”
“And six royal courts, their associated ministers as appropriate, the four major Shrines of Sollos, a Vellingrim Duke, multiple clan chiefs, a Warlord, several claimants to authority, and the foreign guild.”
Of the half a dozen Children of the Sand who had hidden in the bushes of the oasis, only two remained, running as fast as they could as trees and bushes broke way to uneven and hard ground.
Behind them came two dozen rotted corpses, arms stretched out in hunger and rage, awkwardly bounding forward. At their center was the one who commanded them, another Child of the Sand. He jogged slowly, patiently.
The duo continued to run, haggard, one of them bleeding from a cut on her arm. Sometimes they would look back, but only ever briefly. Instead they kept their eyes to the for, focused on what was ahead of them.
In the distance, the Free City of Ket rose from the sand.
Surrounding it, more shards of growing ice could be seen rising to the sky above it from all directions.
“Like shit I’m committing that many of my best for that amount on short notice” the mercenary, feet up on his desk, scoffed at the flustered scribe before him.
“If you want to tell the Seneschal’s office you’re ignoring that part of your contract…” the scribe trails off, indicating the threat for violating one of the two laws the city actually had.
The mercenary groaned. “What’s so urgent that I need to send everyone out on messenger duty? This is all VIP’s. They’ve got their own security. Can I at least ask what I’m guarding this precious mail against?”
The scribe looks around nervously, and in a hushed voice, “it’s about… it’s about the Imperium. They say their… Lotus? Whatever they are, it’s everywhere, though. Could be anyone.”
The mercenary sits up in his seat, feet on the floor. “Imperium… that’s the Northerners’ problem. What are we doing getting involved?”
“I don’t know!” the scribe gesticulated as they spoke. “Damn Seneschal didn’t say anything. Just handed me these and gave some instructions on their delivery.”
“Well, I’ll get some fools in their fancy folk armor on the double. Gates are your responsibility.”
Still running, the man and woman could see the gates to the city ahead of them, but they were slowing down. Behind them, the undead had yet to tire. They were starting to gain.
“We’re not… they’re going to… shit…” the woman panted and huffed, trying to speak as she ran. “Too far,” she said, gesturing at the gate.
The man, gasping for air as well, weakly gestured in her direction, waving off her remark. “Nno… no. Guards, I see guards.”
Ahead of them, a unit of Scaled Guard had turned to face them, and was moving closer. The two Children of the Sands dug in deep, trying to run just even a little bit faster, but they were at their limit. Behind them, the undead, now without their leader, were getting closer and closer, inch by inch. Their snarls and clacking of bone was getting louder.
Skin pale, and head faint from the still open wound on her arm, the woman began to stagger. “Can’t-” she did not finish the sentence, instead falling as one of her legs gave out beneath her. As the man turned to help, he stumbled and tripped.
Around them the slapping and scraping of the undead charging could be heard, but the rhythmic clank and thud of the Scaled Guard was coming even faster from the opposite side. The man crawled to his companion, afraid to look up.
In his office, the Seneschal, sat comparing signatures on a pair of documents before placing them in a file by his desk. The room was silent as he worked, lit just enough for eyes to easily focus on the task at hand.
Abruptly, a simple candle on a sconce by the wall that had sat unlit burst into a bright red flame. The Seneschal, immediately looked up, and stood. He left the office, walking quickly, nearly running. Around him, the Scaled Guard were filing out of hidden rooms and marching into defensive positions or taking to the exits into the city.
He moved deeper and deeper into the structure, before coming to an open courtyard. It was peaceful and calm, but at its center was a smaller structure which crackled with power. Another man came in, running with the steady sound of scale mail bouncing to each step.
“Captain?” the Seneschal nodded at the other man, expecting a response.
“Not sure, but we’ve been getting a lot more activity around the outskirts the past few days, and the candle was red, so…”
“Correct.” The two stood before the door to the building from which cracks could be seen of magic flowing and building up through its walls. They paused, giving one another a glance before opening the door.
The two Children of the Sands clung to one another, huddled close to the ground beneath the once again unmoving corpse of one of their pursuers. Around them there was fighting, with the formation of the small unit of Scaled Guard shifting forward and back against the staggered waves of undead.
The man gasped in pain as a heavy metal clank announced the collapse of one of the Guard on top of his leg. Pinned, he put an arm over his head and began to pray he and his companion wouldn’t be trampled.
Whether it worked, and the Threadbearers favored his words, or luck just happened to be on his side, the fighting began to slow. Soon the only sound was the meaty sounds of wounded undead being dispatched for good.
The man lightly patted the cheek of his companion, and her eyes fluttered open, out of focus at first.
“We made it. We made it to the city,” he is crying as he speaks, but she is not looking at him. Instead she is looking over his shoulder, at the sky, and points in terror.
Descending from above, a momentous volley of ice shards, each the size of an ancient tree, is falling. They are many, and they darken the skies above the City.
The Scaled Guard Captain and the Seneschal stand at attention before the Majestic, as he raises his clawed hands up to the sky beyond his chamber.
The Majestic’s eyes are closed in concentration. The captain and the Seneschal exchange a glance, and the Seneschal holds up a hand as if to wait.
Power builds, the room glows, and the air becomes tense with energy. Finally, the Majestic speaks. “This is going to break some things.”
As the shards of ice fall, a shockwave of magic expands from the heart of the city, rattling doors and knocking people to their feet until it reaches the falling shards of ice and where they meet there is a hot white flash and a boom like thunder. The shards each explode, and in their place a flurry of snow and dust flutters down.
For a moment there is a roaring chorus of explosions, culminating in a final burst, after which snow drifts down to the city, and out to the nearby oases.
The two attendants to the Majestic pick themselves up off the floor at the edge of the chamber, where they’d been flung.
The captain speaks first, “Majestic, I apologize but I don’t know the nature of the threat. Orc and undead raids have picked up, but-”
“No. No, I felt this threat, this was the Dragon! I feel its eyes turn to us. If there are little things that would press the city, I trust you to handle it, Captain.”
“Of course, Majestic. How can we assist you against… this?” He glances upwards to where the Majestic had been focusing.
“Hmm… perhaps better help would come from those who have already faced it… yes… Seneschal!” His claws still held up, he turns his attention to the dour beaurocrat.
“Sir?” He pauses for a moment. “Sir, surely you can handle this without… unpredictable influences?”
“My Seneschal I appreciate your awe of my power, but you must summon the people of Nocturne.” He pauses for a moment, and adds as an afterthought, “not the old ones, the current ones.”
“I… of course, sir. If it would so please you. I am also moving to invite a number of foreign dignitaries on the other matter we discussed, shall I postpone?”
The Majestic looks quizzical for a moment, “Why? I do not see why the business you see to needs to stop while I am engaged. Besides, if you are calling to Nocturne, it was them who sent the dream you found so alarming, wasn’t it?”
“…of course, sir. I’ll send them a formal invitation at once-”
The Majestic cut him off, “You may forgo the usual paperwork in enlisting their aid.”
The Seneschal clenches his jaw, and exhales. “Of course, sir. I will send them a formal invitation at once…” hesitating for a moment, he continues with the next part, as if it is hard, “…and the formal documentation of temporary enlistment in crucial aid to the Free City of Ket will be officially waived to expedite their involvement. Sir.”