“Let me tell you about my character…”

Uuco stared in blank horror as a hoard of ragged street urchins swarmed his embattled friends, their adorably tiny fingers and claws reaching toward the illusion of fresh food…and towards the slumbering, destructive Roarer that lay beneath.

“What have I done?” He breathed. He hastily shook his head. “No, Uuco: hold your horses! Gripping and moaning won’t save your friends!”

He raised his hands, sparks of lightning leaping from finger to finger.

“No, Uuco!” V’vendy shouted in frustration, grasping at a tiny Nobble clinging to her shoulder like a squirrel. “Don’t solve this problem by murdering children!” The young Nobble bit V’vendy’s fingers. “Ow!” V’vendy seized the child and threw her into a charging squadron of orphans, knocking them over into a pile. “Sorry!” V’vendy the Deathweaver blurted.

“Fine, fine!” Uuco grumbled. “There’s only one option left, then. Maybe the Hidden Gods take pity on me…”

He reached into his pouch…and drew out a string of gold-plated seashells.

“Hey, you!” Uuco shouted, loud. “Whippersnappers!”

A thousand doe-like youthful eyes turned from their food-raiding assault and stared at Uuco.

Uuco broke the money string and threw the gold shells into the crowd of urchins. “Money!” He shouted. “It’s like food, but even better! Here!”

The urchins turned from the glamoured illusion of the food cart and dropped to hands and knees, pawing among dirt and bricks to for the gold shells.

Corax blinked suddenly, then gathered himself and raised a claw in the air. “Get ready!” He shouted to V’vendy and Rintha. “We’re punching through!”

“Right!” Rintha shouted. “Come on, V’vendy!” He pulled a sling stone from his pocket, whispered a resonant word, and threw it to the ground. The stone vaporized into a cloud of thick, earthy dust that obscured vision and sight.

Corax, snout tucked low, charged through the dust cloud, knocking aside the few standing urchins with a sweep of his tail. V’vendy and Rintha followed on his right and left, V’vendy dragging the disguised, shaggy-haired Roarer behind her with her wind magic.

From the perspective of the Urchins, the four pilgrims ran around the street corner with their foo cart and disappeared from sight.

“Oy,” one of the Urchins, a Saurian with a pet spider, muttered. “Those Pilgrims gluttonous down-some, you say?”

“Preach,” a few of the other urchins chimed in unison.

The Saurian Urchin stroked his spider’s fur, and then held out an empty claw. “Now-now: All you folk with coin, one jot for the sickly Urchin Fund you’re handing, yah?”

Man of the Urchins groaned, shuffling in single file towards the Saurian and donating a portion of their proceeds.

%%%

Uuco, V’vendy, Rintha and Corax kept running until they reached the House of Lady Ira.

The House of Ira stood apart from the crowded, mud-brick buildings of Baruck, surrounded by a shallow trench of water filled with swamp reeds and wild flowers. The House itself resembled a fortress, four rectangular buildings linked by four towers with jagged-tooth crenulations. A narrow bridge forded the swamp trench and led up to the lapis-lazuli adorned gate, flanked by sandstone statues of building, long-bearded figures cradling harps at their sides.

As the Pilgrims crossed the bridge, a servant in a white tunic that brushed the ground opened the gate a crack and poked his head through.

“This is the House of Ira, the House of the Harp!” The servant proclaimed. “What intent bring you to our doors?” His eyes narrowed. “If you’re looking for alms,” he said, “we hand them out three days from now…”

“Mmmm…!” Uuco snorted, mustache bristling. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, whippersnapper–!”

“We are Ira’s allies and fellow Pilgrims!” V’vendy said, holding up Ira’s cylinder seal. “She wishes for you to give us shelter until she arrives herself!”

The Servant’s eyebrows rose. “Lady Ira sent you–?” He exclaimed. “She would associate with such…” He coughed and pounded his chest. “Forgive my manners. I am Thiris, Steward and Batman to the House of Ira!”

He pushed the gates open and beckoned. “Welcome!”

%%%

The Courtyard to the House of Ira was filled with many marvellous things; wide-branched, thick-leaved olive trees that cast rich dark shade, pools of water filled with gold-scaled fish, flowers and lilies, mauve awnings and a slanted gazebo with eating couches beneath its roof.

Corax hissed softly, his feathered tail shaking back and forth. “Damn,” he muttered. “Not another Gazebo.”

“Dibs!” Uuco shouted, rushing over to one of the gazebos and diving onto one of the pillow-filled eating couches.

Thiris snapped his fingers, and a twored-clad servants stepped out from behind the olive trees, forming up in a line. “How may we serve you, most honored guests?” Thiris asked, bowing slightly at the waist.

V’vendy gestured with splayed fingers at the floating, slumbering Roarer, gingerly lowering him to the ground. “Please feed this man a sleeping draught and set him on your most comfortable bed,” she said softly. “It’s really, really, really, really, important you do this.” She raised her voice slightly. “Really important.”

Thiris snapped his fingers, and two servants rushed off towards the courtyard’s northern walls. “It shall be done!” He said.

Uuco, lying languidly on the couch beneath the gazebo, snapped his finger in the air, with a spark of lighting. “Underlings!” He declared. “Fetch me a mug of your finest! As big as I can carry!”

“No need to worry, ” Corax remarked sardonically. “Since he’s a Nobble, that’d be a normal sized mug.”

“As you say… honored guest,” Thiris said slowly. “I will return shortly.” He walked off towards the mansion’s western building, ducking through a grey curtain.

The two other servants returned, bearing a long sleeping cough draped with fine sheets and downy pillows. Setting it down under the gazebo by Uuco, they lifted the slumbering Roarer and quickly laid him on the couch.

“Mind his bandaged feet,” V’vendy blurted out.

“As you say, honored guest,” one of the servants said, raising a clay bottle and unstopping it. “Here is the sleeping draught you requested,” the servant said, leaning over the Roarer’s lolling mouth. “A mouthful should keep him under…”

Wait,” V’vendy, going to one knee beside the sleeping Roarer. “Before we douse him, we should ask him how he came to be like this.”

Rintha inhaled sharply. “The moment he wakes up, he’ll destroy this place,” he said flatly. “A single word from his mouth–”

“He’s spoken before without causing a disaster…” V’vendy pointed out. “If we keep him on the edge of sleep, we might be able to learn something!”

She leaned down and whispered in the Roarer’s ear. “Something’s been…done to you,” she said softly. “Who did this to you?”

The Roarer shifts and rolled his head back. He made no noise.

“Who did this to you?” V’vendy asked again, wind rushing from her mouth like a spring breeze and rustling the Roarer’s shaggy hair.

The Roarer shuddered quietly. Droplets of burning mana escaped from his mouth, along with two half-mumbled words.

Th’ priests…”

Rintha hastily pried the sleeping draught from the servant’s hands and trickled two drops down the Roarer’s throat. The shaggy-haired man’s throat worked once or twice…and his trembling stilled.

Thiris emerged from the curtain door, bearing a large chalice and spoon. He walked over to Uuco and set the drink and utensils down on a small table. “The largest vessel in our house, as you wished,” Thiris said demurely.

Uuco stood up and starred at the goblet in dismay. “This ain’t beer or wine!” He blurted out. “Leastways, no kind of wine I’ve ever written about!”

“You did request the best drink in our house,” Thiris said with a sniff. “Fresh out of the sheep’s bladder.”

“But I wanted to get drunk!” Uuco protested. “You knew I wanted to get drunk!”

“I only heard what you requested,” Thiris declared, standing stiff and straight. “I would hardly dare to loosely interpret the requests of an… esteemed guest such as yourself.”

Uuco starred at the creepy chalice of frothy yogurt, and then sighed. “Whelp,” he said, “at least it’s pricey!” He grabbed the spoon and dug in.

%%%

As afternoon turned to evening, and evening to dusk, Lady Ira, heir to the House of the Harpers, returned to her ancestral home, stepping through it’s gates with a sigh of relief. In her hand she bore her harp, every one of its strings snapped and dangling.

“Thiris!” She proclaimed. “Throw me a foot bath, if you please! The past month has been most draining!”

She stepped into the courtyard to find, Corax standing under an olive tree, while the other Pilgrims sat beneath a Gazebo, sampling yogurt from a goblet with wooden spoons.

“It’s quite good,” Rintha admitted, smacking his earthen lips together. “Is that water buffalo I taste?”

“It tastes like goat to me,” V’vendy offered.

“I see you’ve kept yourself busy,” Lady Ira said, strolling over to the Gazebo. “And that you’ve been raiding my larder.”

V’vendy fumbled for her belt purse. “Were we not supposed to?” She said. “We can pay you back if you want–!”

Ira raised a calming hand. “Peace, Deathweaver,” she said. “You and the others did good bringing the Roarer here safely. And after all that’s happened, we could use a night of rest.”

She strolled into the gazebo, brushed dust off the eating couch, and then leaned back on it with a sigh. “Is the Roarer in hand?” She asked Rintha.

Rintha grunted. “He’s sedated in one of the northern rooms, and should be safe until the morning,” he replied, idly tossing a sling stone from hand to hand. “I recommended smothering him before he could wake, but the others–” he glared at Uuco, Corax and V’vendy. “–Voted against it.”

“I remember our hunts together, Rintha: I know how dangerous Roarers are,” V’vendy said, twiddling her thumbs together. “But if we could talk to this one more, we could learn where the Zealots are hiding…and how they transformed him into a gateway to endless magic.”

“Priests,” Corax said aloud. “He said ‘Priests’ without blowing anything up. It could mean that Zealots are hiding among the Priesthood…or that he remembers the healers who treated him. Either way, we need to learn more–“

“It’s too dangerous!” Rintha insisted. “Every word he utters create a magical effect. If we let him speak while fully conscious, he’d generate a surge of mana that could scorch us all!”

“What if we gagged his mouth?” Ira suggested. “Made him blink twice for yes, once for no?”

Rintha shook his head. “That’d be no good. For a Roarer, all language is the language of magic. Any gesture meant to represent a word or concept can set off a burst of energy as well.”

“Hidden Gods,” Ira replied, eyes widening slightly. “That’s a grim fate.”

“I know,” Rintha said grimly. “That’s why Roarers are such a great threat…and such pitiable creatures. They possess unlimited, uncontrollable power…and they can never speak again without unleashing it.”

“Not necessarily,” Uuco said quietly.

Rintha looked up. “What?” he said, his eyes narrowing.

“There is one way for Roarers to live a normal life and talk to others…without the zaps and bangs and booms, that is,” Uuco said, eyes calm and clear. He stroked his mustache. “It depends on whether they were talented at spellcraft before…” he hesitated, “…their transformation.”

Rintha scowled and looked away from Uuco. “I know you mean well, Uuco the Witness,” Rintha said quietly. “But you haven’t hunted Roarers like I have. You haven’t seen the destruction they’re doomed to sew…”

“Uuco is right,” Corax said loudly, walking out from the olive tree’s shade. “There is a way for some Roarers to speak and control their powers. I’ve seen proof of this first hand.”

Rintha stared at Corax slack-jawed.

“Alright,” Ira said firmly. “Enough is enough.” She set her string-less harp down and pointed at the Saurian warrior. “Two days ago, I swore I’d make you talk, Corax. I swore I’d make you tell me who you really are!”

Corax flinched, head-feathers wilting as he took a step back. “Ah,” he said. “I’d hoped you’d forgotten about that.”

“Hardly,” Ira said dryly. She stood up. “How do you know so much about ancient lore and Roarers?” She demanded. “Why do you speak of the Hidden Gods as if you’ve met them first-hand? How do you shoot fiery beams from your mouth, a form of magic I’ve never seen? How and why did you transform from a Nobble into a Saurian?”

“Hold on a moment,” Rintha said, raising his hand. “Corax transformed from a Nobble into a Saurian?”

“Yes, yes,” Uuco grunted. “Try to keep up!”

“You’ve been a good companion throughout our travels,” Ira said soberly, resting a hand on her sheathed sword. “But if we’re to keep trusting you in the future, you need to tell us the truth.”

Corax opened his mouth. He closed it. He looked left. He looked right. He craned his neck up to the sky with an expression of utter nervousness.

“Perhaps Corax isn’t the only one who need to be honest,” V’vendy said, plucking a molted feather from her white-downy hair. “We all have secrets and pasts we haven’t shared.” V’vendy turned in a circle, meeting each and every Pilgrim’s eyes. “If he must reveal his true self to us, so must we. Isn’t that fair?”

Uuco and Rintha visibly tensed. Ira sighed. “Aye,” she said, plopping herself back down on the couch. “That is fair.”

Thiris returned to the gazebo with a basin of steaming water, setting it at Lady Ira’s feet. “Fetch us some wine too, Thiris,” Ira said, bending over to unlace her sandals. “I think we’ll need something to loosen our tongues.”

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