The surprising appearance of Keleroth meant there were many questions and explanations to share around for the uneventful ride back to the fort. Upon returning to Fort Ambai, Matthias received word from one of the few individuals he had left behind that Captain Coran had been running several, visible military exercises around the fort during the afternoon, but that nothing else of note had really occurred. Accepting an invitation from the captain for dinner, Matthias hoped to gain better insight of Coran’s perspective, his opinion of the so-called Society for Freedom, and perhaps some idea of the captain’s stake in the game. The atmosphere around the fort was tangibly more tense, and no member of the party was immune to feeling it.
On their way to the fort, the entire leadership of the group attending in uniform or their “proper” clothing, it became apparent to more than one of the rebels that the military presence surrounding them was greater, perhaps much greater. Nahla in particular began to suspect that additional troops had been pulled in, and she shared her ominous concern with the general. At the same time, Dora began to notice some oddities in Coran’s behavior, from his reception of Keleroth to his conversation – oddities that were reflected by several unknown hues in her ring. Over dinner, Matthias worked at sounding out Coran on several fronts, mostly learning that the captain was genuinely disgusted with the Society and was seeking to find ways to limit them, but the general had the nagging feeling that such an action was perhaps not Coran’s most immediate, or most important, duty. Meanwhile, Theodor, Nahla, and Keleroth noticed Coran’s renewed interest in Elara, especially his sometimes less-than-subtle attentions to her in spite of his more important guest.
After the meal, the group retreated to a tent to share their reflections, and everyone agreed that it seemed something was in the works for the evening. Information was needed, and fast, and the only one really able to stand a chance of getting it from the elusive Enero Coran was Elara; therefore, she accepted a mission of returning to the fort to talk with him privately, although she voice more than a little anxious about it. Matthias sent Gentford and a few trusted men with her as escort. While she was gone, Matthias sent Nahla to wander the area and sound out the various posted sentries to see what she could learn, while the others went to visit the Hermitkin and Tinkerkin. Nahla, after some time spent watching, found herself in conversation with a young soldier who gave away perhaps more than he intended with his unschooled face: he was listening very, very carefully to the time-keeping announcements from the fort. Every fifteen minutes, the usual “X after the hour and all is well” pattern would be bugled, and twice the soldier listened intently for it.
At the same time, Matthias led Dora, Keleroth, and Theodor to visit with the leadership of the Hermitkin. The conversation was tense, the attitude in the clan’s camp far more wary than before, and the heightened concern was evident all around them. While passing through the camp, several of the non-gypsy noticed an oddly decorated tent that appeared to be quite set apart from the others. Dora explained it shortly thereafter as being the dwelling of the Hermitkin seers, well-protected and highly revered amongst her people. Entering the central tent, the leader of the Hermitkin spoke forcefully about wishing to remove all his clan from this dangerous place safely, but did not elaborate beyond what he had already said in negotiations about his perspective of the current conflict. However, a chance question from Keleroth – the scholar having made quite a friend amongst the Waterkin who wished to send a greeting to her favorite cousin – demonstrated that the leader had deep, angry, fearful emotions warring within that he was not sharing. The interview ended almost as soon as he had dismissed Keleroth’s query, and the group moved instead to see the Tinkerkin.
While between the camps, Dora explained the seers’ tent, and the group wondered about the boy Keleroth had asked about. Could he have been a new seer, and thus something was wrong that had so alarmed the Hermitkin leader? With few answers, they continued to the Tinkerkin camp. Meanwhile, Nahla observed Matthias and the others leaving the Hermitkin and entering the neighboring camp, and as she was about to move on from her position, witnessed something else altogether. A soldier from the fort appeared at the perimeter of the Hermitkin camp, met with an individual, and escorted that person back to the fort, all with an air of hurried secrecy. Curious, Nahla continued to watch the camps for other unusual activity.
In the Tinkerkin leader’s tent, Matthias entered into a much more frank dialogue, knowing that his position there was quite secure. The Tinkerkin leader stated that he no longer cared how things ended in negotiations – now, his concern was that something was deeply troubling the entire Hermitkin clan, and he felt strongly that he needed to help. They were family, after all, and the Tinkerkin only wanted to aid their brothers and sisters, if it could be done. Dora, on instinct, asked about the guarded seer tent among the Hermitkin, and heard a worrying tale when the non-clan had been escorted away. Seers amongst the gypsies were rare, but when born, were incredibly accurate and private, and they gravitated to the Hermitkin clan to avoid all contacts with the outside world, only calling for outsiders when their prophecies spoke to those specific individuals. The Hermitkin had not shared any prophecies with the other clans for some time, but this much was known: a recent vision had been so strong and terrible, far more so than the dire predictions that had begun more than ten years prior, that two of the three then seers had died in the seeing, and the remaining had cut off all contact until she could deliver her message. Whatever she had seen meant great ill, and Dora felt sure it was a message she must hear.
Reconnecting with Nahla, Matthias and his group returned to their tent to discuss things. The palpable tension in the air was far worse than it had been, and Nahla’s information was doubly concerning. Dora sent her hawk scouting, and it returned with a report of armored “predators” in the woods; Matthias immediately dispatched Nahla to investiage, while also sending Dora and Keleroth to the Waterkin with a warming that danger seemed to be immanent. Theodor shared orders across the rebel camp for all soldiers to wake and prepare themselves for a possible ambush, deserting their tents but leaving the whole camp with the appearance of being largely unaware of anything out of the ordinary. Nahla, venturing into the forest, stumbled almost into a group of soldiers, hidden in the dark, disguised, and apparently waiting. She circled around them partway until she felt that she could estimate there were at least as many of them as Matthias had at his disposal, possibly many more. Then, the quarter-hour pattern was called, but it was subtly changed, and everything seemed to happen at once.
The soldiers in the woods launched a charging attack on Matthias’s camp, overrunning it quickly but meeting with ready resistance from the rebel soldiers. Nahla rejoined the leadership of the group in time to attack with the center while Matthias maintained order and shouted through the chaos. After a few difficult moments in the pitched fight, a gypsy whistle calling the clans to defend their own echoed through the night, and with it the Tinkerkin roused to the battle as well, swelling onto the field to support the rebels against the soldiers. From the south, the sounds of the Waterkin similarly engaged could be heard, but there was no time to aid them yet. Keleroth did a fair amount of damage with his new and improved fire magic, and Theodor and Nahla helped to defend Matthias and Dora from the oncoming battle.
Suddenly the gypsy whistle sounded again, this time a more complicated message. It was Elara telling the Hermit kin “the boy is safe.” With that simple phrase, an explosion of familial anger erupted from the Hermitkin as they leapt to their horses and joined the battle in earnest. Matthias and his people were momentarily concerned that they would be the target of the gypsy clan, but instead the Hermitkin split their forces in two, half bound for Ambai itself, the other half now riding down any of Coran’s soldiers in their way. The leader of the Tinkerkin found Matthias in the chaos and explained that another, smaller fight appeared to be taking place at the very gates of the fort, and Matthias, seeing that his people and the gypsies had most things well in hand, accepted a ride from the Tinkerkin to northern battle. Nahla and Dora went with him, both swinging up to ride double, while Theodor and Keleroth moved south to assist the Waterkin as needed before they, too, were drawn to the situation at Ambai.
It became rapidly apparent that a small group, probably Gentford’s escort for Elara earlier in the evening, had broken from the fort and were trying to get away from their pursuers; however, the Hermitkin, mounted and furious, cut off the embattled individuals from Ambai and forced a rapid surrender. From the mess of individuals, Elara appeared, bleeding from a wound on her head and very tired, a small boy held protectively in her arms. Without hesitation, Elara handed the boy to the Hermitkin leader, taking a moment of grateful refuge from Matthias before everyone set off to handle the aftermath of the battle. Matthias had many logistics to manage, from the disposition of prisoners to establishing a secure perimeter; meanwhile, Dora set herself along with Nahla to work beside the many healers of the two-and-a-half gathered clans to offer assistance to all the wounded, both gypsy, rebel, and loyal soldier. Theodor took up his now-customary position as Matthias’s bodyguard. Elara retreated with the other clan leaders to discuss the situation, and as the night ended and dawn came, rejoined the rest of Matthias’s leadership to explain all that had occurred both before and during the very long night.
The tale truly began some weeks prior when a young boy was stolen from the Hermitkin and held hostage by Enero Coran at Ambai. He had, as he had explained to Elara that evening, learned that rebels to the crown might be connected to some gypsy clans, and he knew that if he could capture them he would gain great power and influence in Adzoral. Therefore, he forced the Hermitkin to call a near-feud with the Tinkerkin, knowing that whatever mediator both sides accepted would have to be connected to this rebel group somehow and might lead him back to them. When General Matthias appeared, Coran was momentarily thrown off – why would the Tinkerkin trust the army when they were openly allied with the rebels? – until he realized that the “army” and the rebels were one and the same. Then, his scenario became a concerted trap for Matthias, including the meeting with the Society for Freedom which allowed him to sneak additional troops to Ambai right under the general’s nose. However, Coran had not anticipated the appearance of Elara, and this gave him some pause. Ultimately, he decided to attempt to turn her to his way of thinking and enlist her as a spy against Matthias; if she had agreed, he would have sent her back that night and not launched any attack, and if not, the whole group would be taken. However, while his plan had failed to catch Matthias off-guard, he had also underestimated Elara’s determination not to be taken while in the fort, and she had instead located the Hermitkin boy and fled with him with the aid of Gentford’s escort.
The truth at last revealed, the Hermitkin leader apologized to Matthias and to his Tinkerkin brother for all that had occurred, though he maintained he could choose no other course than this. Both readily forgave him, for in the end, all their aims had been the same. Peace established, the Hermitkin leader then delivered a message from the one remaining seeress to Matthias and his group – she requested that they attend her immediately, for the vision that had robbed two other seers of their lives and had tormented her with its force was meant for them. Still reeling from the battle but knowing well that their journey was far from over, the group agreed and entered the seer’s tent. There, the blazing gypsy woman greeted them briefly, then her eyes rolled into her head and the prophecy spilled forth:
Enter the city beneath the world,
Beyond the path of the monster’s lair.
There shall you seek and wander through time
To find a weapon most rare.
Through dangers untold and strife unseen
The prize awaits deep below.
The Ojaluche is power to cast out dark strength
And vanquish the bringer of woe.
Be wary of silence and darkness as one,
For these portend evils are nigh.
But courage and light my yet bring you home,
When the Ojaluche lights up the sky.
Take heed of my words and care of your prize
For the Ojaluche once freed is then gone.
And to save the souls of a thousand blood-bound,
Wield it at the great battle’s dawn.
Following these words, the seeress peered at each individual in turn:
To Matthias: Lead your people to victory, or remain behind and bear witness to defeat.
To Keleroth: The fire of knowledge is your greatest power, and you must use all you have to navigate the labyrinth before you.
To Nahla: That which you see and hear may be your salvation, but fail to listen and you may fail to survive.
To Theodor: You who have defended others in the name of honor and love are steady, and by that steadiness may you be unmoved in the coming storm.
To Dora: You must cure more than spilled blood, and your courage shall save your heart.
To Elara: Beware the shadows, or you will join them, and only the most trusted shall save you.
Then she spoke to no one in particular, but these seemed addressed specifically nonetheless.
--The wielder of great strength is the hand of a just cause, but only if used with wisdom and patience.
--The one whose eyes are pure may see more clearly than those who have seen much.