A pair of minotaur guard the door, each nearing seven foot tall. Their powerful muscles are coated in curling black fur: they stand with interminable bovine patience outside the ornate doorway. From his perch hidden in an alcove high in the vaulted ceiling, Tobo braces himself against the warm sandstone with one arm, leans ever so slightly out, and squints- his eyes are marbled green orbs, devoid of delineation between iris and pupil and set in dark weathered skin. A grimace flits across his elfin features: the minotaur are wearing short sleeved chain shirts and kilts of thick leather, and their horns are polished and etched with the fine inlays of gold indicative of the elite Royal Guard. Both are holding glaives, sturdy oak shafts eight feet long ending in wickedly curved blades.
Aside from the minotaur the hallway is empty until the next doorway, sixty foot of sandstone floors- the only adornment is the occasional tapestry on the inner wall depicting Crown Prince Prasha hunting, warring, posing, an imposing figure of black scales and gilded armour. The outer wall is broken by a series of arches open to the air, a hundred feet above a courtyard below. From so high up in the fortress, Tobo could look out from his niche over the sea to the distant smudge of the Storm itself- but his focus lies inward.
The elf sighs and leans back into his alcove, sitting back on his haunches. He takes off his wide brimmed leather hat and dusts it absentmindedly, before securing it back over bedraggled hair.
“The names of the gods, can it never be easy?” he mumbles, staring at the wall. He runs his fingertips over the leather wrapped handle of his hex -pistol. The pulsing violet crystal at the pistol’s core hums almost imperceptibly with arcane energy, and Tobo’s fingertips tingle. His belt holds the hex-pistol, a broad bladed dirk, and three wands in leather sheathes. The elf is clad in thin leather armour, worn and scratched, but he knows that with a minotaur’s strength behind it one of those glaives would pass through his armour as if it were cloth. Tobo checks his dagger is secured, runs his hand lovingly over the butt of the pistol, and then removes a black wand from his belt.
Tobo briefly considers his path to this point, the patrols evaded, walls scaled. He has left three guards unconscious and two more dead on the rooftops of Castle Grad to reach the Crown Prince’s inner sanctum- they could be discovered at any moment. The elf sighs. He doesn’t have time to ponder his course, or savour the view. He has business with the Crown Prince of Ruul, the Prince who sits behind this door in a windowless chamber plotting war and destruction.
Thirty feet below Tobo, the two minotaurs mutter to each other and their tails sweep back and forth across the floor. The cry of vendors calling their wares drifts through vaulted sandstone arches lining the corridor, up from the RuulGrad’s harbour marketplace. The faint calling of gulls and the rhythmic crash of surf and the pale light of early afternoon in TarTiir- a peace about to be broken.
Tobo grips his wand and tries to breathe calmly- if the minotaur call out, if he misses…he taps the heels of his boots together and feels the faint power of their enchantment, and then leaps from his alcove. The enchanted boots slow his fall, and as the minotaurs raise their glaives and widen their eyes, Tobo shoots forth with his black wand once, twice! Two thick globules of viscous blue ooze blast forth from the wand, encapsulating the guards. The ooze instantly hardens, and by the time Tobo delicately lands on the corridor floor the two minotaurs are cocooned, one stuck to the wall, the other held fast to the floor. The blades of the glaives stand free at the end of their long poles, and Tobo reaches up and taps one with his finger, his heart racing. The elf reaches into his belt pouch and removes a small rag and a vial- soaking the rag he presses it into the ooze at the point that appears snout-like until he feels flesh. Carefully, he clears the guards nostrils, and then repeats the process.
“I know you are thinking, why not just kill you?” He says, leaning in close and whispering to second guard as he clears their airway. He is not sure if they can hear him, or if he is talking to himself.
“The Blue Opal is kind, when it can be. You should be working for your people, not against them.”
Stowing his vial and rag, Tobo draws his pistol and holds his black wand at the ready. He turns and stares out at the sea for a moment through the sandstone arches, and then steels himself.
“This is not how I die,” he says, and smiles in his certainty, bringing his wand-hand up to touch his chest where a small locket sits beneath his armour.
Tobo kicks open the door and rushes in- the room is perhaps thirty foot in diameter, a large and well-appointed study. Bookshelves line the walls all the way to the ceiling far above, a series of ladders leaning against each to allow access to the loftier tomes. Comfortable chairs, a fireplace, and several small tables fill up the edges of the room, but the centre is filled with a gigantic map of TarTiir carved from interlocking pieces of wood. Next to it, a dwarf dressed in fine clothing stands conversing with an imposing drakin- Crown Prince Prasha. The Prince is a daunting figure, as tall as the minotaurs, covered in black scales. His face resembles that of a dragon wrought in miniature, and his fingertips end in thick talons. A humanoid body trailed by a thick black tail, the Prince is well muscled and dressed the simple garb of a warrior at rest. In a holster in Prince Prasha’s belt, Tobo spies his goal- a rod, two feet long, one foot of etched metal attached seamlessly to a foot of solid stone. Leaping through the doorway, Tobo starts firing.
In the heartbeat between the doors crashing open and Tobo opening fire, the towering Prince drops to the floor and rolls to a table. The robed dwarf yelps and starts scrambling to the side of the room. Tobo keeps moving- in moments, the Royal Guard will be flooding into the room and his chance will be gone. The elf moves forward, globules of blue ooze firing from the wand in his left hand, beams of purple light blasting from the pistol in his right hand. The beams hit the tabletop, scoring the thick wood, and explode books and documents as he shoots again and again, always advancing. In the corner of his eye he sees the dwarf moving his hands and incanting, and so Tobo half-turns and fires his wand and pistol, but doesn’t wait to see if they hit before turning back to his goal, the overturned table.
As he steps closer the table hurls toward him, the Prince throwing the heavy wooden furniture as if it weighed nothing. Tobo rolls to the side, and tries to hit the Prince with a globule from his wand- the wand fizzles and nothing emerges. He curses and quickly leaps behind a table and tips it over for cover, sheathing his wand and drawing another, this one white, all the while shooting blindly into the room with his pistol. He hears a yelp and a thump and dares to glance around the side of the table- the dwarf is down, a sizzling hole in his face where one of his eyes used to be, flecks of blue ooze holding one of his arms fast to the side of a chair as he slumps, dead. The Prince is hunkered behind a toppled bookcase and a five foot sphere of blue ooze. The elf shoots over and over at the blue ooze, chunks of it chipping away with each blast, but he knows how hardy it can be without the right solvent.
“Assassin,” the Prince cries out, his voice thick with anger, “if you stop this now I promise you a quick death!”
Tobo ignores the words and forces himself forward, leaping his overturned table and sprinting toward his foe- he can feel his pistol overheating as he fires it faster than the gem within can handle. In his left hand he clutches his white wand, his portal wand. He doesn’t need to kill the Prince- he just needs that metal and stone rod in his hand and then he can use his white wand to escape. As he fires his gun, chips of hardened blue ooze spray across the room but the Prince remains safe behind cover. Finally, Tobo has closed the distance between them and he leaps over the blue ooze behind which lies his prize, wild-eyed, pistol already blazing forth beams of violet force.
The rod that Prince Prasha holds hits Tobo in the head. The Prince is not behind the blue orb- the Prince is instead off to the side slightly, having rolled beneath the giant wooden map of TarTiir. Tobo’s wand and gun fall from his grasp and he tips backward, landing on the floor with a crash. The Prince holds out his hand toward Tobo and white light pulses from a ring on his hand.
Tobo can’t move anything, can’t move anything at all. He can’t even focus his eyes! The elf strains and strains. He is breathing, he can feel that, but it is strained. Coldness seems to be enveloping his chest. He is paralysed, and knows in an instant his mission has failed. Suddenly he can feel the pain from a dozen fights, bruised and battered limbs finally admitting the punishment exacted on them.
The Crown Prince of Ruul fills Tobo’s vision, looming above him. The drakin’s face is bleeding from a vicious wound to his cheek, and his simple tunic is half soaked in blood.
“A high elf in TarTiir? Shouldn’t you be at Hub?” The Prince says, but is clearly talking to himself. In one hand he holds the metal and stone rod level at Tobo’s face. With the other he pats down Tobo. He pulls forth the solvent, a pouch of gold, a set of lockpicks…and eventually finds Tobo’s locket.
The Prince tucks his crystal rod away and picks up Tobo’s pistol. With the other hand he clicks open the locket, and laughs, and shows the locket to Tobo. One side contains a rough cut blue opal- the other a shaded profile of a female elf.
“The Blue Opal,” the Prince says, incredulous, “really?”
The Crown Prince of Ruul throws the locket to the floor and examines the pistol. Minotaur guards rush into the room, but the Prince shushes them with a single hand gesture and they fall reverently silent. Tobo thinks this is not how I die and manages a weak cough.
“The Blue Opal should not be south of the mountains,” the Prince says, and he shakes his head. “They should not be south of the mountains, they should not be in RuulGrad, and they certainly should not be in my chambers with death in their hearts.”
The minotaur guards have spread around the room and secured the entrance. They should finish what I started, Tobo thinks, managing to shift his eyes to the nearest guard, but he knows it is a faint wish. For a thousand years the drakin have used minotaur as soldiers, as guards, as workers- enslaved and brutalised. Whilst the minotaur who live in the wilds of Ruul may be free and fierce, those in the thrall of the drakin empire are kept servile through the brutality of their masters.
Tobo can feel his fingertips, can feel he is breathing faster, and can see his portal wand laying discarded on the floor. If he can just reach it- his mission has failed, but he knows in his heart this is not how he dies. He must escape. As Prasha instructs the guards to secure the room, with tremendous will Tobo manages to force his hand out toward the wand. His eyes never leave the metal and stone rod on Prasha’s belt.
The Crown Prince turns and levels the hex-gun at Tobo’s face and stamps down twice- firstly on the slim white portal wand, which breaks. Secondly, on Tobo’s pale thin fingers. The elf screams, and then he is moving- minotaur hold him tight, and a hood comes down over his face.
As Tobo is dragged away, Crown Prince Pasha touches a claw to the wound on his face. He stares at the open locket on the floor, the blue opal and the silhouetted elf-maiden. The huge drakin finally goes to a chair and sits, feeling the toll of the wounds to his face and chest, and waves the nearest guard closer.
“Bring me a healer, bring me the spy-master. Bring me the guard captain. Bring me the torturer. Bring me a drink.”
Prasha takes his metal and stone rod in his hands and feels the power within it connecting to him, bolstering his strength. Idly, spins it around and around, and he stares at his dead dwarven advisor and he sighs.
Down corridors and stairwells, the minotaur drag Tobo. He can’t see anything. The paralysis has faded and now he can feel a coldness burning his chest right down to his core. At least three of his fingers are broken. The air grows colder – Tobo realises they must be deep in the heart of Castle Grad, below the spires and walls and courtyards and gardens. Locks are opened, heavy doors- it is a tumult of noise.
And then there is wailing, and screaming, and dampness in the air that tastes of copper- the castle dungeons.
This is not how I die, thinks Tobo, as they throw him into a cell. He peels the hood from his face with careful hands but it makes no difference- he has been left in utter darkness. This is not how I die, thinks Tobo, and he is sure of this fact: but in the darkness, alone and defeated, he realises this might be how he must live.