After the group’s arrival at Shaemoor Garrison, the next three days passed slowly. Starting with a dour crossing of Scaver Plateau, the muddy, war-torn wasteland just south of the garrison. Penny had no idea when it had seen its last skirmish, but the plateau seemed to be as wet with human and centaur blood as it was with rainwater. Everyone noticed, but no one had the stomach to acknowledge it.
After a night in an overpriced tent at the Altar Brook trading post, the group spent the next two days travelling the thirty miles of marshland ravine that ran along the south edge of the plateau toward Krytan Freeholds and, more specifically, the Eldvin Monastery. Though they had to guard themselves against any run-ins with centaurs or ettins, the hike along the road was simple, almost pleasant at times, and now they were at the monastery, secure once more and sharing stories over a hot meal.
“No, you didn’t see what I saw,” Jindel said, waving her empty cup at Minkus, who sat at the end of the table across from her. “No exaggeration. I wake up this morning and find this guy with a drake resting its head in his lap. He said she had wandered into the camp on his watch, so he fed it and started scratching it under the chin.” With a wink, she added, “I think it was purring.”
Braxus laughed his deep, single burst. “Drakes don’t purr, cub.”
“They do when they’re getting an asura massage,” she replied. Everyone laughed.
“Anyway,” Jindel went on, directing her attention back to Minkus, “had to be one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. You sir, should consider becoming a ranger.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Penny broke in, raising her wooden cup in a faux toast, “to the drake-whisperer, odd friend of man and animal alike.” She threw back her head and took a deep swig to finish off the rest of her wine.
Penny looked at the cup in her hand with a hint of wonder, “Gods—“ A monk at a nearby table shot her a glance, and she grimaced. “I mean, my goodness. These monks really do know how to make wine. I don’t normally like the stuff, but this is great.” She leaned in and added, “It almost makes up for the food. This stew tastes like dirt.” Braxus scowled and nodded his agreement.
Though most of the southwestern hills of Queensdale were held by centaurs, travelers knew this monastery as one of the few safe places to stay along the road. A refuge for worshippers of Kormir, the human goddess of truth, the monastery was a large, mostly open-air complex sealed off by fifty-foot walls on all sides. Everything was made of thick wooden beams supporting adobe-style bricks and coated in a thick plaster. In the huge courtyard between the walls, the monks (both brothers and sisters) had established their own little farm. In it, they grew various vegetables that kept them fed almost year-round; carrots, potatoes, broccoli, cucumbers, cabbage, and more all grew under the monks’ care—or so one long-winded monk had told them.
None of it, though, was as well known as the monastery’s beer and wine. Half the farm space was dedicated to winter wheat, Krytan hops, and a rare strain of grape brought from Elona with the first groups of refugees. Even Penny knew that pubs all over Kryta vied for access to the small batches of beer produced at Eldvin each year. Every one was different, unique to the harvest and brewing decisions of the monks responsible for it, but those lucky enough to get a keg or two were never disappointed. At the moment, though, wine was the only thing on tap, as the most recent beer batches were still aging.
Though their garden took most of the area within the gates, there were a few interior rooms built off of the inner sides of the walls. This, as they’d been told, was where the monks slept, ate, performed their religious duties, and welcomed guests who stayed with them. It was in one such room the travelers now found themselves, sitting elbow-to-elbow and enjoying the evening’s respite.
“OK, Vent,” Penny said, after a brief lull in conversation, “give us one of your tales of adventure. Shock and awe us.”
Ventyr took a sip of his wine, thoughtfully tasting it before swallowing. He said nothing.
“Carrot-stick?” Penny asked again, waving a hand at him. “You still with us?”
“No, Penny,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. No tales of adventure tonight. I have much on my mind. In fact I’ll be headed to my bunk when I finish this cup.”
She sighed. “Fine. Always responsible. I, however, need another one.” She raised her hand to summon the brother serving the wine. He saw and came over to pour.
“Appreciate it, my good fellow,” she said with a flip of her wrist and her best impersonation of class. He bowed and left.
Penny turned to Braxus. “Alright. If he won’t give, I know you will.” She quickly perused the charr’s bare arms and pointed to a thick, round gnarl of scar tissue. “Let’s do this one. How’d you get it?”
This was a game the two of them had started playing the morning they left Altar Brook. Braxus, tired of scratching at his sleeved arms, had ripped the sleeves off his coat entirely. It was the first time Penny had seen the wide array of scars he’d collected over his years of service, and her curiosity was piqued. Before long, Penny was pointing to one scar after another, and he would regale her with the often bloody tale of each one’s origin. She enjoyed driving the conversation and ribbing him for the lesser stories, and he couldn’t help but belly laugh at the visceral responses she gave to his gorier ones.
Even aside from the game, the two had had plenty to discuss when they’d realized they shared a common friend, Jaspar Clickpaw, Penny’s mentor and first employer in Divinity’s Reach. She’d spent all her late teenage years under the charr, being taught the ins and outs of steam mechanics and business. At least, that was, until Clickpaw was run out of the city by human engineers and merchants who envied his business. That was the last she’d heard of him, but it seemed that Braxus knew him too. As Braxus explained, Clickpaw had returned to the service of the the Ash Legion shortly after being run off and had been living in the Black Citadel since. She’d always characterized the old charr as being stingy and sardonic (and he was), but Penny was glad to hear he was alive and kicking. Both she and Braxus found a sort of sour enjoyment in having someone to share some charr humor with.
“That one?” Braxus asked, scowling down at his own arm. He looked back at her with a knowing, toothy grin. “You’re not going to like this one, Arkayd. That one wasn’t from battle. When I was a cub, I tended cattle in Diessa with my littermate. We were morons, and he dared me to ride one. I climbed a fence and jumped onto a steer. I scared it shitless, so it gored me. It caught my arm with a horn.” He pointed to the scar and then another. “It entered here and exited there. Had to slide the horn out to free myself, which wasn’t easy with the big bastard flinging me around in the air. My littermate just laughed. Still does to this day.”
“You’re right,” Penny said, sneering critically, “that wasn’t bad, but you’ve told better. I give it a six.” The charr growled and bumped her with his elbow. She laughed.
“You said Diessa Plateau?” Minkus asked.
“That’s right,” the charr replied, not looking at him. “I grew up on the plateau.”
“Have you ever seen the walls of old Ascalon?” Minkus asked, his lilac eyes suddenly alight.
Braxus turned, looking him over. “Yeah,” he replied without emotion, “I’ve seen the ruins. Why?”
“It’s one of the ruins of the old world that I’m most interested to see. Its scale, the history of it, for both humans and charr—” In excitement, Minkus was almost standing on the bench now. “It’s almost mythic!”
Braxus’ demeanor eased a little. “You could say that. It’s interesting enough,” he growled, “but there are better places in Diessa. Actually, for you, Large, I’d recommend the lost temple up north,” he stopped to take a drink, wiping the excess off his muzzle with the back of his hand. “It’s not easy to get to, hidden in the cliffs above Blackblade Lake,” he continued, “but it’s old and overgrown, and only a few know about it anymore. Much better than those ruins.”
Braxus finished, but Minkus looked like he was still listening. Entranced at the thought of an ancient temple, he grinned stupidly at the ceiling as he tipped his head back to drain the bottom of his cup.
“That did it. He’s gone,” Jindel said, snickering at the asura across the table. She turned her attention back to Braxus with a raise of her brow. “Way to go, old man. He’s dreaming about charr temples now.”
The charr laughed heartily and slapped Minkus in the back, snapping him back to reality. He looked up at the jagged, toothy grin on the soldier’s face and smiled wide.
After Ventyr retired for the night, conversation persisted for maybe another fifteen minutes before everyone in the room was encouraged toward their bunks. The disciplines of the monastery called for a strict curfew, for both monks and guests alike.
The next morning, all rose early with the monks. It was another of the requisite disciplines for guests.
Upon waking, the party members hopped to work, each attending to his or her respective duties. Ventyr spoke with Abbott Mathias to get a few additional supplies for the road, the crusaders and Minkus packed the bags, and Penny drew up all her goods and re-strapped them to the pallet on the dolyak’s back, all before gladly accepting one more meal with the monks. Yes, the potatoes and hash were just as terrible as the vegetable soup had been the night before, but food was food, and bad food was a small price to pay for a morning cup of mulled wine and a few additional hard-boiled eggs for the road. Even the dolyak received a bundle of carrots to start his day on.
They strapped on their bags, hefted the weight a few times and adjusted some straps, and gave each other a nod of the head to confirm their readiness. With supplies and fresh food in the tops of their packs, the group gave their thanks to the brothers and sisters of the monastery and made their way back toward the gate.
Minkus took one last look at the rows of crops in the large courtyard then turned around, nudging Penny’s leg with his elbow. She looked down at him questioningly, and he directed her attention to the crossroads before them. The two of them took it in.
The sky beyond the monastery’s thick oaken gate was streaked with just a handful of pale clouds to accent the iridescent blue of the morning. Warm sunlight on her forehead, the sound of bees already hard at work in the monks’ flowerbeds, and the aroma of spring grass rounded out the experience.
“It should be a good day,” he said to her.
She looked down at his satisfied face and then up to the landscape, and for once, she could actually see the world the asura seemed to live in. “You know, Biggie,” she said, “I think you might be right.”