We stood in a small circle, surrounding the defeated Alexis Machine. Bound by the iron rope, Peregrine set to looting the assassin. Normally, I wouldn’t vie for the weapons and gems found on his person, but in this case I made an exception. A crossbow, magically enhanced, was my prize for defeating him.
Defeated, Machine began to tell us what he knew of the “Illusive Man” that hired him. He saw his own life as forfeit, and didn’t see any reason to hold back what he knew. There was no reason not to believe what he told us. The man was defeated completely, trumped by the prey that he had hunted for over two years. It’s funny, really. He had seen his own demise in Kaldoran’s Mirror, just as I had. Yet he was so convinced that the future heralded the truth he accepted what he thought was his inevitable defeat instead of fighting to change what had been foretold.
As Ogden had said before, the “Illusive Man” kept the identities of his various henchmen a secret, even from each other. Machine, however, had spied on his employer and learned that his favourite minion sent after us was a tiefling by the name of Wilward Jones.
Jones… I had heard that name before… And it bode ill for us.
Alexis Machine in his own right is one of the most skilled assassins Ashen has ever seen, but this Wilward Jones was in another league entirely. The leader of the infamous Black Dragon Company, Wilward Jones on his own was a skilled and renowned bard and potent magic-user. Over the last few years, the group had grown to control an island-nation off the coast of Ashen and had many of the nobles of Ashen itself in its pocket.
I had kept my eye on their movements, though lately they seemed to have gone quiet. While Wilward seemed to act as the brains as well as leader of the Company, the other two living members made up for in their viciousness. Our old acquaintance Clare Trannyth was the muscle of the Company, and the final member was one Alistair Traven, a bloodthirsty werewolf known for literally tearing his foes limb from limb.
Machine also let it slip that each member of the “Jones Family” bore a strange tattoo. It was almost like a birthmark, yet it’s meaning escaped me. Perhaps it was just that, a brand given to all of the Jones Family children. This begs the question, just how many were there? Were they all our foes? Perhaps potential allies?
Finally, before the guards escorted Alexis Machine to the local prison, he gave us the location of Wilward Jones’ personal diary. In a locked chest at the bottom of the sea in the Azmar Archipelago, our answers awaited.
The guards took Machine away, and Mersh soon rejoined the scene under the guise of a guard. He must have broken out while everyone was preoccupied. Moira had additionally achieved funding for Artemis to continue his work to find an antidote for the lycanthropy that had spread across Austrail. It would seem as if our mission here was complete, but not without a few losses. Arya Green Sleeves had indeed been assassinated in the night, as well as Greak Wolfsbane and a guard stationed in the dungeons.
Yet… my own mission here was not finished. Kiana’s dagger weighed heavily against my chest. A promise must be kept. Machine had to die by my hand.
As the night wore on, I waited for my chance to end this once and for all. Albion and Mersh had taken aside the slave trader from earlier in the evening, Tobias Kant, and went out drinking with the man. As they pressed on and down more and more drinks, Albion learned that his family, taken into slavery from the Gomezian Mountains, were most likely traded into service in the mines of Ontas. I meanwhile informed Artemis about the night’s events. When I asked him what he knew of Wilward Jones and the Black Dragon Company, he seemed uncomfortable. While describing the Jones Family and the Black Dragon Company, I couldn’t help but notice he put a hand over his shoulder, as if an old wound was acting up again.
Once the situation had calmed some, I made my move. Making my way to the local sheriff’s office, I managed to convince the guards to let me speak with Alexis Machine. It was only with Moira’s help and distraction that I was able to speak with the assassin alone.
I took this chance to name the crossbow I had taken from him earlier. Treachery. A fitting name for the weapon that now served its master’s enemy. With one last glance to ensure that the guards were still distracted with Moira, I let myself into his cell. As I had requested, Machine was left bound by the iron rope to prevent his escape. The guards were skeptical, but I knew that, should his bindings be removed, he would have fled without a doubt. Perhaps then he would have resumed his hunt for my blood, or perhaps he would have left Ashen entirely.
It doesn’t really matter now though. As per his last request, I stabbed Machine in the heart with Kiana’s dagger, letting him bleed out. I never forgot this moment. To this day, I can still see the cruel, satisfied smile on his face as he experienced what he had been doing to people all of his life. I can still see the life leave his eyes. It continues to haunt my dreams and plague my nightmares.
With a snap of my fingers, I started a fire that would consume his being, reducing him to ashes. Soon, nothing was left of my foe but a pile of ashes and a mythril chainvest. Scooping the ashes up in a small jar and taking the garment, I left the office to return to my hotel room. The next day we left the city of Westvale behind us, and I couldn’t have been more grateful. We met Captain Cobb at Cydney, and from there we made way for Ashen and Almernae to deliver the dagger to Kiana.
As we sailed, Peregrine found a little stowaway below decks. A direwolf pup, young but vicious nonetheless, had somehow snuck aboard the ship in Austrail. Peregrine took the pup into his care. Emrys seemed to like him well enough, and another animal companion in the company is always welcome.
The journey back to Almernae was uneventful, and soon enough we were standing outside of the Dusty Drink to be met with the sight of Ogden Sadric painting the front of the pub. It would seem as if in the time we were gone, Ogden, Teresa, and Kiana had decided to begin fixing up the pub for re-opening. It was good to see Ogden excited about something again. The poor man had been tossed around like a ragdoll over the past few years, and needless to say it can be a trying experience.
The dagger delivered to Kiana, we had decided to set out for Ontas before pursuing Wilward’s Chest. If what Machine told us was true, then Wilward should have no knowledge of Machine, his death, or that we knew where Wilward hid his secrets. Besides, it was very possible that Albion’s family was being held in slavery in Ontas, and we had a duty to free them. Not to mention that a few words with Belarin were needed…
Another day’s travel later, we neared the industrial city of Ontas. Black smog lined the horizon, and the putrid stench of sulfur filled the air. The environment looked like some mechanized war zone. The landscape was torn up, drained of its resources. The sun couldn’t be seen through the blanket of fog covering the skyline, smothering those caught underneath. Not a single living thing could be seen for miles around, chased of or killed in the desperate pursuit of progress. Even for a desert, this place was desolate.
We approached the black iron gates of the city. The guards let us into the city once we announced who we were. As we entered the city, they surrounded us. Apparently Belarin had become only more paranoid since we parted ways, and had a warrant out for our arrest. We were to be taken to the citadel dungeons until the despot Belarin would see us.
As we waited for our audience with the “king”, we planned our next course of action. Belarin, already a shaken and paranoid man, seems to have only gotten worse after he regained his memories. It wasn’t long before we were taken to court to be tried by Belarin.
In the courtroom Belarin stood, one hand resting on one of his swords. He look more bedraggled since I last saw him, and no amount of kingly goods adorning his body could change that. It didn’t matter if he was now the ruler of Ontas, he was still the same man I knew from the Tiki Company whether he would admit it or not.
He stood above us, looming with a murderous glint in his eye. I feared that we may be forced to fight him. The last thing I needed at the time was to have to defeat an old ally, even if time has changed him. He accused us of interfering with his revenge against the Albright family by killing Alexis Machine. Years back, in the last few months before Belarin lost his memory, the Albright family had hired an assassin to murder Belarin. The assassin, a sort of albino tiefling by name of Kathleen Jones, had failed in killing Belarin. She did, however, succeed in killing his wife and his child. When Belarin apprehended her, she managed to escape just before he could take his revenge. Now, years later, Belarin had sought out Alexis Machine to seek out his vengeance.
Another Jones family member… this was troubling. What was even more troubling was the state of my former friend and ally. Since when did Belarin need someone else to seek out his vengeance? Since when did the former paladin need someone else to fight his fights? The Belarin I knew at least had enough honour to handle things himself.
Mersh, Peregrine, and I explained our situation, why we killed Machine, and why we were here. The man was convinced that we had come to Ontas to fight him and kill him. It took some doing, but we were able to remind Belarin of who we were, and that we were once allies and friends. He let us go, but I could see the defeat in his eyes. He was expecting a bitter fight to the end. Perhaps he wanted us to fight and kill him so he could be with his family again. I know not, but I would not take the life of a friend.
He directed us to the mine shafts, where we would go to seek out Albion’s family. A group of oriads taken from the Gomezian Mountains was sent deep below the city under the watch of an enforcer named Jade Serket. Mersh cringed at the name and began to sweat. It seemed as if he knew this enforcer, and judging from his reaction, there was a bit of bad blood between them. He was took to don the disguise of an elderly man as we boarded the elevator to take us to the lower levels of the mines.
We were greeted with darkness at the bottom and a ballista aimed at the shaft. I harsh voice hailed us, I guessed at the time it must have been Serket. She asked our business, and when we proposed an arrangement to take Albion’s family out of the mines, things quickly turned south. It wasn’t long before we had ducked behind crates, ballista arrows and bullets flying overhead. This Jade Serket was a gunslinger, and judging from the wound in Peregrine’s shoulder, a good one. Perfect.
As Mersh, Moira, and I snuck around the side to attack from behind, Peregrine and Albion began to advance forwards to the miners launching volley after volley of crossbow bolts. Serket called on the captive oriads to attack us, but with a few convincing words from Albion, his brothers soon turned on their master. With a well-placed Fireball spell, I destroyed the ballista while Peregrine and Albion dueled with Serket and her minions. Moira cast an invisibility spell on Mersh, and he crept up behind Serket for the finishing blow.
Serket defeated, Albion liberated his family and friends from the Gomezian Mountains and set them free. And as Mersh had a talk with Serket, I took my leave for the surface to do some research on Kat Jones. The newspapers were full of propaganda, slandering the albino tiefling and providing little I didn’t already know.
However, while I was researching it began to come together. Bits and pieces of the puzzle that before seemed strange began to fit together. The way Artemis rubbed at his shoulder when I brought up the Black Dragon Company and Wilward Jones… Didn’t Artemis always say Entwhistle was his mother’s surname? Of course, Artemis was a member of this Jones family. Yet, instead of bringing more dread, this gave me hope. Artemis was my trusted friend and ally, which meant that there may yet be hope for the rest of this family of tieflings.
Mersh and the others returned to the surface, and Serket was already gone. Mersh had decided to let her go and set her off to start a new life. Mersh… the Prince Slayer and my oldest friend. It would seem that he held many secrets. I have tried many times to get him to talk about it, but every time he managed to sidestep the question or change the subject. I had learned over time to simply let it go, telling myself that he would open up given time. But now… his past had started to return with dire consequences. I would have to have a few words with him soon. How much did my friend know and how much was he hiding from us?
Were I a more paranoid elf, I would find my own trust in Mersh beginning to waver.