The scholar let them in. When he noticed that Redbelve had brought Sahl and Johannes with him, he said, “pardon the mess. The others are always leaving their things around.” The scholar was short and slight, like fey from the legends. However, he did not have pointed ears or flawless skin. In fact, his ears were round and unusually flat against his head, his face was pockmarked and he had a bad case of ringworm that covered his neck and creeped up his left cheek. He led them through the entranceway, stepping over piles of books and pushing them just far enough away to give the appearance of making things easier for those following him. When they reached his living room, they found it just as messy as the entranceway, though there was no sign that the other scriveners spent any time there.
“I brought some friends, Halkak.” At Johannes's glance, he added, “Yeah, his parents had quite a sense of humor.”
”'Hal' is fine, Redbelve.”
“My friends here were interested in your research.”
Sahl cleared his throat and glanced at Johannes before speaking. “I would like to know, is the Zioth real? When will it happen? And can we prevent it? If we can't prevent it, then how can we survive it? Do we know how people survived the last Zioth? It must be possible!”
Hal just stared at Sahlman for quite a while, as if he hadn't understood a word. Finally, he said, “slow down. These people aren't here to make fun of me, are they, Redbelve?”
“Word of honor. You know I wouldn't bring them for that. Sahlman here said he wanted to meet you, and Johannes was interested in a fellow scholar. He's from Duerstadt.”
Hal stared at Johannes for a few seconds. “The University?”
“College of Moral Philosophy, though I spent time in the other colleges, of course, while earning my degree.”
He stared for a few more seconds, and then looked back at Sahlman. “I've studied the Zioth for most of my life. The copying work,” he said with a tone of guilt and disdain, “is just to pay for my research. It's not an easy topic to study. A lot of hard work. A lot of candle-lit nights. If I could afford it, I'd travel.” He paused again. Before Sahl could start up his flurry of questions a second time, Hal continued. “The Zioth is real. I've made independent observations of the lunar cycles, and calculated its moment of arrival – Ziotheddon the twenty- eighth, one thousand nineteen, just like everyone's been predicting for centuries. There are a few discrepancies in the numbers. It might be a day or two off, but I don't think so.” He paused yet again. “There will be a night of darkness, and some force inherent to the world – natural, not divine – will destroy and rebuild. You see, light gives the world life, continually renewing it. When the light ends, life ends, and no torch or bonfire will help, or there would be a lot more detailed records.”
“But life survived,” Sahlman pleaded. “Otherwise we would not be here. Surely what we need to do is find out how life survived. I am much interested in this Zioth. It seems to me that it mocks our human lives. We build up a civilization, only to see it destroyed before it can achieve any lasting greatness. All my life I have been searching for a worthwhile cause to follow. This could be it. I could be happy to dedicate my life to finding some way for people to survive the Zioth.”
Hal stared at Sahl through another of his long pauses. “I've never met anyone until now who wanted to do anything about the Zioth. Everyone things the priests will save them, or they just don't think about it at all. But survival might not be possible. I don't think anything survived the last one. I believe that no living thing can trace its ancestry farther than the Zioth, when life was created, probably in the image of the life that was destroyed. Years of research led me to this conclusion, but you deserve to know that some people disagree. I have some very early books in my collection which say many strange things.”
“This is a good beginning. I would like to see these books. I have the beginning of an idea. I am thinking that it would be a good idea to set up a group of scholars to study the Zioth, with the aim of seeing if we can survive it. This group would need money and a building to attract the scholars and buy rare books. We need guards to keep it safe from thieves and the ignorant. The help of rich people like the king would be useful. And then we would need a group of travelers who would look for the rare scrolls and artifacts. I think that I could do this with help from some friends. We need to talk to other races who have records. It is a great cause. I invite you Hal and you Johannes, to be the founding members of this group. What do you say? Shall we do it?”
“The Zioth,” Johannes said, shaking his head. “I met a woman recently who could see into the future. She thought it was possible that the Zioth wouldn't happen. She also predicted an earthquake which would bring some sort –”
Hal finished another pause, apparently unaware that he was interrupting Johannes. “Are you serious?” he asked Sahlman. “Is he serious?” he asked Redbelve, who shrugged his shoulders. “You're wasting your time, of course… but if it _can_ be stopped… Maybe you should look at the books. Come with me.” He turned, took a few steps, and stopped. “You won't be able to read most of them… but maybe you can help me with one that I haven't been able to work out.”
The four of them approached a wall, where Hal put both hands behind a bookcase and pried it away. Behind was a heavy locked door leading down to a low-ceilinged cellar which contained nothing but a table, a chair, some ink and paper, and a large iron-bound chest. The lock on the chest was quite complex, requiring two keys to be inserted to the right depth and turned simultaneously before it would open. The lock alone must have taken a year to pay for at a scrivener's wage, not to mention the chest and cellar.
Hal opened the chest, revealing his collection of ancient manuscripts. Only a few were books. Most were corroded scroll tubes, strips of decaying parchment, even a single stone tablet. “A lot of these sound like they're written by madmen. The farther back they go, the crazier they get. This one here,” he gently touched a scroll tube but didn't take it out, “this one is all about dragons, or some sort of large lizard or bird – it's hard to come up with an exact translation. It talks about a number of dragons taking revenge for something having to do with the Zioth. If we're to believe the author, most of them were slain by him or friends of his. Bragging about dragon-slaying was big in those days. This one,” he said, carefully moving a few things aside and pointing to a heavy, incredibly worn book which looked like it had been torn down the middle and the larger half discarded, “is not specifically _about_ the Zioth, but it references it. Very early work. Probably around one fifty or so. The Zioth is treated mostly with fear. It mentions elaborate ceremonies which were meant to enhance the power of the moons and prevent them from disappearing. There was even some sort of attempt to create a sixth moon, though I could be misinterpreting the text; some of these early languages don't have names for numbers past five. This one here,” he pointed to a relatively new-looking book, “is a copy of an original work from the mid five hundreds. Like everything else from that time, it's riddled with mythological and magical references, but if you wade through all that, you'll find one section where it talks about a place called Brundash, which was supposed to be a safe haven against the next Zioth. I've never seen another reference to it, though, so I assume it was destroyed like so much from that time, or the founders gave up.
“This,” with the utmost of care, he lifted a thin sheet of wrinkled, rotted parchment with only the faintest hint of text on it, “was a lucky find. It was trapped in a pocket of stale air under a stone pillar in the basement of a ruined temple. It could be as old as the year sixty or even fifty, since the author mentions an elderly village shaman who claimed to have been born at the exact moment of the Zioth. This may be a piece of a dictation from that very person. From the little I've been able to decipher, the shaman believes that the world is full of non-human creatures, some visible, some hidden, all of whom are crippled in some way except man. Not knowing the purpose of the document, whether it was religious, philosophical or political, it's hard to say what exactly he means.” Hal lowered the parchment back into the chest as carefully as he'd taken it out.
“This is the one I was hoping you could help me with.” He took a scroll case from the chest, opened it, and slipped out a piece of parchment. “The text reads right to left, and the script is not one I recognize.” Sahlman looked at the scroll. At first, it looked like gibberish to him, but then he thought he recognized a few characters. It was only a few, however, and after a minute or two of squinting at the page, he couldn't make out any complete words.
“Hmm…” said Sahl. “It looks like writing from my country. But there are many changes. Here are the letters I recognize.” Sahl scribbled down a few letters on a sheet provided by Hal. “And here is the sound that they make in your language.” Sahl dictated as Hal wrote down the corresponding letters in Rouch script. “But there is not enough to make out the words. What we need is a document or tablet written in two scripts, one of which we know, so that we can use one to read the other. What I hoped was that there was something that looked like it was worth investigating further. Some place I could go to obtain more information. So far here are the possibilities:
“One: elaborate ceremonies - I believe that these are not worth investigating, because they failed, and we have no knowledge of these things in this time.
“Two: Brundash - This could be worth investigating. Are there any clues as to where Brundash was?
“Three: Dragons - any idea where these dragons were killed or where they lived?
“Four: Non human creatures - The only non human creatures I know are the brininig, a small, deadly people living in the forests to the south west. I know some of their language and I have spoken with one of them. Could they be linked to Brundash?. Any ideas?”
“You s– you _spoke_ with them? They exist?”
“Wait a minute.” Redbelve spoke for the first time in a while. “You're saying there are real brininig in Huerten? What about you?”
Johannes answered, “while I haven't actually seen them myself, I can't deny that they might exist. I have seen many strange things myself in the past few weeks.”
“Like wounds that heal themselves in seconds; a ruined temple that protects itself by making people forget about it; people who can read minds to some extent; potions that cure hallucinations. At this point I would be ready to believe almost anything.”
Redbelve slumped down in the chair, while Hal paced in a tiny circle, bent over to keep from hitting his head against the ceiling.
“I believe you missed something,” Johannes said, glancing over at the parchment. “I'm not familiar with the script, but these three letters you translated seem to be replicated in similar forms elsewhere in the document.” Johannes pointed them out to Sahl. Yes, they were similar. He hadn't noticed that before. In the more formal style of Hrijaj, letters could be varied slightly to alter their sounds, and these could be examples of that style. Assuming the sounds were roughly the same, a few nearly complete words appeared. Most were meaningless out of context, but two consecutive words spelled out what could be “moon wanderers.” D'chei Shiran, translated to Rouch as the Followers of the Moon, Halkak in particular, were a nomadic religious movement. Every night, they wandered towards the moon as it rose and set. Since they only traveled at night, regardless of the height of the moon at sunrise and sunset, their movement was as erratic as the sand storms. Sahl remembered a year when a tribe of moon followers appeared one morning in T'chu'dan, their tents set up right in the city square. A few of their merchants traded in the shops, but most of them kept to themselves. Over the next few weeks, they passed back and forth through T'chu'dan, not seeming to care that they were retracing their steps over and over, and then one morning, they were gone. They all looked similar to each other, with skin a few shades darker than that of the natives, and wide but angular noses. As Sahl grew older, he learned that no one took them seriously. The whole movement was seen as a joke. Until now, Sahl hadn't had had any idea how long this joke had lasted.
“I see three possible missions here, to find more information,” Sahl said. “First this ruined temple. But how can we investigate it when it makes you forget it? Johannes, can these potions to stop hallucinations help you to see the temple? Secondly, a mission to my homeland, to see the moon followers. Perhaps they can read this scroll. This would take months. Thirdly, a mission to see the brininig. They exist all right. I have seen their village and know where it is. But any mission there is dangerous and will take some time. The first time I went there I was with Ardith and a small party. The brininig ignored us until we annoyed them, then they reacted violently. The second time I was traveling through the forest and they attacked me without provocation. They killed some soldiers with me and I only escaped by use of a clever trick. As I said I do know one of them and I could try to find him again. I learnt some of their language from him and I could stay there for some weeks trying to learn their language and ask them about the Zioth. In the meantime, Hal could continue his research and try to find the location of Brundash, and also where the dragons lived.”
Hal stopped pacing and crouched down on the floor, while Johannes answered Sahl's first question. “I don't know what side effects the potion may have, but I might –”
Hal interrupted. “I can't believe you're actually serious about this. No, it's wonderful. You're suggesting that all of these things – Brinninig, dragons, Brundash – are real. I can only hope –”
“I wish you'd stop doing that,” Johannes said, but Hal ignored him.
”– that you're right. I'll certainly keep working on the documents. I already know a few things. Brundash was supposed to be founded by a large group of natural philosophers, or wizards perhaps. It's hard to tell. The dragons could have been anywhere. If we're to believe all the legends, they were spread throughout the world. I've heard that merchants from Ostmark still leave offerings by mountain sides before they begin a long journey.”
Johannes waited a few seconds before asking, “Are you quite finished? As I was saying, I have made a few discoveries since my hallucinations were cured. There is a chance, though I do not know how good a chance, that I might be able to learn enough about the mechanism that protects the Orithoran temple to get around it. Additionally, the earthquake that the fortune-teller Uyithlyaw predicted will be something to explore in itself, though I don't know exactly when it will occur.”
“How can you explore an earthquake?” Sahlman asked.
Johannes looked flustered for a moment. “I mean observe. It is supposed to have some unusual effects, linked in some way to the Zioth.”
“So, in what order should we investigate these things? And should we travel together? If we travel as a group then I hope Ardith and Kay will travel with us also. Perhaps it will be better to split up. You, Johannes could investigate the temple, while I visit the brininig. I can be ready to go in a few weeks after I finish training my horse.”
They spent the rest of the afternoon discussing plans for learning more about the Zioth. By the end, Hal and Redbelve were as excited as Sahlman, and both wanted in on the action.
This is the second of three turns being sent out at the same time.
Johannes was an NPC for this turn. Sahl has gained a level!