"A diversion seems the best idea, yes?" you say. "I mean, we have the numbers to draw him out. All we need is one person to sneak in."
"Seems a little," Oisin cocks his head. "Easy. Anyone clever enough to manipulate sorcery would surely anticipate such a ruse?"
"He has a point," Sylpha notes.
Martel shrugs. "Let us hope that arrogance leads to oversight."
"We'll know better when we get a closer look," you say, nodding in agreement.
"That's what we'll do, then." Martel sighs. "East it is. We leave on the morn. This place will be empty for the first time since the Empire began."
"Yes. We need the numbers."
"Who will stay to protect this place?"
"That is not necessary," Sylpha says, her lips twisting up in a small, slightly condescending smile.
You scowl at her.
"Have you not noticed the glyphs carved into the entrance stones?"
Your scowl deepens and Slypha scoffs.
"You are not especially observant."
Martel shakes his head. "Let the stranger be, Chieftain."
"They are the reason why this hideout of yours has never been attacked by bandits, and why the Seeker's Son has never approached. They are ancient things, carved to ward away evil and those with evil intentions." Sylpha shifts her gaze and looks directly at Oisin before saying, "Sorcery."
Oisin grunts, and turns his attention back to the maps on the table. "Can we copy one of these glyphs and take it with us? It might be useful for hiding us from the Seeker's Son as we move."
Martel's eyes light up. The light vanishes almost as quickly when Slypha says, "No. The glyph alone is not enough. The symbol is a physical record of the spell that has been cast over these stones. And I am afraid that no one knows the right words to speak into the carvings."
"No one knows?" you ask.
"It is forgotten."
"A nice thought, though," Martel muses.
"So, we're moving as one army east," you say. "Will that not draw the attention of, oh I don't know, everyone? I mean, you did say that there are people, other than the Mage King, who do not want to see the imperial throne restored, right? And aren't the Rangers supposed to be disbanded? A group of them, moving in force? Isn't that problematic?"
"There's nothing for it now," Oisin says.
"Agreed," Martel answers. "Besides, if this proves successful, we will have the Imperial Sceptre, and with it we will be able to find the lost heir and the throne will be restored. Whatever comes after will be dealt with when it happens."
"The Sky Road walker does have a point, however," Sylpha notes. "A force our size marching east is going to attract more attention than we'd like. Do the Black Blades not have eyes everywhere?"
"How do you know about the Black Blades?" Martel asks.
"What are the Black Blades?" Oisin asks immediately after.
"Liars," Martel growls in answer to the Chieftain.
Sylpha looks at Martel and her lips twist up in that small, patronising smile again. "Bitterness, Ranger?"
Martel clenched his jaw and refused to answer.
"I have it on some authority that Martel and the leader of the Black Blades once had a rather one-sided love affair," you tell Slypha.
"Wait," Oisin says. He turns to Martel. "Are you...?"
"She is a woman," Martel snaps. "And this conversation is over."
"No it's not," Oisin said. "Who are the Black Blades and why would they be a threat?"
Martel sighs. He rubs his cheek with his palm a moment before answering. "The Black Blades were the personal guard of the Imperial Throne. Led by Assa and Farim, they were charged with guarding the Empress. But it was they who betrayed the throne they were sworn to serve, killing the last of the Imperial bloodline and starting the Time of Strife. They were disbanded and outlawed, much like we were though, granted, deal earlier than the Rangers."
"Saschana, the current leader of the Black Blades, claimed to desire the same thing we do," you inform Oisin. "To find the sceptre and restore the throne."
"She's lying," Martel says quietly. "It's what she does. She lied to me to get information - that is how she knew that we held the head of the sceptre."
"And what lie did she offer you?" Sylpha asks.
Martel shakes his head. "Love," he says. He smiles ruefully. "It was not long after she acquired that information that the Rangers were suddenly disbanded, by decree of the Imperial Steward. I was not yet leader then. I was young and foolish."
Never having heard Martel speak in such detail about what had happened, you remain silent. Oisin stared at him.
"What did you do?"
Martel smiled. "I was angry and hurt. I did the only thing I knew how. I sent a message to all the Ranger posts. It simply read 'No' and included the symbol for this camp. Those Rangers willing to risk imprisonment, and worse, to protect the Empire understood and came here. The rest gave up up their weapons, their uniforms, and their honour." Martel spat the last word as if it was a bitter fruit that left a sour taste in his mouth. "That is how I became the latest leader of the Rangers - the Commander-Elect. I have made it my mission to restore the Imperial Throne. It is my hope that in so doing, the Empire may yet be saved from the corruption and cruelty that has a stranglehold on her heart."
"You romantic," Sylpha scoffed.
There is a soft knock at the door that interrupts the mood created by Martel's story.
"Enter," Martel calls.
A young Ranger opens the door and walks in, carrying something large and vaguely round and covered in a cloth in his arms. He struggles forward, weighed down by the object. He places the object on the map table and hastily retreats, closing the door again as he exits the room.
Martel stands and carefully unwraps the bundle. It is the head of the sceptre, you suddenly realise, and not round at all. It is a solid pink gold phoenix, its wings spread wide and its head tilted up, beak open as if it was crying out. Its long talons were outstretched, the clawed ends curved slightly as if to grasp something that was not there... The crystal, you realise. Those pink gold talons once held the crystal.
The jutting piece of jagged white wood is covered in the same carved designs as the rest of the sceptre. You only realise how that those carvings were meant to represent the long tail feathers of a phoenix. You look up at Martel. He looks briefly around the room before twisting the sceptre piece around so that the butt faced the broken, jagged end of the other piece.
You can barely believe your eyes. The sceptre pieces snap together with a loud crack, drawn to each other by some strange force more powerful than magnetism. Where the two pieces meet, no seam or break of any kind can be seen. But the magic has not yet finished its weaving.
The outstretched hand on the other end of the sceptre curls into a fist, shrinking down in side as the pink gold flows through the grooves in the wood, flowing upwards to connect with the phoenix. Now you can see the tail feathers more clearly as the grooves fill with gold. When it is all finished, the almost-complete sceptre hums briefly and then falls silent.
Sylpha rises from her seat and touches the wood gently. "This is old magic," she whispers. "Blood magic."
Before anything else can be said, Martel takes up the cloth that formerly hid the sceptre head and wrapped the entire sceptre in it.
"Take some time to rest," he said. "We travel tomorrow."
"About that," Oisin says, somewhat distantly. His eyes are still on the sceptre, though the cloth now covers it. "It might draw less attention if we break into smaller groups and take different routes."
"But are we not supposed to be intimidating this sorcerer who guards the final piece," Sylpha asks. "Small groups will not achieve that."
Martel scowls. "And smaller groups are more susceptible to attacks by bandits and such."
"Still," Sylpha muses. "It will not do to be arrested before even reaching this sorcerer." She looks up at you.
"What say you, Sky Road walker? What would you recommend?"
What do you say?
a) Under cover of night, have groups move one at a time to each camp site created by the first group. This way, it'll look like one group of bandits continuously inhabiting a camp site, but in fact the entire army is moving east like a caterpillar. Then form up as one before confronting the sorcerer.
b) Split up and gather at a rendezvous point closer to the sorcerer. Sylpha is right. We won't get anywhere if the army of the Empire descend upon us to make arrests... or worse, the Black Blades.
Vote! Share! Good luck!