Arek had been waiting outside the Temple of Moradin in Cauldron for nearly two hours before he finally saw a Stone Father emerge. In that time, nearly a dozen petitioners had entered, and some had left, though Arek doubted any of them would know what he needed ask. He shivered in the late autumn air that chilled this altitude far sooner and deeper than the lowlands. It was a clear morning and, to the north Dygranog peak and Axes Bithtat soon became visible in the distance, as Arek ascended the streets towards the higher class districts around the lip of Cauldron's caldera. While Arek had stood in line to enter the city, like many others, he had spent some of his time staring at the great black line that bisected the mountains to the south - the Wall of the Righteous, stretching beyond sight to the east and the west.
To arrive at the Temple of Moradin, he had walked past several open markets and independent stands and could not help noticing how dear prices had become or how scarce food. A winter war with the Brutes would surely test the Federation, as though it had not been tested enough already!
He had stopped only to buy a heavy Dwarven mushroom cake form a street vendor with whom he exchanged a few words about Riot’s Gate and Axes Bithtat. It seemed that reconstruction of the inner towers had not yet begun – the complexities of Stone Druid construction could not be easily duplicated in their absence. Much of the rubble had been cleared in the rest of the city, but a new wave of refugees from Bithal were making conditions there more crowded than ever.
Twice, as he continued on, he had been distracted form his thoughts by the loud and unfamiliar sounds of street proselytizing and singing from the Zealots of the One. It was curious to imagine how or why a theocratic regime with a reputation like that of the Monotheocrate Order might expel its faithful for being too enthusiastic. There numbers had always been small and they had only ever attracted amused curiosity from the Federation’s far more cosmopolitan citizens, but that was before the Doom’s Eye Eclipse; before the Horde. The Zealots had certainly come a long way. They had seemed more confident and more assertive in their street preaching than ever before and, to Arek’s dismay, more numerous. It would appear that these troubled times had drawn more converts to their cause, whatever it might be. It bothered Arek that he did not know, but there was already much to learn this day.
As he walked, Arek had assiduously avoided patrol groups of Sunterran Legionnaires. He saw some press gang officers entering a tavern while others set notices about town. Arek had stopped to look at one with a couple of other curious onlookers. The Federal Draft would begin two days hence for all men fit enough to bear arms. The merchants and craftsmen who had gathered to read the notice that Arek read had seemed worried but resigned to the fact that there was little else to do.
He had overheard two of them talking behind him of small raiding parties of Brutes marauding parts of the Dakar Province. With Unity strapped to his back, Arek was self-conscious about having anyone behind him, but he continued to eavesdrop as he pretended to study the draft notice. From what they said, the raids sounded more like recce groups, testing the ground and looking for information. Would Dakar be next? The thought made the bitter wind bite a little deeper.
Perhaps this cleric could explain more, Arek hoped as he ambled forward, once again running over his cover story as he approached. The Dwarf had his head stooped down and was wrapped in a heavy cloak. Who could resist the offer of a warm oatmeal malt mead on a day like today, Arek smiled. But when the Priest of Moradin had looked up after Arek had “begged the Father’s pardon,” he nearly froze in his tracks.
The cleric looked almost as startled as Arek had to have been openly approached by his fugitive cousin.
Stone Father Leonid Ulgarovich, the son of his mother’s brother!
Arek, after what seemed liked unending seconds, pulls the other priest aside next to a wagon and says: "Cousin Leonid! What are you doing in Cauldron? When last I heard you were responsible for a small group of faithfuls somewhere in Bithal. That was what, five or seven years ago? I am happy to see you and would like to speak with you for a few moments. But not here."
Arek raises his hand to silence his cousin just as he was about to speak:
"Do you know of a public, yet private place, where we could talk without attracting too much attention? Not the temple. You know what has happened in Riot's Gate and my involvement. If you do not want to get mixed up as well, I understand. Simply shake your head and I will disapear into the crowd. If not, lead on and I will follow a few paces behind. A quiet tavern or Inn could do the trick."
Leonid blanches when he sees Arek. His mouth agape, he quickly looks around, and Arek is still talking when he lurches towards him and makes to grab his arm and cover his mouth...
Arek takes five steps back and yells to Leonid: "Hold Cousin! Stay your hand and hear me out! Despite what you may have heard, you must hear what I have to say. Let Moradin judge my words. Let us call out a mutual zone of truth. The Soulforger knows our hearts. Let him be the judge."
Leonid moves forward again, his face an even sharper mask of bewilderment now than when he first set eyes on Arek. He grabs Arek in an arm lock under his cloak, throws the cloak flap over Arek’s head, wraps one of his meaty hands across his mouth and drags him quickly away, "Curse ye for a fool lad," he whispers harshly, "Coming here of all places to make declamations in the street. Ye' were lucky t'was kin that found ye first."
Arek is roughly set free in a narrow alley and then is just as roughly embraced by his uncle's son. Leonid is two decades Arek's senior and he has always been mightily protective, more like a father than even a brother. At last he unlocks his embrace, seizes Arek by the shoulders and looks long and hard into his eyes and over his shoulder with a question on his face. His hand had brushed something strapped, hidden, to Arek's back.
"Are ye' addled?" He asks at last, "By the Pillars and the Lakes, is it true what they have said? What in the Nine Hells is going on?"
Shaken, Arek finally finds his composure and says: "You had me worried for a moment there cousin. It is good to see a familiar face yet I do not wish to get you involved in all this. Some of what you've heard is probably true, some isn't. I seem to have made powerful enemies as well as powerful allies, allies at least for now. I would like to share some of my burden but not here. Is there somewhere safe we can talk? I do not have a great deal of time."
"Aye," Leonid spares no more time for chit chat. He grabs Arek by the arm and leads him deeper into a labyrinth of back allies. The two dwarves move quietly downslope, towards Cauldron Pond and the seedier parts of town. Leonid is always looking around corners, over his shoulder and into the sky. Leonid's extreme caution makes Arek wonder all the more acutely what his cousin has heard! A couple of times Arek tries to ask, but he shoots him a silencing glance. Arek is fairly certain they have been back-tracking.
Finally they reach a small empty stable. Leonid fidgets with some keys and a lock and pulls you into a dark and oily blacksmith shop. Only after he locks the door does he turn to Arek again. His furrowed face softens. It looks as though he is remembering some simpler time as he looks at his young cousin a moment. His shoulders slump, he puts his head in his hands and begins to sob.
Arek steadies himself against one of the rotting beams of the stable. Of all the reactions he was expecting out of Leonid, this was surely the last thing he expected. He waits a moment before putting a gentle hand on his cousin's shoulder: "Speak cousin, it appears we both have burdens to share. What news? What of the Clan?"
Leonid pauses a moment, gathers his composure and begins to speak.
“Forgive me Cousin, blubbering like an Elven Maiden. Seeing you like this has reminded me of all that has been lost in such a short time. The Claimer Conspiracy was a terrible blow to the Maddock, to say nothing of the Federation. He has never appeared so old, our King, so tired.” He pauses and straightens up, though his shoulders slouch further beneath his battle worn Dwarven plate. Arek notices for the first time that Leonid has probably neither slept nor changed since he last walked off a battlefield. From the look of him, it coul dhave been something that happened perhaps only hours ago.
“We had believed you dead or imprisoned following the Claimers’ disbandment and the Doom’s Eye, when you did not return home. Then the Unspoken came. They bore Ulgar’s shield, cleft in two and riddle with holes. It had been destroyed when the Great Seal beneath Axes Bithtat was opened. They asked their questions,” he spits, “The bastards can sow discord and doubt with a single question, then stand back and watch you tear yourself a part over it. Well, cousin, I watched our Clan debate for weeks and rip its heart out in argument, before I saw its flesh ripped apart in battle.
“Now I weep, for the Unspoken have darkened my own heart such that when I see my dear Cousin, returned from the dead, my heart is filled with suspicion and doubt rather than joy. I weep because I must ask you the question they asked of Ulgar, and of every one of us, though they already had their answers.” Leonid goes rigid, and sets one foot back behind him as if he is about to sustain a blow.
“Are you, Cousin, a traitor?”
Arek took a moment to consider everything that Leonid had just said. Leonid's battle-stained clothes. Ulgar's torn shield. The Clan divided. So many questions. But that would be for later.
"Cousin Leonid. Your news brings much ache to my heart. The last few weeks have been trying. For some, a life`s worth of adventures and sorrow. I saw Axes Bithtat fall, was witness to the Claimer's disbanding, fell, felt Moradin's grace and was sent back, and many other wondrous and horrible sights I have seen. Yet I fear it is nothing compared to what is to come."
"I have shared a dream with my companion, cousin. I dream that brought us all to the Bones of the Earth, just prior to the Doom's Eye. We all appear to be connected to each other and to events much bigger than us. That is what we are trying to do, cousin. Find and explain our connection and how this relates to all the other events of the last few weeks."
Arek further explains their flight from Riot's Gate, their finding of the portals and their use by the Horde and their discovery of the Devourer of Souls. "So many riddles cousin. I have often feared it was too much for such a novice as myself. Yet I have tried my best to follow Moradin's teachings. The Soulforger has been often with me cousin and he guides my steps, even in utter darkness. I have always been loyal to the Maddock, the Federation, and what I knew of the Claimers even as I saw these institutions fading and losing their rightful place. I cannot do more than be loyal cousin. Loyal to Moradin, the Clan, the Claimers and the Maddock, first and foremost. But also loyal to the Federation and the good that it used to stand for. These things are my bearings in all this confusion."
Arek reaches to his back, unstraps his shield and lets it slowly drop to the ground, careful not to make too much noise. He unstraps Unity and falls to one knee:
"I have been given the task of carrying t