Under dark, cloudy skies through which the glow of Eberron's twelve moons were all but invisible, Choraan taarka'khesh stared down into the darker recesses of the small but deep box canyon where as many as fifty dwarves and orcs were camped, hoping to escape justice. The goblin looked tiny atop his massive black and gray dire wolf, Taarka; together the two were still, silent as their clan name. They were perhaps fifteen miles to the east of New Cyre, deeper into the Seawall Mountain foothills. The sides of the fugitives' chosen lair were steep and choked with bushes, tall grasses and stunted trees. The only sound was the rushing of water from below, where a narrow stream carrying annual smowmelt from the towering mountain peaks further east flowed. Snowmelt had created this little canyon over thousands of years, from the time when the Dhakaani ruled this land and his ancestors had patrolled it.
The sound might hide the noise of enemy movement, but Choraan and Taarka stood downwind on the southeast edge, and the goblin was confident his dire wolf would pick up the scent if anyone came too close. In just a few short weeks goblin and wolf had bonded after he'd helped liberate it from a collapsed barn at PrairieHearth. He'd heard of "magebred" animals, how the humans of House Vadalis could make creatures stronger, faster, tougher, smarter or better producers of meat, milk, wool and leather. He never thought he'd partner with one. Though but a yearling by Choraan's estimation, the dire wolf was already as large as a horse, lean and strong, so perfectly-formed that any name would diminish his majesty...so Choraan simply called him "Wolf."
His quarry down below were good foes; hardened mercenaries from the Mror Holds, but leaderless since he had slain the orc called "Quiet Grave" and Choraan's dwarf ally Golandar Kolkarun had dispatched his onetime friend Rock Silverbreath in spectacular fashion. It seemed clear they planned to spend the rest of the night here. Still, Choraan waited, because what seemed clear often proved to be deception. He had been on many such scouting missions, and as he waited he recognized this as a vor'khesh delkaan, a "hushed time" when one can truly be alone with his thoughts.
Before leaving with the party tasked to hunt down these fugitives -- a group that included Golandar, Thomas the Aundairian Wizard, a priest of Dol Arrah, a khoravar archer from northwest Breland called Ivannio Thiembe, about a dozen Cyran militia led by a Brelish Army officer, a squad of King's Citadel agents led by the Dark Lantern Ariel Elenwyd, and Ullracht Markar, a House Deneith representative brought along because both groups claimed to have Deneith charters -- Choraan had dined with the aged ghaal'dar, Ambassador Ka'vuun, at his modest home in town.
The home, on a street still called "Embassy Row" even though most every foreign diplomat had abandoned New Cyre weeks ago, had been partially burned during the battle. Fortunately the empty stable behind the house hard against the town's north wall had survived, and Choraan and Taarka had chosen to sleep there those first nights after the battle. The Ambassador still had three servants, all goblins; his hobgoblin staff, a deputy and two bodyguards, perished some two months ago while carrying a diplomatic parcel from Darguun to the Brelish capital, Wroat. Two of the goblins were terrified of Taarka; but a female called Ghoori had approached the dire wolf with proper respect, and soon was rubbing his muzzle and brushing his fur. She gave Choraan the same respect, and had spent the previous night in the stable too. Now, under the dark clouds, Choraan thought of Ghoori and whether his clan vows might allow him to court her as a mate rather than a convenience. Except....
Back then, at dinner, the old Dar greeted Choraan still wearing the elaborate armor he'd worn during the battle, which fought its own valiant battle against his expansive gut. Pinned over his heart on a tabard embroidered in Darguun's colors were some twenty ribbons, medals and other military honors earned during his Last War service: Some bore the House Deneith chimera, others the crown and bell of Cyre; the rest were unknown to Choraan. Above them Ka'vuun wore two larger medallions: The swirling flames symbol of his Gantii Vus clan, next to the blade-edged crown of Lhesh Haruuc's birth clan, the Rhukaan Taash. His bright green cloak clashed with his dark orange skin -- together they reminded Choraan of the Khraal jungle of his childhood, along the coast between the rivers Torlaac and Ghaal -- and was clasped with still another honor, a short length of platinum links signifying his mastery of the spiked chain and membership in one of Darguun's most celebrated cross-clan societies, the Order of the Chain. An order to which Choraan belonged; once the Khesh'Dar officially emerged from their ancient self-imposed exile, many had joined the order to help integrate into the new nation. That both clans had been well paid years before to silently infiltrate the modern hobgoblin clans, posing as servants and underlings to escape notice, was left unsaid. Choraan's family were among those deep agents, or p'lauun, named for the tiny, stealthy rodents that infested the Khraal and, in turn, fed many of the jungle's predators. It's said a Silent Blade p'lau learned of Haruuc's intent to rebel against the Cyrans before he told his sword-brothers, Choraan thought.
Ka'vuun's ears were open, tips down, indicating he was receptive and relaxed in the presence of a stranger. He tapped his armor lightly with closed fist, saluting his visitor as he said "Saa'atcha." Choraan returned the gesture and softly said "ta muut" before kneeling on the proffered cushion. Inside the home showed little sign of the fire that had scarred the exterior. On a low table sat a tray bearing a silver flask, two matching cups and a bowl filled with starchy noon balls in a brine sauce. Choraan closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, taking in the smells of home cooking and boiled wine, choosing not to notice how slow Ka'vuun was to kneel on his own cushion, or the grimaces crossing the old Dar's face from the pain of his injuries.
"Interesting days, wouldn't you agree?" said Ka'vuun as he poured the wine. His voice was gravelly and without accent, words crisp and enunciated. His thinning hair was black, but the tufts in his ears where almost white. "We truly held the sword by the blade, defending these chaat'oor."
Choraan took a noon ball and one of the cups, nodding as he sipped. The starchy snack crunched when he bit into it, and he looked closely at the uneaten half. It was darker than traditional, and as he ate the rest he tasted a hint of sweetness.
Ka'vuun popped a ball into his mouth and crunched loudly. "You like? Made from belwheat, a Cyran grain. When Darguun was born, the Gantii Vus were given hundreds of farms north of The Gathering Stone, along the new border from Olkhaan to Gorgonhorn. After The Mourning those farms became the only source of belwheat in all Khorvaire. But the Five Nations will not buy from us because our farmers are tuuvoto -- Cyran slaves."
"I'd heard you fought like a hero of old Dhakaan against these gath'aatcha so-called Swords of Liberty...yet you speak about grain." Choraan took another ball from the bowl and ate it with a sip of wine.
"You offer me aatcha when I was simply doing my duty. I am here to represent our Lhesh and protect his interests -- in this case my muut was to defend New Cyre. Though I must admit it felt good to hold the chain in my hands again. There was a Cyran woman in the street just outside, fending off four attackers with a short blade as I dealt with the ones trying to set this house on fire. She stabbed one through the heart, but an orc knocked her out with his club. Then I was on them. I tripped one human, and as he fell I put a spike through his throat. The orc missed with a two-handed smash, then I wrapped the club in my chain and stripped it from him. He fell back and the fourth chaat'oor cut me in the left leg and hip. I sliced at him from high and low, left and right, as he waved his sword in useless parries. Six cuts and he fell. The orc, worthless sellsword that he was, fled. It was then that I noticed the blood flowing down my leg, so I picked up the woman and brought her inside, to this very room. I set her down, poured a potion down her throat, drank one myself, helped my servants put out the fire -- and by then the streets had been cleared. In truth, I was exhausted. Maabet! Thirty years since that Karrn paaldaask hit me with his foul necromancy, and still I feel it. But enough about me; your aatcha was far greater than mine in this battle."
And so Choraan told a shortened version of what he'd seen and done during the Battle of New Cyre: Killing the expert orc assassin Quiet Grave, engaging the traitor Dover d'Vadalis, fighting the dragons and foul creatures summoned by the Manifest Legion, assisting in bringing down the Red Owl herself -- all while using his spiked chain. He helped himself to more wine, and soon both flask and bowl were empty. Ka'vuun listened intently, interrupting only to ask for more details on the tactics and Choraan's chain-fighting styles and maneuvers. When the goblin was finished, the hobgoblin leaned back and said with great solemnity, "Raat shan gath'kal dor: The story stops but never ends. Well told!"
The two moved to a small dining room where a table was set for two, along with a fine-smelling selection of Dar cuisine: Meats on skewers, vegetables boiled in ale, another bowl of noon balls, matching flasks of hot wine and cold water, and a small plate with two shaa’taar, pastries filled with honey cream. One chair was higher and made for goblins; the other was well-worn, and creaked loudly as the old hobgoblin settled into it. Ka'vuun ate with gusto; Choraan sampled everything, offering compliments on each dish. Only when he was ready to bite into a shaa'taar did Ka'vuun pull a slip of parchment from under his tabard.
"I wanted to wait before mentioning this news because I wasn't sure where the Khesh'Dar, your Silent Folk, stand when it comes to Darguun," the hobgoblin said. The tips of his ears rose, then drooped -- the equivalent of a shrug.
"The taarka'khesh and shaarat'khesh stand where they have for thousands of years: Apart. We take no sides, offer our services equally to any who can pay."
"So you've been paid to come to Breland?"
"Someone paid my clan. I was given this mission. I will speak no more on it."
"Cho," said Ka'vuun with a nod. "But what of you, Choraan? What do you personally think of our Lhesh?"
The goblin kept his voice level, his ears neutral. Such questioning from a high-ranking ghaal'dar was expected; the emergence of the Dhakaani clans -- or kechs as they preferred -- had surprised Darguun as much as the human-led Five Kingdoms. "I respect Haruuc for his prowess in battle, his leadership. It was not easy to bring your lowland clans together, to point their blades in the same direction. Haruuc has earned aatcha for this achievement. But if my elders told me I must kill him, I would not hesitate, even though we Silent Wolves are not assassins."
"Do you suppose his sudden illness, so like the one that killed the Brelish king, Boranel, came from such an assignment?"
"If the Silent Blades had been hired, neither of us would ever know, yet Haruuc would be dead. I will say that death by wasting illness is...unworthy. Haruuc should die as he lived, with blade in hand, staring his killer in the eye."
"Mazo. Well said." Ka'vuun paused, taking a drink from his wine cup as Choraan finished the pastry. "Many would say it is our destiny to reclaim all of old Dhakaan; to them, Darguun is but the necessary first step. Some think our Lhesh is content with the lands he's taken, and must step aside or be replaced so that we can continue on this path."
"You speak of the Dhakaani, like the Kech Volaar and Kech Shaarat?" The twelve Dhakaani kechs, including the two all-golin'dar clans, had gone into seclusion as the Empire collapsed. In their hidden strongholds they held to the Empire's traditions, language and customs, passing them down generation to generation through the Desperate Times, the conquests of Karrn and Galifar, and into the Last War. They protected Dhakaan's history, collected its artifacts, and preserved the magical arts of the duur'kala and dashoor. Darguun's violent birth, fully recounted by the p'lauun in their midst, was the long-awaited sign for the kechs to emerge; while they never acknowledged Haruuc as their leader, neither had they actively opposed him. Most kech strongholds were deep in the Seawall Mountains, in secluded valleys and vast cavern complexes; many were closer to Zolanberg, Sterngate or New Cyre than to Darguun's capital, Rhukaan Draal.
"Yes, these Heirs of Dhakaan are a concern. They act as if the Five Kingdoms present no greater challenge than the feral gnomes and tribal orcs the early Empire pushed aside. They sing of battles against the Daelkyr, but have never faced warforged, Karrnathi undead, Silver Flame templars, Arcanix-trained war wizards...or floating forts." Ka'vuun waved an arm in the direction of Dejarn, anchored west of town like a mountain peak broken free of its stony roots. "Their bravado spreads among the younger warriors, and may lead to tragedy. But our Lhesh also has enemies much closer. The kind that shout his name in public, but plot and scheme in the dark. The kind that might exploit Dhakaani visions of grandeur to recruit for this fraudulent Draar'Mac clan, the so-called 'Dark Hands.'" When Choraan said nothing, the hobgoblin grunted once and continued. "Well, whoever wanted him dead has failed. I received two sendings from Rhukaan Draal this morning." He waved the slip of parchment, then held it close to his eyes, cleared his throat and read:
"The illness afflicting Lhesh Haruuc Shaarat'kor is purged. A special duur'kala ritual two nights ago cured our Lhesh of the ailment that was killing him." Ka'vuun flipped the parchment, and continued reading: "Regrettably, Ghakhuuc'duur Soorghaas died while leading the ritual, having taken Haruuc's illness into her body. She died as our Lhesh woke from his feverish coma." He put the parchment down, reached for his wine cup and raised it. "I was honored to have met Matron Soorghaas when she led our delegation to pay respects to Boranel, and witnessed her leadership when the Marguul clans threatened war. Even at the end of her life, she was...formidable."
As two goblin servants cleared away the plates and brought out fresh flasks of wine and water, Ka'vuun told Choraan of his days as commander of the Rhuul Dec ("Blood Wings"), a mercenary air cavalry unit formed by House Deneith from an alliance of two northern Manticore tribes with young hobgoblin volunteers, contracted to fight for Queen Dannel of Cyre. The Blood Wings were a legend, victors in battle after battle in Cyre and Karrnath until 969 YK, when Ka'vuun was gravely injured by Karrn necromancy and his Manticore killed. Back then, his second-in-command was Kogaa of the Gan'duur. "A brilliant flyer and excellent fighter," he said, "but Kogaa was aggressive and ambitious. As I recovered at home from that paaldaask's spell, Kogaa led the Rhuul Dec in open rebellion against Cyre, declaring support for Haruuc when he claimed the lands of southern Cyre as our new nation, Darguun."
Missing his chance to earn glory in Haruuc's Rebellion, even though it was not his fault, ended Ka'vuun's military career. He traveled to his clan's new lands and helped administer them, reestablishing the belwheat farms, rebuilding torched villages and trying to treat Cyran survivors as valuable assets rather than slaves to be brutalized. "Over twenty-six boring years, I became expert in growing that crop...and then the Treaty of Thronehold gave Darguun international standing," Ka'vuun said, ears flared in mock surprise. "Our Lhesh suddenly needed diplomats to all the seats of power in postwar Khorvaire: High-ranking Dar who were neither...'war criminals' nor ambitious schemers looking to line their pockets or conspire against Darguun. Even then, I was almost overlooked, until someone reminded him I was about the only surviving senior commander who had not taken up arms against Cyre -- never mind why. Soon, Haruuc appointed me 'Ambassador' to New Cyre."
"War criminals?" Choraan asked, ears showing puzzlement.
"Leaders who act without honor in battle, or something. A human term, but one they care about in Aundair or Thrane. Even though the war is over, such leaders are still subject to arrest and trial. It's said their House Medani keeps a list. I was visited by a duur'kala of the Kech Volaar late last year; she had not heard the term either. We spoke of many things, but she shared nothing of why her team was in Breland." The old Dar shook his head in human fashion. "It helped that I respected the Cyran people and culture. Unlike my former subordinate -- now 'Warlord' Kogaa if you believe it -- who went from respect to an obsessive, even revolting, fetish." The recent presence of a hobgoblin bard, leading a team no less, was intriguing, and Choraan paused to compose himself.
"Is that why you remained here, when the other nations recalled their diplomats?"
"The arrangements between Darguun, Breland, Zilargo and New Cyre were complex, and nearly undone when my deputy was slain as he carried our Lhesh's consent to the agreed terms. I'm convinced his death was connected to the battle we just won. Slaughtering the Cyran people would have left Breland little reason to accept additional Cyrans freed by our clans."
"And that's the plan? Lhesh Haruuc is freeing slaves taken thirty years ago?"
"It is part of the grand bargain, yes. The Cyrans and Zil freed by the Marguul bugbears were just the start. Naturally the guul'dar couldn't just comply, they had to rise up, threaten Sterngate and skirmish with the garrison before finally taking a bribe from the Matron herself to stand down." He paused, shaking his head again before continuing. "Haruuc intends to free thousands more -- not just the aged, but many born since the Rebellion -- in exchange for trade rights and recognition of our sovereignty over Darguun. For the Gantii Vus, selling belwheat openly will mean unheard-of prosperity." The hobgoblin chuckled. "They called me 'human lover' and 'ink dipper' because I didn't have the courtesy to die in battle. They were happy to have me do the work of running clan business, but even my family mocked me for it."
Choraan looked away and said nothing, until Ka'vuun took a breath, lowered his ears and said, "Apologies for the outburst. I was going to say that Prin--Governor Oargev sought my expertise on belwheat, and...other matters. Even before the grand bargain, Cyrans in Darguun have sometimes found their way...out."
The goblin now stared intently at the hobgoblin, ears forward. "Meaning...?"
"How do you like Ghoori? She says good things about you and your fine wolf." The abrupt change caused Choraan to do a double take, to which Ka'vuun chuckled again. "Some few among the tuuvoto have passed through the mountains. Them with families here who could pay, or that Oargev could ransom, or with some connection to the Dragonmark Houses. Young Ghoori has been a...guide for many. She knows the routes, has braved many hazards."
Finally Choraan spoke. "I have heard of such a thing. Dar willing to smuggle tuuvoto away from their clans, for coin. They are called 'worgs,' yes?"
"'Worgs,' indeed. Do you object?"
"For most clans, helping a slave escape is punishable by death."
"True, but most clans don't miss a slave here and there, and the coin they receive usually makes up for it. Now of course, freeing slaves has been endorsed by our Lhesh. If Ghoori and the other worgs in and out of Darguun are put out of business as a result, it is an acceptable loss. I could leave this life satisfied I have done my duty, showing our people they can prosper without conquest, without subjugation."
Before the Mourning, freeing a Cyran slave had been a simple matter of bribing a guard to sneak across the well-patrolled northern border. Now it required treacherous paths over or through the Seawall mountains, led by guides like Ghoori, for whom Ka'vuun offered his Embassy as a safe house. It was dangerous work, but knowing brought him no closer to defeating the Draar'Mac and cutting off their outside support.