“I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.”
– Thomas Carlyle
A beautiful land. Green flowing hills, great food, mystical magic and delicious brews. There was culture to be found here, in these tranquil mountains, and a quiet reverie that so many sought in these darker days. Unfortunately, the backside of the Twinhill Market wasn’t what was pictured in the drawings and inspirational books back home. Vestria, a young traveler from afar, stepped through the muddy streets, trying to ignore the stench of farm animals that walked beside her. Her feet were covered in dirt, or at least she hoped that’s what it was, and a gentle misty rain had started to fall, making all of her clothing just damp enough to feel uncomfortable. She wandered for a short time, until she found the etched Patnahesh symbol for rest, and slipped into a small, if cozy, tavern. There was a fire by the hearth, with several figures gathered around it, holding out their clothes to get them dry.
“How can I help you?” The bartender spoke loud and clear. She was a female, tall, muscular build, with an eyepatch that instantly told any traveler this particular individual wouldn’t say no to a fight. She wore no visible weapons, but Vestria made note not to cause a problem.
“Hello,” she said, strolling up to the large woman. She noticed the symbol for love on her forehead now, a Patnahesh religious ritual that meant she was one of some important rank in their organization. She kept her single eye focused on Vestria as she approached, and Vestria wondered if her pale skin and frail build put someone like this barkeeper at unease.
“How can I help you?” The barkeeper repeated.
“I am looking for someone,” Vestria replied. “I don’t have a name, only a title. Oh, and a drawing.”
Vestria pulled a rolled vellum and showed it to the bartender. The woman looked at it for a moment, then nodded slowly and gestured to it with a chuckle. “Yes. I know this man. He prefers his privacy. Why do you seek him?”
Vestria moved her wet hair from her face, allowing the bartender to see her more clearly through her black strands. “I seek the Mage of Stonehaven for my own reasons. I mean him no harm.”
The bartender didn’t look convinced.
The Patnahesh were fiercely loyal to those that earned their trust, and that trust was incredibly difficult to earn. The Mage of Stonehaven must have done something of great importance to gain it, and if he didn’t want her to find him, this would be where her journey ended. She pressed her hands together, not pleading exactly, but getting the message across. “I need to meet him.”
“He knows,” the bartender said, shaking her head slightly. “You are the Collector?”
Vestria tried to hide her surprise. How could the news of her search reached this place so quickly? She hadn’t even known she was coming this far out until a few days prior, so it was practically impossible that someone could have known before then. Still, she didn’t want to lie. “I am.”
“Come on then,” she said, throwing a towel over the bar. “Let’s get you to the farm.”
The Patnahesh introduced herself as Estaa. She offered no other conversation as she guided Vestria through the market square and out of Twinhill. They reached the edge of the town, where the massive fields of various crops began, and not long after that she pointed toward one small farmhouse just at the end of a tiny dirt road.
“He’s there?” Vestria asked. “Is that where he lives?”
“That is right. Honorable fool. He has a good heart.”
“Thank you for this,” Vestria added. “I know you are putting trust in me. I appreciate it.”
“I put no trust in you,” Estaa replied. “I trust him. He allows you here. I allow it too.”
“Right. Thank you.”
“Good luck, Collector.”
Vestria waited a short time as Estaa walked back to town. Her clothes, even more damp now, finally reached a cold temperature that made her start to shiver. She looked at the small homestead and wondered if it was all finally coming together. She had traveled all over the lands of Azirin to find this one legendary hero. Finally, she was just a short walk away. Finally, she could do her job and return home. She walked to the farm, reaching the front door and knocking with a solidified resolve. The door opened slightly, but no one answered the knock. She peeked through the opening and saw most of the home. It wasn’t large, more of a hut really. She considered pushing the door open further, but hesitated, instead knocking again.
“Excuse me?” she asked. “Is anyone home?”
“Over here,” a voice called aloud. “In the crop!”
She turned in the direction of the call, and sure enough she saw a man emerge from the rows of corn that were growing on the large plot of land. This man was covered in dirt, sweat, and drenched from the misty rains. He had on a white shirt, and a thick worker’s cloth made here in Patnah, though it sold more as a designer accessory back home. He held a kind of gardening tool in his left hand, and he looked rather displeased to see her at his door.
“You there,” she said, turning to face him fully. “I am Vestria, the Collector. I have traveled far and wide across all of Azirin to find you.”
“To… collect me?” the man asked.
“What?” Vestria asked. “No. I am here for your story.”
“My story?” the man asked. “Do you even know my name?”
Vestria felt her pulse quicken. She had researched this figure for years, and now the true test of truth and myth were about to collide. She met his stare and nodded at him. “Yes. You are the Fire Mage of Stonehaven. You are the Slayer of Yunai, and the Protector of Azirin. You are Sionis Sepher, Heir to the Throne of Bantari and rightful King to the four kingdoms of the Southern Realm. Most importantly, you were the owner of this.”
She held out several shattered pieces of crystal, three large blue chunks of nothing special, unless it was exactly what she believed it to be, something that only this man could confirm or deny.
He looked at the pieces in her hands for a long time, then offered her a small smirk.
“It’s been a long time,” he said, setting down his gardening tool and walking toward it. “I haven’t heard those names, or seen that relic, for longer than I can remember.”
“A power crystal, correct?” Vestria asked, holding it out further, closer to him.
“The Yunai are gone,” the man said, looking away from the crystal as though it was too much for him to look at for another second. “I am who you say that I am, that much I’ll tell you, but I’m afraid I can’t do anything more than that.”
“I collect knowledge, Sionis Sepher. The story of a man who defeated the Yunai, not once, but multiple times, who drove them back and liberated their entire world? That is knowledge I must obtain.”
The man shook his head. “The past is the past. You’ll gain nothing of value from me.”
Vestria frowned. She had uncovered the man she needed. Now it was time to tell him why.
“The Yunai aren’t defeated,” she said. “You helped stop them once. I need to know what you did so that I can stop them too.”
The man hesitated, then offered her a shrug. “Very well. I’ll tell you my story, if you want to hear it, but even if what you say is truth, then it won’t help you in your own quest.”
“Perhaps not,” she admitted. “I won’t know until I have collected it. Once I know what you know, there may yet be more that I can do.”
The man smiled slightly, then nodded. “Alright. So be it. I’ll tell you what. I’ve got a few hours of work still and—”
“Actually, if you don’t mind… I’d like to start now,” Vestria pressed. “I can make us some food while you talk. I have a mechanical quill to take notes while you speak. It’s the finest contraption out of Stonehaven.”
The man raised a brow at the proposition. “You really want to start now?”
“I want nothing more,” she replied. “I am tired, but I have waited an eternity to hear your speak.”
The man nodded. “Okay. Sure. Let’s get started then.”
“Wonderful,” Vestria said, pulling her backpack off and starting to dig around for supplies. She fumbled with several scrolls, then unrolled one to confirm it had what she believed was the Sepher family tree on it. That was where she wanted to start, after all. She handed it to Sionis, pulled out the mechanical quill, and gave it a tap to get it started. “Excellent. Yes. Okay, let’s start with your family estate, shall we?”