Enoch gave Anselo a discrete wink and whisphered to him “Best to give them what they want” as he stepped past the half elf to take his place next to Hanzi. He raised his glass to silence the exuberant crowd of revelers. He cleared his throat softly, and taking his que from Hanzi, who had only just yielded the floor to him, he smiled out to the elite of Zroas who had gathered to celebrate the safe return of the merchant’s grandchildren.
“Tell us the story!” someone shouted from several ranks back. “Yes! Yes! Tell us how you found them! Tell us!” the crowd demanded happily.
“Yes, best give them what they want.” Enoch thought to himself as he raised his glass a second time for silence.
“First, let me say how truly honored I am to be amongst such select company. I can tell you, only a few days ago circumstances were such that I feared my living body would never again find itself among any kind of company. Now, a better man would most assuredly be able to extol how he risked life and limb in support of others. I fear though, that I’m not that better man, and am most uncomfortable talking about myself. And yet as it stands, here we all are, gathered in celebration. Therefore I must ask, nay, I must demand, that this be not a celebration of my deeds, but instead a celebration of the safe reuniting of family.
“You are not the first to ask for a recounting of the trials that I and the rest of this most amazing party endured returning to the security of this fine town. Let me be clear, the part I played was but a minor epilogue to what my new friends experienced in their year-long absence. The abominations that they vanquished are beyond your imagination. I defy you, at this very moment, to think of the most vile, the most overwhelming monstrosity your mind can conjure. I tell you it pales in comparison to what this stalwart team encountered. Encountered and destroyed!
“Theirs is a tale of endurance, survival and triumph. Certainly I could recount the events of their quest, of dark nightmares vanquished, of absolute beauty liberated, of lives saved and lives lost. Certainly I could, and it would fast become a tale recounted round fireplaces for generations upon generations, a story that would bring children huddling round parent’s knee for safety, a story that would cause grown men and women to never sleep again. Yes, I could tell that tale, and it would chill each listener to his very core. And yet, were I to relate to you the obstacles they faced, the levels of absolute evil and depravity which they endured, why the story alone would be enough to drive even the strongest among you stark raving mad. Mad I tell you! And we can’t have the insane walking amongst us now can we? No, certainly not.
“Early tonight someone asked me, I’m sure out of concern for my wellbeing, if our gracious host Hanzi had rewarded me handsomely for bringing his beautiful, charming, delightful and might I add, dangerous granddaughter Elkarena, and his grandson Anselo, safety home to him. I tell you exactly what I told this person. What greater reward can there be than the safe reunion of loving family? Certainly there is none! So let us raise our glasses as one in toast to these brave adventurers, to their safe return, and to family. Salute!”
“SALUTE!” the crowd echoed enthusiastically. Hanzi waived his arm emphatically to the servant staff and wine flowed freely, refilling each glass as quickly as it emptied. From a dark alcove music started, and the audience dissolved into smaller groups of partygoers, each more eager than the next to recount the tale that had just never been told.
Enoch worked his way methodically round the perimeter of the room, nursing a glass of wine as he skillfully deflected every attempt to pry from him even the smallest detail of the rescue mission. As he worked the crowd, he made mental note of each person whose hand he had the pleasure to shake. Who might be a potential business partner? Who had a weakness which could be exploited at the opportune moment? Who might be a threat? Life is business, and business never stops.
After perhaps an hour of mingling, Enoch slipped unnoticed from the assembly hall of Hansi’s estate. He followed the path the servants had walked all evening down to the wine cellars below, liberated two bottles of the merchant’s finest red vintage, and retreated to his guest quarters on the second floor.
“Best to give them what they want,” he said aloud to himself as he pulled the cork from the first bottle and raised it to his lips. And that’s what he’d done. The crowd demanded a stalwart, self-deprecating hero and a daring rescue against overwhelming odds. And that’s what he’d given them. If the image stuck, and there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t, he and his adventuring partners would be gods among mortals for the foreseeable future. Glowing archetypes in a tale no one would be able to tell, and yet a tale which everyone would be more than happy to in fact tell.
Enoch cast a lowly cantrip, conjuring a spectral hand to appear in the air before him. With but a mere though he willed the hand to open the trunk at the foot of his bed. From within its shadowy confines the hand retrieved a dark and disturbing tome and held it above the table in front of the thief.
Rescuing Anselo and Elkarena had not gone as he had planned. Not by a long shot. Where there had been hopes of abundant treasure there was instead a trifle of coin. Enoch reminded himself that the spell book would indeed come in very handy. But it was coin Enoch needed. Coin to build his empire. To secure loyalties. To bribe the weak. To destroy the strong. And without it, Enoch knew his plans would remain nothing more than a vision, a vision that consumed his every thought and action.
At least the gambling devise was real, he reminded himself. He recalled with a rising thrill the manner in which it had enthralled Anselo, twisted his will such that he plowed coin after coin into its insatiable maw. Had Elkarena not intervened, Enoch was confident Anselo would have deposited his last copper in the machine, and then committed his very soul to securing more coin to assuage his hunger. Under any other circumstances Enoch would have exacted revenge against the half elf for injuring him. But his actions spoke to the power of the device; and so Anselo was spared. Enoch knew too that somewhere within Anselo the undying need remained dormant. And that need was a card Enoch knew he could play when the opportunity presented itself.
Yes, the machine was a critical piece of the plan. Yes it was safe. But how to get it out of the ruins? Yet another series of actions that required coin, which only added to Enoch’s growing frustration with his circumstances. Perhaps, Enoch mused, when Anselo becomes more adept at spell casting, his services may come in handy.
Enoch’s thoughts drifted back to the book floating in front of him. Empires must be built on strong foundations, he reminded himself. And strong foundations come about only from the proper development and execution of plans. If he was to build a business without rival, be it merchant, monster, or king, his plan must be executed flawlessly.
And yet, he frowned, no plan is perfect if it involves people. And Enoch’s plan was nothing without people. He couldn’t build his empire alone, nor could he stand any chance of managing it without allies. Allies loyal to him, loyal to the death. Allies with skills to compliment his own. Allies who understood that order was necessary in order to contain the chaos that daily threatened to tear apart civilization. Without order there could be no business. And without business there was no need for people like Enoch. And that would not do. Enoch’s empire would not replace the fragile order that he saw around him. On the contrary, it would bolster it from within, from the shadows.
Perhaps within the party there were allies, he wondered, setting the now empty bottle aside and reaching for the second. Did these adventurers share in his passion for wealth, for power, for security? Were they capable of making the decisions necessary to build and defend an organization? There was certainly value in continuing his relationship with them. If for no other reason than it reinforced his cover as a self-deprecating hero, and provided additional opportunity for coin. It seemed clear they were intent upon meeting up with the elves. And that meant getting into the Harrag. Which they had no idea how to accomplish. And which, he admitted to himself, he didn’t either. Nor was he sure there was any value in it for him to go where only death awaited. Treasure most certainly. And perhaps information. Enoch was confident his connections could secure them a safe passage to the Harrag. He could barter that with the group to ensure his continued participation. Whether or not he would actually partake of the fool’s journey, which he would hold off on until he had a better understanding of the odds, and the payoff. One thing was certain, this journey would certainly involve blood, and would challenge each of them in their own way. That was life, Enoch told himself, a series of difficult decisions.
“Can they do the difficult things?” he mumbled aloud? Maybe, he answered in his head. Life was a series of difficult decisions. And some decisions were much, much more difficult, and darker than others. The mad girl, what was her name, Acacia? Of course she had to go. She was a risk, a severe risk to their survival. A risk to the mission at the very least. They all knew it, yet none of them were able to make the difficult, and correct decision to eliminate the risk. Anselo clearly could not, nor did it seem could Lornel. A slave to his convictions, thought Enoch, unable to slake his thirst even when freely offered.
“That’s why they need me,” he chuckled, “to make the difficult decisions. To do what must be done. To get my hands dirty where they know they must, but cannot.” Yes, he could do the things that needed doing. They’re a naïve group, faithful to their values and principles. And yet there was power in that. Power for them; power for Enoch.
Enoch’s mind drifted briefly to Elkarena. She was different, though not dramatically so. Of the group she was the only one who was unmoved by the mad woman’s death. What did that say about her? Was there a place for her in Enoch’s plans? Could she be the war to his diplomacy? The muscle to his mind? Time would tell.
The spectral hand rotated the spell book lazily in the candle light. The book contained information in the form of magic. And information was often more powerful than gold or sword. Enoch knew that his empire would thrive only if he had control of information. To do that he would need someone in his service who would be the gatherer and keeper of intelligence. A spy in the open, deliberately placed so as to have access to the deepest, darkest secrets of man. And who better to extract the secrets from man than a woman? Elkarena? No. While she was truly beautiful, and could no doubt loosen the tongue of even the most modest and prudent of men, hers was a life of brute force, not feminine guile.
But there were women who could hold sway over any man; women with a desire to raise themselves up out of the condition and hold power over those who enslaved them; women who with the right training and guidance, could bring a kingdom to its knees, both figuratively and literally.
Enoch allowed the book to drop to the table. That woman would be his first ally. A woman of rare beauty, with skills to tear down even the mightiest defenses within any man. And yet a woman who, like him, could get her hands dirty. Or bloody. A woman who must be found in her youth, who he can release from the bondage that is her current existence, and who will pledge her loyalty to him, and who through their combined effort, will rise in station to a level she never dreamed possible.
Was that woman in Zroas? Did she exist anywhere?
“No better time than now to find out,” Enoch said. He secured the book back in the locker, grabbed his cloak, and slipped unseen out of the manor and into the night.