Ahhh, my dear Barons and Baronesses, you’ve returned! Yet again, the chronicles of our campaign have been interrupted, I fear. However, I am pleased to announce, I am prepared to once again regale you with an epic length saga of: Tales of the Crimson Empire. These short, fictitious tales will focus on the backstories and histories of the npcs, battles, politics, and events that shaped the current campaign today. Today's episode will continue to expand and expound upon the origins of Conrad Frost; as well as, assorted members of the freshly formed United.
I see the players are in place, the stage lights are dimming! Quickly, fill your tankards with mead. Grab a leg of mutton. Sit back in yon reclining throne, and prepare for adventure!!!
All that Glitters
A Forgotten Backroad, a Few Miles from the Crimson Empire
The human ranger was Conrad Frost. He was standing in his stirrups, knees bent at a 45° angle, back arched, he stood above his saddle. He was a muscle-bound bear of a man with rugged looks and thinning blond hair. Clad in leather armor, he was one of the greatest horsemen in his village, before the Crimson Empire razed it to the ground. The other rider was Princess Epiphany, an Eladrin Paladin with a statuesque, but athletic built. Her dark eyes and pouty lips were locked in a determined grimace. Her form-fitting silver armor and platinum blond hair glimmered in the sunlight, despite the torrent of dust and dirt kicked up by the caravan. Like all Eladrins, she was taught to ride almost before she could walk.
Conrad clumsily leapt from his horse, colliding into the side of the wagon. Grasping the wooden slats with all of his might, he precariously held on. He turned to see if Epiphany needed any assistance, and then, his jaw dropped. There, in a crouching position, both feet on the saddle, Epiphany held the reigns in her right hand and sword in the left. She effortlessly leapt from the saddle onto the roof of the wagon. Conrad struggled to climb the swaying wagon. He heard the sound of swords clashing. And then. . . nothing. Reaching for the top of the wagon, a silver gauntlet firmly grasped his hand and assisted him up.
"Exclamation: We are on a horse. Galloping at full speed." The Warforged Fighter replied. Having lost all modulation in his voice many battles ago, Gort was forced to preface his monotone speech with his intended inflections. "Query: Was that not obvious?"
"Thank heavens you enlightened me." Abraham replied drolly. "I was afraid one of us was having a seizure." He chuckled.
Gort was a sentient construct, a facade of armor, with internal organs of wood, stone, and other inorganic material. His exterior had seen far too much combat. Repair upon repair had given him an asymmetrical appearance. He rode a gigantic warhorse, the only horse that could support his massive frame, but the horse was made for stamina, not speed. They were close behind the second wagon, but Gort realized that they were rapidly losing ground in their pursuit.
Christopher notice that Gort was losing ground. "Follow as best you can!" He yelled back. He then steered to the right. Out of the cloud of dust, he rode on the edge of the road until he was parallel with the second wagon. He rode in fast, and, with a deft movement, dismounted his horse and casually ambled up the side of the wagon.
Grabbing hold of the rail at the top of the wagon, Christopher swung his legs in a sweeping kick that knocked down both Skeletal archers. He whipped out his sword and quickly dispatched his unliving opponents. Unexpectedly, the skeletal driver stood up and rushed Christopher. The out of control wagon lurched as it approached a U-shaped curve. Christopher and the grappling driver fell down hard on the wagon's roof. The force of their fall sent the two of them through the rotted roof, into the wagon's interior.
"Yes, yes, of course. I studied it at the academy." Abraham recalled fondly. "It's not really magic you know. More to do with weights, leverage, mo. . . ment. . . um. . ." And then, Abraham realized what Gort's plan was.
Christopher was on his back; his sword was lost amongst the wagon’s cargo. The skeletal driver loomed over him with a fiendish dagger in his hand. Suddenly, the side of the wagon exploded, and a ball of metal shattered the skeletal driver, as it collided with the other side of the wagon.
As the wagon slowed for the steep curve, Gort abruptly reined his horse to a sudden halt. Leaping from the horse, the speed of their momentum sent them flying. Gort and Abraham dissected the curve in an interception course with the wagon. Gort yanked Abraham out of his harness and wrapped his arms around him for protection. Plowing into the wagon like a cannonball, the heavy wagon listed to the right and teetered on two wheels for what seemed an eternity, then came crashing down on its' side, spilling its' contents across the road.
A weak voice wafted through the hole in the side of the wagon. "Could you AT LEAST give me SOME WARNING next time???" Abraham groaned.
A metallic voice reverberated from the interior. "Statement: Timing is everything." Gort replied.
Christopher was waist deep in coins. He was practically giddy. "We're rich, we're rich!" He proclaimed. "I've never seen, never dreamed, never would believe there could be so much gold!" He tossed handful after handful into the air, letting them bounce off his head.
Conrad and Epiphany dismounted from the wagon and joined their companions. Producing a lodestone the size of a fist from his pocket, Conrad held it over the pile. A dozen coins flew through the air and attached to the powerful magnetic stone with a metallic clink.
"Sorry to burst your bubble." Conrad grunted, shaking his head. "I'm afraid all of these coins are counterfeit. Same for the load in the wagon we captured." He said with disgust.
"So. . . we aren't rich?" A dejected Christopher sighed, as the last few coins bounced off his head.
"Declaration: Wealth is relative." Gort replied.
"And we could all do with a lot more wealthy relatives." Abraham chuckled, as he lit his pipe.
The United Center
Aside from his wizardly skills, the diminutive Halfling was also one of the finest tailors in the land. His eye for fine detail was highly developed. If he could perceive no flaws in these counterfeit coins, then anyone would be fooled.
"Flawless, and plenty of them." Conrad muttered, as he plucked the faux coins from his loadstone. "Those two wagons we intercepted had thousands of coins. Who knows how many more have gotten through; before AND since." He picked up a length of twine and began tying it around the loadstone.
An imposing, square-jawed, human male with graying tempos, always dressed in a crisp uniform, General Sterling's usual composed demeanor seemed frayed. He slammed his fist on the table. "It's bad enough that people are being swindled, the Crimson Empire is undermining our very economy. Merchants, farmers, even soldiers, are threatening to cease working, even revolt if they don't get paid. Worst still, races are turning on each other. Each accusing the other, that they are behind this skullduggery." He growled. "This could be the breaking point for many members; the United could implode upon itself, and the Crimson Empire needn't even fire a shot."
"The wagons were heading toward the Crimson Empire." Epiphany replied. "That indicates that the manufacturing of these coins is indeed, within our borders."
"We need to find out who's counterfeiting these coins, and shut them down." Sterling’s demeanor returned to normal. Addressing the assembled quintet, he continued. "Midas Montague, the wealthiest man in the world, is an expert metallurgist. He is also in charge of the United's mint. I have a suspicion that he may be involved in this. At the very least, he should be able to provide some possible answers."
Abraham's ears perked up. "Midas Montague? Why, he was a frequent customer at my family's Couturier shop. I must say, he certainly has expensive taste."
"Excellent!" Sterling exclaimed. "Then you are familiar with him already. Perhaps it is time for the five of you to pay him a visit."
"Oh, I'm certain he doesn't remember me. Why, he barely noticed me when I was fitting him for his suits." Abraham chortled. "I was too small; physically, socially and economically."
"My dear Abraham, your friendship is more valuable than any amount of gold." Epiphany chirped. "It appears, even the wealthiest man in the world can fail to appreciate the truly precious commodities in front of him." She beamed. "We shall depart for the mint at dawn."
Conrad raised his hand eye-level. The length of twine dangled at his feet; at the very end was the loadstone, held securely by several bands of twine. "I'm ready." He gruffly replied, with a smile.
On the Road Again
"Just in time for lunch! I am famished already." Christopher exclaimed. "I absolutely love visiting wealthy people. They always have so much good food on hand."
"I've never know you to turn down a meal." Conrad chortled. "Be it a slab of beef or a bowl of beans, you always clean your plate. And worst, never seem to gain any weight."
"I would never hurt anyone's feelings, big brother." Christopher beamed. "If they are hospitable enough to break bread with me, I will happily sup with them, be they prince or pauper."
"A true epicurean knows that the pleasure of the meal comes not from the cuisine, but from the company." Epiphany chirped in her sing-song voice. "Once again, you display maturity beyond your years. And now, if you will excuse us Christopher, there are some matters I need to attend to with your brother."
"Of course, my dear Epiphany." Christopher slowed his horse so Conrad blocked Epiphany's view of him. He batted his eyes and puckered his lips toward Conrad. "Now, you two behave." He laughed as he rode to catch up with Gort and Abraham.
Conrad silently fumed. "Is it that obvious?" He thought. He tried to ignore the feelings he had toward Epiphany, but her coquettish mannerisms sometimes made it difficult. Was she always so flirtatious with others? He didn't think so, yet. . . No, a human commoner and Eladrin Princess? What was he thinking?
Epiphany gave Conrad a poke to his calf with her foot. "Such a dear boy. Always so jovial." She chirped, with a smile. "You do know he adores you? He only teases you because you're like a father to him."
"I know." Conrad smiled back. "I just wish I didn't have to be." Conrad saw the shock on Epiphany's face. "I mean, I wish our Father and Mother were still alive. They would do a far better job of raising him than I am. And. . . there are times when, I still need a Mother and Father myself." He wistfully replied.
"I assure you Conrad, your parents would be proud of both of you. You have done a fine job of raising Christopher." Epiphany chimed. "The skills, values, and love you learned from your parents, are what you are imparting on Christopher. They will always live on, through both of you. You are the living testaments of their love."
Epiphany's words brought a smile to Conrad's face. Epiphany beamed back at him. Suddenly, feeling self-conscious, Conrad tried to change the subject. "Did. . . did you say there was something we need to discuss?" He replied in a flustered tone.
"Hmmmm, yes." Epiphany replied, as if it was not the response she was hoping to hear. "Midas Montague. Though I have never met the man, I have heard many rumors. I am not one to put faith in rumors, but, in all my years, I have seldom seen truly good men besmirched by innuendo. A hansom rake of a man, born into poverty, he became an expert metallurgist. And here is where the rumors become scandalous; it is said that when prospectors would bring in samples of ores for evaluations, Midas would take note of the most precious samples and follow the prospectors back to their sites. The prospectors would mysteriously disappear, and Midas would lay claim to the area. He made his fortune in mineral rights. Though he never achieved a title, due to his great wealth, he became one of the most powerful and influential men on the planet. When the United was formed, it was almost unanimous that Midas be put in charge of the mint."
"Like putting a fox in charge of a hen house." Conrad grunted. "But the question is, why would he be involved with trying to undermine the United? What good will all his wealth bring him if there's nothing left to spend it on?"
"That, my dear Conrad, is precisely what we shall find out." Epiphany stated, as the Montague Mint came into view.
"Ga-hah, Welcome to Montague Mint. We've been expecting you. Lunch is waiting. Mister Montague will join us shortly. My name is Hoppykeeper. I am the plant manager." The little man announced, as he led them to the dining hall. Bringing up the rear, Gort noticed the entryway doors automatically close behind them. Even though it was mid-day, all of the windows had their curtains drawn. The entire hall was brightly lit by crystal chandlers and silver candelabras. The large dining table was adorned with fine china, polished silverware, and linen napkins. The center of the table was filled with plater upon plater of culinary delights.
Christopher's eyes nearly popped out of his head, as he surveyed the sumptuous feast laid out before them. Not only did the food appear delicious, the sheer volume was staggering. There seemed enough to feed a small village. "Gort, as I recall, you don't need to eat, correct? Pile a second plate for me, please. I don't want to look like a glutton." He whispered.
"Oh, it's quite easy." Abraham scoffed. "Merely mention how delightful a dish is, and enquire if they tried it yet. A benign topic that will put an end to any tension."
As they situated themselves around the table, Conrad turned toward Hoppykeeper. "How did you know we were coming?" He enquired. "We just decided yesterday, and no messages were dispatched beforehand."
"Please, please! Everyone remain seated. No need to stand on ceremony." He proclaimed with a smile. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Midas Montague." He then turned to his left with a slight bow. "And this is my bodyguard, Zygote."
Behind him, was a lithe Drow Elf. His greasy all-white hair was pulled back in a ponytail, a sharp contrast to his ebony skin. He was dressed in black leather armor. The smirking sneer on his face, the gait of his walk, indeed, his very existence, seemed dripping with contempt toward the seated assemblage. And then, his eyes locked on Epiphany.
"Let me cut to the chase." Midas began in his lilted voice, a bemused smile etched on his face. "You are here because you suspect me of having a hand in the counterfeit gold that is spreading across the United. Correct?"
"We do not mean to offend Mister Montague, but we believe someone involved within your operations may be responsible." Epiphany countered, with all of the charm she could muster. Realizing that their intentions were known, she began to press the interrogation. "Our suspicions derive from both the massive quantities AND quality of the fraudulent coins. Perhaps someone is using your facilities without your knowledge?"
Midas released a hardy laugh. "That, my dear Princess, is quite impossible. You see, my entire plant is totally automated. It eliminates any human error, as well as any greed. Hoppykeeper, Zygote, and myself are the only living beings on the premises. It is also protected with mystic wards to prevent teleportation into, out of, or within the facilities.” He bowed his head toward Epiphany. “So, I’m afraid, even your Fey Step will not work here Princess.”
"No workers also means, no witnesses." Conrad replied flatly. "Perhaps someone is minting the counterfeit gold when nobody's watching."
"If they are producing as large quantities of faux gold as you stated, it would certainly be noticed." Midas proclaimed with a smile.
Midas' face seemed frozen in a smile. He then relaxed and addressed the table. "Well then, it appears we have three suspects. We can eliminate Hoppykeeper, he has neither the brains nor the backbone for such a grandiose scheme." Hoppykeeper nodded in agreement. "Zygote, on the other hand, has both the intellect and spine for such an endeavor. But to what end? The Drow are despised on the surface, and he is in exile from the Underdark. What good would wealth do him?" Zygote glared at Midas. "And me, I have the greatest excuse. I am already the wealthiest man in the world. What could the Crimson Empire possibly offer me that I don't own, or can't possess, already?" He crossed his arms with a triumphant flourish.
"I don't recall anyone mentioning the Crimson Empire's involvement before." Epiphany replied in her sing-song voice.
"Why, of course you did. . . you must have. . . it was certainly implied." A flustered Midas replied, while trying to control his composure.
"How unfortunate for him." Epiphany dryly responded.
"It was a her. A haughty, oh so superior, Eladrin like yourself." Zygote leaned back into his seat and proceeded to pull apart a roasted capon with his hands. "She thought herself so much better than the wretched Drow. But I showed her. Once I stripped away her. . . defenses, she. . . submitted to my will. . . many times over." He sucked the grease off his fingers in an overly salacious manner. "Now what was her name? Oh yes, Persephone." An almost imperceptible shudder flowed through Epiphany, but Zygote failed to notice.
Though he was looking at Epiphany, Zygote was staring over her shoulder at Conrad. He had already ascertained the bond between them, and sought to take advantage of it. He could see Conrad's blood boiling, muscles tensing, ready to defend his love's honor. Zygote smiled, no one would dream that he was once renown as the most dangerous swordsman throughout the Underdark. The human would strike first and he would finish him with one quick stroke; and no one could blame him, he was merely defending himself. The strangers would be forced to leave, perhaps banned from the United, possibly even imprisoned. And the investigation would soon be forgotten.
Zygote decided to press his attack. "I see you are a vegetarian, you should have more protein in your diet." Holding the blunted end of a drumstick toward Epiphany, he leered once more. "You should try the dark meat. Persephone grew to be quite found of it."
With her hand, firmly on Conrad's thigh, to prevent him from rising, she turned toward the offensive Drow. "On the occasions that I do indulge in meat, I prefer it thick, juicy, and filling." Epiphany smiled in her sing-song voice. "Not like the tiny, dry, and flaccid piece of meat you have to offer." She tilted her head and pouted her lips.
Christopher laughed out loud so hard, that he spewed a plume of half chewed food all over Hoppykeeper. He could hardly control his laughter.
Leaping out of his chair, the enraged Drow snarled. "What are you laughing at, BOY?"
Quickly rising from his seat, Christopher snapped back. "Call me boy again, and you best pray that your sword is sharper than your wit."
Gort's head turned from Christopher to Zygote and back again. The situation had grown tense. He rose from his chair and spoke in his metallic, monotone voice. "Declaration: My, the pork is excellent!" He picked up the platter serving the roasted pig. "Query: Have you tried it yet?" All heads turned toward Gort in disbelief.
"That will be enough of that!" Midas roared. Pointing toward Zygote, he proclaimed: "Leave us, NOW! You will not insult guest like that in my house!" As the insolent Drow sauntered off into the shadows, Midas regained his composure. "My sincere apologies for this incident. He is an excellent bodyguard, but a poor diplomat." His charming facade back in place, he addressed the quintet. "Hoppykeeper will show you the manufacturing plant. I am certain that once you see for yourself, you will understand why it would be impossible for anyone to abuse our process. Now if you will excuse me, I fear the afternoon sun wearies me." With a slight bow, Midas left for his chambers.
As Hoppykeeper led them to the manufacturing plant, Conrad approached Abraham. “Why didn’t you mention the divot in the coins to us earlier?” He whispered.
“Because there are no imperfections. I just wanted to gage Montague’s reaction.” Abraham replied, with a wink.
As they walked pass the copper vats, Conrad surreptitiously dangled the loadstone pendulum over the molten metal, careful to stay away from the edge of the iron vats. He felt no magnetic pull. Passing the silver vats, Conrad again dangled the loadstone over the liquefied metal. No reaction again. Finally reaching the gold vats, Conrad once again tried his magnetic litmus test. This time, a strong pull snapped the twine taut with its ferrous attraction. In his office, from a window overlooking the plant, Midas observed.
Standing in front of them was Zygote. Leering as usual, a sardonic smile crossed his lips. Up the stairs behind him, stood Midas, peering down from his office. His unflappable composure regained, he smiled congenially. “Princess, Mister Frost, I see our little charade has come to an end.” He chimed in his lilted voice.
Conrad glared up at him. “We suspected it was you. The one thing we couldn’t figure out is why.” He snarled. “What could the Crimson Empire possibly offer the wealthiest man in the world?”
Midas’ calm demeanor was replaced with a scowl. “Look at me. Look at me!” His voice began to crack. “Do you not see the lines and wrinkles slowly etching into my face? My hair thinning and turning gray? I used to run up stairs two at a time; now I’m winded climbing a flight of stairs.” His placid veneer had completely vanished. “Even before I was rich, women would throw themselves at me. I could have anyone I wanted, anytime. Now, only the harlots interested in my wealth seek my company. I realized, all the wealth in the world can’t buy me time.” A melancholy look filled his face. “However, the Crimson Empire provided a solution. They could not reverse time, but they could prevent me from aging further. If I agreed to help undermine the United’s economy, they promised to turn me into a vampire. Eternal youth and strength; never to fear old age, senility, frailty again. Immortality!” He proclaimed, flashing an evil grin.
“But now, I’m afraid, I must leave you to Zygote’s tender mercies.” Midas smirked, and gave a slight bow “Oh, you needn’t worry about your companions either. Hoppykeeper should dispose of them soon.” He turned and entered his office.
Zygote edged closer, Epiphany locked eyes with him and followed his movements. Without losing eye contact, she spoke to Conrad. “Mister Frost, you must pursue Montague, do not let him escape. I will handle Zygote.” Her voice was firm and steely, she left no room for argument. Conrad looked from Epiphany to Zygote as they began to circle each other. The intensity of their focus on each other was palpable. He hesitated for a moment, then raced after Midas.
Epiphany and Zygote calmly drew their swords. Circling each other like terrible predators, barely disguised in faux veneers of civilization. Raising their swords, they crossed blades. There was a sudden rapid-fire pinging sound, as they tested each other’s speed, then, the battle began in earnest.
A perplexed look crossed Midas' face. "Go through with? Before. . ." And then he laughed. "Mister Frost, I did not become the wealthiest man in the world by dealing in future promises and undelivered goods. I made sure I was always paid upfront." He stood and glowered at Conrad, his eyes turned blood red, huge canines emerged from his gum lines. "And my deal with the Crimson Empire is no exception."
Christopher drew his sword, then thinking better of it, sheathed it and grabbed a sledge hammer leaning against the wall. Abraham whipped out his wand and began uttering incantations, when Gort stepped between his friends and the line of automations.
Her left foot touched the wall. Epiphany reached out with her left hand, feeling the cool masonry at her back. Using her left foot to guide her, she began to slide against the wall, backing away, barely deflecting Zygote’s constant lunging attacks. First her foot, and then her hand felt the perpendicular adjoining wall. She had reached the corner. No more room to run. An evil smile played across Zygote’s face.
"Impossible! Impossible!" Conrad couldn't believe it. It was like he was moving in slow motion. No matter how fast he moved, Midas easily sidestepped every swing Conrad made. Midas grabbed Conrad's wrist, wrenching it until he dropped his sword. With his free hand, Conrad yanked one of the heavy drapes off the window. The blinding sunlight seared Midas' flesh. He howled with pain, as the office filled with an odor reminiscent of burnt bacon. Midas cowered in the shadows, then laughed. He pointed out the window. "You fool! That is the setting sun. Soon, it shall vanish beyond the horizon. Until then, I can endure the pain." He hissed.
Hoppykeeper wrapped his arm around Abraham's neck in a chokehold. "Ga-Hah! I'll wring your neck!" The nasty gnome cackled. "Ga-Hah! Your magic can't save you now, you little pip-squeak."
The automations were built for manufacturing, not war. Their bodies were designed for specific tasks. Trying to adjust to the unpredictability of defensive and offensive fighting was far beyond their original intent. Their armor was strong enough to protect them from mundane physical damage, but not nearly strong enough to withstand Gort's slashing sword and Christopher's bludgeoning hammer. Soon, all of the constructs were spread across the plant's floor, like some bizarre, metal puzzle waiting to be reassembled.
Suddenly, Epiphany lunged forth with her blade. An obvious attack that Zygote easily parried, as he sidestepped to the right. Again, Epiphany lunged, Zygote casually dodged her blade once again, stepping to the right to avoid the clumsy attack. Sweat pouring down her brow, Epiphany lunged once more, causing Zygote to, mockingly, skip to his right, as he parried her strike. “Oh, so close my dear Princess.” He laughed.
But then, wiping the sweat from her brow, Epiphany smiled. “You are well trained Mister Zygote. Well trained, to the point of predictability.” She chirped. And then Zygote realized, to his horror, that he was looking out from the corner.
"Ga-Hah! As I was saying, this armor contains anti-magic properties. Your wand is useless against me" Hoppykeeper sneered, as he tightened his grip around Abraham's neck.
Abraham was turning purple. He was on the verge of blacking out, when he suddenly remembered the one trick he was taught in the Academy of Magic that he thought he would never be forced to use. Griping his wand with all his might, Abraham jabbed Hoppykeeper in the eye with it. Hoppykeeper lurched back screaming, as he released his hold on Abraham.
They advanced as one, side by side, each brandishing a deadly axe. "Gort, if they're made of gold, they should be softer than you, shouldn't they?" Christopher asked, as they backed away from the twin terrors.
"Declaration: I do not wish to find out the hard way." Gort replied in his monotone voice.
Using all of his tracking skills, Conrad tried to navigate the crisscrossing catwalks they had traversed earlier. Suddenly, Midas was standing before him. "While extremely amusing, I'm afraid our little game has come to a conclusion" Midas intoned, shaking his head. "I do hope Zygote hasn't killed Princess Epiphany. She would make a stunning bride to spend eternity with. And, I have heard that an Eladrin's blood is, oh so, very, very tasty." He smiled demonically. Conrad's blood boiled. He knew Midas was trying to bait him. Make him do something foolish. Make him come towards him. Instead, Conrad turned and ran the other way.
Abraham stood up choking and coughing. He walked over to where Hoppykeeper was rolling on the ground. His sobbing sounding like a never-ending stream of: "Ga-Hah, Ga-Hah, Ga-Hah. . ." "Normally, I abhor physical violence." Abraham proclaimed. "But in your case, I'll make an exception." He grabbed Hoppykeeper by the collar and punched him with all his might. Hoppykeeper was unconscious. Abraham was holding his fist and grimacing in pain. "Now I remember why I despise physical violence." He yelped, shaking his hand.
"Synchronized! They're synchronized!" Christopher exclaimed. "Gort, look at them. They match step for step, swing for swing, move for move."
"Query: So, we will be destroyed at the same time?" Gort intoned.
"No Gort. We can use it to our advantage." Christopher giddily replied. "I need you to throw me between them."
Conrad had found what he was looking for. He grabbed a chain and pulley hanging from the ceiling and uncoiled as much chain as he could. He tried to gage the length of the chain as best he could. Striding toward him, Midas had a look of disappointment etched on his face. "Mister Frost. You cannot elude me forever. Come, I promise you, your death will be quick and painless." He said through a wan smile. Conrad picked up the end of the chain and began swinging it toward Midas. As if Conrad was moving through water, Midas avoided his every swing. "I admire your tenacity, but we both know there can only be one outcome." He smirked. Conrad hurled a length of
chain toward Midas. As he swayed out of the way of the end of the chain on his right, Midas failed to see Conrad leaping over the edge of the catwalk on his left, grasping the center of the chain. Catching the end of the chain that Midas just dodged, Conrad pulled both ends taught as he fell. The chain wrapped around Midas' waist, the momentum of the muscle-bound ranger caused him to topple over the edge of the catwalk.
Christopher peaked out of one eye; it had worked. As he suspected, their synchronized programming failed to take close quarter combat into account. The mechanical minotaurs were struggling to remove their embedded axes from each other's chests. Gort casually strode up, and decapitated both minotaurs with one swift stroke of his massive sword. "Bull's eye!" Christopher exclaimed.
"Correction: Bull's neck." Gort replied.
Epiphany saw Zygote's left hand darting for his dagger; the flash of steel as it exited his scabbard. She released the grip on her sword, causing Zygote to stagger to his right from the sudden absence of resistance. She caught his left wrist with both hands, and continued its arc, until the horrible serrated blade sunk into the right side of Zygote's neck.
Looking up, they heard a rattle of chains and laughter, then saw Midas and Conrad toppling over the catwalk, into the smelting vat. Without a word, the four companions bolted for the nearest set of stairs.
Dangling a few feet over the silver smelt, Conrad clung to the chain, grateful he had gaged the right length. The heat was overpowering; he knew he had to climb up before he passed out. As he shimmied up the chain, he felt a shudder, as the chain began ratcheting down from the pulley with a sickening clinking sound. The chain lowered into the smelt faster and faster, as Conrad climbed, hand over hand, in a desperate race to the catwalk. And then, the final length of chain whisked free of the pulley.
"Declaration: Timing is everything." Gort replied.
Epiphany ran into Conrad's arms. "Thank heavens, you are unharmed." Looking into the vat of molten silver, she hesitated. "Midas. . ."
"Midas is gone. He had already been turned into a vampire before he started counterfeiting the gold." Conrad explained. "Fortunately, the silver was still pure. It was the only way I could think of to stop him."
"You defeated a vampire by yourself, big brother?" Christopher balked. "Unfair, I wanted to be the first in our group to do so." He laughed, as he put his arm around his brother with pride.
"Tell you what. Next time, the vampire is allllll yours." Conrad chortled. "And Zygote?" He inquired, looking at Epiphany.
"Zygote will not bother anyone, anymore." Epiphany replied, with an uncustomary steeliness to her voice. "I believe we are done here. We can take Hoppykeeper back to the United Center, where we may disclose what transpired here to General Sterling." She turned on her heel, and headed toward the entryway.
Returning to their mounts, Christopher turned to the others. "Now that Midas is gone, I wonder who the wealthiest person in the world is now?"
"That would be Prince Pyter Pyrite, I believe." Abraham replied. "He made his fortune in gold as well."
"Well, sounds like an outstanding individual." Christopher beamed. "I'm certain his name will be synonymous with wealth and fortune in the future."
"I just hope there's nothing wrong with that fool's gold." Conrad snorted, as they headed back to the United Center.
There was Epiphany, standing before a brazier of incense. Conrad couldn't believe his eyes. The wisp of smoke seemed to form an image of an angelic Eladrin. Epiphany appeared to be speaking to the mist, when it looked in Conrad's direction, and suddenly dissipated.
Conrad tried to back away before Epiphany saw him. Without turning around, Epiphany beckoned to him. "Conrad, please join me. I am certain you have questions."
Cursing himself at being caught, Conrad strode to the center of the courtyard. "I didn't mean to intrude. I just wanted to make sure no one was skulking around. Turns out, the only one skulking was me." He sheepishly replied.
"Please, Conrad. Skulking implies a more sinister motive. Your motives are always sincere." Epiphany chirped through her moist, red lips. "No doubt, you are wondering what I am doing here?"
"Did I see. . . I thought. . . Was that. . . Persephone?" Conrad sputtered.
"Perceptive as always." Epiphany smiled. "I know you noticed me shudder at her name at lunch. And not merely due to Zygote's baiting taunts."
"Who was she?" Conrad inquired.
"Persephone was my older sister." Epiphany sighed. Her eyes began to tear. "She was captured, tortured, and murdered by the most powerful Drow house in the Underdark. So terrible was his fury, when our father, Lord Scrimshaw, lead the Eladrin army down to retrieve her, no other house would come to their aid. They were utterly destroyed. All members of that once proud house, eradicated. Or so we thought. Apparently, Zygote escaped somehow. I can only surmise, but I imagine, no other house in the Underdark dared to accept him, despite his skills, for fear of incurring Lord Scrimshaw's wraith. He was forced to live on the surface world, in hiding. Until, today. His own bravado gave him away. For if he had not spoken in such an ill-tongued manner, I never would have known his part in my sister's demise.”
"But she is here. She will always be here." Conrad whispered in a soothing voice. "The skills, values, and love you learned from Persephone will always live on, through you. You are the living testament of her love."
"Mr. Frost, it is highly unfair of you to use my own platitudes against me." She smiled, in spite of her tears. "But, I am grateful that you do listen to me, and are here for me now." She approached him, her voice began to waver. "Now, I fear, I have a final request. I have need of your shoulder."
She wrapped her arms around him, placed her head on his shoulder, and began to weep. Conrad held her with all his might. There were a thousand things he wished he could say to her. But, right here, right now, the only thing that mattered, was their embrace.
"I am sorry, my brethren. I am truly sorry, I arrived too late." A metallic voice reverberated through the, now empty, mint. "Too late to save you, but not too late to salvage you!" A blue glow emanated from his hands. All of the scraps slowly levitated off the floor and collated in the center. The broken and shattered pieces of metal began to merge, to form a monstrous shape.
From the smoke, something arose, something large and terrible. Its eyes opened, revealing a malevolent intelligence; a soul filled with anger. It rose to its full height, revealing a gigantic conglomeration of the automations that once serviced the mint. With a screeching metallic voice, like the cry of a newborn baby gasping its first breath, it proclaimed: "I. . . LIVE!!!!"