Far from Wayland Smith there rose the city of Shi Taiyang, certainly the greatest city of the East, perhaps the greatest in all the world. Like any large city it had it’s share of inns and taverns and of these the Blue Minstrel in the northeast corner was perhaps the most renowned. Though the Blue Minstrel stayed open very late it was closed by the time a tall stranger in a dark cloak and hood walked down the street and up to its front door. It was hard to see what he looked like under the light of the tiny sliver of moon. If anyone had been looking they would have seen nothing but a wave of dark cloth that seemed to fade into the night fog. But there was no one looking. So this cloaked and hooded stranger stood for a full minute before the door and then with his fist knocked three sharp knocks on the door. When no one answered, he knocked again this time with the staff he had been clutching in his other hand. If anyone had been looking carefully they might have seen small blue sparks flying from where the staff struck the door. But there was no one looking.
Just as the stranger was about to knock again a light stirred inside. Moments later the door opened and a stooped old man holding a lamp opened the door. Maric Whitehood was the proprietor of the Blue Minstrel and many believed him to be the oldest man in the city. Certainly no one was alive today who remembered him being young. Maric poked his head out of the door and his headful of bright white hair seemed to shine in the moonlight. Not for nothing was he called Whitehood. He saw the dark hooded figure standing just outside his door and spoke in a gruff voice “I’m sorry, we’re closed for the night. Please come back tomorrow.”
Without a second thought he began to close the door but the stranger stopped it with his staff. “Come now, good sir. Is that any way to treat an old friend?”
Maric opened the door again and prepared to raise his voice and give the stranger a stern talking to. No friend of his walked about the city at this hour. But by the time he opened the door, the stranger’s hood was down. In the light of the moon and the lamp Maric found himself looking on a handsome, yet stern face framed by dark, flowing fair and a shorter well-groomed beard. Whatever Maric was going to say, he decided otherwise. Something about him did seem oddly familiar.
“We have a spare room for the night if you’ll be needing it. Come on in.”
He walked inside and the stranger followed. As Maric turned and put the lamp down on a table they finally had a chance to look at each other. A stranger walking in at that moment would have been forgiven for thinking that he had walked in on a father and son meeting after a long time. Maric found a chair and sat down while the stranger stood. “So, young man, do I know you?”
“You really don’t remember? We used to travel together. A long time ago.”
“Travel? Ha. That must have been long ago indeed. Why I haven’t left this town in…, well, in a very long time.”
“Yes, it was a long long time ago. And far far away. We sailed together for a while. And then we rode east until we could ride no more.”
“Hmm… riding I’ve done. But sailing… now that I don’t remember. Where did we go sailing? Was it down the river? I feel like I would have liked that.”
“No, not on the river. Over the sea. The Great Western Sea. We came across the sea a long time ago, with three others. Do you remember them? Do you remember me?”
For a while neither of them said anything, they simply looked into one another’s eyes. From time to time Maric muttered something to himself, words that sounded like “The Sea” and “the five of us”. And then at last Maric spoke, “Pallando… is that you?”
Under the stranger’s beard you could just about make his lips curl into a small smile. “Yes, my friend. It’s been a while.”
“It has been a very long, long time. How many lifetimes of Men has it been since we last walked and rode together? The world has changed since then.”
“The world continues to change. Perhaps faster now than ever before. I’ve been traveling far and wide, waiting, watching, acting if I had to. But it’s getting too much for me. The tide is rising and a storm is coming. And I can’t hold it back. I need your help.”
At this he sat down across the table from Maric. All of a sudden he seemed tired and old. His shoulders were hunched. The lamp showed the wrinkles and lines across his face, the streaks of grey in his dark hair and beard. He placed his hands on the table and stared at them. They were stained with many miles of travels and a dozen small scratches and bruises. Maric looked at him with eyes of pity and sadness.
“You’ve come to ask for my help? But I’m just an old man selling beer and offering room and board to tired travelers. Whatever we came to do, whatever we have done, I washed my hands of it all a long time ago. I am content to let time pass me by. I will forget the world and the world will forget me. Is that too much to ask?”
Pallando did not raise his eyes. The tiredness in his shoulders crept into his voice. “I spent a few years roaming the West. I went so far West that I was only a days’ ride from the Havens. There are still ships there, you know. For me, for us. I had almost made up my mind to board one, to go sailing again and never come. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s still work to be done, I feel it. You felt it too, I know. We stayed, both of us, even when he didn’t have to because we loved this world too much. And then we got caught up in its affairs, in things that shouldn’t have concerned us. But maybe we stayed because we knew there would be a time when we would be needed, when we would truly be tested. I think that time is now.”
Pallando reached into his cloak and pulled out a small cloth bag that he put before Maric. He took it and opened it slowly, as if he expected something dangerous to leap out of it. But as the light from the lamp showed him what was inside his eyes suddenly widened and just as quickly closed it and threw it across the table. Then he said, or rather, barely whispered “That is not possible. They were taken away, their power was broken. But these…”
“These are not them. These are copies, or rather, recreations. Not as potent as the originals, but still powerful in their own right.”
“What does it mean, Pallando? Why now? And what is our part in all this?”
“It means that there are still surprises in this world. Things that neither you nor me have seen before. As for your other questions, I’m afraid they’ll have to wait till morning, it’s been a long journey. About that room…”
And so it was that a small tavern in a far Eastern city played host to a reunion of two old friends. In the days to come, their friendship would determine the fate of the world they had both tried to forget.