The Third Age was said to be a turning point for Mannkind. With their newfound agricultural abilities, great settlements grew and flourished into civilizations. The Tribes of Mann, no longer at the mercy of their environment, became its master. Yet there was still a great terror that beset the people of Elyria. Great, ancient entities roamed the world and left devastation in their wake. The Ancients, the Vices, the Titans: there is much debate as to the true identity of these beings but what records that survive from those dark days refer to giants and darkness, fear and fighting.
Though there is some debate among scholars, one illuminated manuscript is often cited as referring to the Sword and Shield and their allies:
"Fused, as the crucible's vitae, the four and six corporeal bodies–each containing within itself its own powers and means of action–were augmented and indistinguishable of blade and bulwark."
The manuscript makes an accounting of the Vices being sealed in Karcion, of Haven being locked away, and of Elyria becoming the domain of mortals "made lonely and bereft even as it is become sentinel". It outlines a summit to be held regularly in order to keep guard against future threats:
"Among the people the oath is made
Of vigilance and fellowship bade
Forget thee not thine duties grave
These golden lands united to save"
No records indicate clearly whether this summit was ever held but the remaining manuscript documents the agenda and duties of the pact for the remaining eighty pages.
Also during this age, To'reshian scrolls outline the process of exchanging land parcels, crops, and livestock at an event called Rinst Leharar during "the season's shift". A detailed accounting of how the best land would be meted out to the most capable farmers, while new farmers would be given plots to prove themselves, also includes the first meeting of Drasean pilgrims on exodus from the jungle and how many plots they received. Records indicate that during the Great Drought the Rinst Leharar was held annually and that there was free exchange of produce and livestock in order to promote heartier versions of both.
Treaties between the To'resk and other tribes began to proliferate in the generations after the drought passed and bills of lading from that time indicate a sharp increase in the weight and size of produce and livestock. It was not long before the Janoans, Neran, Dras, and The Waerd were listed as "land ineligible" attendees of the Rinst Leharar. The event returned to a seasonal timescale and was moved to a port city to better serve the visiting caravans and growing attendance.
Soon thereafter, records of the event appeared on documents across the continent, in every nation, from every tribe. Some, such as the Brudvir, appeared to be making arrangements with the Neran to ferry furs and woodcrafts to the southern function. Kypiq and Hrothi caravans were also funneled through carefully constructed Neran trade agreements. Regiments of dignitaries became a chief export during these meetings as well, at least for a time, ultimately replaced by travelogues of clan leaders, heads of state, and religious leaders making the trek themselves.
No longer a simple, civic event to mete out land among the To'resk, countless strategic marriages, treaties, and trade routes are established each Leharar. Only generations later was it discovered, quite unexpectedly by The Waerd, that a secret organization of influential trade families had formulated their own agreements and were using the Leharar to press their collective thumb against the scale by fixing market prices, influencing trade agreements, and steering the course of governments to their own ends by manipulation, threat, and assassination. The Tolen Society, or Tolenites as they were known, used a currency of favors–or tolls–to bid for outcomes. These tolls were not a physical currency but, rumor has it, an accounting of values encoded in messages, both spoken and written, between the members. The exact method of encryption has never been discovered or decoded, but few doubt it existed.
The Waerd were outraged by the discovery of the Society, whose influence had spread within their collective and created an underground dynasty of individuals who were actively deceiving the rest of the community. Branded as traitors, this "family" was weeded out and exterminated, despite having infiltrated its members into noble houses and council chambers across the known lands. This bloody hunt did not stop with their own, however, and The Waerd vowed to eradicate the Tolen Society for upsetting the Two-Fold Queen's ledger. Because of this, the Waerd no longer attended the Leharar–at least not publicly–but, when influential people were found dead at the event for years to come, gossip undoubtedly turned to whether or not they might have been a Tolenite and their death was at the hands of The Waerd. Though no one would have admitted to it publicly, the general consensus was that the Waerd were doing everyone a favor, and those suspected of being Tolenites were often put to death over other, unrelated crimes.
In the wake of these dark events, a movement to reform the event gained popularity, especially among the Neran and To'reshian nobles. A new charter was drafted with a formal set of rules–something the Leharar had not reworked in centuries–that strictly forbade price fixing, secret orders, and assassinations among other things. It also defined policies that would ensure that the meeting would remain neutral in the future, calling for the event to be hosted in a new sovereignty each time and for an international committee to oversee the proceedings. To further distance this new, principled and trustworthy event from its tumultuous predecessor, it was re-branded as the Sedecim.
Though somewhat shaky at its inception, the Sedecim quickly forged a reputation as the respectable summit that was always meant to be after expelling the ancients. After a time, The Waerd even began attending again. The Sedecim marked a new age of peace and prosperity for Mannkind and thus, Elyrian calendars retroactively changed to set the event as being held upon the First of Auror in the month of Angelan of the First Year of the Fourth Age.
Fate is a very weighty word to throw around before breakfast. But here she was, in the great port city of Wavemeet Bay and, for the first time in her life, far from the green embrace of the jungle. Everything smelled like the very breath of the sea, cooked meats, sweat, and manure drying on planks. This was a moment and a memory which would, no doubt, be triggered by those smells for many years to come.
Her back against a shack, Shikka’s chest felt tight as she watched a broad-shouldered Brudvir brood at the patrons of the open-air tavern on the dock from his perch at the end of the bar. She may be still Unblooded, but Shikka wasn’t one to give in easily to fear in the face of a threat. No, her hesitance came from both the shock of the new environment – it had been miles since there was more than one old-growth tree in a cluster – and the realization that the Brudvir didn’t bother with an eyepatch. He wanted people to see that scar so he could evaluate their gazes back at him. Shikka rolled her shoulders to loosen up. This isn’t going to be easy.
The Brudvir was well-known as the Neran queen's personal bodyguard, and a renowned knight under his own name, Sir Vuk. Why he had been put in charge of setting up security for this To’resk-inspired festival was beyond Shikka’s ability to guess. Shikka could tell by the way Brudvir gripped his mug and glared over the rim in silence, with clenched jaw, that he was likely not pleased by the assignment. He would not be a mann easily impressed by a new recruit, even of Janoan heritage. Yet the call for festival guards had been a lucrative prospect and she couldn't stand to stay Unblooded and unproven. Oh well. A job’s a job.
Mellyn, the guide that had been assigned to her since being processed upon arrival to the Neran town, stood solemn and unblinking next to her. "That's Sir Vuk right across the way. Be polite. Pay for his drink and give him your document with job orders. It will be fine." Mellyn smiled in an effort to put her at ease, but Shikka cringed. She had never had to interact with an actual Dras in-the-flesh before and found their gaunt features abhorrent. The sooner she was without him, the better!
Shikka straightened and strode across the broad planks that kept the still-bustling port-side market above the high tide. The Rusty Hook was not much more than a wide bar at the edge of the pier with a few mismatched tables and chairs clustered about the front of a stall under the open sky. A few serviceable sails had been rigged above the immediate bar area, allowing for some shelter from inclement weather. Shikka stopped in front of Sir Vuk’s stool and stomped her staff upon the wooden planks with force before sitting next to him to indicate she was there and worthy of attention.
Clearing her throat, Shikka unclenched her hands from around a folded note with a Neran diplomatic seal on the fold and held it out to him. Sir Vuk shifted in his seat and let out a sigh. In silence, he drained the last of his mug, slammed it down to signal the barkeep, and turned slowly to her. He opened the sealed note with a nod. This is something he was expecting.
“Janoan,” Sir Vuk growled while leveling at her, giving her full view of his ragged scar. Up close, she could see that the scar ranged from his left brow, where three slashes made a ruin of his empty eyelid, and ended abruptly on his cheekbone. He pointed to his strong-smelling mug, then the barkeep, and finally leveled one finger at her chest.
Shikka did not flinch. She handed coins to the prompt barkeep in exchange for two full mugs of steaming, green liquid. The To'resk diplomats she'd traveled with had given her the foreign coins and counted them carefully, telling her how many to use for which task. She nodded in acknowledgement to the barkeep and then raised a mug to Sir Vuk with a tentative and toothy grin. Shikka coughed at her first sip – this was not ale. It was...tea? Shikka took more measured sips of the most bitter tea she'd ever encountered. It made her eyes water.
She pointed to the fanged crescent jaguar skull woven into her feathered shawl where it rested on her shoulder. She nodded upward with her chin at his scar and made her hand in the shape of a claw, questioningly. Sir Vuk shook his head, “Karral heß,” and pointed to the bear tooth hanging from his neck. He straightened his spine and put his hand on his leg while he leaned into the bar and took another look at her.
After gulping down a swig of the odd and steaming brew from his mug, he nodded slightly to himself. He reached into his vest pocket and dangled a large iron key in front of her. Sir Vuk flipped over her note and started drawing a map of the docks. Placing the key in her hand, he made an obvious gesture at the scrawl of letters next to the crude map. Shikka looked at it, and cringed again at the thought of needing the Dras to translate.
Sir Vuk drained his mug and turned away from her, settling back in to his resigned glare over the bar. Shikka closed her fist around the key and left. She had the job and he wouldn't understand anyway. That was enough. Shikka left without another word.
Shikka returned to Mellyn, and held the map open for inspection. He squinted close at the parchment for a moment and then translated for her in Jenu, "Warehouse 17, Pier 11. Professor Nicoa will come for the key at dawn. You're not to enter." He looked up and pointed south along the waterfront. "See that low building across the way with the red awning? Get your festival guard uniform there first and then you have guard duty at the warehouse...there." He pointed to a large building at the end of a different pier with a peaked roof and enormous doors. He handed a new parchment to her, "Show this note to the tailor. Good luck."
Shikka's shoulders relaxed at the departure of the Dras. She didn't think she'd ever welcome his kind to come see the trophy room she'd undoubtedly have, but she was begrudgingly grateful for the help since languages were not her strong suit. There was still enough golden light to the evening for the waterfront to be full of people buying, selling, fishing, wandering, entertaining, or preying upon the unsuspecting with nimble hands. Still wearing her traditional Janoan gear, she stood out in this new environment. She knew she must make haste for the tailor’s and did so while taking no notice of the festival being constructed all around her.
Two weeks hence, a pair of To’resk diplomats had arrived in her village with a purpose to recruit young Janoans as guards for the newly-minted Sedecim festival. It was common among the Unblooded young to take on such offers, especially if they were orphans needing to build their own Trophy Tree, as she was. Shikka left with the diplomats and followed them all the way out of the forests of her childhood to Wavemeet Bay.
The Sedecim was explained to her enthusiastically by the diplomats during the trip. She had never been into Neran territory and gleaned what she could about what to expect from these To’resk as they recruited others from villages along the way. They were calm and quiet menn, who dressed plainly and moved slowly due to age. Their calm manner helped keep her at ease among the fierce Janoan guards which surrounded the wagon of Prince Alver, a young To'resk noble famous for his parties but also his ability to conduct peace in even the most intense disputes. As a favorite consort of the famed Neran beauty, Queen Viccyni, Prince Alver had been influential in the redesign of the summit, leveraging the popularity of both he and the queen to bring not only their nations together – but all of Mannkind. The diplomats told Shikka and the other recruits that these two prominent nobles were visionaries who sought to hold this summit, for the first time, on neutral ground, unlike the Leharar. They had raved about how scandalous an idea it was that many elders viewed it as blasphemy and warned of the villainy of the past, but the young nobles quite loved the disruptive energy behind the festival of peace and endorsed it heartily to the common folk.
The Sedecim festival had been given a symbolic flower, which Shikka saw everywhere in Wavemeet Bay. This purple and yellow flower, which flourished in bloody battlefields in the years after wars, had long been associated among many tribes as a symbol of peace, but also victory. These blooms had sixteen petals, which were said to represent the promise to meet and forge peace every sixteen years.
The To'resk diplomats shared hard tack and salted beef on the road, as well as more stories about the city and the festival. They explained to Shikka that all the heads of state from every tribe of Mann were invited and it was designed to be a regular meeting of sovereign rulers to hash out borders, trade agreements, and to settle disputes peacefully. In the villages they passed through, merchants were gearing up to ply their wares and eligible sons and daughters were being groomed for marriage. It was to be the biggest event anyone had attended in many seasons. In Wavemeet Bay, every street was teeming with workers running last minute errands or tying down loads on overstuffed wagons. Some people just followed on foot, happy to see where the party would land for as long as there was food to be had and songs to be sung.
Shikka would find a mate in her own time and so paid the crowds little mind but, despite everything, she longed to see the great pavilion that the diplomats had spoken of often. Now she could see it clearly in the middle of Wavemeet Bay, on a floating island constructed just for the event. The marvel of a structure had been made especially for the Sedecim of Hrothi alloy and Kypiq stained glass on To'reshian barges. The diplomats explained that the Crystal Palace, the centerpiece of the pavilion, was a symbol of the great things the tribes could accomplish when they worked together. This is where the heads of state were to meet, whereas the rest of the city would be bursting with agricultural, commercial, and scientific exhibitions galore! There would be Janoan carnivorous plant dealers selling wares next to Brudvir wood carvers and Drasean alchemists. Prize livestock and exotic crops would be bought, sold, traded, and fought over–just like at the Leharar–but with an air of sophistication now.
The main thoroughfare that bridged out to the floating pavilion was a series of stalls, carts, shelves, and scattered performers. The lined pathways were strung with banners and ribbons of every color as well as garlands of flowers. She couldn’t let the strange beauty of this crowded city distract her from her purpose, however, as the tailor she sought was right across the street. Shikka entered the simple and quiet wood-lined shop piled high with fabrics. It was a relief from the high energy and smells outside.
The proprietor was a Neran who looked up at Shikka from over delicately-wired silver glasses.
Shikka started, “I’m here for…” She stopped, realizing she was the outsider here, and simply held her sealed note in front of her.
The tailor hopped down from her stool after folding her papers neatly. Glancing at the note, the tailor grabbed the ribbon measure from around her neck and moved forward to measure Shikka at her shoulders, hips, and length of her legs.
Shikka gasped and scowled at the tailor when she tried to reach for her feather and beaded shawl. Shikka whispered with disdain at the Neran woman in a low growl, “That’s…ceremonial…” The rattled tailor worked more quickly. She wanted Shikka out of her shop fast.
The tailor stepped back to the counter and handed Shikka a deep navy uniform in Neran fashion, with well-crafted cotton trousers and a long, loose top that tied closed with a very long corded belt. The tailor held her arms out, ready to hold Shikka’s old clothing.
Shikka was used to communal living and had no shame upon disrobing. She changed right there and flung her clothes on the ground, such that the short seamstress had to scamper about the shop and gather it all. Shikka took the warehouse key, her staff, and packed her pile of old clothes and into her small rucksack and departed.
Shikka thought that the official uniform would help her blend better with the local crowd, and it did, in a sense. Now, however, they didn’t stare at her as a spectacle or an outsider, but avoided her path and averted their gazes. They feared this highly-recognizable uniform. Shikka thought back to Sir Vuk and had to commend him for running an efficient operation that would imbue the event guards' uniform with respect so quickly. But alas, so much for anonymity.
At the end of the mostly darkened Pier 11 loomed Warehouse 17, a ramshackle collection of timber and iron which could probably still be called a building if one didn’t count all the holes. Up close, the massive doors to the warehouse were a full story tall with huge iron handles held together with a chain and padlock, which hung loose but effective. Shikka sat down with her back to the enormous doors which faced the bay and the Crystal Palace. The sun was setting and a rainbow of lights were starting to glow from within the glass structure on the bay and dance upon the waters. Shikka leaned her head back against the door and, closing her eyes, let the golden sunset wash down her face. It felt good to be off her feet and relished that moment of warmth.
She must have drifted off in the warm dusk because she woke suddenly from a solid thud to her core. As she curled around her core defensively, she saw it was now fully dark. “What…?” she spat, tasting a hint of blood in her mouth from the blow. She stood slowly and looked around at the night for her assailant. A slim, dark To’resk fellow loomed over her. He leaned on a silver-tipped cane–likely the cause of her freshly-bruised stomach–and held out his other hand to help her up.
“Thanks for joining us.” His voice was monotone and his motions slow, but graceful. He oozed an unnatural calm that felt oily.
Rising to her feet without his assistance, Shikka looked around. There was nobody on that end of the pier but the two of them. There was no “us” to join that she could see, but she kept her senses searching. Maybe he had backup.
“Who are you? Did you…did you hit me?” Shikka towered over him but she was shaken by the sudden intrusion and did her best to make herself seem less defenseless than she felt.
“Do you have the key?” the To’resk figure intoned. He stood still, both hands now on the cane planted in front of him. The lantern above the warehouse kept him in silhouette and Shikka could not make out a face. He tapped his cane, showing some impatience. It made muffled thumps on the ancient wood.
Shikka’s hand went instinctively to her pocket at the mention of the key and, just like that, she'd given herself away to an enemy. Shikka felt the figure smile then, as she still couldn’t see his face. He held out one hand in silence, extending his fingers, palm up, so that she could see he wore very fine leather gloves lined with rabbit fur. A noble maybe? A merchant?
Shikka puffed up straight and walked backwards toward her staff, “Are you Professor ...Nicoa?” She reached one hand behind her to grasp her staff which leaned against the door, but did not take her eyes off her opponent. In the jungle, when one underestimated foe it was often deadly.
He laughed and it, too, felt measured but ended abruptly in a coughing fit. “No…,” he wheezed. The cough was deceptive as to his speed however, and he lunged toward Shikka now, dagger in hand. With no time to think, her natural reflexes kicked in and she rolled away and to the right while grabbing her staff in one fluid motion. Shikka landed on her feet, armed. She shot her hand to her shoulder and looked at the To’resk in shock as her fingers found where she had been nicked by his blade.
“Poison…?” Shikka didn’t completely lose consciousness but crumpled to the ground, paralyzed. She could not protest with more than incoherent mumbling when two other figures appeared and relieved her of the warehouse key. Shikka was unable to move as they unlocked the warehouse and dragged her inside.
They left her helpless body in the corner by the door while they continued inside to their intended prize. The inside of the warehouse was full of nondescript jars sealed with wax, wooden crates, and grain sacks. It seemed to be nothing more than livestock feed but obscene amounts; enough to feed all the prize livestock at the festival and more. What idiot would keep this all in the same warehouse?
Luckily for Shikka, the man had made a mistake. The cut wasn't deep and would heal quickly. Janoan heritage meant that she was extremely resistant to poisons and, though she'd been briefly incapacitated from the potent poison that would have killed most, Shikka could already feel her limbs returning to her. She just needed to stay quiet and forgotten until she figured out the right way to strike.
Shikka watched the To’resk and his two companions. The oily man barked orders at his companions in the flowing tongue of the To'resk, but they all seemed to be searching for something as well. For the first time, Shikka wished that creepy Dras was here to help her understand.
Shikka was able now to crawl a little bit. She used her legs for most of the work and stayed in the shadows along the farthest wall from the workstation where the figures were searching. She made her way to a burning oil lamp on a shelf not far from her. With all the hunter's stealth she could muster, she positioned herself carefully and waited until she had enough control of her leg again to kick the lit lantern at the intruders. Knowing when to strike was key.
The men were distracted by the piles of papers they were scrutinizing and, at first, didn't react when the glass lamp shattered and sent flaming oil to the stacks of ledgers on the desk where they searched. The desk and contents shook and burst into flames, which spread quickly. The To’resk and his men shouted in chaos and ran out the door. In his panic, the To’resk dropped his cane.
The fire brigade arrived soon and, by dawn, the ramshackle warehouse was destroyed despite the best efforts of sailors and locals.
Shikka sighed. The warehouse contents were mostly intact, and the owner lost only what was in and around the small wooden desk in the corner. The only thing that had broken was the lamp she had kicked, but she was sure that destroying a whole warehouse on your first day on the job was a bad omen. Maybe, becoming a guard within the world outside her home jungle wasn't in her fate.
She held the onyx and silver cane in her hands.This was likely worth more than a year’s salary as a guard anyway! Let’s see what fate spins now…
Shikka turned to leave into the dawn when a Neran appeared in her path.
“Where did you get that?” the Neran said patiently in clear, but deep, Jenu. The portly man was pointing to the onyx cane in Shikka's hands. "Ah...your uniform. Sir Vuk hired you? This seems the best time to request my key back, then."
“Nicoa?” Shikka realized that this was the owner of the contents of the warehouse she'd burned down. Shikka handed over the key and the cane. “This wasn’t yours was it? He tried to poison me but the idiot underestimated Janoan prowess! They came looking for...something in the desk. The desk did not survive, but all the feed did.”
The Neran set his bright blue eyes upon her and regarded her uncertainly; his posture stiff, even taking into account how far he had to lean to look up at her. "Employing your kind, striped one, is a necessity for events like these, though I find it distasteful." He shrugged and held the cane in his upraised palms, addressing the object instead of her, “You've proven a useful clue." The Professor stepped back and tossed a whole coin at Shikka, who caught it with ease with just one hand.
Nicoa stared at the onyx cane with disgust. He wound his arm back to give a mighty toss of the cane into the bay, but Shikka was not about to let a whole year's salary sink into the depths. She deftly leapt up onto a post and snatched it in mid-air before it hit the water.
In awe at the spectacle of her natural-born acrobatics, Professor Nicoa was momentarily caught with his mouth agape. He laughed and said, "You'll not be able to sell that thing. It's Lord Ardyn's. Everyone knows it."
Shikka's shoulders slumped a bit as she stared at her prize.
“Fate seems to have brought me a favor today, in the form of a Janoa.” Nicoa laughed and his whole face lit up. "The fire brigade told me that you single-handedly saved the feed stores for the most cherished and expensive livestock here at the Sedecim. Their sale will foster peace and cement trade agreements between tribes who rarely speak on civil terms. No small token!"
Nicoa still eyed her with a bit of disquiet but pushed past it. "If you can keep yourself from ravaging the livestock, I'd like to introduce you to the some of the agricultural guild leaders – let them know it was you who saved the Sedecim before it started, and of Ardyn's plan to sabotage it." Nicoa had either met Janoans, or made it his business to study their culture. He saluted her in Janoan fashion, as a warrior, and asked, "Guard my back while we walk?"
Shikka didn't fully understand what he was explaining, or what she was getting into, but she did know this: he just offered her a job. Granted, he was a weak Neran, but that is precisely why he needed her. She grabbed her new cane and followed Nicoa into the fair, and brandished glares for all who stared at the strange pair.