Ulgar and Nikolai arrived at Shrikewatch on a pleasant Wealday, coming out of the woods to see the stone hill that formed the cap of the dwarven fortress city. At the hill’s perimeter, a few buildings had been established, but the majority of travelers passed through the large doors that had been carved in the hillside. Ulgar and Nikolai dismounted from the carriage that had brought them and Ulgar led the halfling away from the massive doors and to a narrow set of steps rising along the side of the hill. Ulgar had returned to his stoneplate armor, making him appear to be little more than a boulder with legs.
“This is the heroes’ passage. Purportedly, it is where the folk who came to clear out the place of trolls entered. Master Berrybrook and Her Grace, the Duchess, were among that group.”
“A well-defended spot, to be certain.” Nikolai observed as they reached the top of the steps. There did not appear to be a door, but Ulgar slid a heavy iron key into a crevice in the hill, turned it, and the stone slid to one side, revealing a small alcove. They stepped inside, but stopped almost immediately for the greeting party that awaited them.
They were, at first glance, a mismatched pair. A human female in shining plate armor, her long blond hair pulled back in a club, stood beside an older dwarf with practically no hair on his head, but a full white beard that lay atop his soft robes. Nikolai looked at the both of them and then bowed.
“Master Tharkun Blacklock and Captain Alla Gorski, I presume?” The two greeters looked slightly taken aback, but nodded.
“How did you know?” Tharkun asked.
Nikolai cocked his head to one side. “It was rather obvious, really. Captain Gorski is the Lord Commander’s aide-de-camp, so it would hardly be surprising that she might be waiting for him. Your own robes have touches of Brevoyan silk, marking you as a dwarf of means with local connections. Your golden chain is that of the Most Honorable and Righteous Fraternal Order of Illuminated Brothers, which is, if you will pardon my saying so, a semi-redundant title. Your hands bear the trademark bluish discoloration of alchemical work. A well-heeled alchemist dwarf with ties to the Illuminated Brotherhood and in the august company of the Lord Commander’s most trusted advisor? Who else could you be?”
Tharkun’s jaw moved several times before sound came out. “Well, when you put it like that…”
Ulgar seized control of the conversation, looking at Alla. “I don’t imagine you’re being here is a sign that all is well…”
Alla shook her head, “Konnar has been making accusations in public.”
Ulgar’s face reddened. “Damn him! I told him that I would resolve it and that he needn’t make matters worse by taking them public.”
Tharkun shook his head. “Both Konnar and old Dougal have convinced themselves that you are stalling to protect the Goldshines. You can expect that they will not take the inclusion of an outsider…” he nodded his head towards Nikolai, “…with a great deal of grace.”
“They’ll take what I give them until we’re able to get to the bottom of this.” Ulgar said through gritted teeth. “I presume they’re somewhere now, spitting at each other?”
Alla nodded, “The Steeltusks have formed a small mob outside of the Goldshine Counting House.”
Ulgar was already moving, “Let’s get there.”
They came upon a cluster of people that had progressed well on the road from angry group to angry mob. Four dwarves in heavy armor, swords in their hands, stood across the landing to the doors. At the foot of the steps was a dark-haired dwarf of middle years, his own armor gleaming in the torchlight underground.
“You’ll let us in and I’ll be taking that craven boy of your employer’s, unless you would care to accompany him to a holding cell, you pack of traitors.” The dark-haired dwarf had his hand on the axe at his belt and one foot on the steps.
“THAT’S ENOUGH!” Ulgar’s bellow carried through the cavern and echoed. Everyone turned to see the Lord Commander of Ursundova passing through the crowd around the building, leaving a wake in which traveled Nikolai, Tharkun and Alla. “Konnar, what in the nine hells do you think you are doing?”
As if in reply to the bellow, the door behind the guards opened and a young male dwarf stepped out. He was dressed in gray robes, with a leather breastplate beneath his short beard. A stone-headed hammer hung at his belt.
The dark-haired dwarf laughed bitterly. “Oh, now you’ll come out, Quinn Goldshine, since your paid protector has arrived.”
Ulgar went straight for Konnar, stopping a mere inch from his nose. “You’ll not question my honor again, boy. Unless you want an answer in iron.”
Konnar, who had been so full of bluster a moment ago, paled and seemed to visibly shrink at Ulgar’s anger. “I…I beg your pardon, my lord. I’m just…”
Ulgar’s features softened in turn, and he sighed. “You’re angry. You love your sister and want her safely returned. So do I. That’s why I’ve brought in an expert.” He gestured to Nikolai, who looked sidelong at the many armed and angry dwarves that were now eyeing him.
Konnar rediscovered some of his anger at that. “An outsider? My lord, I am in charge of law enforcement for Shrikewatch…”
“…and you do a fine job, Konnar.” Ulgar said, placing a hand on his fellow dwarf’s shoulder. “But we are fighters, not riddle-solvers.”
Konnar bristled slightly. “And what sort of riddle is there to solve? My sister went to the Hall of Remembrance to work on the carvings alongside that…” he pointed at the dwarf at the door, “…craven, who says that he left her there to get some rest. The next day she’s gone and the carvings are all of Goldshine glory.”
Quinn did not come out from behind his heavily armored protectors, but his protest was strident. “She was there and she was fine when I left!”
Nikolai stepped forward. “Is there someone here who was standing watch that night?”
One of the guards on the steps raised his hand tentatively. “Aye, my lor…er, sir?”
“Master Podvetov, if you please.” Nikolai answered as approached the stairs. “What is your name and what did you see?”
“My name’s Fergus.” The dwarf answered. “Ulic and I were on the watch that night.” He looked uncomfortably at Quinn, then at Konnar, then spoke. “Much of it is as the Warden says, my l…Master Podvetov. Brother Quinn and Mistress Gemma had gone into the Hall to work. Brother Quinn left a few hours before morning. At first light, our relief arrived and we went in to check on the lady. She was nowhere to be seen.”
Konnar interjected, “And the new carvings? All manner of images of the Goldshines, even the beginnings of their family symbol. Bastard didn’t even bother to clean up the stone dust, which is a violation of tradition.”
Quinn finally spoke up. “We didn’t carve anything new, you bloodthirsty bastard. We were…” he looked at everyone around, then cleared his throat. “We were…adding details to what had already been done.”
Nikolai arched an eyebrow, but looked back at the guard. “Is what the Warden says about stone dust true?”
Fergus nodded, “Aye, sir. All over the place it was.”
Nikolai’s gaze unfocused for a moment, but then he looked concerned. “Lord Commander, I must ask that you take me to the Hall at once.”
Konnar closed on the halfling. “No outsiders may enter. It is a sacred space.”
Nikolai did not flinch, gazing straight up into the dwarf warrior’s eyes. “If what I suspect is true, then the space has been profaned. Even if not, it certainly has not been consecrated. I must see the details for myself if I am to make a proper summation of events.”
Ulgar interposed himself. “He’s right, Konnar. An unfinished hall is hardly sacred, and if he says he needs to see it to find Gemma…”
Konnar gritted his teeth. “Fine, but we don’t keep torches in the Hall. You’ll need to bring your own.”
Nikolai nodded absently as he pulled a flask from his belt. “That may not prove necessary, as I bring my own capacity to see in darkness along.” He tilted back the flask and pupils bloomed outward, turning his eyes a solid black.
The party began moving through the common area, Quinn bringing along two of his guardians and ensuring that they stayed between him and Konnar at all times. Passing the shrine to Torag, they entered a massive chamber, its walls curving in an arc beyond anyone’s line of sight. They followed the curve of the wall for some time before stopping at a batch of carvings.
Nikolai stepped slowly around and through the area near the carvings, looking up and down. Periodically, he stopped and got down on all fours, sniffing like a bloodhound. “Something…something’s not right.”
Tharkun smiled wryly, “That is not new information…”
Nikolai shook his head and drew a sunrod from his backpack. “No, I need to see colors.” He struck the rod against the stone wall and it flared to life, filling the room with light. “Aha!” The halfling pointed at the dark gray dust on the floor. “The dust is not the same sort of stone. He lifted a handful and sniffed it. “This stone is familiar…recently so in my mind.” He sniffed the air and walked over to Ulgar, sniffing his shoulder. “This…this is the same stone.”
Ulgar frowned. “My plate is made of Basalt. But that’s a volcanic rock – there’s no basalt source within a hundred miles of here.”
Nikolai seemed to process that for a moment, then closed his eyes and said softly, “As I feared. Brother Goldshine. Do you think you could shape this dust into a stone pillar, say three feet in diameter?”
Quinn looked at the halfling quizzically, “I suppose. Why…?”
Nikolai raised a hand, “I can explain, should my theory prove correct.”
Quinn nodded and raised his hands, chanting a prayer. The dust started to shift, as if being blown by a wind, then it began to flow and take on liquid properties, gathering and rising. When he was done, the pillar was a hair over four feet tall. Nikolai’s expression was grim.
“Basalt…” the halfling began as he approached the pillar, “…is also a common product of petrification magic. I fear we have found the missing lady.”
Konnar roared and barreled through the two guards, seizing Quinn and driving him up against the wall. “You…YOU…” Ulgar and the two guards pulled Konnar away, but the younger dwarf’s axe was already in his hand. “No, my lord. Do not stay my hand now. He’s killed her.”
Ulgar did not reach for a weapon, but placed himself between Konnar and Quinn. “We don’t know that, Konnar.”
Nikolai nodded, adding quietly, “Indeed, it seems less likely now that Master Goldshine had a hand in this affair – petrification is not magic that comes naturally to those of a Druidic bent.”
Quinn looked at Nikolai quizzically, “How did you…”
Nikolai shook his head, “The stone head on your warhammer and your leather armor, obviously.”
“But the Goldshine boy remains the last person to have seen my daughter alive.” The assembled turned to see an older dwarf entering the room. His beard was as white as Tharkun’s, but more sparse and brittle. “And your theory is incomplete – Quinn Goldshine may not be able to petrify someone with the magic that Torag grants him, but that hardly makes him incapable.”
Ulgar cleared his throat. “Nikolai Podvetov, this is Dougal Steeltusk, father of the…young lady.”
Nikolai bowed solemnly. “My lord.”
The older dwarf favored the halfling with a dismissive glance, and then turned to Ulgar. “Lord Commander, the evidence is certainly enough to warrant further investigation by proper law enforcement, don’t you think? My daughter has been lost to us. There is one person who saw her. And then there are the carvings…” he pointed to the carvings along the wall. “These were not here prior to my daughter’s disappearance, and the suspect, I would say, damn near signed his name. That incomplete disc, with the waving lines. What could it be, but the sunburst sigil of House Goldshine?”
Ulgar’s face grew redder by the moment, but he paused, looking at Nikolai, who turned to the carving, holding the sunrod close. “The cuts are similar to these over here, the same sort of dwarves…”
“Cuts made by Quinn Goldshine. Lord Commander, must I insist on the rights of my house in more…public settings?” The older dwarf was now face-to-face with Ulgar, who took a deep breath.
“I’ll not make such decisions within hours of returning from a long journey…”
“In the morning, then?” Dougal refused to relinquish his advantage.
Ulgar sighed, “In the morning."