Most of it was ready, thanks to Verex and the Vixens. The massive caravan of wagons was loaded and ready to move out, 212 wagons of varying sizes which represented almost every available wagon in Waterdeep and a few bought at such prices that the prior owners earned triple on the sale than they paid for them, and Verex had emptied out almost every stable in Waterdeep and some of the surrounding farm villages of horses to pull the wagons and provide some cavalry horses for his mercenaries. The word went out to all his contracted soldiers that they would be leaving ten days hence after Fox contacted Verex, and they had their assignments as to where they’d be in the procession of 212 wagons. Selena and Sharla would command the guards and mercenaries, while Saja and Mayajanni would oversee magical protections and surveillance, using scrying magicks to ferret out potential threats to the host. In reality, they’d only been waiting for the weather to break and for his last piece of the puzzle to arrive, and the next morning, he finally got the missive he’d been waiting for.
Kallik was only eight days away.
Kallik Strongstone was a dwarf architect from Mirabar whom Fox had contacted just after deciding on Dragonspear, and as stonemasons went, there were few in Faerun with his skill and experience. It would be under Kallik’s supervision that his castle would be built, and the old dwarf would have complete control of all available resources and manpower. Kallik’s message said that he was bringing some of his apprentices and trusted laborers to act as foremen for the job. When Kallik arrived, everything would be in place, and they’d be ready to go. The snow lilies were starting to bloom, declaring that spring had officially arrived in Waterdeep, and he had all his men hired and his supplies gathered.
So, he had ten days to find out who was behind the Red Sashes. But, he also only had ten days to live up to his obligation to the monastery that had been his home so many years ago.
The monks had said that only 16 had survived the attack from the Emperor, which was itself complete madness, since the monks were no threat to anyone unless they were attacked first. Fox had no doubt that while only 16 monks survived, they’d left absolute windrows of dead behind them in their escape. But, 16 monks wasn’t enough to make the monastery viable.
Simply put, Fox had to find new acolytes for the monastery he would build at Dragonspear for the monks.
Not just anyone could train under the monks. It was a highly demanding pursuit that would require lifetime devotion, a kind of devotion Fox was simply unable to manage. He had spent 20 years as a monk in the monastery, but everyone, even he, knew that it was not his place. He had stayed there at first because he was so amazed at the fighting prowess of the monks, but he had spent nearly six years past learning all they had to teach him simply because they needed him. There had been a vacuum of high-ranking monks after seven different monks left to establish their own monasteries, to spread the Five Star style across Shou Lung, and he had remained as an instructor until new monks rose up through the ranks and gained the skill and experience to train the next generation. But in Shou Lung, getting new acolytes for a temple wasn’t very hard. Monastic life was an accepted path after reaching adulthood for those seeking a spiritual life of contemplation, seeking to rise above the bounds of human weakness and achieve enlightenment. Fox himself had never achieved the same enlightenment as many of the other monks did, but his training as a monk had flavored his entire long life after he left the monastery. Even to this day, Fox tried not to kill if there was another option, did not attach himself to material things to the point where he depended upon them, and he never judged one by their race or appearance. That was not the way of a monk. Monks were humble and peaceful, depending on one’s self over weapons or possessions, and offering aid to all in need. Three times in his memory, the monks aided the injured from raiding parties that had attacked the monastery, showing neither favoritism nor even anger over the fact that men who tried to kill them just days before were now in their healing hall, recovering from the wounds the monks themselves inflicted.
To show anger or desire revenge were aspects of human weakness that the monks were striving to transcend. The enlightened being would extend the hand of peace even to those who held weapons against him, for the enlightened being understood that violence was an empty pursuit which rarely brought contentment or harmony.
As in many things, Fox learned as much as he could from the monks, and then he left them on amicable terms…though he was considered one of the High Masters, a rank only one step below the highest rank among the monks, the brother who led the monastery. Sadly, that was now his duty since he was the last High Master left, and was now considered the Grand Master of the monastery. He had achieved that rank before leaving the order and taking the skills they had instilled into him out into the world to explore and experience life, which was what Master Jen had always told him was his destiny. The monks had enjoyed training him, seeing a gaijin embrace the Eastern philosophies and achieve a semblance of inner peace, and they had also enjoyed releasing him to find his true destiny. They had been proud of him out in the world, as he used what they taught him in ways that they found worthy, and as word of the gaijin monk turned warrior spread through Kara-Tur, the esteem of the Five Star School of Kung Fu grew. They called him brother and taught him some of their greatest secrets, and they did so knowing that he would someday leave them to seek out his destiny.
Finding potential students for the school would be tricky in the West. Finding acolytes willing to embrace the totality of the lifestyle of a monk, that wouldn’t be very easy at all because of a fundamental difference in culture between West and East. Western culture would find the lifestyle of the monk severe, restricting, not understanding that by trying to detach themselves from worldly things and frivolous possessions and emotional distractions, the monks were trying to achieve enlightenment, to gain wisdom beyond that of the common man, which were some aspects of Fox’s own behavior. Yes, he had a lot of money, but he’d been saving it for building the castle, and outside of that, he almost never spent money, so it just sort of piled up. He didn’t indulge in drink or feasts, he didn’t go to festhalls, he lived a very simple and quiet existence when not on the road Yes, he had magical treasures, but he never depended upon them, always sought to solve his problems using his own skills and wits before falling back on his magical possessions.
Those aspects of the life of the monk wouldn’t work very well in the Western world. What that would require, Fox pondered early that morning as he meditated, was a change. Because the peoples of the West lacked the fundamental social basis upon which the monks of the East operated, a new kind of monk would have to be brought into being. It would be a Western monk, a man or woman trained in the art of the Five Star style and trained in certain aspects of Eastern culture and philosophy, but allowed to maintain his or her Western mindset. From these new monks, monks trained to deal with the wild and chaotic way of life in the West, there would be those willing to fully embrace everything the monks of the monastery represented and enter the monastery as permanent brothers and sisters. Those would be the monks of the old way, living the life of the monk and striving to attain inner peace and enlightenment, while the rest would be trained by the monks in certain aspects of the old ways, and certain aspects of what Fox himself had learned in his travels, living a more Western lifestyle while still honoring the foundations of the knowledge they had been taught. He would institute very basic elements of the art of Balance, of ninjitsu, to meld with the Five Star style and form a fundamental, solid core of fighting techniques, arm his acolytes with the wisdom he had gained over his long life, and teach them how to face the diversity and strife of the West while maintaining their discipline.
And this was Waterdeep, where virtually anything could be found, if one looked hard enough and had the coin to afford it. Fox was fairly confident that he could find students in this city.
He considered how to go about things as he meditated, sitting out in the garden of Kalla’s extra-dimensional palace with his legs crossed and backs of his hands on his knees, deep in meditation. Meditation was one of the best things the monks ever taught him, allowing him to clear his mind and then organize his thoughts, which even he would admit could become rather flighty and impulsive from time to time, bringing order to his chaos and allowing him to prepare for the challenges and dangers of the coming day. His eyes were closed and he was completely motionless, but he was completely aware of everything around him, organizing his ideas in his mind while blocking out all distractions, even if he was aware of them. That was the key of it, Master Jen had always taught him, to be aware of one’s surroundings, but not allowing what was going on outside affect what was going on inside. He had spent nearly a year mastering the skill, and had not been considered adept until he was able to ignore all distractions except those that threatened him directly. Master Jen would accomplish that by throwing stones at him while he meditated. Some were far off target. Some only barely missed him, and some would hit him. Fox had to ignore all those that would not hit him, even those that passed barely a finger’s width from his body, but block or catch those that would hit him, and do so with his eyes closed.
But that was also part of the Five Star style, a technique called blind fighting. A Five Star monk could fight just as effectively with his eyes covered as he could without, going by sound, the movements of the air, the breathing of his opponents, the vibrations of the earth beneath his feet, and his inner sense to know his surroundings. It wasn’t a unique martial art form, it was taught by several of the more renowned schools in Shou Lung, but the monks of the Five Star school were one of the few schools of martial arts in all of Kara-Tur that required complete capability while blindfolded before they were trained in more advanced techniques. If a monk could not fight without his eyes, then he lacked the focus and discipline to master the more advanced techniques. The Trial of Black Wool was a major gateway test among the acolytes, where only the truly worthy could succeed. Fox himself had failed the trial four times before finally passing it, and he still had scars on his body that marked his four failed attempts.
Pain was a strong motivation to learn from one’s mistakes.
He had lived in the West long enough to understand what most Westerners could understand about the Eastern ways, and what few Westerners could embrace. Those few that could embrace the Eastern ideals would be the students, and among them, only a handful would fully follow the way of the Five Stars and move into the monastery as brothers or sisters.
Finding them…that wouldn’t be that hard in a place like Waterdeep, if he was creative.
After a hearty breakfast at a local festhall known for good cooking, Fox took Karra back to Saja’s tower. The morning was the warmest yet, with bright sunshine that was finishing off the last of the clinging snow in even the more sheltered nooks, the air crystal clear and blowing in from the harbor, bringing the smells of fish, tar, and the sea over the Docks Ward. Fox had broken with his usual tradition and walked without his cross harness of swords, chain, and bandolier, nor was he wearing his belt or boots, since he now had a safe place he could leave his priceless items and didn’t have to carry them around every waking moment. And he was more than comfortable without them, for he didn’t need them. To depend on a thing before depending on one’s self is to put one’s trust in folly. “What left is there to do?” Karra asked him.
“Verex has everything all ready, and we have eight days before the architect that’s going to oversee the construction arrives,” he replied. “I guess all that’s left is preparing for the journey itself, outside of a few errands I have to run.”
“I do hope they are relatively lawful?” Karra asked lightly, which made him laugh.
“Yes. Akena-chan asked me if I could make her a pair of gunsen, she knows I was trained by her clan’s blacksmiths. I also have to make Jinjen her rapiers, and I was of a mind to make a few extra odds and ends. It’ll keep my hands occupied for a few days, so I was going to find a smithy and see if they’d rent me some time at the anvil. I did promise Jinjen that I’d have the rapiers enchanted,” he said lightly.
She sighed. “I will take care of it, but you owe me, dear heart,” she retorted. “You know how long that takes, and I need time and quiet to perform the work.”
“I know, so we’ll take them with us, then I’ll bring them back when they’re ready,” he replied. “The enchantments don’t have to be exotic, dear heart.”
“But they do deserve to be worthy of a woman of her skill,” Karra returned. “And I do have a couple of ideas. Enchanting her rapiers will allow me to test a couple of intriguing theories Zarra Khan proposed some six months ago.”
Fox laughed brightly. “If her rapiers turn her into a goldfish, you know she will hunt you to her dying breath. No pond or stream will be safe,” he said, which made her laugh delightedly.
“I doubt she will fin me to death,” she said with a light smile. “I was of an idea, husband,” she said as they turned a corner.
“Well, let’s hear it.”
“I have seen how effective the griffons the city here uses, and you know as well how my own people employ the giant hawks native to Halruua.”
“I doubt that the city will sell us any griffons. Besides, we don’t have anyone trained to ride them,” he noted.
“Not griffons. I struck up a conversation with a fellow mage at a local jeweler’s shop. We were discussing the magical formulae the Calishite mages use for their flying carpets, and the fellow made mention that there is a noble family here in Waterdeep that raises tamed hippogryphs, for hope that the city would buy them to add to their aerial cavalry.”
“Griffons eat hippogryphs,” Fox noted dryly.
“Yes, but this family has too much invested in the project now to abandon it, I managed to discover. They are almost desperate to find a sponsor for their project. Mayhaps we should consider buying out their entire stable, and arrange for their handlers to train our livery in the techniques of riding and caring for them.”
“They could be handy,” Fox noted soberly, rubbing his chin. “Scouting from the air lets you see trouble coming from two days away. And it will allow us to move messages without the aid of a mage fairly quickly between the castle and the proposed harbor.”
“Then I shall make inquiries into the matter, dear heart,” she said with a simple nod.
“Like you haven’t already done everything but ask me my opinion,” he noted dryly, which made her give him a roguish smile.
“I have yet to pay for them,” she admitted with that playful expression.
“Just tell Verex and the girls about it, so they can work out how we’re going to move a herd of hippogryphs along with the wagon train.”
“It shouldn’t be too difficult,” she mused.
“Before you get too involved today, dear heart, I need a favor.”
“Oh? What is it?”
“I need Aeyalla here,” he replied. “Actually, any Djinn will do, but Aeyalla will come if we call her.”
“Indeed. I will make contact as soon as we get back.”
Aeyalla did come as soon as Karra called her, appearing in a swirling wind inside Saja’s tower. As usual, she was bowing over because she the ceiling wasn’t high enough to let her stand straight up. She immediately knelt down, this time wearing nothing but a diaphanous knee-length skirt made of many different sheer strips all sewn to a waistband, with panty-like undergarments being the only thing opaque enough to preserve her modesty. It was different for Aeyalla only in that she almost never wore a skirt, usually wore leggings. She often went around without a top, and when she wore one, it was invariably all but transparent. That was Djinn custom, which was radically different from many customs in Faerun. There were some human cultures, however, who shared the Djinn practice, the Northmen being among them.
“You’d better be calling me to tell me you’re pregnant,” she said without even a greeting, smiling at them. “Father’s waiting for that particular bit of news.”
Karra laughed lightly. “It has barely been enough time for us to try,” she replied. “Has your uncle recovered yet?”
“So, if this isn’t a social call, what’s up?” she asked.
“I need a favor, friend,” Fox said. “I need you to conjure up a large stack of clothen banners that are temporary,” he stressed. “They need to last three days.”
“I can do that, no problem,” she said immediately. “What do they look like?”
“They’re going to have writing and illustrations on them,” he replied. “I’m going to openly advertise for students for the new Five Star School of Kung Fu. The monks are going to need acolytes to fill their ranks when they arrive in midsummer.”
“Very clever, dear heart,” Karra said appreciatively. “And your hope is that some few of them take up the order?”
“That’s the plan,” he replied. “It would be one in a thousand, given Western culture, but the monastery doesn’t need a few hundred new monks. But, they’d probably be overjoyed to have entire classes of willing students waiting for them when they arrive. They always trained the village children in the basics of the Five Star art as a service to the community, in exchange for the village’s donations of food and supplies.”
“Why not charge coin instead of barter?” Saja asked.
Fox shook his head. “There wasn’t even a single yu’an coin anywhere in the monastery,” he replied. “The monks divorced themselves from money. When they were hungry and there were no donated stores in the pantry, they would go down to the village with a wooden bowl and beg for rice. And the villagers considered it the proper thing to do to feed them. It’s long been a belief in Kara-Tur that it’s good luck to show a monk charity.”
“Yeah, I don’t think many people in Waterdeep would do that,” Saja snorted.
“It makes one wonder how they equipped the monastery.”
“They build everything themselves,” he replied. “Part of being a Master involves knowledge of a practical skill to better support the monastery. Mine was blacksmithing. There are carpenters, masons, coopers, chandlers, clothspinners, tailors, paper makers, you name it. Part of earning the rank of Master was contributing something of value to the monastery made by the monk’s own hands. My contribution was a bell we installed in the courtyard,” he said in a bemused voice as memory overtook him. He’d been so proud of that bell. “They gather all the materials themselves as best they can, part of the annual pilgrimage to the five shrines of the stars, begging for sponsorship from the merchants and the wealthy for this project or that project, or barter their services as instructors either in martial arts or other knowledge or skill for what they couldn’t get on their own.”
“A weird way to go about it. It’d be easier if they just kept money.”
“That’s forbidden. Money represents the materialism of the human condition, and they’re striving to rise above things like that. Since I’m not trying to achieve ascetic enlightenment they way they are, I have no qualms about keeping money,” he chuckled. “But many of their lessons are still with me,” he added.
“I know,” Karra smiled.
“So, they’re trying to be inhuman?” Saja asked sharply.
“No, old friend, they believe that by detaching themselves from the weakness of the human condition, things like greed, fear, anger, jealousy, you know, negative emotions, they can achieve enlightenment,” he replied. “If you don’t understand Eastern society, it’s very hard to explain.”
“Och, I think I understand,” she said with a shake of her head. “It’s not something I would ever do.”
“They don’t distance themselves completely from positive emotions,” Fox winked. “Though they believe in moderation, monks believe in happiness, friendship, love, kindness, and generosity. And they do love a good party. Most of them are actually outstanding musicians. Music is one of the approaches the monks believe will help them achieve enlightenment.”
“Och, now they don’t sound quite so stuffy,” Saja grinned. “Do they enjoy a good drink?”
“In moderation,” he smiled slightly. “Anything in excess is a weakness of the human spirit, and they avoid that. A single glass of wine is about the extent of the average monk’s drinking endeavors.”
“I can see why you left,” Aeyalla grinned mischievously. “You’re not well known for your discipline, my friend.”
Fox laughed. “They knew I was leaving when they took me in, and I know I tried their patience in some ways. Master Jen told me that it was the monastery’s duty to prepare me for my destiny. But, I learned a great deal there, about more than just fighting. The monks were very wise, and they taught me so much about so many things, I couldn’t explain it all in a day. Living with the monks, trying to be a monk, it was definitely an experience I treasure, even after all these years.”
“Alright, Fox, let’s design your banners, then we can hang ‘em up all over the city,” Aeyalla declared, conjuring a plush pillow for herself, sitting down, and creating a blank piece of silk in a wooden hoop and a paint brush. “It needs to look good, so I’ll do the artwork,” she declared.
“Fine with me, you’re a great artist,” Fox said mildly.
Karra and Saja certainly contributed to Aeyalla’s design of the banners. It took about half an hour for her to decide on a nice eye-catching illustration of a man breaking a stack of boards, a man punching another man, and a man in one of the martial stances the monks taught him with a pair of eastern fighting swords, slender longswords with garish tassels on their hilts used by many Eastern fighting styles. Beneath that was the advertisement: Opening Soon: the Five Star School of the Martial Arts. Seeking young men and women between 12 and 18 winters to train in the arts of fighting under Fox the Wanderer. Beneath that was the day and time Fox would look over the hopefuls, up in the big arena on one of its open training days, two days before they left for Dragonspear. Fox felt it was a bit garish to call him by name, but Aeyalla and Karra both insisted on that, that a name like his attached to a school that trained fighters would definitely attract attention. Since they would have to find students willing to leave Waterdeep and do a lot of work, it had to be as alluring as possible. After they decided on a final design, they added the time and place for hopefuls to appear, and Aeyalla used her Djinn magic to create a huge stack of them, silk banners that would evaporate like smoke in exactly three days with wooden rods at the ends to hold them open and twine attached to the tops to hang them off posts and walls. Saja hired a small army of lamplighters to hang the signs, which was fine since it was the lamplighters that Fox was more or less eyeing as where most of his students would come from. They were the right age and many of them were orphaned or had a sense of adventure that would make them good students. They took up stacks of the banners and fanned out to hang them all over the city, from New Olamn all the way to the Adventurer’s Quarter.