From the Diary of Vilhelm Lundström
Day One: Arrival
I have finally arrived at Christiana Town, a bustling settlement and the last haven of civilization before the Kharakhi Desert. My father used to talk about Gerard Hearst's good fortune in the iron trade, but to see it for myself is truly astonishing. The town has profited immensely over the last few decades, and one could almost forget the miles of dusty badlands that stretch beyond its borders. Almost.
It's late in the afternoon, and I've arranged for a bed at the local inn. I asked the Proprietress where to find the Wild Stallion saloon, and she warned me that it wasn't a place for "decent folk”. I told her that I had important business there, and she reluctantly pointed me towards the town's mining district.
I try to stay focused, but my thoughts keep circling back to the letter I received requesting my presence for a most lucrative offer. The writer - one 'K.S.' - was apparently aware of my name and reputation, but provided only scant details in the missive. I don't know what to make of this whole affair, but if the letter's promise of treasure is genuine, then I would be remiss to forfeit such an opportunity.
The old door to the Wild Stallion groaned its announcement as Vilhelm stepped over the threshold, removing his hat as he did so. There was the usual brief pause of activity as the patrons near the door turned their heads to ascertain the intruder. It took Vilhelm only a moment to see what the proprietress had meant by "decent folk" not belonging. The barroom was crowded with an assortment of miners, laborers, cowboys, and other roughneck types, many of whom shot Vilhelm a disapproving look as he walked by. Dressed as he was, he likely would've drawn less attention had he come in naked.
But this wasn't the first seedy taproom Vilhelm had patronized. You could even make the argument that the Wild Stallion was downright pleasant compared to some of the ramshackle cantinas he had come across in his travels. With his cane tucked under arm, Vilhelm made his way towards the large round table as directed by the letter, already occupied by a few people.
To say the assembled group was eclectic would’ve been an understatement. Seated at or by the table was a collection of people so different from each other that it was almost parodic. Though they each seemed to busy themselves with their own affairs, a slender young woman at the 'head' of the table eyed him knowingly as he approached. Vilhelm bade them a polite "Good evening"
in a rich, deep voice; gingerly placing his hat and cane down as he pulled out a chair. Vilhelm removed his overcoat and, with a look that suggested he was about to do something he didn't particularly want to, draped it across the back, cringing slightly as it brushed against the barroom floor.
Finally sitting down, Vilhelm was able to take in the faces of those who had apparently also been invited to this cryptic meeting. The woman he first noticed was tall for her sex, clad in garb that suggested a life on the frontier. A wiry Half-Elf sat close by, seemingly unable to avert his gaze from the contents of his drink.
A ruddy-faced Beastman occupied himself with a cigarette. Another Half-Elf, this one a young woman, looked almost innocently out-of-place as she attended to a glass of wine. And seated on a large crate beside the table was the largest woman Vilhelm had ever seen, bearing all the trappings of the Barbarian. He assumed that the large glaive leaning against the bannister belonged to her.
Now that presumably everyone had gathered, the woman in frontier garb poured and downed a shot before speaking. Introducing herself as Katelyn Smith - no doubt the K.S. from Vilhelm's letter - the woman wasted no time in explaining why she had gathered them all here. 'A trip into the desert.'
The words had left Katelyn's lips with all the casual confidence of youth. Vilhelm's expression immediately became skeptical, but he said nothing; listening politely with both hands folded over the top of his cane. He had gone on many adventures in his life: facing extreme temperatures, hazardous conditions, uneven terrain, and the threat of death lurking around every corner. But every man had his limit, the boundary line that he refused to cross, even in the throes of madness. For Vilhelm, that line was the Kharakhi Desert.
Many of the scholars in the Iridian Archaeological Association would have given their firstborn just for the chance
at finding the vast store of artifacts that Hadrian had taken from the Imperial Treasury. But the Desert was a deathtrap, and many, from the cautious to the foolhardy, had entered that world never to return.
As if in response to the doubts in his mind, Katelyn acknowledged that the task would be difficult, even perilous. Reaching into her vest pocket, she removed from it a finely bound leather notebook, emblazoned with the Imperial Seal. Vilhelm immediately stiffened in his seat, all reservations temporarily erased from his mind. She was holding one of Hadrian's Diaries!
A poor emperor though he may have been, Hadrian's Diaries were vital in helping Republic scholars document not only his life, but the very workings of the Empire. Even a mediocre museum could earn much prestige just by possessing a single volume of those rare and valuable journals. Once more seeming to read his thoughts, Katelyn confirmed his suspicion, explaining that this was an even more recent volume, detailing Hadrian's flight into the Desert. Not only that, but there existed a second
volume, and the secret to finding it lay within the first.
Feeling a sort-of giddiness that could only come from years spent hunting rare treasures such as these, Vilhelm was about to say something when the wiry Half-Elf spoke up in a working-class dialect, his words quick and quiet. Vilhelm struggled for a moment to follow what he was saying when the Beastman echoed the sentiment more concisely: How do we know it's real?
Clearing his throat, Vilhelm raised two fingers to speak. "I believe I may be of assistance in that regard. I've seen only a handful of these journals, but I can recognize the old Emperor's prose well enough. Would you be so kind as to let me have a look, my dear?"
He aimed the question at Katelyn, meeting her eyes. If this was, indeed, one of Hadrian's Lost Diaries, well...Vilhelm might have to set a new boundary.