Campaign (3): Courtyard Caper

<<First
<<Previous

The creaking of the ship as it gently rocked made Evalyn uneasy at first. She was accustomed to sleeping lightly, keeping an ear out for such sounds, and now she attempted to tune out those would-be warnings. Soon, there would be the rolling nature of the ship to add to her discomfort. And yet, she was eager for the ship to depart.

The morning fog fled the sun’s touch, and the docks teemed with townspeople again. Evalyn stood on the top deck, left hand resting on her short sword’s pommel, waiting for the remaining two members of their new gang. The elf stood with her, occasionally commenting in an attempt to goad her into conversation, but she ignored him for the most part. He was prattling on now about the beauty of nature or some such. She watched as burly men (now there was some beauty of nature) loaded supply crates onto their ship, many of the crates those purchased by her new employer the previous day.

As if summoned by her thoughts and announced by great clanking as loud as any king’s trumpeters, up came Jack from the bowels of the ship, strapping his long sword to his hip. Unforn followed from a distance hauling an unhappy Turchak.

“Are you ready?” Evalyn asked Jack.

“Of course.” His voice betrayed nothing other than excitement. He seemed to fidget but not from nerves, she guessed. He practically bounced on the balls of his feet; she imagined he would be jumping if his armor was suddenly removed and chuckled at the thought.

“What’s going on? Why are you laughing?” Trev asked, glancing back and forth between Evalyn and Jack.

“Jack has a duel in about an hour or so,” Unforn answered, placing Turchak on the deck. The wolf perked up after standing in open air.

“Oh. And I assume we can leave after that?”

Evalyn stared at Turchak and then pointedly at the elf. “Hey, aren’t you a druid?”

“Uh, yeah. Why?”

“This guy isn’t a druid and has a wolf. You’re telling me you don’t have an animal?”

Jack laughed and said, “Yeah, what kind of druid are you?”

“Oh, I didn’t know you wanted to meet my friend,” he replied and then made a loud, shrill cry. A hawk swooped down and landed on his staff, tilting its head back and forth to take everyone in.

On closer inspection, Evalyn noted he was a ferruginous hawk, and memories of her father flooded in unbidden. She shook her head to clear it. “What’s his name?”

The druid made a noise, a combination of clicks and shrieks. The bird stood taller, and Trev grinned proudly. Birdbrained elf.

“Sorry I asked,” she replied, rubbing her ear as if pained. Trev didn’t seem to notice or care as he presumably conversed with his hawk. “Shall we?” she asked, turning to Jack.

“After you.”

They wormed their way through the crowd to the less infested streets. After wandering many alleyways, they found the plaza as the sun reached its zenith. As they approached, so too did Marus and his seconds. Evalyn noted his helm was indeed quite impressive.

“Good to see at least one of Ern’s followers has a spine. My men did not believe you would show your face,” Marus’ deep voice rang through the suddenly silent space. The tension was nearly tangible, and Evalyn was happy she wasn’t the fool about to duel the imposing man some thirty feet away; a mile would be too close for comfort.

“Yes, we all know you talk big, but let’s see how well you fight,” Jack bellowed back, drawing his blade and readying his shield. Marus appeared to attempt a smile though the result was more of a disdainful grimace. He dawned his helm and likewise prepared himself.

Evalyn barely heard the crunch of rock on rock through the clatter of the metal clad men approaching one another when three Darkblades burst forth from an alley, instantly the center of everyone’s attention. They quickly took stock and drew their weapons upon the sight of her.

“You are interrupting a fight of honor. Stand down,” Marus growled, clearly irritated by the intrusion.

“These people have been harassing my companions quite stubbornly. I doubt they’ll stop now,” Jack responded. As if to confirm his point, two additional Darkblades tried to slip in and would have succeeded had the area not been so scrutinized. Evalyn drew her short sword and stretched her offhand to check the dart up her sleeve.

“Give us the woman and we’ll cause you no more trouble,” the closest one demanded, voice muffled by the mask each of them now wore. Jack and Marus exchanged incredulous glances. Without saying a word, they both changed their stances to face the new threat.

The Darkblades quickly caught on, and the late comers moved to flank. Anticipating their maneuver, Evalyn flung her dart at one and missed, but he became hesitant to continue his movement. She hadn’t waited to see how fared her aim and launched into her attack on the nearest foe. Her blow connected but only seemed to focus her would-be victim as his armor blocked any damage from getting through. She was vaguely aware that Unforn and Turchak had entered the fray and that Trev had most certainly not, choosing instead to back away and observe. She could hardly blame him.

The two paladins made short work of all that opposed them, and she herself took out a couple with some well placed backstabs. The battle ended within a few minutes, every Darkblade dead on the street. Evalyn sighed. I wanted to avoid this, but you were all so persistent. Look where your greed and ambition got you, she thought as she sifted through their pockets. Only five gold among you?! Shouldn’t have paid that guard so much, you morons.

“Uh, Evalyn?” Jack asked. She looked up and noticed Marus’ disgust and Jack’s feigned indifference. Trev had rejoined them and looked surprised and concerned.

“What?”

“You’re pretty quick to go pilfering the dead. . .”

“Oh. Well, it isn’t exactly ‘pilfering’ now, is it. Does ownership really exceed death?”

“Nope!” Unforn happily proclaimed, and she turned her attention his way to see him systematically stripping their deceased assailants and placing their armor, weapons, and various other items in a heap.

She turned back to the paladins and said, “And you’re giving me a hard time.”

Marus, disgruntled, rumbled, “You fought well, for one of Ern’s. We need not duel today, but the next time I see you, perhaps then we will cross swords.”

“I look forward to it,” Jack replied as Marus tromped away.

All but the diligent Unforn watched his exit, and when he and his were out of sight, Trev quietly inquired, “So now that your fighting thing is done, what’s next on today’s list?”

“A visit to some armor and weapon merchants, obviously,” Unforn answered.

Campaign (2): It’s a Party

<<First
<<Previous

They headed off to the docks, Jack happily leading the way. Jack’s merry, metallic tromp turned into a slower, wrathful march. Evalyn peeked around him and saw another paladin in dark armor, helm off, speaking in loud, attention-grabbing tones.

“Here’s another of Ern’s people. Proud and ignorant as ever.”

“And here’s another coward who hides behind his words because he doesn’t have the steel to fight,” Jack brashly proclaimed back.

The man’s eyes hardened, and he paused to size up Jack and his companions. A small, angry smile played across his lips. “Bold words. If you believe what you are saying, you would not back from a challenge, right?”

“Of course not!” Jack belted.

“Then tomorrow, here, noon. We’ll duel and see who is the lesser man.”

Jack nodded firmly, and the man with his own companions clanked away. A moment passed as Evalyn and Unforn exchanged confused glances, and suddenly Jack seemed to almost melt. “Shit. That guy is a badass. He might murder me tomorrow. Care to be my seconds?”

“Uh, suuure. . . Who was that?” Evalyn’s tone was forcefully blithe.

“Remember those enemies of my church? The Fallen is one such group. That man is Marus, leader of the Fallen. . . And brother to Ern.”

“Ern? Like, the god you follow Ern?” Evalyn asked, stunned.

“Yeah. . . Remember how he used to be a mortal? Well, that was his brother.” Jack sighed. “His helm was awesome, too.”

The trio walked to the docks in relative silence. The docks themselves were as expected: crowded, smelly, and loud, but oddly not unpleasantly so. They managed to make their way through the masses to one of the smaller vessels. As Jack stepped up to climb aboard, a decrepit woman hailed them, her voice somehow cutting through the din.

“You are travelling to the island that once was lost.” It was not a question.

Evalyn answered anyway. “Yes. . .?”

“Then please, take these trinkets for good luck.” She handed carved wooden necklaces to each adventurer. Evalyn immediately put hers on with a shrug of her shoulders and noticed the others do likewise.

“Thank –” Evalyn began, turning toward the woman. . . who was hobbling away. “What is it with these people?” Evalyn muttered under her breath and swiftly caught up. “Thank you!” She said quickly before the old hag could escape. “Take this with my gratitude.” She handed the woman some copper pieces. The crone accepted with an expression one part amusement, three parts condescension before shuffling away. Evalyn turned back toward the others who both had similar gazes. “What, I can’t give a bit of compensation? It’s luckier that way, right?” She grinned widely, and they rolled their eyes nearly simultaneously. What a couple of wet blankets.

The two men walked across the gang plank, wolf trailing uncertainly behind them. As Evalyn began to follow suit, she looked back toward the old woman in the crowd. That druid from outside the wall was talking to her, accepting one of her trinkets. HE definitely needs one, Evalyn thought. He can use all the luck he can get. Ha! Petition. But he wasn’t her problem, so she hopped onto the deck to catch the last of the discussion between Jack and the captain of the ship. Money exchanged, hands shaken, and they were off the boat once more. . .

. . . And the druid walked aboard after them. Great, maybe he will be my problem. The elf stopped as if he heard her thoughts and turned to them.

“Hey, are you guys going to Lemuria, too?” His voice was gentle but not nearly as musical as she thought elven voices were normally.

“What’s it to you?” Evalyn asked before Jack could respond. He elbowed her in the ribs.

“Shut up, maybe this guy can help us,” he told her then turned to the druid. “Yes. Do you want to join us and share resources?”

“Sure! I’m not good with people, so. . .”

“So what?” Evalyn asked irritably.

“So. . . if you have a problem with me, you’ll have to tell me. I won’t really get hints.”

“Ookaay. . . who would ever have a problem with you?” She rolled her eyes.

“Wow, what’s your problem, Evalyn?” Jack asked with an amused half smile.

“Yeah, Evalyn, what did this guy do to you?” Unforn joined in, looking as if he held back a laugh.

“I don’t know what’s going on or what seems to be funny, but my name is Taurvantian,” the druid said slowly, glancing among the three of them confusedly. “And I like your wolf.”

“Thanks,” Unforn replied, puffing up his chest slightly. “His name is Turchak. Good to know some people appreciate him,” he said pointedly. Evalyn waved dismissively.

“So, Torvanton?” Jack asked.

“Taurvantian.”

“Trevantian?”

“Taurvantian.”

“Trevor?”

“Taurvantian.”

“I’ll just call you Trev, how about that.” Jack looked pleased with himself; “Trev” did not. Evalyn grinned wickedly.

“Trev it is,” she said cheerily.

Next>>

Campaign (1): The Port City of York

<<First
<<Previous

Near exhaustion, Evalyn stumbled along the road, the port city of York sprawling before her. Even from here, she could see a great mass of people clinging to the outside of the city’s walls; a line wound around the city. That may prove problematic. . . Nonetheless, she continued on, hoping for sanctuary within those walls.

When she reached the crowds of people, she noticed they appeared to be refugees camping outside the walls, a city surrounding a city. They were pitiful, dirty, and rank. She kept her distance to the best of her abilities in what little room was reserved for a sort of walkway.

Walking among them yet clearly out of place, a tall, lanky elf with twigs and leaves stuck in his long, blonde hair was talking to groups of refugees, leaning against a staff and holding out pen and paper. Curious, Evalyn walked just a little closer and caught the words “petition,” “city,” and “lord.” She chuckled softly to herself as she passed. Does he really think a petition will do anything? Obviously, these people all want in. Strange for an elf to get so involved with humans in such a way. A druid, no less. . . What is he doing near such a big city?

She reached the main gate and confidently stepped up to a guard, completely bypassing the line and ignoring a loud, “Hey!” accompanied by many glares. She smiled.

“Good day, sir, quite the fuss you have out here,” she said pleasantly.

The guard gave an annoyed look and replied, “Yes, many people want in but few have the proper permissions. We are not letting just everyone through, or our city would be overrun with these. . . refugees. . .” His expression was of long-suffering as he pointedly glanced at the surrounding people. He made the last word sound like a curse, which undoubtedly was to him.

“Very wise of you. Judging by the state of their, uh, camps, they would cause this fair city a lot of grief. Keeping the majority out is by far the best solution. . . I, however, am not a refugee and come bearing extremely important information for the lord of this city.”

The guard’s expression turned dubious. “Then tell me, and if it truly is important, I’ll let you pass and provide you with an escort.”

“I’m sorry, it is for the lord’s ears only. I can assure you, the information is vital as well as its secrecy.”

He eyed her and seemed to be calculating the risks of each choice. Finally, he sighed and waved her through, perhaps coming to the conclusion it wasn’t worth the trouble.

“Wait! Stop her! She’s a thief!” someone bellowed from the crowd. A glance behind revealed a Darkblade rushing toward her.

The guard gave her a look. “Honest, they’re lying and they’re the thieves,” she quickly said, then flipped him a coin. “For your trouble.”

And she bolted through the open gate with a quick look back. The Darkblade was joined by two others; they all handed over coins to the guard and stared at her. They were through, and the chase continued.

They were fast, but she was faster and had a head start. She took a few turns down narrow alleyways and pressed herself flat in a small alcove. She waited a few tense moments listening for her pursuers. Convinced that she lost them, she crept out of hiding.

Somehow managing to keep herself together, Evalyn wandered around looking for a tavern or inn. As she rounded the next corner, she heard the sound of running feet but too late.

“Over here! Thief! Thief!” one of the Darkblades yelled as he charged. He took a swing at her and she wearily tried to dodge, to no avail. The blade found purchase past her armor, and she nearly doubled over as it pierced her abdomen. She jumped back and ran, sweat dripping into her eyes. She lost them again in the alleyways, panting heavily. I’ve got to get away from them. How are they still running?!

Her darting eyes found what she sought: a tavern full of adventurers, booze, and hopefully empty beds. She dragged herself toward it, wiped the sweat off her brow, straightened up, forced a smile, and shoved through the door and people up to the bar.

“Some of your strongest, please,” she said, tossing some coins on the bar. The barkeep nodded and disappeared to the back.

Above the usual din, she heard clanking behind her, and so she turned to catch a glimpse. A black-haired man wearing full plate armor with a long sword at his hip approached her.

“Hello,” the man said. “Is everything okay? You seem a little out of sorts. . .”

Shit, I must look horrible if this stranger noticed something off. She followed his gaze to her stomach where blood was seeping through her armor.

“Nah, I’m fine,” she responded, meeting his eyes. The barkeep brought out a tankard, which she grabbed gratefully. She took a step toward an empty table and involuntarily grunted. The man grabbed her elbow to steady her. “On second thought. . . maybe a little help would be appreciated,” she hissed through clinched teeth. The world started spinning; she clung desperately to the back of a chair.

“Okay, hold on, this should help,” she vaguely heard him say. Warmth spread from his light touch. When it reached her stomach, it blazed into a brief inferno, but before she could cry out, the pain vanished.

“Wooooo,” she breathed as she straightened and tried to dust herself off and put herself in order. “Thank you. What’s your name, sir?”

“I am Jack.”

“Evalyn Wright. Nice to meet you. Care to join me for a drink?”

“Sure, lead the way.”

Evalyn continued to the empty table and plopped down wearily. She flagged down a barmaid, ordered another couple of drinks, and took a long swig from the one she miraculously still held.

“So, Jack, what are you doing in this fine city of York? Heading off to that island?”

“Yes, actually, and I’m looking to hire some adventurers and mercenaries to go with me. My church is seeking artifacts to help us face our enemies.”

“And who are they, exactly?” she asked cautiously.

“Basically everyone else. My church is kind of. . . unpopular. And when I say, ‘kind of,’ I mean very.”

“Why? What’s the name of your church?” Do I want to get involved with this guy’s problem? The money might be good and it’s a way to get to the island, but religious fights are the worst. . .

“It’s. . . complicated. I follow Ern, who was once a man but ascended to godhood when he sacrificed himself for the good of all.”

“Why do people not love you, then?”

“You realize you’re talking to one of Ern’s followers, right? I’m biased. I don’t know why they don’t all follow Ern. . . maybe they don’t like that he used to be a mortal.”

As he spoke, she noticed a half-orc man wearing a ridiculous cap over his black braids approach as if he belonged at the table. When he had reached within a fairly close proximity, Evalyn stared pointedly at him. When he continued to move forward, she asked, “Yes?”

“Huh, it isn’t often I’m greeted in the affirmative,” the half-orc replied, his voice strangely soft, belying his appearance as a brute. A scratch-clacking sound came from behind him, and Evalyn saw a hint of fur; a gray wolf leaned against the man. Before she knew it, she was standing on her chair, blade bare. “It’s okay!” the half-orc quickly said, holding his arms out as a gesture of peace. “No need for alarm!” Tavern patrons looked their way, waiting to see what happened next.

Slightly embarrassed, Evalyn sheathed her short sword and sank back into her chair. “You might have mentioned you had a wolf following you around. . .” she muttered. The rest of the tavern went back to their business and drinks when it became apparent nothing interesting was going to happen.

“Turchak isn’t just any wolf; he’s a ranger’s wolf. He’ll behave, so long as I’m around,” the man stated proudly with a smug grin.

“And who the hell are you?” she asked grumpily.

“Another adventurer I hired to go with me,” Jack interrupted. “Evalyn, this is Unforn. Unforn, meet Evalyn Wright.”

“Nice to meet you,” Unforn warmly said.

“Yeah, a real pleasure,” Evalyn replied. She grinned then and accepted his handshake.

The door slammed open and three sweaty Darkblades stormed up to the bar, noticed her, and shoved their way forward. Jack stood up and blocked their way. “What’s your problem?” he asked. They gave him frustrated looks before going back to staring intensely at Evalyn.

“That woman is a thief and stole a very valuable amulet from the lord of the neighboring city. As a godly man, surely you see she must come to justice?” their spokesman asked.

“Is this true?” Jack turned to her with an expression that was all seriousness.

“No, I definitely did not steal the amulet they are talking about,” she replied with all the sincerity she could muster. Which was not much at this moment. Jack looked doubtful, and the Darkblades sneered at her. She tensed, waiting for his verdict, ready to claw her way out of her situation.

Jack turned decisively toward them and asked, “Well? You heard her. She doesn’t have it.” Well, that’s a different story, she thought but kept her mouth shut and face straight.

Their sneers turned to scowls and haughty disbelief. “She’s a liar and a thief. You best watch your back, Sir Paladin, lest you find her blade in it,” their spokesman spat. They angrily turned around and stormed out of the tavern, which had grown quiet and watchful yet again because of her antics.

“Thank you, again, Sir Jack. They’ve been harassing me quite consistently for the past several days now,” Evalyn said with a sigh and allowed her face to fall.

“Hmm, you’re going to be trouble, aren’t you,” Jack replied, looking her over warily. She tensed again. He barked a short laugh, slammed a hand (a bit painfully) on her shoulder, and said, “It’s fine. We’ll deal with it.” She winced jokingly and gave an exaggerated pained grin.

“So what do we do now?” Unforn asked patiently.

“Right!” Jack exclaimed. “First, we should see about our sea fare, then maybe pick up supplies. Who knows how long we’ll be on that island. . .” They lingered around, lost in their own thoughts, until Jack broke their trances with a loud, impatient, “Okay, let’s go, then.”

Next>>

Prologue (7/7): Contracts

<<First
<<Previous

The rest of the journey to Baldur was mostly uneventful. Even the job was an easy matter; the thief was a simple fellow and had not yet gone to hiding. A few threats and the goods were in her hands.

However, just before crossing into Baldur, Evalyn noticed a carving on a stone:

“If you wish to find a way into Lordaeron, seek a crystal that is not magic yet glows in the wind.”
Wayra

She stood in front of it a good several minutes contemplating its words before continuing her trek. It can’t be coincidence, she thought as she trudged on. And so after completing her task, she made a few inquiries about Lordaeron and Wayra and the tales and rumors began to pour forth from the people’s lips.

According to these rumors, Wayra was a traveler, the only person to enter Lordaeron and come back alive. Lordaeron was an ancient city on the recently rediscovered island of Lemuria, an island said to be full of death and treasure in equal, plentiful portions. Wayra had come back to the mainland, and every nation and organization with any power or influence scrambled to hire Wayra as a guide.

Every summons was refused. Bounties soon followed.

And Wayra disappeared.

People began to notice the very rock that led to Evalyn’s little investigation, and the search for such a crystal commenced, the bounties not forgotten but pushed to the wayside. Many claimed to have found it, indeed even some Evalyn questioned produced a crystal they insisted was the one. All proved fake in time.

Evalyn quickly became aware of the treasure she now held, the power it could give her.

She noticed, too, her tails. This time she knew it to be more than fearful paranoia; there were, in fact, people following her as she went about asking around regarding the writing on the boulder at Baldur’s border. She pretended not to notice them as she turned to an abandoned alley near the edge of town. Let’s see what we’re dealing with. She stoked the air around her.

And not a moment too soon. A dart clattered on the cobblestone behind her, redirected away from her due to her gust. She barely made out the small whistling of another and ducked out of the way. Cursing sounded from the source’s direction. She grinned.

“Why don’t you show yourselves. Maybe your collective cowardice is bringing you bad luck.” She drew her short sword.

A faint pat-pat of footsteps sounded ahead of her, creaking of wood above her to the left. “You’re a bit better than we were expecting. . . More than the rabble that makes up our usual targets, anyway.” A cloaked and masked man turned the corner into the alleyway.

“I can see that. Who are you?” She put on an air of ease but prepared her muscles for action.

“Wouldn’t want to spoil the fun. . .” He continued his approach, and the wooden creaking also persisted until it was behind her.

“I insist.”

“Why, you haven’t even asked why we’re here,” the man said, lines on his cheeks and around his eyes indicating a smile.

“We’ll get to that, although I’m sure I can guess.” It felt as if a noose was about to be tightened; still she stood her ground. Come on, give me something to work with. “You boys are after my super-secret spiced cake recipe, aren’t you. Well, you can’t have it.”

The man paused and gave her a brief confused look before scowling. “Maybe you aren’t better than the usual lot.” A muffled, impatient harrumph behind her followed by a sharp creak and the slight sound of fabric flapping in the wind gave her a split second warning, and she dodged to the side. In return, she swung her blade in an upward slice, and her assailant stumbled backward unharmed.

An inky substance coated his blade, dripping off the tip. Poison. . .

“I guess a more productive line of questioning would be who sent you,” Evalyn said, tightening her grip on her hilt. A light thump on the rooftop behind her alerted her of a new arrival, and she cringed inside. They were stalling.

The man at the entry of the alley chuckled. “What gave you the idea that we’re the type to hand out our clients’ information? The Darkblades are smarter than that.” She risked leaving an opening in her defense to give him an incredulous look. “Oh, you think I’ve slipped up mentioning who we are? Perhaps you think I made a mistake again by confirming it. No matter; either way, the result is the same. Even if it meant anything to you, it won’t when you’re dead.”

She knew in less than a few seconds, they’d pounce. And so she pounced first. She quickly ran up the wall and jumped onto the roof startling the hitman preparing to jump down. She swiped at him, and he attempted to dodge, losing his footing instead. His dagger clinked as it hit the stone pavement below. She grabbed a handful of his tunic’s collar as he started to fall, holding him up propped against the edge of the roof.

“You wanna tell me who you’re working for?” she asked him, pushing him gently a little farther. His foot started to slip.

“Cusal! It won’t matter anyway,” he said, his voice faltering only slightly. He tried to sneer, but it didn’t look sincere with his fear in the mix.

“Hm, thanks.” And she let go. It really isn’t that far of a drop, she thought as he fell. Coward.

She ran, working her way to the city gate, jumping rooftop to rooftop before scrambling down near the main street. The sun was setting, and the last few travelers for the day shuffled in. She tried to maintain a casual pace to the gate. The guards gave her a look but waved her through, closing the gate behind her.

Knowing that her assailants would be sure to follow and realizing it was going to be a long night’s trek to the next town, Evalyn broke into a steady jog. The Darkblades. . . The name did mean something to her. The Darkblades were a bunch of assassins and thieves, mercenaries not that different from the Shadowstriders. The Shadowstriders didn’t murder people if they could help it, however. The Darkblades also had a reputation of being a cheaper option, the hidden cost being they might unofficially give themselves a raise. But it wasn’t as if she herself hadn’t done that, now that she was on her own.

Evalyn made it to the next town in the early morning hours with no sign of her pursuers and purchased a room for the day. However, after sleeping lightly for just a few hours, she woke up to her window squeaking open, a Darkblade attempting to sneak in hanging on the frame, eyes wide in surprise at having been caught. She laughed quietly and plucked his fingers off the edge. She jumped down after him, landing nimbly on his chest when he failed to recover on time, and ran off to the next town.

The sun was setting when she reached it, and she eagerly collapsed into another inn’s bed. She fell asleep immediately and managed to get a few more hours of sleep before waking with a start as the floorboards outside her door loudly creaked.

This time, it wasn’t so amusing.

Tired and irritated, she leapt out her window yet again and took off down the road. I know they’re just trying to fulfill their contract, but I wish they’d just give up already, she thought. I may end up having to kill them, though they’ll likely just send more.

In this manner, Evalyn made her way back to her client to satisfy her end of the deal and collect the rest of the payment. The man was a lot less twitchy this time around and actually greeted her like a friend. As an afterthought as she was leaving the tavern, she turned back and asked, “Do you happen to know anything of Lemuria?”

“Lemuria? . . . Hmm. . . Lemuria. . . Sounds familiar. Why do you ask?” He smiled from ear to ear. People and their beloved belongings. . . she thought reflectively.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I heard some rumors about some island lately. Just slipped out.” She turned to leave again.

“Wait, yes, now I remember. There’re boats taking adventurers to that place up in that port city York a couple days’ journey from here. . . Maybe you can get more answers there.”

She turned again, flashed him a grin, and flipped one of the coins he paid back to him. “Thanks. Again, pleasure doing business.” He looked baffled, fumbling to catch the coin as she walked out the door.

To be greeted by her three recent least favorite people.

“Why, heelllloooo,” she said, forcing her smile to stay in place.

They leapt into action. Her leather armor blocked the first blow, she managed to dodge the second, but the third scratched her thigh. She hissed and rolled between them, running down the street. Just what that new wound needs, she mentally groaned. Dirt.

The cut was small, but her thigh burned as she navigated alleys and roads before halting in an alcove to catch her breath and survey the damage. She heard pounding feet, but they took a wrong turn. After waiting a few more minutes, she peeked around and, encouraged by the lack of murderous, cloaked mercenaries, cautiously stepped out, making her way to the city wall. Using her grappling hook, she managed to climb up and over and ran from the city. This is starting to become a little too common for my taste, she thought bitterly, heading in the direction of York. No one likes a worn out song.

It’s time to change the tune.

. . . Or something. I don’t know, I’m not a bard.

Next>>

Prologue (6/7): The Crystal Amulet

<<First
<<Previous

The journey to Baldur was long, and many highwaymen foolishly approached the lone mortal thinking of their easy profit. The lucky ones left the road with heavier hearts and lighter purses.

“I should have charged him more. . . This road always seems shorter in my memory,” Evalyn grumbled to the dust in the air. She looked around the empty fields and stopped, dropping her pack on the ground and searching through it for her canteen.

Shuffling sounds ahead of her. She found the bottle and tipped it back, taking a few big mouthfuls. The shuffling edged closer. Satisfied, she put the lid back on and shoved it into the bag.

The noise stopped.

“Well, what do you want?” Evalyn asked conversationally as she stood up. A figure wrapped in rags and caked in mud and dust shambled closer without a response. Evalyn loosened her short sword in its sheath. “I warn you, many have tried and failed to take me on. Let’s be civil, shall we?”

The figure maintained its pace.

Evalyn drew her sword; the creature stopped. A white, toothy smile appeared through the rags, all she could make out from the figure’s face. “Yes,” it croaked, “let’s be civil. Lower thy weapon.”

Evalyn rolled her eyes and sheathed her sword. “It’s amazing how many people need a threat before they’ll even reply.”

The creature laughed and muttered, “You have no idea. . .” Then, in a louder voice, “I have something that might interest thee.”

“Speak plainly. What do you want?”

“You talk as one tired of playing the game, but we both know better. You love it, thrive in it, thirst for it.”

Evalyn tensed. “Who are you?”

“No one of importance. What is more worthy of your inquiry is this.” The traveler produced what looked to be a necklace made from some sort of crystal. As a breeze picked up, it seemed to glint in the sunlight. “You see how it glows in the wind? This amulet is magical and will change your life.”

Evalyn looked at it skeptically and sighed, “How much do you want for it?”

“Just a measly ten gold pieces. I’m desperate for some money and this is my last valuable item of any worth. It is worth much more than that, trust me.”

“Ten gold?! For some glass on a string? If you’re truly desperate you’ll take a few coppers and be glad.”

The figure paused and seemed to be sizing her up. “. . . Give me ten copper, some of your rations, and a drink of your water.”

“Fine. Deal.” Evalyn dropped her pack again and snatched some trail rations and her canteen, handing them both over cautiously. The rations disappeared into the maw quickly followed by two big gulps. Before she could protest, the canteen was back in her hand, and she fished out the copper.

“Thank ye and good luck. . .”

Evalyn stared uncertainly at the crystal amulet while the traveler continued on its way. It did seem to react to the wind. . . “Wait, what does it—” she started to ask, turning around before noticing the absence of the figure, “. . . do.” She sighed and picked up her bag once more. She looked around and waited, listening for any signs of movement. Content, she cautiously stoked the breeze around her while watching the amulet. It did, in fact, seem to emanate a bit of light. Interesting. . . She glanced around again, then tucked the amulet in a close pocket and continued on. Doesn’t get me any closer to Baldur, though.

The day dragged on and then began to turn to night when Evalyn reached a small town. She arduously approached the tavern’s keeper and, having negotiated a room and meal, plopped down at a corner table. She brooded over an ale while listening in on the few conversations she could hear. Her meal vanished nearly as quickly as it was placed, and she sighed in contentment.

And suddenly, one of the conversations peaked her interest: an old man attempting to persuade some adventuring folk to show him their loot.

“Oh, come now! If it’s nothing interesting, I won’t charge! I’m offering a generous service, and you disrespect me in return?” he raged, his cheeks red.

“We don’t need your help, old man. Why don’t you find someone else to scam?” The adventurers departed his table with a dismissive wave.

“I’m a man of magic! Educated, unlike you louts. Bah!” The man huffed and buried his face in his tankard.

Evalyn waited until the adventurers paid their tab and left before approaching the bar and ordering another couple of ales. She walked over to the man and sat at his table, placing the other ale next to him with a dull thunk. He jumped.

“What? Change your minds?” He looked up at her. “Who the hell are you?”

“For someone complaining about disrespect, you have poor manners,” Evalyn responded wryly. “The name is Evalyn. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with those, uh, gentlemen? a few minutes ago.”

“Manners? Disrespect? Gentlemen?!” he huffed. “You’re one to talk of manners, eavesdropping. And I’m your elder! And bah! Gentlemen, my arse. . .”

“You offered a service to them?” Evalyn pressed, pushing the sacrificial ale encouragingly toward him.

“Yes! A generous offer, too! I would tell them what items of theirs did which. They bragged about a great horde of magical loot they had found. Hmph! Horde. And so I thought I could scratch their backs and mayhaps they’d scratch mine. Arses! Idiots! Buffoons! Turning down such a gracious proposal from a learned, magic man such as myself. I hope all their loot is cursed! Bah!”

“Learned, magic man?”

“Yes, I, madam, am a mage, wielder of magic.”

“So. . . you could identify magic items,” she said slowly.

“Yes, yes. . . Why do you ask?” the man responded while grabbing the proffered tankard and taking a swig. He nodded approvingly.

“I recently purchased something of interest and was wondering what it was. If you can help me identify it, there’s more where that came from.” She nodded at his already half-finished beverage.

He eyed her uncertainly and then seemed to come to a conclusion in some inner debate. “Let’s see what you have, then, and we can discuss price.”

She pulled out the amulet and placed it on the table. The old man gingerly picked it up, and a look of concentration lingered on his face. Finally, he sighed, set it back on the table, and tipped back his drink. “You, my friend,” he said as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve, “were scammed. That will be two coppers.”

“What, it isn’t magical at all?” she asked as she complied.

“’Fraid not. Just a trinket. Not even all that pretty, sorry to tell you. Too gaudy. You’re much better off pawning it off to some other sap, no offense.”

“Here, come with me outside. Maybe this will change your mind,” she said, standing up. He eyed her again with uncertainty, and she sighed. “I won’t hurt you; I just want to show you something interesting.” He didn’t budge, and she sighed again, producing another couple of coppers. He smiled and hopped up.

The night was crisp and clear, but the wind was very low. Evalyn held out the amulet, said, “Watch,” and encouraged a slight breeze around them. The amulet glowed. The old man gasped.

“How much did you say you paid for this?” he asked eagerly.

“I didn’t. I bought it for about 10 copper.”

“Ten copper, huh. One gold. I’ll buy it from you for one gold.”

“Hmm. . . No. . .” She put the amulet back. The old man seemed to be getting fanatical.

“Ten gold? That’s quite the profit for you, eh?” he chuckled, wringing his shirt in excitement.

“No. . .”

“Oh, come now. . . One hundred gold! There!”

“No.” She subtly moved to a defensive stance.

“Why, you. . . that should be plenty! It’s just a trinket, not magical at all!” The man became angrier and angrier and began to pace and yank on his hair and beard.

“It isn’t for sale. I merely wanted to find out what it does.”

“What it does?!” he yelled and muttered something under his breath. “I already told you, it isn’t magical! It’s just some fancy necklace,” he lied.

“And you still say it isn’t magical? After it reacted with the wind? You aren’t a very good liar. After all, you seem to want it so badly now while you were disinterested earlier.”

“Give it to me!” he cried and charged her with grasping hands, seeking the pocket and its contents. She nimbly dodged out of the way and tripped him. He recovered awkwardly and whirled around for another go. His face met her pommel and parted from it with a loud crunching sound; blood quickly followed. She ran away from him, sparing a single glance accompanied by a smirk when she saw his startled, pained expression as he tried to stand up.

“I said, ‘no,’ you old fool!” she yelled over her shoulder. “Try that again and it may be your neck that breaks instead!” And she continued to run into the night, wishing for that bed she paid for and lamenting its wasted expense.

Next>>

Prologue (5/7): Fallout

<<First
<<Previous

Aeris fled to the nearest village and slept fitfully in a farmer’s pile of hay. When she awoke, the sun was rising, and the farmer and his kin were doing chores. She snuck past them, nabbing some bread and cheese, before running off to the next village. In this way, hopping from village to village, unnoticed and stealing scraps to sustain her, Aeris traveled to the closest city that wasn’t Corwick or Westspring, constantly checking behind her for any pursuit.

There was none.

She used the skills she learned through the Shadowstriders to glean information from rumors, choose a good mark, pick pockets for spare coin, and wheedle her way into contracts. For fear of being tracked, Aeris went by the name Evalyn Wright and kept away from old contacts, both hers and those known to work with the Shadowstriders. She picked up other skills to aid in her quest for survival and riches, such as playing the lute and learning various languages, some more useful than others.

Years passed with her travelling to different cities within her home country of Sine and even to some cities without, a part of her always suspecting that Eydan or some other member followed her. Sometimes she hoped for it. But the only thing that seemed to actually follow her were the stories as news travelled from Westspring, stories of a hero brutally slain by an evil villain walking in human skin, a villain who controlled the air itself.

A villain they called the Murder Tempest.

That has to be the WORST nickname I’ve ever heard, Evalyn would think while ordering five shots of their strongest and quickly downing them one after the other. If she had to hear the stupid story, she certainly wasn’t doing it sober. Shadowbreeze is probably my best. Why couldn’t that name be spread everywhere?

Evalyn found a certain contentedness in her lonely exploits. Not exactly happy, but at least content. She worked hard to earn a reputation to rival that of her previous name. Fifty years had passed since she found the Shadowstriders; she was sure her parents no longer lived. Yet thanks to her ancestry, she aged little, and so she assumed she would continue like this quite possibly for the rest of her long life.

An incorrect assumption.

“Baldur, huh. . .” Evalyn sighed.

“Well, yes. It makes sense he’d try to leave the country. Beats going to Cusal.”

“Yeah, I suppose it does at that.” Evalyn took a long draught from her tankard. Her client was a normal looking bloke, some fool who lost everything of value to one of her ilk. He was fidgety and jumpy, nervous even in this public setting of a bustling tavern.

She continued to drink and tapped the middle of the table before leaning her chair back on two legs. The man placed a handful of gold coins uncertainly where she had tapped. Tunk tunk. Another handful. Tunk tunk. One more accompanied by a glare. She winked as she reached the end of her beverage, gave a small belch, cleared her throat, and swiped the lot. “Pleasure doing business with you. I’ll expect the same when I get back with your belongings.”

He slid five more gold pieces, one under each digit. “And a bit more to make sure this particular problem doesn’t happen again.” The nervousness was replaced by angry vengeance.

She pushed his hand away. “I don’t murder people. I’m not an assassin. If he fights me, I’ll kill him, but I don’t want your blood money.”

He hesitated, smiled, then pulled his hand back. “Fine by me. Just grab what’s mine and meet me back here.”

Evalyn nodded, and he left. She smiled as she opened her fist and added five coins to her already heavy purse. “To Baldur then.”

Next>>

Prologue (4/7): Monster

<<First
<<Previous

After a year of training in the art of stealth and thievery, Aeris Faulkner was declared ready for jobs. She fulfilled each contract satisfactorily and quickly rose through the ranks, gaining reputation among the Shadowstriders’ clients as well as the Shadowstriders themselves. She, in turn, learned about them and came to love them. Corvus Redfall, their human commander, led them with a guiding hand, acting as their face more than anything else. There were no real rules within the guild, merely suggestions with certain promises attached. She learned Eydan Frye acted as second in command, the one who would lead them should something befall the commander.

This group introduced many new races to Aeris. The two who observed in her induction ceremony were Luciana, a half-elf, and Fathis Forestryker, a halfling. These two were high ranking members, although rank mattered little in the guild, as did ceremony. Most of the Shadowstriders were an impudent lot. However, rank did mean one’s choice of contracts among other perks. Some other “officers” were Delvin the dwarf, Ravyn the gnome, Gallus the tiefling, Armand the elf, Orrin the half-orc, and Cynric another halfling.

There were many other members of the Shadowstriders whom she came to know, people of lower rank as herself with the potential of becoming officers. There were also many candidates for membership; she learned a few weeks into her training that many of those in the main big cavern were simply waiting for admittance as they had not passed their initial test. Many of these sent her envious, spiteful gazes as she passed by.

But her best friend in the world was the second in command.

“Aeris, we’re going to town for a client visit and a pint. We leave in 5, and you’re coming with,” Eydan said as he rushed past her to the entrance. He paused long enough to give her one of his shit-eating grins and a wink; then he was out of sight through the door.

Some things never change, she thought with a shake of her head as she followed.

Waiting for her on the “patio,” what they called the smaller, grassy cave, Fathis and Delvin were horsing around playing a thief’s training game where one tried to steal the other’s coinpurse while avoiding the opponent’s dagger. In practice, one would normally use wooden sticks, though these two, like many of the veterans, had a thirst for danger and so used real blades.

“A-ha! Almost got you there, you slow dwarf! You cannot best Fathis Forestryker!”

Aeris rolled between them, narrowly dodging one blade, her leather armor blocking a nick to the shoulder by the other, and snatched both purses. “Oh, really, Fathis? And which fore do you strike?” She smirked holding the purses up daintily. The halfling and the dwarf first looked dumbstruck then puzzled. She waited for their laughter, and when it didn’t come gave them annoyed looks.

“Sorry, was that supposed to be a joke?” Fathis asked.

“Yeeesss, as in foreskin.”

“So, dick joke, huh?” asked Delvin. “I got it; I just didn’t think it was all that clever.”

She sighed and tossed them their bags.

Eydan, who had been watching from his perch on the boulder, laughed as he said, “You need to get better with your one-liners if you’re ever going to be a master rogue.”

“Or, perhaps, here’s a thought: you could all learn to emphasize stealth over hubris,” Corvus interrupted as he emerged from the entrance.

“Says the one who always has to make a dramatic entry,” Eydan replied, hopping off the rock. With a small grin, Corvus sent him a glance and a shrug.

With that, they headed off to Westspring, a nearby city where they often visited for business and pleasure. If Aeris had known more about the local geography when she first came to the cave, she would have likely never joined the guild because she would have gone to Westspring; the city was only an hour’s trek from the cave. As it was, she did not regret her previous ignorance.

They arrived late in the night, near the time when decent folk went home. They stopped at their usual haunt, a tavern near the edge of town, while Corvus slipped off with Fathis to meet their client. The tavern was still bustling, though it wouldn’t be for very much longer. After an hour of music, listening to and spreading rumors, and a fair share of alcohol, Corvus and Fathis joined them for a drink. By that time, only a sleepy drunk and a few stubborn patrons remained. Corvus stood and prepared to leave, and the rest followed suit.

“Good. Those thugs will fin’ly leave. Been wishin’ they’d leave since they snuck in,” one of the men in a corner table grumbled, a bit too loudly. Aeris tensed at the insult, but Eydan’s eyes locked with hers and he gave a slight shake of the head. Corvus continued up to the bar to pay the tab, seemingly ignorant to the man’s comment though Aeris knew better.

One of the man’s companions gave a small snort and went back to drinking, which was encouragement enough, apparently, for he continued, “They ainn’even that good a thieves. I don’ know why the guards put up with ‘em. We all know they’re criminals. Why ain’ they locked up? They deserve no be’er than stale bread. And look at their leader! What a right bandit chief he es, like sum highwaymun robbin’ li’l girls!” He cackled.

“Um, Aeris?” Eydan asked, gently touching her shoulder. She angrily pulled it away, turning fully to the man. She heard some muttering behind her, but she tuned it out.

The man met her eyes and laughed. “Does that upset you, missy? Well, you’s the one ‘at joined ‘em, ain’ ya. Cowardly lot, all ya.”

She flew toward him quickly, leaving clattering chairs and upended tables in her wake. She pressed a knife to his throat and yelled, “Say that again! Let’s see which one of us is more the coward!”

A gentle hand touched her wrist and firmly pulled it away from the man. “Aeris,” Eydan whispered, “calm down.” The man’s eyes were wide in fear. A small trickle of blood ran down his neck. “These people are not our enemies.”

She backed away, shaking from the adrenaline and rage that still had its hold on her. A gasp behind her forced her to look away from the man, and all rage fled.

The scene behind her was of destruction. . . and death. Scattered across the room were broken tables and chairs. The sleepy drunk lay still on the floor, the back of his head a bloody mess where he had been struck quite forcibly by a table. She was suddenly aware of the wind whipping around her, slowly dying as wrath turned to horror.

“What have I done?” she whispered. She saw the shock on the faces of Corvus, Fathis, and Delvin.

“Aeris, look at me,” she heard Eydan say. Numbly, she turned her head. He was trying to calm her down. He thinks I’m a monster!

She ran. Only one followed.

She almost made it to the gate when Eydan caught up to her and grabbed her wrist. “Aeris! Wait! What are you doing?” he cried as he stopped her. So close. . .

“Leaving. I can’t stay.” Tears started to form, but she stubbornly held them back.

“Of course not, but we should at least try to hide the body or something. Not that many people saw what happened. A few threats, a little coin, and you should be fine.”

She narrowed her eyes and shook her head in confusion. “What? No. I mean leaving. Not just Westspring. The Shadowstriders.”

He let go of her wrist. “Why? Because of what you did? That was an accident. Everyone will understand. You don’t need to do this.”

“I can’t. . . I can’t stay after seeing that look on their faces. They’ve seen what I am.”

“What you-? Aeris, please. Don’t be ridiculous. I suspected you were a sylph since the day I met you.”

It felt like the world was spinning; his words seemed muddled. I have to get out of here. What is he talking about? I. . . I need to breathe! He’s just trying to calm me so they can lock me away. Need to get out. She took a half step back.

“Can’t you see I’m like you?” he continued, his expression pleading yet his eyes hard.

I’m a monster. . .

She ran and jumped over the city wall into the dark embrace of the night.

Next>>