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>>

Advertisements

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>>

Prologue (3/7): Shadowstrider

<<First
<<Previous

Through the narrow tunnel, the door to which shut behind them, the cave was that from Aeris’ dreams. Half of Corwick could fit comfortably within these walls! Spread before her in rows were bunks and occasionally cots or mats where some were stirring into wakefulness and others were turning in for the night. How anyone could sleep over the merry voices or the clanks of practicing swordplay or the thump! of arrows hitting targets, Aeris hoped she would come to know.

“I’m Eydan, by the way, Eydan Frye.” She glanced at the man leading her to the mats. He seemed to be expecting something from her.

“Nice to meet you, Master Frye.”

He continued to stare; she stared back. Finally, he sighed and asked, “And you are?”

She hesitated another few steps before replying, “Aeris Faulkner.”

“Aeris. . . Nice to meet you, Aeris.” He grinned widely, and she responded with a small smirk. “Here’s your mat, don’t go anywhere, and we’ll talk in the morning.” And then he was gone, so suddenly she jumped a little, eliciting chuckles from the few around her.

She shifted and blushed slightly before asking, “Does he do that a lot?”

“We all do,” laughed a bare chested man a few cots down in the adjacent row. “We’re thieves, after all. It’s our business to disappear.”

“Right. . .” She slowly sat on her borrowed mat and took in her surroundings some more before lying down.

After failing for what felt like several hours to convince herself to fall asleep, Aeris quietly sat back up and surveyed the scene once more. The activities were much the same, only the participants changing, but all those in her near vicinity somehow slept. Incredulous but restless, she cautiously stood up, checking for any deviation that might indicate awareness of her movements. No change. Taking in a deep breath and affixing on her face a determined, confident expression, she stepped lightly further back into the cave.

No one challenged her as she made her way to the back nor as she began to walk through a narrow corridor. She checked behind her as she entered, feeling as if she got away with something. Satisfied that either no one had noticed or they didn’t care, she continued through the tunnel.

The corridor seemed deceptively long, twisting this way and that like a snake. At its end was another cave, much smaller than the first yet still the size of a mansion. This space was empty save a metal door at its back and a large, metal circle embedded in the floor. Engraved on this circle was what looked like a symbol of some sort, depicting a dark cloaked figure running through a dark mask with naught but a star as its left eye. Carved into the cloak were two small, rough Ss like lightning bolts.

“Our emblem. The Ss stand for Shadowstriders.”

Aeris jumped and whirled around. Eydan chuckled as he walked beside her, smirking at her fight-or-flight posture. “The mask is that of Norgorber, the Reaper of Reputation, Blackfingers, The Gray Master. . . I wondered there for a bit if you’d make it. I almost thought you were going to be boring.”

“What do you mean?” she asked and let down her guard, feeling foolish.

He squatted next to the emblem, gazing at it as he spoke, “Oh, nothing important now. Just a simple test. You had me nearly concerned when you just sat there for so long. . .” He stopped talking, glancing over his shoulder at the tunnel before continuing to contemplate the circle.

A couple of minutes passed, and finally Aeris broke the silence to ask, “What happens now?”

“Now,” the commander’s voice came from right behind her, “we determine what to do with you.”

Eydan grinned widely as he stood and said, “See? She’s learning. She hardly even jumped that time.” She gave him a small glare, which only made him give a short bark of laughter.

The commander glided between them to stand in the middle of the circle and turned to face them, looking first at Eydan then meeting her eyes. Two others, the figures from the cave’s entrance, similarly walked to stand on the commander’s left and right. The first was slim and tall and the second short. . . a child, perhaps?

Eydan’s smile dropped to a serious, solemn expression, though he remained in place.

“Who will advocate the Visitor?” the commander asked the air. Aeris glanced at all four and noticed they all seemed to be staring straight ahead.

“I will,” Eydan replied.

“She cannot follow basic orders, as evidenced by her presence in this sacred chamber.”

What? She had received no orders. . .

“A Shadowstrider obeys no man; a Shadowstrider only answers to him –or her –self ultimately.”

“A Shadowstrider must respect her fellow members,” the figure to the commander’s left replied. Aeris then focused on these two. The one who spoke was female with slightly pointed ear tips. . . an elf? And the other much shorter one she had thought a child, but now that she looked at him, she noticed mature sharpness in his cheeks, eyes, and chin. That would make him. . . a halfling. She could not be sure as she had only heard rumors.

“By what qualities do you think her viable?” the Halfling asked, and Aeris realized she had missed something in the exchange.

“The Visitor is quick and dexterous in her current state with much room for improvement, yet she can learn our ways, I’m sure of it. She embraces the darkness as a Shadowstrider must. Most of all, she sought us out and extracted our location from hearsay.”

“Do you, the Visitor, have anything to add? Do you desire to join our guild?” the commander asked, now looking at her, through her eyes and into her soul.

Aeris swallowed and wet her lips. “Yes. I cannot advocate myself for I have much to learn, but I very much desire to join you.” Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw Eydan smile and look down; the commander’s eyes seemed to soften.

“Very well, let it be so.”

“Let it be so.”

“Let it be so.”

And so it was that Aeris Faulkner joined the Shadowstriders. She would live with them for several years, experiencing her first sensation of happiness. Aeris, so accustomed to prejudice and exclusion, did not know how to respond to acceptance let alone fondness. But her time there would prove to be short-lived.

Next>>

Character Idea: Fetchling Bard

Denna, the Fetchling Bard

Exiled from the Shadow Plane (being a fetchling) and her throat mutilated so she couldn’t use her beautiful voice at the age of 13, Denna’s family was killed as a punishment for something they did, about which she doesn’t know the details. After the assailants cut out her voice box and dumped her in the material plane, she made her way to a nearby temple where clerics were able to heal her but were not talented enough to restore her voice.

Being a penniless orphan, she didn’t have the coin to spend to go outside of the city for a long time, playing music in taverns when she had to in order to buy food, even though she hates getting all the attention. She wandered around sleeping under the stars on rooftops or in the woods outside of town. Eventually, she made her way outside of the city, but by the time she arrived at anywhere where they’d have talented enough clerics, the wound was too old.

Desna Starsong, goddess of travelers, gamblers, and musicians, had pity for Denna and so sent one of her followers to guide Denna to a long lost artifact that allows her to speak through it for twelve hours so long as she spends an hour charging it with her own life force. Once the two recovered the artifact, the clergyman left Denna to her own devices at the closest city.

And thus we have a semi-mute bard! The way I would role-play her is that she would still try to mime out what she’s trying to say most of the time to conserve the charge in the artifact. As an introduction, for example, she would first write her name. If the person was illiterate, she would then try to doodle a cave with a bear outside of it, point at the cave, and then play the “A” note on her lute. If the person had no idea what she was trying to convey, she’d slump her shoulders in defeat and say her name through the artifact.

Prologue (2/7): The Cave

<<Previous

Upon reaching the cave, Aeris found it to be quite empty, small, and uninteresting. Forlorn, she sat on a big rock at the cave’s entrance and tried to think past her disappointment to what she should do next. It took all day to reach this cave, and the nearest city was back the way she came. She couldn’t go back, wouldn’t, but the closest city besides Corwick was a couple of days away. She had little food left.

Blast it all! Why did the rumors, so convincing, have to prove untrue!

As she sat there thinking thusly, the dusk turned to night. She remained sitting, unconcerned, for she had discovered early on that darkness did not disturb her in the slightest. In fact, her eyes only irritated her less, her vision changing to tones of gray that easily picked up details even 20 yards away.

“Lovely night, hmm?”

Aeris jumped and scrambled off the rock to face the voice. A hooded figure leaned next to the rock, dressed in leather armor with daggers strapped to every limb. He looked completely at ease as he regarded her. She suddenly realized how foolish she was, leaving on her own with naught but a walking stick to defend herself.

The man laughed and held his hand out in peace. “Jumpy little thing, aren’t you. I mean you no harm. I would like to know, however, what you are doing outside our door.”

Aeris looked behind him uncertainly and noticed a gap in the cave’s wall exposing a before hidden tunnel. Out of this entry way walked three more figures, similarly equipped. She quietly gasped and felt excitement and cautious hope begin to bloom.

“Are you them?” she blurted.

“Them?” the man asked with an arched eyebrow and a quirked half smile.

“The band of miscreants, rogues, thieves, mercenaries?”

“Miscreants?” He sounded amused.

“Please! I heard rumors that there lived some band here that lives by their own law, one that questions not people’s lives, a group that I might join.”

“Hmph, well, you heard incorrectly,” a new deep voice joined in. One of the other figures approached them. “We certainly question people’s lives, and I’m not so sure you’re up to the task of joining.”

“Commander, you should have seen the way she sprang when startled, and the darkness does not trouble her.”

“We have no time for this right now. . . Hm, well, in any case, we can’t have her running around exposing us. We will also need to know where she heard those rumors. . . Very well, take her inside and give her a mat. And don’t let her. . . wander.”

Next>>