Play by Post Shenanigans

For those of you who like my Shadowbreeze work (which I plan on continuing but I’ve been a busy bee lately), you might be interested in reading or even joining some Play by Post (PbP) games. I’ve recently joined a group on the Paizo website, and you can read our ongoing campaign here. It did just recently start and there are usually at least a few hours between posts, so it is a little slow going currently.

I play a fetchling bard/rogue whose family serves an umbral dragon, the terrible Thraknix. Selena Shadethorn fled her dragon mistress and left the Shadow Plane with the help of her uncle who stayed behind. She now wanders the Material Plane, exploring and never staying in one place for long. She finds herself at a port city called Bloodcove which rests in the roots of a giant mangrove tree. The river Blood meets the ocean nearby, and many an adventurer finds the allure of mysteries and rumored treasure to be discovered upriver irresistible. Few return.

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Campaign (4): Ship Side Encounter

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Back and forth, side to side, front to back, and side to side again. Gentle music softly graced her ears as Evalyn lay stretched out on her swaying hammock, the only soothing sensation present in several days. She welcomed it cautiously, keeping her eye on the one that coaxed the sweet melodies from his lute.

He’s got to be some sort of demon-spawn. . . Evalyn thought, peering at the bard from the corner of her half-closed eyes. Red skin, curling dark horns, long barbed tail. . . Definitely demon-spawn. The irony or perhaps hypocrisy, as usual, did not even occur to her as she judged the Tiefling purely by his appearance. She had only seen one other of his kind, in her own Shadowstriders, but Gallus had less pronounced features. And he was a thief!

She kept vigilance on the dwarf, as well, but he stayed on his hammock or out on the main deck. He never approached her or her group after introductions, and they returned the courtesy in kind. The bard, on the other hand, liked to try to loosen their tongues, tell their tales; Evalyn didn’t like the prying. It only made her more uneasy.

A shout on the deck cut through the lute’s tune, nothing unusual. A few more shouts and pounding feet on wooden boards stopped the Tiefling’s nimble fingers. Evalyn stretched and leapt up in one fluid motion. . . or attempted to. Fabric snagged her foot, and she tumbled to the floor from her lofty third hammock up. She managed a saving roll and sprung up easily enough to make it look like everything was in control. She didn’t look around to see if the others had seen and instead launched herself out of the passengers’ quarters, out to the topside. Clambering behind her informed her that the others were following closely.

“Ship! Aft port!” the lookout cried out to those new to the scene. Evalyn ran to the side and looked back. A sailor huff-grunted, and she turned his way.

“Other port, lass. . . This is starboard.”

She rolled her eyes at his strained smile and ran to the other side. Defying logic, a ship was rapidly catching up to them. That has to be magic induced speed, Evalyn thought and stared contemplatively at their unfurled sails. Too risky.

The sails seemed to catch more air suddenly, filling up and accelerating them forward. Evalyn jumped, startled, and looked around nervously. The druid had a look of concentration and waved his arms and hands around purposefully, muttering. She sighed in relief and looked back again at the pursuing ship. They still gained! She looked back at their main sail, at its limit and still not enough. Another glance and the ship already approached their broadside. There was no question of intent as men with swords drawn and ropes grasped lined up along the side of the main deck. Hatches on the side lifted up and big metal tubes rolled forward. A woman wearing magnificent garb and an even more magnificent hat with a magnificent feather shouted orders to the men. Magnificently.

Nothing ever goes smoothly, does it?

Their own men lined up grimly, the captain shouting his own orders. Not nearly as magnificent. She sighed, drew her short sword, and stirred the wind around her. She noticed Unforn staring at her uncertainly and chose to ignore it. I’ll worry about that later. It was bound to happen.

One of their sailors threw a couple of planks side by side extending to the enemy ship. A few men ran across. Evalyn jumped up soon after and noticed a line of men on the enemy ship across the deck holding up strange metal pipes. What the- Small explosions came from the pipes and a few of theirs fell to the deck, clutching gaping wounds. She heard a faint zip and felt her protective winds alter the trajectory of a small projectile.

I don’t like that, she thought. Not one bit. She rushed ahead, slaying a man with a saber who stood in her way. She heard clinking behind her and turned, alarmed. Jack stepped onto the planks.

“What are you doing?!” she yelled.

“Crossing to the fight?” he said, puzzled.

She shrugged, rolled her eyes, and shook her head. He better not fall into the water; he’ll sink to the bottom for sure.

Unforn and Turchak jumped into the fray, and even the druid joined the fight, throwing spells at the men with the strange metal tubes. One of these men turned, saw Jack about to get onto the boat, and fired. The shot landed, and Jack was put off balance. Shit! That idiot! Evalyn saw this and took off in an instant, dodging several blows as she made her way back over. Jack made the classic futile gesture of waving his arms in an attempt to recenter himself over the planks. He fell.

Evalyn managed to grab his arm and cried out as her own tried to pop off her shoulder. Realization seemed to finally sink into Jack’s face. “Dumbass,” she grunted with effort. Together, they somehow dragged him up, back into the relative safety of the battle.

Many of their attackers were down and victory appeared to be close at hand. The enemy sorceress had not stayed out of the fight, Evalyn saw. Their ship was ablaze. Bigger explosions rang out from below and giant gashes splintered into their hull. Guess we’re staying on this ship. . .

When the last pirate fell, they turned to the sorceress, her death in their eyes. She didn’t look frightened at all but backed up to the aft of the ship. They approached cautiously, like one would a cornered animal. She jumped over the edge and disappeared into the depths.

Inexplicably, Trev jumped in after her, transforming into a shark mid dive. Evalyn and Jack exchanged surprised and confused looks before running into the lower decks to root out any additional hostiles.

There were a dozen or so in one of the lower decks near bigger pipes on wheels. Cannons? Evalyn guessed based on rumors she had heard in some forgotten city.

A few were quickly dispatched, and the rest surrendered. The ship was theirs. After securing their captives, they went back up to the main deck, looking for signs of the shark elf.

Several minutes passed, and if Evalyn had cared about the druid she would have been worried. As it was, she turned to Jack and their captain, who was overseeing the hurried transfer of any salvageable goods left on the sinking wreckage of his old ship. Just before she suggest they give up the druid for dead, a bloody hunk of bone and muscle flopped up onto the deck and transformed back into an elf, albeit one who was missing some skin in various locations, torn by what looked to be many razor teeth.

Evalyn’s stomach lurched, but she kept everything down. “What the hell happened to you?!” she exclaimed instead.

“Piranhas,” Trev wheezed.

“Piranhas. . .” she said, not quite processing the scene before her.

“Little fish? Swarm? Love blood?” he said, groaning as he attempted to sit up. Unforn ran over to help him with his wounds.

“I know what they are, smart ass. What were they doing here?

“Trying to kill me, obviously.”

“Thought you were good with animals,” she smirked.

“They were under her command.”

“Excuses.”

“Wow, Evalyn,” Jack laughed. He hadn’t moved either, and they watched Unforn help bandage Trev as Trev scrunched his face in pained concentration. Leafy green light shimmered around him, and most of the bite wounds closed and disappeared.

“What?” she asked, unabashed.

“Nothing, nothing,” Jack responded, laughing and shaking his head.

Evalyn caught sight of the Tiefling and dwarf. They were inspecting the metal pipes, the dwarf very enthusiastic. “Do any of you know what those are?” she asked.

“I think they are called guns. They’re a relatively new invention from some country or another,” Unforn answered. “I don’t think I would want an explosion in my hands, controlled or not.”

As Evalyn decided she agreed and turned to find quarters in the new ship, mist lazily rolled over the deck and soon swallowed them whole. A chill ran down her back and dread into her heart.

The island was near.

 

Prologue (7/7): Contracts

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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.

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Prologue (6/7): The Crystal Amulet

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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.

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Prologue (5/7): Fallout

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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.”

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Prologue (4/7): Monster

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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.

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