Out of the Abyss – Thia’s Diary Entry Zero

Thia Doomseer is a wood elf ranger who lives in the forests near Neverwinter.  All her life she has been plague by visions of doom and madness that seem to emanate from the Underdark.  Over the year and with the help of friends she has become a specialist in the Underdark, helping to open this mysterious land to the surface dwellers.

Ostracised as  a child for her visions of doom and disaster she lived a relatively lonely existence until she met Morista Malkin, a dwarf scout of Gauntlgrym and member of the Emerald Enclave.  With her help Thia learned what was worthy of fear and what wasn’t in the Underdark and was able to deal with her frightening vision.  Also with Morista’s help Thia was able to make her own longbow which she called Veronda, or steadfast in elven.

The current adventure starts as a prisoner in Velkynvelve after her travelling party were attacked.

For her diary entries see:

Thia’s Diary Entry One

Thia’s Diary Entry Two

 

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Out of the Abyss – Thia’s Diary Entry Two

The character diary of our home Out of the Abyss campaign. 

For information about Thia Doomseer see Thia’s Diary Entry Zero.

It’s happened!  The horrible madness and falling dread! Doom!  The End is here? Bubbling churning darkness and madness in the form of a demon prince!

Stop!  I need to focus my thoughts.  I need to start from the beginning.

Our run from Velkynvelve was days of paranoia and exhaustion…at least for my part. Hours of running, covering and backtracking to try and put some distance between us and our drow pursers.  Our first break was at a fast moving stream where we could finally quench our thirst.

To Charlie Church the half orc cleric, I gave Stool.  With only one working hand I felt ill-equipped to keep the myconid safe.  Charlie, as usual took Stool with good humour and placed him on his shoulder, like a wizard’s companion.  They have been inseparable ever since.

As we rested and shared out the meagre equipment a ocre ooze slid silently from the stream and attacked.  With few weapons we were willing to damage on the acidic beast many of use were reduced to throwing rocks.  Once again our magic users showed their worth by creating powerful offensive effects. The fight with the ooze unfortunately drew the attention of our pursers and we were soon back running for life and freedom.

Night is when we can no longer run and have to stop to rest.  Our first night of freedom we found a small glade surrounded by mushrooms off the main path.  The grove provided both food and water and the mood of the group rose.  Sareth and I kept watch that first night as the others needed more time to rest than us.  Sareth, surprisingly, is proving himself indispensable.

Neither of us heard or saw our pursers during the rest and next day we were unsure if they were ahead or behind us.  It wasn’t until Eldeth found tracks the next morning that we were sure that the drow had got past our watch.  While following the track, Jimjar heard something and Orryn stealthed ahead to see two drow guards arguing at a fork in the tunnel.  For the first time the group felt we could take out our tormentor.  Glamdryng in particular seemed to relish the experience and for the first time I’m wondering what has happened to her to make her hate so much.

Orryn and Glamdryng stealthed up to the oblivious guards.  Before the rest of us had arrived the guards were dead on the ground, Glamdryng celebrating an instant kill on her victim.  Terrifying and impressive, I’m glad she’s on our side.  From the bodies we were able to collect rations and water skins which gave us the freedom to carry food and water with us instead of relying on what the Underdark could supply.  We also gained a supply of the drow poison that caught us all initially.  I thrill to possess such a powerful concoction and live in anticipation of a moment when I get to use it.  Glamdryng and I also gained boots.  It’s amazing how much simple things, like boots,  mean to you when you don’t have them.

We take the time to hide the bodies in a mushroom patch and cover the large puddle of blood before moving on. We left not a trace to tell our captors which way we’ve gone.

This first full day of freedom was broken by a rest at another large and varied fungus patch.  Here Ripplebark helped vary our diet, though its looks turned some off at first. I also found a rare mushroom I took for some hallucinogenic type that is popular in the communities we’ll be visiting.  I felt having something to trade could be an asset.  I must admit that Shuushar did warn me not to touch the fungus but  his lack of interest in material things blinded me to his good sense.  As I plucked the caps a puff of vile spores enveloped our whole party.  I was unaffected, but I was in the minority.  One after the other of my party members succumed to confusion.  Thankfully, most just stood still, unsure what to do.  Orryn ran back the way we had come and it was only for his shorter legs that I was able to catch up and tackle him before he ran into our drow tormentors.  It didn’t take long for the confusion to wear off,  but I was shamed and I accepted their looks of anger.  Ront in particular was seething with anger and I believed would have attacked if not for Adana.   Only Shuushar stood alone, laughing at my foolishness and the others confusion.  Fortunately, the whole event had a good outcome with Glamdryng working up a tripline trap, with one of the hand crossbows we acquired, pointed at the confusion fungus.  Carefully disguised we left it to hopeful it would slow down our pursers one way or another.

That second night Eldeth found and excellent sleeping place within a crack in the tunnel wall that opened up into a small cavern filled with fungus of various kinds including Nightlights that helped light our festivities.  We celebrated our second night of freedom and victory over our enemies with a variety of bland but edible fungus.  I even found a trillmac fungus its skin perfect for making paper and with Lamar’s help made this parchment and a new spell book for him.

Full and happy with how our escape was progressing the party rested while Sareth and I took watches.  Part way through my watch I was disturbed by the sound of earth and rocks falling and the scrabbling of hard claws.  I quickly woke the party and made them aware of the falling dirt as two gricks descended from a hole in the ceiling.  The group made quick work of the gricks and we decided to risk a fire with some tinder fungus to cook the gricks upon.  Under instructions from Charlie and Glamdryng, who seem very knowledgable about food, the gricks were cooked in the hot coals wrapped in trillmac overnight.  The next morning the meat was tough and tasteless and the most divine meal we had had in weeks.  Everyone shared in this small morsel and licked their fingers clean.

While watching the fire Charlie asked about my left hand.  He’d noticed me favouring it, but I hadn’t wanted to bother him, it was my shameful burden to bear.  With an airy smile and his laid back speech took my hand fixed the damaged ligaments and healed it straight and true.  It is stiff and will pain me in the future but right now I am so very thankful to him for giving me back my hand.  I spend the rest of my watch exercising the joint and practicing with a blade in both hands.

The third morning Jimar and Lamar came to Glamdryng and I about the twins Topsy and Turvey.  In our race to get as far away from Velkynvelve as possible we had not paid a lot of attention to the two deep gnome twins.  Deteriorating behaviour from both of them made Jimjar nervous and he wondered if the  rest of the group should be warned.  Not wanting to disturb the very high spirits in the rest of the party I demurred. I did not want the group to single out the twins for something they hadn’t yet done.  I know all too well how ostracizing that felt.  Glamdryng, Lamar and I promised to keep an eye them in the future.

That day was duly uneventful.  Shuushar found the groups sleeping place for which we were all grateful.  This night a few of the others felt they could also share in the watch, first Adana, then Orryn, who then handed off to me.  Fully rested I watched the group with a motherly affection, even Ront seemed like an impetuous child in sleep.  They are my world, all I have and hold dear, this rag tag bunch of misfits.

In this sentimental mind, I was drawn to the sounds of shuffling and whimpering from the corner Topsy and Turvey slept.  Fearful of illness I went to their sides to discover not the deep gnomes but two emerging wererats clawing out of the skins of our dear friends.  I think I screamed, the sight so disturbing. As the wererats attacked their half sleeping neighbours the rest of the group killed our two friends dead.  Horror was only manifest later when the group realised that the monsters in their midst were the dear little deep gnome twins.  Recriminations rained and our group went from a fond family to a scared and angry rabble. We buried their little bodies amongst the fungus.  The third and fourth of our group to fall into darkness.

I returned to my watch no longer blissfully sentimental but guilt ridden. Lamar worked out this must have been the first full moon since our capture.  We had known each other for less than a month.   I know the madness, and it is not this.  This is far more painful.

The fourth day of our escape started as they all had; running.  At break we found a new source of nourishment, water orbs and I celebrate at the discovery of Zurkwood, quickly finding a suitable pieces for a bow and 12 arrows.  Lamar found wood to make quills and Glamdryng found wood for a whittled flute.

Again, our pursers discovered us and we race away from our resting spot, stopping only to throw out half a bag of caltrops we’d found in the armoury. Sure enough we heard,

“Damn it!  Not after being confused!”

Victory for both our traps.

That evening we looked not for a place to rest and hide but a place of ambush.  Eldeth pointed out a stretch of tunnel ready to collapse and with help from everyone set the whole tunnel to rest upon one small rock.  When it was set, Glamdryng, Orryn and Jimjar left to hide further down the tunnel the way we had come.  Adana, Charlie and Stool, Shuushar  and Lamar also hid but up past the rockfall trap while myself, Eldeth, Ront and Sareth stood in the centre of the tunnel awaiting our enemies.  Eldeth in particular was eager to fight the foe head-on instead of sneaking and running.  I feared her gun-ho attitude but at the same time was bolstered by it.  It was like fighting alongside Marista again and gladly held my ground beside her.

First sight of our enemy was a quagoth galloping noisy down the tunnel.  As it reached the rockfall trap drow bolts appeared out of nowhere!  Two drow, suddenly revealed themselves, but we were ready!  Adana and Glamdryng took down the two drow before another also appeared from nowhere.  He was dressed as an officer, though none we recognised.  Charlie calling down his heavenly fire killing the quagoth and, with my new repaired limb, I dispatched the officer and for the first time I really felt free.  We quickly collected their equipment and moved their bodies to be buried by the collapsing tunnel.  Here we once again rested and took stock.  Our enemy locked behind us, the Underdark was now ours to explore.

That night, though we all went to our rest feeling safer than we had in weeks, my visions came to me more vibrant and disturbing than ever.  Even after I woke and paced our makeshift camp, the images haunted me.  What does this mean?  My visions have been a constant in my life, marked me out and divined my purpose.  Now on the doorstep to reclaiming our lives they change to make me quake even in the waking world? I can not tell the others, how can I?  We  are all haunted by vision and dreams, it is what binds us beyond our desire for freedom. To say my visions have changed would be dismissed as the usual disturbances filtered through my less than reliable mind or even worse; taken as an ill omen.

Travel from then on was mostly uneventful with our pursers gone and the Underdark providing little in variety.  Orryn at one of our stops did find some tongue fungus and was encouraged to eat it by Shuushar.  Before I could stop him the gnome gobbled the whole thing.  Suddenly he felt a compulsion to say whatever came to his mind as loudly as possible, but his hearty constitution and good wits kept the impulse in check.

On the eighth day of our freedom we saw a group of humanoids waiting on the road.  Shuushar recognised them as his people but was unwilling to speak to them on behalf of the party.  Not that it mattered, as soon as the leader saw us he sent eight kuatoa warriors to attack without provocation.

“Things may have changed since I was last here.”  Shuushar admitted.

The fighting was brutal and deadly on both sides.  Sareth, our steadfast drow that most of us distrusted at the start, was brought down under a spear to his throat.   All our group fell onto the murderous kuatoa, even little Stool lept off Charlie’s shoulder launching himself into the face of a warrior.  Charlie delivered a killing blow with his divine magic as Lamar did the same with his arcane.  When it was over the kuatoa lay dead alongside Sareth.  We buried him as has become our custom, among the fungus, the fifth of our group to fall into darkness.

Just outside the township Sloobludop another party of kuatoa waited, lead by the chief.  These did not attack on sight and when we asked for aid they said they would gladly help us if in return we helped them.  A cult to the Deep Father (a rival to their cherished Sea Mother) had been raised by the chief’s daughter Blopp.  The new cult demanded humanoid sacrifices.  To get close to his daughter the chief wanted to use us as good-will bait.  Though highly skeptical at first when we could keep our items with us, we agreed to the deal.

With no little ceremony we were paraded through town to the chief’s own hut.  We got a good view of the town including floating docks filled with canoes of various sizes. We also passed a shrine to the Sea Mother of scavenging, its smell of putrefying crab made me vomit.  This was not, as first thought, seen negatively.  In response to my poor constitution the group received a few nods of respect and indeed a number of locals followed in my ‘good’ example.

In the hut, the chief and his son, argued about our involvement. Glamdryng  was vocal in her defence of the chief, suggesting the son, “Drop a pair of clams and stand up to your sister.”  Shuushar informed us this was the way of his people, their insane bickering was the reason he had left and wandered alone through the Underdark.  Indeed, so use to Shuushar’s calm wisdom, the irrationality of his people was ridiculous.

As we waited, I sat and worked on my bow, refining its a shape and working some gut cord into a working bowstring.  Though as insane as the kuatoa may be, this was not the madness I feared and I was content to wait.

Eventually, we were summoned to stand before the Deep Father’s shrine and its priestess, Blopp. The shrine a stinking pile of seafood was covered and oozed with the blood of its victims. The chief had told us to wait for his sign, but what that sign would be was unclear. When he suddenly leapt up and and attacked his daughter the rest of the party also sprung into action.

“Is that the sign?” I heard myself saying before grabbing the spear from my guard behind me and throwing it at the priestess.

The battle on the land spread to the water as the believers of the old god warred with those of the new usurper.  The second to the priestess snipped off his own hand with his pincered staff while Charlie roared above the chaos, “If in doubt; give him a clout!”  brandishing his rust iron bar salvaged from the fort.  The blood ran into the water forming slicks that drew dozens of demon rays to feast on the living and the dead.  Many launched themselves into the crowd assembled and panic ensued.

Suddenly with a cry indecipherable, the priestess collapsed at her father’s feet.

“Lemagugan!”

What happened next I have only vague and disturbing memories.  I had to piece together the following from what the others have told me later.

The dark lake bubbled sending up a green bioluminescence that looks ghastly in the darkness.  The water erupted and a gargantuan body with tentacles for arms emerged. Atop, two baboon heads one looking down malevolently on the township of Sloobludop the other raging madly into the darkness round it. Demogorgon, the demon prince was in the Underdark and wading towards shore.  To look upon him was to go mad, at least for some of us.  Jimjar and Adana fell unconscious the weight of his mad aura too much to bear.  Ront went mad and started eating the shrine of the Deep Father, a stomach churning sight I’m glad I did not witness.  Stool and myself saw visions of disaster, chaos and felt the mad gloating mind of demogorgon first hand. I am told that I just stood there helpless and oblivious to all danger.  If Glamdryng had not dragged me away I know I would have stood there to my death by Demogorgon.

The rest of the party kept their sanity.  Our time in Sloobludop was over and it was time to grab what we could and run for the boats. Eldeth tried to reason with the deranged Ront, but he would not leave his feast.  Sometime in the chaos Shuushar had disappeared into the crowd.  We do not know their fate, but as the group watched Demogorgon destroy Sloobludop there was little chance of them escaping alive.  The sixth and seventh of our group to fall into darkness.

The party found one large canoe and bundled everyone aboard.  Travelling south along the shore of the Dark Lake they left devastation and death behind them.  I, like the others affected awoke in the canoe to the gentle slap of the oars in the water and the low talk of my compatriots.  Unlike the others I felt numb and couldn’t respond when spoken to.  Even now I catch myself blanking out  for moments at a time as the images flash back to me.  The doom is here and abyss is amongst us, but what does that mean? We still live?  Does that mean we have any chance?  A chance of stopping Demogorgon and his minions from taking over the Underdark and eventually the surface world? Even scarier, were we brought together by other forces for just this reason?  These thoughts are too big for me.  I can not comprehend.

To be continued…

Out of the Abyss – Thia’s Diary Entry One

The character diary of our home Out of the Abyss campaign. 

For information about Thia Doomseer see Thia’s Diary Entry Zero.

I’ve lost Veronda and all my equipment, but I’m alive and the doom has not arrived, yet.  I use these fungus skins as parchment and hope they will hold this story until we can reach civilisation at Blingdenstone.

I awoke (an unusual and visionless experience for me I think I want to replicate) to a living hell, a prisoner of the drow, all my travelling companions gone.  Instead I was surrounded by a motley collection of humanoids.

The first great miracle of this incarceration is that we can all speak telepathically through a tiny myconid called Stool.  This form of communication has a twofold advantage, allowing all of us to speak in one language without confusion, and in silence so the guards have no idea.

The second miracle, away from the safety and trivial fears of civilisation, we are all accepted, being part of this wretched community of misfits…all except the drow who even his own people despise enough to make a slave.

The third miracle (though I’m sure the others don’t think so) is that we all have visions, what they call dreams in their sleep.  I am not alone in the feeling of doom and I find comfort in giving comfort to those who wake screaming.

Slavery is wretched and degrading but for me at least, it may have be the best things that’s happened to me.  I keep my mind busy concocting plans while our bodies are busy with the disgusting and menial tasks that the drow of Velkynvelve (a small slave outpost it seems), won’t do themselves.  I know some of the others do as well, and we talk at night through Stool’s telepathic spores.

I list my companions here:

Charlie Church, a half Orc cleric of Anubis,  with an unusually relaxed disposition

Orryn, a gnome of a nefarious sort

Lamar Denton, a librarian whose hardly ever left his library, what is he doing down here?

Adana, a quiet and self assured human whose fists are strong and calloused, I fear getting on her bad side

Glamdrying, a showy half elf whose hatred of the drow is tangible, again what is she doing down here?

Pipedo, I would say an odd derro as he thinks himself a god, but aren’t they all?

Eldeth, a shield dwarf from Gauntlgrym, she trained under Morista, and we quickly became friends

Stool, mentioned previously and the glue that keeps us together.  I have vowed to him that I will everything in my power to see him home to Neverlight Grove

Prince Deredill, odd fellow, a Quagoth like many of the guards that watch us, but he believes himself a cursed elf.  He speaks better elven with and aristocratic accent so at the moment who am I to argue

Jimjar, a deep gnome who knows the way to Blingdenstone from where we are, many seem keen to take him up on that plan

Ront, a full Orc and dumb as an ox but devoted to the cause of escape

Sareth, the drow

Topsy and Turvy, twin deep gnomes

Several of us can speak undercommon though we haven’t given away this fact as we listen in to the guards while we work.  It seems that Jorlan, an ugly scarred junior officer, use to be Commander Ilvara’s favourite until he was hurt. She’s now replaced him with Shoor, a nasty brute as  her second and in her bedchamber.   As much as I dislike our captors, that sort of behaviour seems despicable even for them.  Jorlan does walk arounds like a wounded beast.   We silently wonder how we can use Jorlan’s disaffection for our advantage.

The quagoth’s could be another chance of escape.  Like us they are slaves, though they do seem happy in their lot.  Maybe a little disaffection amongst their ranks?  I am not good at these machinations, I can’t see into the minds of humanoids like others I’ve known.

Our group has been very resourceful, some have found weapons, shards of flint or pottery, even a few rusty bars.  Glamdrying was the most enterprising lifting a key from a guard as her group were returning from work detail.  A little distraction on my part and the key was secured.  Orryn was also instrumental but in another way.  With his loud mouth he cursed the guards and secured for the group a sleep dart that Glamdrying has been using  to lockpick our manacles (unfortunately the key did not open those).

Fourth miracle?  Jorlan has come to the door of our cell and said that if we want escape he will make sure the door is left open next shift change, two hours away.  We must work quickly to get as many of us free of our manacles as possible in that short time.  I hope he is truthful.  It would make sense that he would want to make trouble for Shoor and Ilvara, but could it also be an attempt to reingratiate himself, foiling a slave escape?

We  succeeded! I will quickly relay the activities of our escape as this is but a short rest, we expect we are still being hunted.

Jorlan kept his word and our door was unlocked.  We had succeeded in opening the manacles of all but two of our group, Topsy and Turvey who broke the lockpick in their attempts.  The two stealthiest, Glamdrying and Orryn went first, and surprised the guards watching our cell first with a spell that made them more clumsy and susceptible to attack and then in with sharpened pottery shards.  I was able to affect an attack on the elite guard before making my way around the group to the armoury, a room above the guards.  Eldeth and Adana had at the guards and the tiny guard room was full of murderous bodies.

Suddenly, our quiet escape plans were thrown into disarray as a number of flying creatures (someone said demons) attacked the outpost and the general alarm was sounded.  Now the whole outpost was aware of our escape.

Prince Deredill bravely held back the quagoth guards as they swarmed out of their barracks as I and Adana started throwing arms and armour down into the spiders webs that hung all around outpost, these would cushion our fall to the ground.  Glamdrying, Orryn  and to my surprise the Librarian dispatched the guards before more guards and quagoth that had climbed the wall to get around Deredill attacked.  Many of our group just lept down to the webs, Ront carrying Topsy, Turvey and Stool were a few, while Adana and I locked ourselves in the armoury so to have more time looking for useful items.  I did not find my Veronda there (my heart breaks), just drow hand crossbows and short swords.

Fireballs and a gently falling spell from the ever surprising Lamar Denton saved much of the group a harsh landing in the pool and dispatched a number of our enemies.  Lamar was even able to disable a basket lift with three well aimed fireballs.  I look now at my fellow former captives with pride and admiration, I feel truly blessed to find myself in such company.

Once the quagoth presence was too strong, they having crawled their way over the guard station to the armoury, I and Adana lept into the web, the last to escape the Outpost itself.

Below many had made it to the pool that formed at the bottom of a waterfall.  Once again Prince Deredill was proving his mettle by holding back giant spiders while the rest of the group pulled themselves free of the sticky cords and dropped down into the water.  Poor Stool, weak and slow had been left behind.  As Eldeth dropped the last of our equipment down to the pool I’m afraid the derro, believing unwisely in his divine destiny fell, hitting Charlie and died, the first of us to pass.  Unfortunately, Eldeth she leapt after him and caught him and not the water in her landing.  Though our brave group rescued her from a drowning death this only cemented my determination to see no more fall if it be in my power.  I strode the web avoiding spiders and reached Stool.  The spiders were relentless and out path to the edge of the web was blocked.  Now armed with two short swords, I looked, found and cut a cord of the web that I felt we could swing us down and away from the web and to the ground. With good luck and elven grace we succeeded and joined the party on the ground.

At this time, Prince Deredill, could not make it to the edge of the web and into the pool surrounded by spiders as he was.  Instead of being taken by the spiders and drow he took his own life on the web.  A sad and pointless death but at least he was free in his heart.  The second of our group has fallen.

Lamar Denton having taken out the lift, the drow guards were now forced to  following our path of escape and it was time to leave.  With Stool firmly placed on my head, a leather armour acquired and sword at the ready we rallied the group and headed to the northern passage, one noted by Jim Jar as his prefered passage of escape.

Just as we were reached the mouth of the passage out of cave where the outpost hung, one of the large flying demon creatures fell from the air and into our path.  At that moment, I felt a malevolent presence trying to stop our escape as my visions came unbidden to me.  Unwisely I lept out at the demon short sword swinging, overshot and cut myself deeply in the left arm.  Though I healed it on the spot my left hand does not work as it should, I need to consult Charlie to see what can be done.  I fear for myself and our little group if I remained so crippled.

And that is where we are now, running for our lives.  This short rest will have to do for sometime as I fear our captors will not give up on us easily.

To be continued….

Anlulyrr to Aela: a touch of the fey

1487DR:  The Spore Season

This is the hardest season to bear. The fungus forests are ripe with spores and the air is heavy with them.  It hangs like a fog throughout the cavern.  Still, it does give me an excuse to stay inside and study.

At my initiation at the temple, the priestess offered my arcane service  to Lolth and the Lady responded!  As the brass band of service slipped onto my finger she gave me a vision of the surface. Streams of bright blinding light like threads of spider web fall through green canopies.  A smell and sound of life all around me, a breeze so cool and fresh in my face that it made me breath deep and my eyes water. Beyond, a collection of creatures unknown in the Underdark.  Two and four-legged monsters, half human and half beast, tiny humanoids with wings and other with skin the colour and texture of the vegetation around me.  The ‘other’ elves walk amongst them, careless and unthinking, completely oblivious to any danger.  A land of piercing light and shocking alive air ready for the taking.

“This you will conquer in my name.”  Said a voice that could have only been Our Lady.  I bow low and weep even now as I write out her words.  “This you will conquer in my name.”

“I promise…I promise.”

After my vision cleared and I found myself once more in the temple I watched the other initiates gathering around, talking to each other about inconsequential, exams, the next testing and latest assignments.  I sat alone, numb from the vision and my Lady’s words.  I have a purpose far beyond exams and trivial assignments, I have a vision of the future and I will see it fulfilled it if kills me.  The others are ants scuttling around doing tasks that will only need redoing tomorrow.  My goal will last the ages!

 

1488DR:  Study of the Fey

 

It has been too long since I last wrote.  It seems every moment is precious right now and I don’t often think to sit back and look and what I’ve achieved so far in the service of Lolth.  It took me a long while, sitting at the firesides of those who have been to the surface and scouring the library for reference to what I saw in my vision.  Though the location, in a forest, is fairly wide-spread on the surface, the creatures are not.  It was in a tome that detailed the experiences of a sorcerer from House Ousstyl who was an experienced planeshifter.  In one chapter she noted the plane of the Feywilde and the inhabitants therein.  Seeing no real potential as slaves in the Feywilde creatures and they being completely uncooperative into the nature of their magic, her summary was not favourable and did not encourage more exploration.

So it is to me to discover the true power of the Feywilde.  Discover it and take control of it in the name of Lolth.

 

 

1488DR:  My foolish enterprise

I need a moment to calm myself, a small space where I can vent and then move on, the symbol of calm assurance. Lolth be my witness that life in the arcane as a female has been my burden to bear alone.  I gladly gave up my comfort and female privilege to pursue her path.  But something can not be borne forever.

The Chancellor, the head of all mages, is an insufferably smug male. He caught wind of my research and proclaimed that study of the Fey was a childish pastime, obviously driven by the fickle whims of a female mind.  Of course the faculty all laughed along with him; he has them all in his pocket, weakling sycophants every one of them.  If I even mentioned that my studies are a result of a vision they would start making comments about how silver my hair looks in the glow-worm light hinting at a growing madness.

On my finger Lolth ring of service sits heavily, a reminder of vision and vow I have made to Lolth herself.  My fist clenches around the ring and the metal bites my flesh.

I’ll give them mad, they don’t know the meaning of the chaos that is Fey.  Fortunately they are all unaware of how advanced my studies are.  I have the power to summon a pixie, a small humanoid species from the Feywilde, and for it to obey my will.  With its unique magics and my own I will have my revenge and maybe some peace to do my work.

 

1488 DR: The way becomes clear

 

I have to be careful not to walk into the library with a big stupid grin on my face.  Only in the privacy of my own rooms and in this journal can I reveal my complete and utter joy at the ruin of that bombastic male fool.  Who was he to say that the ways of Lolth are childish nonsense?  Who has been proven the drooling fool now?

But I get ahead of myself.  I must start at the beginning and work through this step by step.

It did not start well.  Once again the Chancellor was speaking on his favourite subject to his group of ‘yes’ men.
“Their minds are built to see the unseeable , not delve into facts and logical argument.  They grasp hold of dogma and hold it up as if it were reality, while we struggle to see truth and still test it again and again against what we see, what we hear, what we touch.  Take for example the study of Fey.  What nonsense to use reasoning on fairy tales! Of what sense does it make?”

Normally I hold my head up as my mother and aunts taught me.  ‘The taunts of men are weak words with no substance.’  But I had made a breakthrough after sleepless nights and knew how a passage to Fey could be established. My resistance to his jibes was low and at the same time my own self belief at the highest it has ever been.  Before I knew it, I was staring the Chancellor down, roaring a tyriad of religious fervour into his puckered little face.

“That’s all you men have, grubbing around in the dirt for your facts and holding them to the light like diamonds.  When the voice of Lolth awakens you to a vision of a future where you play a key part, you do whatever it takes to make it a reality, even putting up with the small minds of men.  Lolth’s vision for the Feywilde is far too large and complex for a mundane mind like yours to grasp.  Our path to the surface lies through the forests of the Fey and their innately magical inhabitants.  Anyone who dare stand in the way of Lolth will be destroyed.

I didn’t stay thinking they’d snicker and produce the expected accusations of madness.  Instead, as I walked away I heard nothing and remembered that men fear nothing worse than a woman’s righteous scorn.  Reminds them of their mothers perhaps?  I knew then that now was the time to strike, but subtly.

That night I summoned the pixie and sent it to the Chancellor’s chambers.  Pixie’s are naturally invisible, small and fast.  She slipped through his magical defences and whispered of the horrors that the Fey would inflict on him while he slept. The next day the pixie would allow itself to be seen, but only by him and often when there were others around.  This cycle continued for days, broken restless sleep punctuated by dreams and days of hallucinations both visual and auditory. The Chancellor at first dismissed it as fantasy brought on by stress and my rude behaviour.  As his supporters started talking about his health and fitness to lead, he then tried catching the pixie.  This only resulted in him flapping and jumping  hopelessly around the city, shedding more supporters and looking a fool in the eyes of everyone who saw him.  I would have laughed out loud but that would have given me up.  I stayed to my rooms or the library and fain ignorance of what was going on outside their walls.

By this time he was hopelessly sleep deprived and completely alone.  He was facing the council of  the ruling families for his recent conduct in public and was desperate.  He came to me in the quiet of the library demanding to know what I had done to him.  I had done nothing to him, I had witnesses that would testify that I rarely left my quarters or at least would report I was no in the vicinity of the Chancellor when he had his ‘turns’.  He then begged me to release him from his nightmare.

“It is not I that you offended but Lolth herself.  It is her plans for the Fey you mocked, her schemes to reclaim the surface you belittled and tried thwarting.  It is to Lolth you must now go in repentance for surely it is the Lady of Chaos that haunts you, not I.”

He  didn’t question my words but went straight to the temple. I, leaving a simulacrum I had created for this purpose, followed silently.  My summoned pixie sitting on my shoulder and providing me with it’s invisibility I moved as quietly as possible, a small cage hidden within my robes.  I had to be careful of detection, not from the distracted chancellor, but from others walking the streets.  On more than one occasion my invisible presence was detected when others tried to move through the space I was hidden in.  I found that an aura of fear was useful as it kept some from investigating and others from even drawing near.  In this way, an invisible cloud of malevolence, I followed the Chancellor into the temple.

With little ceremony  or decorum he threw himself down at the feet of the statue of Lolth herself at almost the same place I received my rapture.  He wept piteously into the dark flagstones of the empty hall, his supplications and entreaties echoing back as desperate gibberish.  This was my chance to strike, my chance to revenge myself and Lolth on this stupid man.

Using  the nightmares of the Fey and Lolth’s anger I had planted as a conduit into his mind, my magic swept through sending wave after wave of psychic force through him.  He writhed and convulsed on the floor at Lolth’s feet, a worm exposed to the heat and light.  When his jittering faltered and finally stilled I released my concentration on the spell and drew out the small cage I had carried.  Inside was one of Lolth’s beloved, a spider that I tapped out onto the Chancellor’s shoulder to crawl into the folds of his clothes.  I had no guarantee that the spider would be found, but if it was it would reinforce the image of Lolth’s righteous judgment.  I quickly returned to my quarters having been gone less than an hour and destroyed the copy of my self and dismissed forever the pixie.  This is now the only true record of the event.  I will keep it close always, the shape of it against my person a reminder of what happens to those who will not believe.

I did not come out of my rooms straight away but allowed the news of the Chancellor’s death to travel through the other mages who eventually sought me out.  Some out of genuine fear for their lives, hoping to escape the Chancellor’s fate.  Some out of curiosity, subtly asking question to determine how I had pulled off the assassination of my enemy, assassination being a regular political practice, but only if you can get away with it.  These went away empty-handed, or at least without the information they had sought.

 

Everyone who came to me became my apostle, and every one of them left with Lolth’s plans for the Fey ringing in their ears.

 

1489 DR:  The frustration that is nature of Drow

 

 

What should be my triumph is turning into a twisted nightmare.  At one time I couldn’t speak of Lolth’s vision for fear of being branded insane, now I can’t move for people claiming to have had a vision of the Feywilde and drawing power and influence to them.  Power and influence that should be mine!

They know nothing of the Fey, it’s inhabitants or how to open a portal there, and yet, with clever words and handsome features they move whole families to support them as leader of such an expedition.  I know of three who only last year would have scorned to see me, now use my own words (though I barely recognise them) to support their cause.  Did I do all that scheming, summoning and even murder so that those yes men could would glory?

I’ve been going through my notes and seeking out every book I used on travelling to other planes.  Though I must admit it hurt to do it, I torn out any pages that even mentioned the Feywilde and burnt them.  The smoke in the archive shelving was such as one stage that I feared that someone would notice.  Now the only records are mine and those I will be taking with me.

 

Tonight I will create the portal and step through to the Feywilde.  From there I will let Lolth and my destiny guide.  After my domination of the Fey is established I will return and show those bags of wind on whom Lolth’s blessing rests.

I fear I sound foolish and unprepared even to my own ears.  I am not blind to the dangers of the Fey.  But I am drow and have a resistance born in my blood to the charms of that world.  I have studied well the creatures and know who I can dominate and who to avoid.  Alone I can not hope to take on the Fey Lords?  They will have to wait until I have an army of drow in my charge.  But returning riding one of the Great Elk that even in drow mythology hold the symbol of prophesy, with a retinue of Feywilde folk dominated and ready for examination by the Houses.  Surely then, they will take me seriously.

Preparations have been made and all is well.  My next entry will be from the Feywilde as a am determined not to miss a moment of what is to come.

 

1489 DR:  The Feywilde

 

Even before I stepped out of the portal my eyes were tearing from the white brilliance of the light.  I quickly pulled my hood up and held it in place against my hair with one of my hair pins.  After the subtle shades of blue, grey and black of the Underdark the colours of this world were so intense that they made my head spin and I sat for moments uncounted on soft green plant that covered the ground everywhere.  Even the white page of this journal that under fungus light is a pale blue or cream is a brilliant white and burns my eyes to look at it.  I write much of this now with my eyes closed or at night when I can see with more comfort.

Night I was not ready for.  In the Underdark the times of day and even seasons are almost indistinguishable.  Caverns are at a constant temperature unless acted on by water or magma.  Even light levels are almost the same only differentiating by the numbers and kinds of luminous fungus inhabited the area.  Night in the Feywilde was a whole different experience, in some ways easier and in others surprising.  Night does not mean darkness.

On my first night the sky was filled with an orb of white light only slightly less painful than the ball of fire called the Sun.  This orb was not alone as the whole sky seemed to be a battle field of debris all sparkling like so many millions of camp fires.  You would imagine that the velvet darkness of night would be more comfortable, but to go with the loss of the large fire that rules the day, the warmth also fled leaving me shivering with cold.  I found the mulch of dead plant matter kept some of the day’s warmth and found refuge under pile of leaves.

 

It is also in the darkness that  predators hunt and find their prey.  I am not ignorant of the dangers of the Underdark, in fact their presence in my mind, large and brutal as many are, made any threat in the Feywilde seem soft and gentle.  But a brown bear in the flesh is as an imposing beast as a hooked horror or umberhulk when one is alone.  That my wits stayed with me long enough to hit it with a short sharp magic missile from my leafy hiding place and that the beast was not all that hungry,  is a small miracle I thank Lolth gratefully for.

 

 

Entries lost:  Lost torn pages, damaged beyond reading.

 

 

 

I have now spent many weeks in the Feywilde learning its ways first hand.  I believed I arrived in a gentle season, with the burning sun high overhead and many foods available for the picking.  As I write these entries though I can feel the temperature cooling, the sun not rising quite so high or staying quite so long.  The animals and plants are also responding.  Animals are storing up food (a boon for me as food supplies are becoming scarcer) and their colours are changing, their coats becoming thicker.   I see more and more sky each day as the canopy of leaves dissolves from green to gold, red and brown finally falling altogether.  I fear my time in this plane is quickly running out and I will have to return to the Underdark.

But as yet I have nothing to show for all my great plans.  I live off the occasional small lives I can take and the foods they set aside for themselves.  Larger prey is beyond my skill to take or far too dangerous to confront.  The glimpses of the Great Elk I hoped to ride back into the Underdark are all too rare and fleeting as are sightings of the Fey creatures that lured me to this place.  Though their magic is powerful, they are by nature shy creatures and move too fast for me to either charm or kill.  I need a breakthrough, a leap in knowledge if I’m to survive the coming and my mission.

 

1489 DR?

I was sleeping, as has been my habit, in a nest of dried grass and leaves inside the hollow of a large oak tree.  I had been watching the canopy of this tree for more than a week as it was much taller than other trees in the forest and was still green in a sea of russets.

When I reached it, I noted it as a seat of power instantly.  Lines of power seemed to find their source here, in a small glade surrounding the giant tree.  Though its leaves are green, acorns abound either in their shade or up in the boughs.  Here also a small spring arises providing fresh water (another scarcity I hadn’t counted in in a land where water falls from the sky) and somehow the air even feels warmer here.

And so for the past two nights and days this glade and tree have been my base of operations.  I ate greedily of the acorns and enjoyed the sweet freshness of the spring, building my nest in the relative shelter of the tree.  I had more luck with the fey creatures in this glade and was able to charm a number of them to bring me food and other comforts as well as information about their communities and numbers.  This tree and glade had become by breakthrough find.

I was first awoken by something lightly brushing my cheek.  I wiped my face, found nothing and ignored the sensation. Then I heard the flutter of wings, so close I could feel wind off them, could smell their dusty musk.  I sat up and looked out into the dark, my drow vision proving to be better than many others here on the surface at night.

Nothing, just the constant movement and sounds of nature around me.  I was almost resigned to returning to my sleep when a question entered my head

Who are you?

It seemed so naturally mine and yet not from me that I don’t hesitate at first to reply.

“Anlulyrr of House Duskryn, a drow of the Underdark and mage.”

This is not your world,  the questioning voice in my mind said gently, what do you seek here?

“Lolth’s favour, power and influence, no more than other drow.” I speak guardedly unsure of what was occurring.

Lolth and her creatures will find nothing of interest here, the voice said gently the words I had been saying to myself for days, you should go back to the Underdark in the comfort of the darkness you understand.

“But I can’t!  This is my personal mission from Lolth herself, to take the Feywilde and subdue it in her name.  To create a bridge through which drow can finally emerge and take their rightful place on the surface.”

At this the voice has gone silent and I quickly pulled out my notebook to write down these few notes.

Come forth and see us plain.

I crawl out of the hole in the tree, the boughs of the ancient oak held low covering my hiding space.  As I look up to stand I see hundreds of creatures, furred, feathered, bark skinned and even completely naked all sitting or standing in the bough of the oaktree.  I stay seated on the ground and write.  As I watch their attention goes from me to a central creature, a small draconic with brightly coloured insect wings.  Its face is twisted up so all its teeth show in what I have seen in some animals as fear, but in others friendship.  It is clear now the voice come from this creature though it does not speak aloud.

Do you still wish to do this thing in the spider queens name?

I look at the group of creatures as I write and note each type and species.  I can see that what Lolth demands would destroy many of these fragile creatures tied so closely to this land.  And yet, I am a creature of Lolth, my words and deeds confirm it.

“I am only her servant to use all my skill and power to see her will done.”

And if you did not know her will?

I don’t know what to make of this question.  I have my memories, these notes, the training I have put myself through in her name.  I know this to be a Lord of the Fey, one named Nathair Sgiathach, an intelligent being whose sole purpose in the myths is to make other look foolish.  I choose my words carefully.

“Her will is my birth, my heritage and future.  Her will is my purpose, Lord how can undo what I am?”

Nathair Sgiathach rustles his large colourful wings and all the other beings, creature and humanoid dissolve into the night.  I sit writing this as he stares back at me, into me as if reading these pages in my mind.

He leaps out of the tree and lands lightly on the ground in front of me and looks at my ink stained hands, the ring on my right hand.

There is a way.  With it you will be my creature and I will protect you always as I protect this forest.  Do you accept?

The grin on his dragon face disturbs me more than does his proposal.

“And if I don’t accept your proposal?”

You are too dangerous to let go.  Drow sometimes come here, they see what they expect to and go away no wiser.  You see what is and will still do this thing?  The madness of the Spider Queen will profit no one.

I can’t barely believe I write these words ,but I know them to be true.  The Fey is no place for drow and the drow would only destroy out of ignorance and arrogance the Fey.  So, it comes down to death or what…slavery?

Your words…  Nathair Sgiathach scoff’s his smile undiminished,  The Fey do not know slavery, we have no need.  We have love, that is what I will give you…

Love?  Another form of slavery commonly spoken about by the surface dwellers.

Nathair Sgiathach laugh and this time out loud so the whole glade rings with it.

You drow are all upside down. Maybe I will turn you right way around for a while and then you can come back to me and we can talk about love.

The dragon leaps…

 

 

 

master says to write, words written are important to me but words are hard

i wake

the light hurts my eyes and master is sitting on me

looking at me

 

he says I am his and he kisses my head and the metal ring on my finger

he give me

light inside

 

he says go out and help and love as he love me

this  I  will  do I promise  I promise

 

he says he will come to me when i am ready

he will keep words written safe

to look out for him

 

when ready  i ask

 

master says we

he and i

will know

Birch of Numenera

Birch:  then and now

Then…

The dappled green light filtering through the leaves of the last tree of the Westwood near Harmuth, warming Birchion’s lean sun-tanned skin.  This was what life was for, the simple enjoyment.  No amount of study or drills or cypher containing hidden powers were worth one perfect day and a pretty girl lying beside you all drowsy and obliging.

Birchion’s attention was caught by movement in the branches. His pale blue eyes lit upon a dark figure all shimmering iridescence.  Though the Earth was very old and life had changed radically even in the billion years of human existence, some forms were perfect and survived the ages.  The white eyed bird above spying  the last of the picnic lunch was such a one.  Birchion had seen wall paintings while on a school excursion reporting to be from the fifth or even fourth world that looked just like this quick-witted beast.  Birchion searched his sun-addled mind for the name of the bird.  The bird was faster and supplied it before his memory could reply.

‘Crooow’ It cawed as if urging him to share his riches, ‘Augh, Cro-oooow!’

Birchion’s flicked a lazy wrist and the last crust of bread sailed up into the branches startling the crow that leaped off its branch in surprise.  Seconds later its long sharp break held the tasty morsel tight and the bird found another branch to eat its feast.  Other unseen eyes saw the transaction and now flocked for their share, filling the branches with their black iridescence and noise.

‘Who’d have thought that it would be your generosity that would kill you in the end.’ Smiled a sleepy voice beside him.  Cara rolled into Birchion’s outstretched arm.  He curled it around her bare shoulders possessively.

‘Me? I’m very giving of myself…’ Birchion started,

‘Hmm, yes ask all the pretty young girls in town.’  Cara interrupted tweaking an exposed nipple and making him squeal.  Birchion grabbed Cara tightly and she squirmed against him.

‘Well here’s one of the young ladies now, should we ask her opinion?’  He let his long graceful fingers drift gently over Cara’s warm skin raising goosebumps and making her shiver even in the heat of the sun.

“Hmmm, he’s very beautiful like the rich and vain want to be.  And his body…” her fingers walked down his chest and torso making him laugh and her hand jiggle, “…is fast and athletic making him the best unaugmented glaive to come out of the academy in a decades.  It also allows him to do some most amazing things…” Her hand walked further down and he slapped it away playfully.

“Anything else?”

Cara smiled, “You love to be loved and when a girl is in your arms they feel like a goddess…and then…” Her smile became wistful, “…and then she realises that you only love one person…and it’s not her.”  And then her smile returned and she looked into his pale blue eyes, so like the bird’s above, “But you are so very beautiful and if a girl doesn’t expect too much she can dream you are hers, at least for one sunny day.”

“Cara, “ Birchion brushed Cara’s loose dark curls away from her face, “You are the most sensible woman I have ever met.”  He was surprise when her smile disappeared.  She sat up and started looking for her clothes.

“I’m a deluded fool, Birch.” she said as she found and pulled on a blouse and leather jerkin.  She flicked her long hair out over her clothes and tied it back severely in a long braid pinned into a bun.

Birchion was stunned.  He had just given this lovely young woman the best compliment he knew how to give and she was acting like he’d insulted her.  He sat up to take her back into his arms, but she was already standing  slipping first one lean leg into her leather breeches, and then the other, deftly tying the leather thong that kept them on.

“Cara, I don’t understand…”

“Yes, “ she sighed interrupting, “…and that’s the problem.”  Cara plucked two boot from the pile of clothing left strewn around the picnic blanket, discovered they were both left boots and rummaged around for her right.

“You’re angry with me!”  He replied indignantly as his caught his own thrown boot.
“Yes…no, not really.”  Cara’s lineless face scrunched up in frustration in a way that Birch found endearing.  He wanted her warm soft body back in his arms again, but the hard military shell of Cara Surehold, Glaive and Senior Cadet of the Navarene Armed Forces was going on with each piece of clothing.  With her white scarf knotted tightly around her neck, Cara the professional killer was complete.  She looked down and the still naked Bichion with something akin to pity.  “Birch, we’re mates aren’t we…I mean friends.  We look out for each other?”

Birchion was going to protest, of course they were.  They’d gone through basic together, the first years at the academy side by side, survived the troubles of Harmuth, their first posting, together.  Instead some part of him thought it may be better to hold his tongue.  He nodded emphatically instead.

“I say this with love.  You go through life like a blind man, oblivious to the effect you have on the world.  Open your eyes and look around.  Life isn’t always as simple as your life has made it out to be. ”  Cara turned away and started packing up the picnic.

The flock of crows launched from the last tree of the Westwood heading towards Harmuth.  The lead bird still holding onto its precious crust, the other following in hopes of snatching away its prize.

Now…

Birchion awoke to darkness and pain and the quiet bustle of many people moving around saying very little, the beep of machines and the antiseptic smell of burnt sage, rosemary and lavender.  His disembodied hands brushed gauze covering his face and something else.

“Don’t pick at it, Avera.  Didn’t your mother never tell you that?  Maybe your nanny?”   Cara’s voice bullied from somewhere nearby, “It’s fine.  The doctor’s just been, he thinks you’re doing well.”

“Wh-ere?”  Birchion croaked and a cool strong hand took his and handed him a cup.  Another hand helped him sit up while he drank and removed the cup when he’d finished.

“You are in a hospice, in Harmuth.”  Whispered a male voice that matched the hands, cool and strong, “Your body heals.  Be at peace.”

“Like I said.  You may not be as pretty, but scars will give you character.” Cara commented and Birchion could hear the smile in her voice.

Birchion swallowed and found his throat loosen a little, “What happened?”

“Your mind was injured when you fell.  Give it time and you will remember.”  The cool voice responded.

“You really don’t remember? You must have hit the cobbles harder than I thought.”  Cara chided

“I remember Deveron. And then the flash…”  Birchion went to rub his temple.  The cool hand gently pulled his hand away and placed it under the bed covers.

“You should rest.  Memories will come.  Best to be fully rested when they do.”

“What he said, I’ll see you later.”  Cara whispered and was gone.

Then…

Harmuth, the western most city of the Kingdom of Navarene and northern most of The Steadfast.

Or, as Birchion thought, the arse end of civilisation.

As a latest cadets out of training in the capital, Birch and his year mates had no choice in their first assignment.  But two weeks hard travel away from all he’d ever known was not Birchion’s idea of a choice posting.  He scowled at the provincial bustle around him.

The port city of Harmuth was also the most northerly of all the cities of the Steadfast, the last link with civilisation before the Cloudcrystal Skyfields and the Beyond.  Of course, this also made it an important trading and resupply stopover for anyone braving the risks of the wilds for a chance at rare numenera rewards.  This attracted an eclectic group of people who believed that their futures lay somewhere beyond the rules of law and society.

Birchion saw Cara eyeing a group as she shouldered her backpack.  They were dressed in a mishmash of styles, clothes obviously built for hard living, incorporating ciphers and other smalls oddities.

“At least our time here won’t be boring.”  She commented as the group, having spotted their cadet uniforms, slunk away into a side alley.

“You’d think the best cadets of this year’s turnout would get a better posting than Hicksville.”  Birchion complained shouldering his own heavy pack.  Almost his whole world lay in that pack, all except those things hundreds of miles away at his family’s home.  Even with its weight, it seemed too light a pack to be his whole world.

“This is where the action is Birch.  At the capital we’d be stuck guarding government buildings or some officious aristocrat.  Here…” Cara gestured to the city around them, “…is where the newest discoveries will surface first.  Here the world stops before heading out into the wilds, and then returns with knowledge that may change what we know about ourselves.”

“Who needs change.  Progress can’t be that great if eight worlds have tried it and failed.  What’s wrong with being the best we can be?”

“Don’t start, “ Cara moaned and fell in line with their fellow cadets,  “The Numenera we find allow us to ‘..easily do things that are difficult, attempt the improbable and envision the impossible.’”  She ended with a flourish as she quoted one of their lecturers at the academy.

Birchion just shook his head and smiled.  Cara always knew how to make him smile.

The cadets homes for the next 18 months was the military barracks, attached to the Town Hall and government offices.  McCom, one of their fellow cadets, had an implant that relayed simple information about their location in relation to their destination lead the cadets through the busy streets.  Cara and Birchion plodded along behind the group taking in the sights and making comments low enough for only each other to hear.

The city itself seemed a clean and well run place, though short of the pomp and ceremony of the capital.  Here regular grid-like streets were filled with industrious everyday folk from all areas of the known world.  Both Cara and Birchion were surprised at the numbers of Cypher stalls, shops and trading companies lined the streets.  From street hawkers with boards or stalls to companies hiring hundreds for the sole purpose to acquire and distribute oddities, cyphers and artifacts.  Cara kept wanting to stop and ask store holders about their intriguing devices.  Birchion was appalled that so much attention would be given to junk of previous civilisations.

All roads lead away from the port and as the group trudged further up the hill the industry changed, becoming more professional, more gentile.  Here, at the highest point of the town stood the Order of Truth, its dark stone dome a symbol of the cults dominance over the whole Steadfast.  Outside its doors clearly guarded by a blue shimmering field of force, a group of dark robed individuals preached openly to the crowds.  Unaugmented voiced called out to the cadets  as they marched past, calling for the purity of the human being.

“…we need not become slaves to the trinkets of forgotten races.  We can stand strong and proud as pure humans, creating perfection not with gadgets but with the control of mind, body and spirit in concert.”

Cara turned to Birchion, “It only makes sense. In the heart of the numenera industry, the F&As would make their presence felt.”

One of the street preachers was walking against the crowd handing out paper flyers.  When he saw the cadets in their new, if travel-stained clothes, he nodded his head to each in turn and handed a flyer, only Birchion took it.

“We’re not meant to be life-support systems for other eras detritus, brother.”  He spoke directly to Birchion, his  blue eyes large in his sun-tanned face.  Birchion was surprised by the young man’s passion.  The crowded moved on and Birchion quickly lost the young zealot, but the paper was firmly clenched in his fist.

Now…

All was quiet when Birchion woke again. A chirp of crickets from his left was the only sound that caught his attention.  A cool breeze caressed his hot skin and made a piece of silken cloth flap lazily against his hand.  Clenching his fist Birchion picked up the cloth and rubbed it between his fingers. Now he could see in his mind’s eye the white strip that was Cara’s scarf , the one she wore under her uniform to stop it chaffing her neck. It would be white, it always was, it never seemed to pick up stains.   He held the scarf to his bandaged face and breathed in.  There she was, soap and sweat and just a hint of a floral scent that she occasionally wore.  It was an oddity, a numenera, made of a material that could not be replicated.  Just another reminder of what humanity has lost and was desperately struggling to rediscover.  It was unique, just like her.

Without Cara’s voice to chide and coax him, Birchion’s thought drifted back to his dreaming or was it memory?  It was hard to tell which, he felt disconnected to the vision.  He lay in the darkness of his injuries holding the scarf to his hot face and concentrated on the image of the young man with the flyers.

Deveron.  Young, and passionate.  Supporter of the Order of the Flagellants and Austerities, a splinter group of the Order of Truth itself.  Deveron.  Serious when talking about cult dogma, then the next enthusiastic as a puppy.  Deveron.  A friend?  A brother?  Deveron.  So young and beautiful.

Once again Birchion fell into a fevered sleep this time to the cool caress of Cara’s scarf brushing his cheek.

Then…

The cadets were given little time to discover their new city.  As the newest and lowest ranked they were kept busy inside the barracks and government offices as messengers for the first few months.  Though the hours were long and often boring it did give the cadets a good grounding in all the government departments, their locations and heads of staff.  Each morning before office duty, drills and training continued much like it had at the academy, but this time the instructors did not pull their punches.

Birchion lived for these morning trainings. The feel of moving his body and weapon in concert, the initial positioning of him and  his opponent, anticipating their moves and adding his own steps to the subtle lethal dance.  And lethal it was, already two of their fellow cadets had been sent home with wounds too grevious to continue as glaives of the Kingdom.  That lethality made each session that much more exciting.

It was late into one of these sessions.  The rest of the cadets had finished their bouts with the experienced glaives.  They stood around and watched as Birchion and his trainer continued to fight.  Kermin was big and powerful, and he used his bulk to its full, putting his whole weight behind each stroke of his two-handed blade.  As it swung glinting in the morning light, it hummed sound drawing a crowd of government officials only just arriving for work.  Kermin’s sword sung again as it passed through space that Birchion had only moment ago filled.  This time he rolled away coming up behind the brute of a trainer and knocking him in the side of the knee with a low kick.  On another person, the kick would have brought them down, but Kermin was built like a tree and took the blow, and swung around to face Birchion once again. Birchion flipped away this time, flying feet making contact with Kermin’s square jaw.  Kermin shook his head, cleared his vision and turned only to have Birchion flip away again out of sight behind him.

“I don’t understand.  This does not seem fair.”  Said a voice near Cara as she stood cheering Birchion on.

“Sure, Kermin doesn’t stand a chance but he knew what he was getting into when he let Birch goad him into this bout.”  She replied gleefully without turning to look at the speaker.  She had watched Birchion do this to countless cadets and trainers through the years.  He would become bored with the standard practice and chide and goad the biggest and toughest to fight.  It was how he had won his reputation at the academy, and many a wager besides.

“But the cadet has no weapons!”  The voice squeaked.

Cara laughed, “Of course, how else would Birchion get him to fight?”

In the chalk outlined ring the two glaives circled each other.  Kermin had been able to pull off a riposte with his large double-handed blade, a feat of strength and dexterity in itself. The blade had caught Birchion in the side, a rent in his training gear and smear of red showed the damage.  Birchion had twisted mid-air to escape the blade but had landed heavily as a result and was holding his side, trying to catch his breath.

Kermin grinned and swung his heavy blade overhead, ready to bring it down on his winded foe.  All present could see that the blow when it landed would be brutal if not fatal.  If it landed.  With a speed  that belayed his injured appearance Birchion rolled again, but this time into Kermin, under his guard.  With all the power of his legs and torso, shoulder and arm, Birchion connected both fists with the big man’s jaw just as the big man himself came down on the stroke.  At first, the arms wielding the heavy sword came down as expected in the spot where Birchion had been, but now Birchion was within the circle of Kermin’s arms looking up expectantly at Kermin’s heavy features.  Slowly the grin dissolved into wide-eyed surprise and then that too disappeared as consciousness disolved.  The hand holding the weapon went numb and the blade clanged sullenly in the sand.  Kermin crumpled  to the ground at Birchion’s feet and the whole crowd, cadets, trainers, off duty glaives and government staff roared and cheered.

Spinning effortless on the spot like a dancer, Birchion turned to face the crowd and bowed, his face flushed not with exertion now but with joy at the attention he was receiving.  He waved to the crowd and received their accolades, well wishes and a small purse of winnings, quickly hidden.  Cara laughed and applauded Birchion turned to her, his eyes bright and a grin spread unashamedly across his face.

“Did you really have to take so long with Kermin, I need to shower before duty you know.” Cara chided as Birchion bounded up.

“Did I tell you or did I tell you, glass jaw.  I had to give him his time in the sun, he really is a very fine swordsman.  If he’d picked the lighter sabre I would have been in trouble, but you can guarantee a goaded person will not think rationally. ”  Birchion babbled and then turned to noticed something over Cara’s shoulder.  She turned to see a young man’s blue eyes  bright against his warm dark skin.

“Oh, you’re hurt!”  The young man blustered spinning around him and finding a pile of towels left for training.  He grabbed one and pressed it to Birchion’s side.  Cara met Birchion’s eyes over the head of the earnest young man and they burst out laughing.

The young man stood up as if he’d been shot and stared down both laughing cadets with his serious blue eyes.  This sent the cadets into further fits of giggles and the young man stepped back sure he was being made the butt of some joke.

“Please friend, don’t leave.  It is us and our dark view of life who are blame not your good heart.”  Birchion exposed the wound in his side to show it was a shallow graze, a lot of blood but very little damage. “We are hurt more climbing out of bed in the morning and think nothing of it.  My name is Birchion Avera of Charmonde and this is my friend and comrade in arms Cara Surehold. Cadets of the Queen’s glaives, at your service.”

Birchion extended his hand in greeting and with all seriousness the young man took it.

“Deveron Piercel, acolyte of the Order of the Flagellants and Austerities .”

A thought came to Birchion and from his pocket he drew a worn scrap of paper  that had been folded and unfolded many times.

“You gave me this the day we arrived.”  He handed the scrap to the young man who nodded enthusiastically.

“Yes!  We are trying to show that dependence on numenera we do not understand is not the way to live.”  Deveron’s face changed dramatically.  Gone the serious, suspicious look.
When he spoke next he was excited, sincere and all the more sweet for it.  “You kept the flyer?  Are you interested in our group?”

Cara gave Birchion a serious look and shook her head.  A long time ago the Order of the Flagellants and Austerities had been a serious danger to the whole Steadfast and was considered a terrorist group by the Order of Truth.  From early childhood everyone was told to steer clear of the group least they be turned into murdering zombies.  Many decades later and away from Naverene’s seat of power and government, their dogma may be soften to appeal to the different audience, but it was still the same organisation at heart.  The F&A for all their pretty words were not a group to fool with.

Birchion just smiled and gave her a wink that said he had it under control.

“Sure, I’d love to hear all about it.  Cara and I have our first day off since arriving at the end of tendays.  Are you free to give us a tour of your city?”

Deveron’s expression went from earnest to effusive, something akin to an excited puppy.

“Really!  I can get the whole day free.  You’ll see.  I’ve lived in Harmuth all my life.  There’s no place I don’t know.”

“Great.”  Replied Cara giving in to the excitement projected by the eager young man.  “I’m looking forward to it.”

 

Now…

“I never really liked the kid. He always seemed a little too needy for me.  Too clingy.” Cara’s voice broke through Birchion’s consciousness.

“I didn’t see it coming, Deveron seemed so…innocent.” McCom’s rough tenor mumbled to Birchion’s left.   In the darkness of his injuries he realised he was once again awake.

“Fanatics, you can’t trust them to make a rational choice.” Replied another deeper voice that Birchion realised was Kervin, the glaive trainer.

Birchion’s mouth twitched into a smile at the irony of Kervin’s words and the movement caught his visitor’s attention.

“Look who’s awake and listening to you fools.”  Cara smirked, Birchion could hear it in her voice.

“Listening in?  With your new heightened senses we’ll have to make you a spy.”  McCom joked.

“Or sniper.”  Kervin quipped and there was a thud of a hand slapping a barrel chest. “I’m only saying…” Kervin  started apologetically.

“You’ll be as good as new in no time, just let the healers do their work.”  McCom interjected. He and Kervin laughed nervously.  The silence after was heavy and left Birchion breathless.

“Deveron was an innocent.”  He whispered through a too tight throat.  He reached out a hand  and the cup was placed into it.  Birchion took it gratefully.

“We didn’t know him like you and Cara did.” Kervin said consoling, “We just can’t understand.”

“Can’t you?” Birchion replied thinking of the last time he’d seen Deveron’s face, hurt and betrayed. “I hurt him.”

“Don’t blame yourself for a lunatic’s action, Birchion.”  McCom argued.  You didn’t make him do what he did.”

Another silence.  Birchion took another sip of water and held the cup out, it was taken again and placed on a hard surface, the clunk of it echoing through the room.

“Are you so sure I didn’t?”

Then…

The city was abuzz as the latest platoon of glaives marched through the streets.  Row upon row of metal armoured, cipher installed soldiers set the cadance for the whole city as they made their way through to the docks, onto air and surface ships and out to holy and righteous war.

In the city of Harmuth the Order of the Flagellants and Austerities were also waging a holy and righteous war of ideas.  Some of the Numenera traders had started complaining about the group’s doctrine not being good for business and tension was building.  Scuffles were common and fear of outright riots was spreading  The new faces in the glaives made their rounds like walking on eggs-shells as they try to make positive connections with both sides of the community, all too aware that violence could break out at any moment.

“Good afternoon, Coe.  I trust the day’s been kind to you?”  Birchion smiled his most winning smile to the Numenera trader as she packed up for the evening.  A middle-aged woman whose loud voice and militant opinion had gained her respect amongst the traders in the city, Birchion had been building a relationship with her since their beat passed by her store and was only now gaining the benefits.  Coe smiled shyly back making her look ten years younger than her late fifties, and waved back at Birchion and Cara.

“Good day, glaives.  My heart is happier for seeing you fine young people keeping the streets safe.”  The sentiment was for both glaive, but Coe’s red rimmed eyes were only for Birchion.  “I had some of those dratted cultist skulking around earlier today.  I gave them a piece of my mind.  Whispering on street corners like a bunch of cutthroats.  I’d have given them a bit more if they weren’t so cowardly and ran off.”  She brandished the broom she was using to clean up the front of the store.

“I for one am glad you didn’t,” Cara joked, “Otherwise we would have needed to talk to you about assault with a deadly cleaning implement.  The cultist have promised to not preach within eyesight of a Numenera seller, did they seem to be breaking that promise to you?”

“ No, not preaching.” Coe’s brow furrowed, “Just standing around and whispering and looking.  It puts off my customers.”

“Can I suggest they may be putting off the shoplifters?  Legitimate customers aren’t going to be put off so lightly.” Birchion gave her another winning smile,  ” Everyone knows that you sell the most reliable ciphers in the whole of Helmuth.”

Coe, brightened at Birchion’s unsubtle use of flattery.

“Well, I don’t know about the whole of Helmut….”  She chuckled as Birchion followed up his flattery with a wink. Her chuckle was short-lived however as she spotted Deveron running down the steep slope of the road towards them. “Ho, here comes another to cause a poor trader grief.  Please excuse me glaives, I’ll leave you to deal with the street sweepings if you don’t mind.”

Deveron skidded to a halt in front of his cadet friends, blue eyes dark and serious.

“What are you doing here…?  I’ve been looking everywhere for you?”  He puffed, out of breath from his run across town.

“We’re on duty, Deveron, we can’t play right now.”  Cara started coolly.  The boy had been a friend to all the cadets in the first few months in Harmuth.  Cara though, had grown impatient with the young man and his nervous excitable nature and tendency to preach F&A nonsense to anyone who would listen. Now with tensions in town as they were that same nature was grating against already raw nerves.

Her words held little sting for him however,  as he turned all of his attention to Birchion locking two delicate hands around the glaives muscular forearm.

“What’s up Deveron, has anyone been giving you a hard time?”  Asked Birchion with concern.

“No, nothing like that, “  Deveron shook his shaggy head emphatically, “I…I have something to show you.”  He scrambled for words as he tugged ineffectually at Birchion’s arm.

“Can it wait little buddy?”  Birchion, aware of the ugly stares their group were receiving from Coe and other traders nearby and started moving the small group away. “We’ll be off duty tomorrow morning, after training.  I can spend the whole morning with you.”

Cara scold but said nothing.  That time was set aside for rest and wasn’t technically off duty at all.  Burning the candle at both ends had become a bit of a habit for Birchion, however and he knew how she felt with a shared glance.

I just can’t ignore him, he’s upset.  Birchion silent plea in reply said.  Cara sighed.

“No, just show us now Deveron. I won’t say we went off beat if you two won’t.”  She said and the young man seemed to relax a little.

“Yes, right now.  They’ll  be gone tomorrow and you’ll miss out.”  He said, his nervousness giving way to excitement.

“Who will be?”

“You’ll see.”  Deveron turned from the glaives, a genuine smile brightening his features, and sped down the hill.

Deveron lead the two glaives through the maze of street that made up his home town.  Occasionally, the glaives would try quizzing him about this new and exciting spectacle, but he would only shake his dark curly locks and urge them to follow.

Eventually the street they were on spilled out into the docks district where it was evident from the noise that a party of sorts was going on.  The sound of the party was stuttering.  One minute there was complete silence, the lapping of the waves against the docks were clearly heard.  Then suddenly a happy roar of voices would go up and again the music would start-up as if there were no break.

“There they are.”  Deveron pointed to a crowd of people and boats.  Now with the noise of the party went a group of several hundred weather-beaten people of all ages following a priest from  the Order of Truth, ship to ship.  Following them stepped professional minstrels who wore flamboyant nautically themed costumes, seemingly, specifically for this event.

“What’s going on?”  Cara asked as they watch the priest step aboard and inspected another ship.  A group of working men and women in their best clothes waiting solemnly for the priest at the bow as the celebration went on around them.  On his return, a flick of a priest’s wrist called for silence and the party and celebrations were stilled.  In the presence of what looked to be the ship’s crew, from captain to swabbie, the priest prayed  and sprinkled them and the ship with water from a silver bowl.

“It’s the blessing of the fishing fleet.  A very old tradition that some say goes back beyond even the second world.  A priest of the Order of Truth who knows about ships checks each for seaworthiness and then gives the ship and it’s crew a blessing.”

“A blessing for what?” Birchion asked as they walked into the outer edges of the celebration.

“Luck. That they’ll have a good catch. That they’ll make it back home.”

“That they’ll make it back home?  You’d think they’re going to war.”  Birchion scoffed and received a very dark look from Deveron.

“The sea is still a deadly place to be and very few of the world’s technologies make it any safer.  The prayer is also in remembrance of those who have been lost in past seasons.”

Cara and Birchion looked to each other, the same incomprehension to be found in their counterparts expression.  They were people of the land and the city and knew nothing of the dangers that lurked outside of civilisation’s borders especially the unknowable waters of the sea.  To them it was hard to imagine a danger that could not be overcome with thoughtful planning, hard work and sensible use of force and technology.

The two glaives and the young cultist stood and watched as the priest moved on to the next boat followed by the cheers and a renewing of the celebration by the now blessed crew. Cara and Birchion gave their good wishes to the  fishers  as they went by and were instantly swept into the party, Cara by a young sailor with too little tempo in his step and possibly too much drink; Birchion by a sturdy matron who, for her size, was light on her feet.  It wasn’t until the priest called for quiet that Cara and Birchion slipped their would-be kidnappers and found each other again.

“We should get out of here before a senior glaive spot us.”  Cara whispered into Birchion’s ear.  He nodded agreement until the roar once again went up from the crowd and the music started again, now in earnest.  Cara had only a moment to spot the mischief glint in Birchion’s eye before his arm snaked around her waist to tell her that there wasn’t going to be an easy escape from this celebration.  With surprising strength and grace, Birchion swung Cara into the dance knocking her feet from beneath her and the breath from her lungs.

“I can never resist a good beat.”  Birchion yelled to be heard over the music and crowd holding her closer and took Cara through a set of complicated moves that would not have been out of place at the Imperial palace in  Charmonde. People in the crowd started commenting on their dance and soon and small space was made.

“What do you say, shall we give them something to watch?”  Birchion grinned and before Cara could comment he flung her into a set of spins, dancing around her as if she were standing still.  Cara, no slouch herself when it came to physical skills, just couldn’t keep up and eventually her foot caught on the rough boards of the dock.  Like a flash, Birchion was there, arms cradling her into a dip that seemed to flow so elegantly from the dance that it looked like part of it.

“Maybe you should try a new partner.” Cara gasped for breath as Birchion gently put her back on her feet.  For a moment Cara thought he meant to say something.  Instead he just smiled, gave her glaive-scarred hand a chivalric parting kiss and found another eager partner from the clapping and cheering crowd.

Cara watched Birchion as she swept the young woman into his embrace and danced her around the space left clear.  His eyes never left hers and the two looked as if they had been dancing like this for their whole lives, in step the whole way around the space his grace and strength keeping the partnership together.  A twinge of something like hate for the girl stabbed through Cara’s chest.  How dare that girl be so close, so intimate with Birchion.  With a start she laughed and shook her head realising she must have looked just like that girl helpless in his dance.  Realising her failing, however,  didn’t make watching the two dancer any easier and eventually she let her eyes wander over the crowd for Deveron and found him sitting on a pylon.  She was surprised to see that the same emotions she had just admonished herself for written clear on the boys face.  Rage, envy self recrimination and just a little hurt mixed with the desire to be the one.

Oh boy!   Cara thought to herself as she made her way through the crowd to the boys side. I hope Birch has an idea of how to dance out of that little problem.

“You know, he loves you.”  Cara said into Deveron’s ear. He almost leapt off the pylon with surprise and she put a hand on his shoulder for fear of him falling off.  The look had gone now, all that was left was embarrassment and self-pity, perfectly normal for a teenage boy, she thought.

“You danced well.”  He replied trying to deflect the subject.

Cara laughed, “Ha, I was a maypole!  He’s the dancer.  You know he’s always dancing.  He’s good at it, and saves him from making any choices.”

Deveron looked at her as if she were spouting nonsense but said nothing for a long while.

“Does he…?  Is he…?”  Deveron stuttered out as if trying to push out something too big for his mouth to say.   In the end he gave up, the words too hard.

“Does he like boys?”  Cara suggested and Deveron nodded the words now said.  She smiled wistfully, “That is not an easy question to answer.  Our Birch loves everyone and loves everyone to love him.  To say he has a preference would mean he’d have to make a stand.”

Deveron’s expression drew together as he tried to make sense of what Cara was telling him, he shook his head.

“But that doesn’t make sense.  You either do or don’t.”  He said more to himself than to Cara.

“It seems like that when you’re young, but thing are rarely so black and white.”

“Don’t treat me like a child I…” What Deveron was going to say was completely lost as a flash of light lit the night’s sky over Harmuth .  A fraction of a second later the docks rocked, people on the edge were thrown into the water and the ships masts swung back and forth.  Finally the sound, an explosion, a heavy crunching noise, followed by other noises, screaming, masonry falling and pain.

“Birchion!”  Cara screamed over the heads of the crowd.  The ring had collapsed where Birchion had been dancing and he was lost in the sea of concerned heads.  Cara leaped up on the pylon that had so recently been occupied by Deveron and called again. “Birchion!”  This time a hand went up in the centre of the crowd and started moving towards Cara.  Eventually, Birchion’s head was identifiable through the crowd.

“What was it?”  He asked when he could be overheard

“An explosion in town,”  Cara looked up to where the light had come from, a thick black column  was wafting up against the lighter back of the evening sky, a dull red glow at it’s base. “Looks like fire, we have to get there now.”

“Where’s Deveron?”  That was a very good question.  He had been right here on the pylon before the explosion.  Cara could only shrug her shoulders and shake her head.  Birchion swore.

“Come on, it will be hell to pay if we have to explain where we were while Harmuth burned.”

Now…

“… dancing with you that night, Birch.  I wish I hadn’t stopped, for once listening to my heart instead of my practical head.  Shame it had to go so horribly wrong after that.”  It was Cara’s voice that woke Birchion out of the nightmare of dancing and fire…or dancing with fire.”

“You’re the only one.”  He said out loud his voice hoarse with sleep.

“The only one what?”  Cara asked as he raised his hand.

“Yes, “The cool male voice spoke as the cup was placed in his hand. He knew it was the same, it was made of horn and had a unique smooth surface on the outside while retaining the rough end that had once attached to the animal.  He took a sip soothing his throat but he now felt cold, he shivered.

“You were the only one I wanted to dance with.”

He could hear Cara sigh, almost imagined he could feel her cool breath on his face.

“Oh Birch.  Why did you never say?”
“I…don’t know.  Too blind.”

“But now?”

“I opened my eyes as you suggested and saw, just before Deveron found us that evening.  You know me better than I do. With a look we speak.  You are my strength and refuge always.  If I can’t dance with you, I don’t know if I want to dance at all.”

There was a long pause while Birchion listened for her breathing, a gasp, a sigh.

“You idiot.”  She said finally the usual smirk in her voice missing.  Instead a heaviness to her tone, a sadness to her sighs. “Look you have a fever at the moment.  If, when you’re feeling better and looking out through your new eyes and can still say that…well, maybe then I’ll believe you.”

“I mean it now, Cara.  Cara?”  Birchion held out his hand to touch Cara, to make her understand. He felt his movements sluggish as he reached out and found nothing a but air.  Finally, his thought caught up.  She was gone again.

“Rest.”  The cool voice spoke, a soothing hand accompanying the words cooling Birchion forehead, “Your fever will soon break.  Be at peace.”

“She was wrong, you know.” Birchion mumbled, his thinking now thick and slow. “It wasn’t all so horribly wrong.”

Then…

After the fire, the smoke, the damage of broken brickwork, cobbled street and bodies, the night passed and the clean up of Coe’s shop  and the buildings nearby were already underway.  Preliminary investigations showed the explosion was created by a cluster of ciphers in close proximity to each other.  It seemed an obvious solution, most of Coe’s business was ciphers and other unstable numenera.  That she had been in the business for decades and knew the dangers inherent in her stock was somehow ignored, at least officially.  In the many long years her business had stood in the Harmuth trading district, Coe had never once had an accident with ciphers though at least preliminary reports had the explosion down as an accident..

After the clean up and debrief with investigators, Cara and Birchion were both brought before the commanding officers desk, a position neither had been previously and no one envied.  The Commander of Glaives in Harmuth was a lazy officious man who did what he had to for the everyday working of the unit but did nothing to encourage or support his soldiers and was rarely seen out of the four walls of his office. Glaives sent to him were there only because he had no other choice but to see them.

“Senior Cadet Sureholt, Senior Cadet Avera, I understand that you are familiar with a young man who is part of the Order of Flagettes and Austerities?”  The commander asked already knowing it to be true, the report that Cara and Birchion had given was in front of him and detailed Deveron’s appearance.

“Yes Sir, Deveron Piercel, he has been a great help to all the cadets settling in here at Harmuth.”  Cara volunteered, though it did nothing to soften the Commanders expression.

“Be as it may, the boy is a supporter of the cult and by your own testimony he was in a distressed state when he drew you away from the site of the explosion.”  He grumbled paraphrasing from the incident report in front of him.
“To clarify sir, it was I that drew all three of us away from Coe’s establishment.”  Birchion rebutted, “She had only just before made some derogatory remarks about the cult and specifically about some of the members and I thought it prudent to move Deveron away from her line of sight.”

“But you left following the boy from the trading district, you were seen by several eyewitnesses.”

“Yes sir.”  Cara put in to forestall any response from Birchion that may see them in even more trouble.

“You did not feel the need to mention that fact to the investigators?”  The Commander stared first at Birchion and then Cara as if the answer to his question was somehow written there.

“We left the area sir, we had no other information to give the investigator about the incident.”

“And the boy?  What became of him?”

“He remained with us until the explosion.”

“And then…?”

“He was scared, sir. He has family, he ran home.”

“And you would testify that he was only there to see you?  That he had no access or contact with the stock of Madam Coe and that he never left your sight until after the explosion?”

“Yes, Sir.”  Cara and Birchion chorused, their eyes fixed firmly above the Commander’s head.

The Commander sat back heavily in his seat and looked over the investigator’s report once more while Cara and Birchion stood at silent attention.

“Oh, very well.  But can I suggest that as members of the Queen’s Glaives you should find better companions than young men affiliated with militant and potentially dangerous organisations.  You need to hold yourselves apart from the politics of the community, be impartial and unbiased in your dealings.  You have two more months of internship here in Harmuth, for the sake of your careers and the safety of yourselves and your fellow glaives I suggest that you drop all relationships with this Deveron, immediately.  Dismissed.”

Birchion saluted and marched out of the glaive administration building, his face stormy, his lithe body stiff with anger.  He marched through a crowd of fellow cadets as if they weren’t there, his feet pounding out the steps as if it were the ground he were angry with.

“Birch, talk to me.”  Cara followed keeping as calm as possible so as not to draw attention to them.  “What are you thinking? Where are you going?”

“Going?  Nowhere, you heard the commander.  Another two months stuck here watching these idiots murder each other and for what, the leftovers of some other civilisation.  Pathetic and stupid and…”  Birchion clenched his fist, his arms shaking with the fury of his indignation.  “As for thinking…I don’t know if I’m thinking anything but finding Deveron and wringing his neck until he tells me the names of everyone involved in the attack.  That nasty, self-centered little….”

“Birch….stop.”  Cara grabbed Birchion’s wrist and forearm, using his own momentum to swing him around her and into a quiet side street.  Birchion allowed himself to be directed but stopped short of crashing into the stone walls flanking the alley.  Twisting expertly he slammed both fists into the stone work sending loose chips and dust flying.  Cara found herself, her back to the wall, his arms forming a cage either side of her head.

She looked up into his face, gray from the night’s harrowing work, soot stained, blood splattered and  furious for what it all meant.

“He knew what was going to happen.  Knew and did nothing.” Birchion said so low that only Cara could hear.

“How can you know?  Even if he did, we know he wasn’t involved in the actual attack.”

“He knew!”  He choked and the tears he’d been holding since witnessing the result of the explosion poured out.

Cara couldn’t help it, Birchion’s pain was too raw.  Impulsively, she leaned into him, wrapping her arms around him and hid her face in his shoulder.  They stood like this, hidden in the shadows of two buildings and the view of prying eyes, Birchion expending his grief, Cara once again there supporting and surprisingly to her, needing him as much as he needed her.

Eventually the knot in Birchion chest loosened.  With one hand he brushed his face, the flood of tears gone,  replaced by a shadow of his usual benign smile, the other arm wrapped loosing around Cara, reciprocating her comfort.

“My strength and refuge.”  He said at last as she tilted her head to look at him, “ That’s how the F&A hymn goes? ‘…my present help in trouble…’”

“Always and forever.”  Was Cara’s quick reply, but she was surprised to find that she meant it. “Do you want to go look for him? I’ll help.”

Birchion quickly shook his head.

“If we find him, I’ll have to ask him….and I don’t think I want to hear the answer.”

“He loves you, you know.  He may not deal with your rejection well.”

At that Birchion’s expression turned stony and his arm drop from around her.

“If he knew me, he would have known that I would condemn last night with my dying breath.  As far as I’m concerned what the commander says, goes, we are to drop relations with anyone affiliated with the group. ”  His words were hard and reflected his mood.  Involuntarily Cara shivered which solicited the return of Birchion arms wrapping around her.  “Two more months, Cara.  That’s how long we have to hold it together and then the dogma and the politics of this place is ancient history.”

“And Deveron?”

“Him too.”

 

Now…

Birchion lay on his back as the cool breeze swept the last of the fever from his body.  He knew the fever was gone.  Though weak, he felt more whole, more himself, ready to get up and take on the world once more.  He felt good, but a worm of doubt, a squirming insistent something kept him lying still and silent in his bed hour after hour.

Cara.  She hadn’t returned.

He went over their last conversation over and over in his mind and the worm insisted there was something wrong. He’d upset her, but not really by what he’d said.  She’d seemed almost pleased that he’d finally come out and said what he did.  But it was like it was…too late, like a decision had been made while he was ill.  Not for the first time he hand went to the bandage around his head.  Carefully, his fingers traced the bone under skin and gauze.  Following the brow ridge his fingers slipped over a smooth hard surface that gave no response to being touched, it was like his living skin and bone at that point had turned to unfeeling stone.  Dead. The feeling was alien, and at first his fingers instinctually drew away.

After a moment’s pause his fingers, now both hands returned to the bandage, this time searching for an end, a clasp or tie that held it in place.  Nimble fingers found what they were looking for and silently went to work teasing out the binding until an end came loose.  Now he sat up and carefully unwound the bandage.  Impatience tempered with the knowledge that any sudden movement could cause permanent damage to healing tissues.  Eventually, the bandage lay across his two open palms and the breeze tickled skin before protected, it made him shiver.  Gingerly, slowly with conscious thought that seemed to take more strength than he possessed, Birchion opened his eyes.

All was a blur of shades.  Pale stripes of what Birchion assumed to be light came from his left where the breeze emanated while the bed was a uniform grey blur.  Beyond, a little higher up,  a pale brown shape caught what light there was and glowed.  Birchion’s hand groped for the object unsure of space in this new world of images and his hands found the small horn cup.

Now that his mind knew it, his eyes focused and there was the cup, the rough end clear the see, the smooth sides translucent and beautiful.  He lay the cup with his bandages and tried to make sense of further away.  Tiny motors whirled as lenses shifted back and forward.  The sensation was alien inside Birchion’s own head that had alway held silence or the natural sounds of the body, breathing, heartbeat and the rushing pulse of blood.  Back and forward the motors whirled but nothing sharpened into focus, nothing crystalized into recognisable objects.

Beyond the blur that Birchion found himself exploring, movement, a flash of something lighter in the murk.

“You have removed your bandages.”  The cool gentle voice stated not in anger or concern but a simple fact. “Your eyes?”

“They’re not eyes, their lenses and they’re not working.”  Birchion could feel himself start to panic. Was this what he was now, legally blind and unable to work out even the most simple things.
“Take my hand.”  Said the voice simply and something brown loomed out of the darkness.  Birchion leaned back sure it would hit his face, but when he put out a hand to stop it he found it further away.  He clasped the hand, strong and secure. “Yes, they work.  You will learn.”

“But I can’t see a thing, it’s all blurred and nothing makes any sense, it’s all too close or too far away.”  Birchion took back his hand to touch his face but there was nothing he could do, nothing to adjust that would make them work better.  Ineffectual, his hand fell limply back into his lap.

The voice did not respond directly but movement to Birchion’s right told him the person had moved.  Then something white, brighter than the weak light from the window, appeared in his view.  It was so bright he wanted to squint, but found he couldn’t so he had to turn away.

“How about this?”  The voice asked  and lay it in across Birchion’s empty hands.  Now he could see, the silken fabric, the tassels at the end.  This was Cara’s scarf.  He’d never realised how white it was.

“ You see what you know.  Other things will come as you learn their shape.”  The voice said calmly as always. “It is always thus.  I Imagine babies must see the same way.”

The words were kind and gentle, but they gave no comfort as Birchion who just watch the flow of white silk and wished he could cry.

Then…

It was near curfew  when the two picnickers returned to town.  The shoppers and vendors scurried to get their good inside before the bell rang and the night’s vigil began. Cara lead the pair at a stiff march barely acknowledging her fellow glaives at the gate.  Birchion still muddling through the repercussions of the afternoon.  As the shade of Harmuth’s town gates fell on him, a chill ran down his spine and the sobriety he had been putting off finally took effect.  He watched Cara walking down the slope they had walked first day in Harmuth.  Then she had been his mate, his buddy in all things, but hadn’t they become more than that? Certainly if today was anything to go by they had.

He watched her as her war-clad hips swung and remembered how it felt to dance with her the night of the blessing of the fleet and knew it now to be only the more gentile version of what they had done that day.  In all things she was his, honest and straight-forward, strong and loyal and…not the be taken for granted.

A cold weight hit the bottom of his stomach, because wasn’t that all he’d ever done?  Assumed that she would always be there, a part of him unrecognised as unique.

“Cara, I get it.  Please just give me a minute.”  He called to her further down the hill, she was jogging now.

“We don’t have a minute.  Curfew and picnic blankets aren’t usual for glaives on patrol.”

“Damn the curfew Cara…”  He ran down the hill towards her, barely missing a shape that leaped out of the darkness of a nearby alley.  He stopped, shocked to see it was Deveron, wild-eyed and furtive.  With glances at the glaive at the gate and the retreating Cara, Deveron took Birchion’s arm and pulled him towards the darkness of the alley.  Birchion held his ground.

“Deveron…”  Was all Birchion could say.  He had nothing else to say.  Deveron’s absence over the last few months had said it all.  Instead, Birchion turned down the slope back to Cara who had stopped and was turning to see them, a glint of something dangerous in her eye.

“Birchion, come with me, please.”  Deveron begged, now noticing Cara’s approach.  “I…don’t want you to go.  They say your cadetship is finished and you’ll be assigned somewhere else…I can’t let you go.”

“We have to go.  You should go too, get out the F&A…”

“No, don’t you see, they can hide us.”  The spark of Deveron’s childish energy evident in his assertion.  “You are everything they want in a human being. You’re strong, fast and brave and do it all without numenera.  You are an example to the cause.  You’ll be like a god…”

“Yeah, as if that’s what he needs.”  Cara interjected now side by side with Deveron, “You can’t be with us anymore Deveron….”
“I don’t want to be with you,” Deveron stated low and threatening all childish good humour gone.  Birchion felt a tingle of fear at this new Deveron.  “I want Birchion. I love him and he has to stay.”

At that moment the town bells rang and an artificially loud voice called over the city.

“Due to recent violence, for the safety of all citizen curfew will be in effect in five minutes.  Curfew in five minutes.  Please be off the streets and behind closed doors before second bell or risk arrest.”

“Deveron.”  Birchion twisted his arm sharply and the boy had no choice but to let go, “You knew what the cult were going to do and did nothing to stop it. I hate that you made me dance as people died! ”  The look of disgust must have been evident on Birchion face as Deveron flinched as if hit.

Birchion looked at Cara, but for once she was not looking at him but focused on Deveron, on the defensive and ready to strike.   She had seen something…

What came next happened almost too fast to comprehend.  Deveron stepped back, knocked back as if pushed, a look of shock and grief raw on his face.  His hand went to his chest, clutching at his heart.  Cara shoved Birchion back and got between the two of them.

“I couldn’t stop it….I can looking for you…I can’t without…” Deveron wailed as his hand squeezed something under his clothes.

“Get back he has a bomb!”  Cara said at the same time, their voices becoming a chorus of fear.

Birchion couldn’t tear his eyes away as one moment Deveron was there, his tear-stained eyes squeezed shut, the next moment whiteness and the only sensation was that of flying and Cara’s body once more close to his.

Now…

“You know, I think you should get out of towns.  See a bit of the world, experience something beyond walls and people of cities.”  Cara’s voice came to Birchion.  He didn’t turn on his eyes, he knew it was night, the crispness of the sea breeze through his window, the call of crickets.

“I can’t see Cara, how am I going to get out into the world.”  He whispered into the night.

“Seeing is not what you’re best at, you doofus.”  Her voice smiled and he couldn’t help but smile back. “You can’t see what’s right in front of you, but your heart is good and that should explore.”

“Doing what though? I’m a middle class city dweller whose only training is as a fighter.”  Birchion said morosely.  He knew Cara would never let him get away with self-pity and just wanted her to reply.

“So what, you’re young and fit!  You’ll find something, keep your mind open and try not to say no to valid options.”

“Cara, when did you get so wise?”

“I’ve always been, you just couldn’t see it.”  He could almost feel the tip of a finger touch his nose. He went to laugh, but it caught in his throat and his swallowed hard, he knew that going out into the world meant leaving this place, where Cara was.

“Cara, I need to ask you something, seriously.”

“I’m listening?”

“If I leave here, will you come with me?”

He heard her laugh and knew everything would be all right.

“When have we ever been apart?”

Don’t not ever stop

Don’t not ever stop not writing nothing.

– Sam Sykes

The River Rat: the story of a character

 

“River, there’s  a customer needs your ‘elp wid a lock.”  Sally called from the front shop.  Her voice, shrill as a high speed drill cuts through the general hubbub of the workshop of craftsmen and apprentices.  All eyes looked up from their work or conversations to glance over at a halfling hunched over a workdesk.

“Ri-ver!”  Sally called again.  The halfling back hunched further on his seat.

Sally was good customer relations for Rathbone Locks and Security.  She was attentive to all customers in the shop, no one got away with anything while she was there, at the same time she was perceptive of people’s needs and could often suggest solutions before they’ve fully articulated their problem. It was for these reasons she was hired. It also didn’t hurt that her half-elven looks and quick mind subdued most situations before they started. Unfortunately, she thought everyone needed to be as attentive with the customers as she was and her voice could cut through steel.

“Dere’s a group of adventurers ta see ya , River.”  Sally thrust her young and symmetrically pleasing half elf proportions past the doorway that separated the storefront from the workshop.  Now all attention turned to her, every young and old male heart softening in the light of her loveliness.

River sighed.  He knew that until Sally left the workshop nothing would get done.  Already the whine of drills were winding down as the apprentices ceased peddling for their tradesmen, the hammers had stopped their industrious rhythm some time before.  Even River’s iron concentration had been disrupted, the idea he’d nurtured all morning of his latest attempt slipping away like an over-greased spring.

Without another sound, River spun in his seat and walked down the small set of stairs he’d attached to a human-sized stool.  He looked up at the workshop, his tradesmen saw his glance and elbowed their apprentices back to work.  Sally had already disappeared from the doorway, the doors swinging back and forth in memory. He stepped through without touching the doors, judging the gap perfectly, and walked into the store and the chaos beyond.

   *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Ahmad Soobroyen, the unspoken leader of this group of  adventurers, was excited by what their latest haul may contain.  The ancient temple had been dangerous, more for the crumbling masonry than the monsters or cultists it contained, and had cost them dearly in a valuable party member. But a stroke of luck had Ahmad spy the chest and through his bullying the remainder of the adventuring party, had survived the collapse of the building.  Once clear and looking over their latest discovery,  Libya the wizard’s red skin turned disturbingly pale as she noticed the script encircling the ironbound chest, her tail whipped back and forth, a sure sign of distress.

“We can’t open this.  At least not without professional help.”  She’d said leading to a heated discussion ranging from Helmutt calling her a little red chicken and nothing stopping a well aim maul to Libya saying Helmutt cared more about his maul than looking out for others in the team, especially those they would miss when a curse chest came into their possession.  A full fists against firebolt fight was prevented by Ahmad remembering the locksmiths in the nearest town of Riverton.

Ahmad had just thought up a new chat up line to try on the big eyes half-elf shop assistant when he noticed a child poking at the chest with a long thin metal probe.

“Don’t touch that, you’ll kill us all!” He was going to say, when a click sounded from the depths of the box and the lid lifted.  Ahmad heard the collective releasing of breath as he, Helmutt, Libya all let go of what they thought would be their last.

“A sturdy warded lock, with a vial attached that would break if not opened correctly.  Effective but archaic.”  The child said in an unusual monotone.  Ahmad looked again and could see the wrinkles framing bright eyes, nimble but calloused hands deftly putting away the probe as if it never existed.

“A…a vial of what?”  Helmutt asked his deep half-orc baritone quavering as he realising what a maul would have made of a glass vial.

“Oh, something deadly I suspect.”  The halfling replied in a monotone as if deadly poisons were very mundane. “It looks to be under pressure too, it would probably spray everywhere …hissssssst!”  The halfling made the sound of escaping gas and the adventuring party all stepped back involuntarily.

“Sorry ta trouble you, River,”  Sally said to the retreating halfling, “Da box just seemed so ‘eavy and well made…I ‘ad ‘oped that this time…”

“This time?”  Ahmad repeated as Helmutt and Libya opened the chest.

The shop assistant didn’t reply as all eyes went to what lay inside the ornate box.

“Oh I say!”  Sally exclaimed as Libya drew out a necklace of acid green emeralds on a base of white metal from the box.  To Sally’s eyes the metal looked cold and dull, unlike pure metals such as silver, gold or even platinum.

“Oh, it’s lovely! I wonder if it’s magical?”  Libya exclaimed as Helmutt rummaged around in the material velvet lining.

“That’s it!  One necklace??  That’s what I slogged all the way from the temple?  That thing nearly broke my back!  How heavy is that necklace?”  Helmutt protested grabbing for the necklace.  Libya deftly moved away, but Ahmad was too fast for them both as he picked the necklace up out of from Libya’s hands and dropped it into his belt pouch.

“Well the weight wasn’t the necklace.  It seems lighter than one would think for its size, as for magical properties, “  Ahmad turned back to Sally his smile radiant, “Do you know anyone who could help identify such an item, it would be worth a small percentage of its worth.”

“It will be worth 30 gold plus the 2 gold it cost to open the chest.”  She replied coolly, “As for the weight, here, “  she pointed to a section of the box where the velvet lining had been pulled away by Helmutt’s over enthusiastic examination, “Lead.  It’s lined of it.”

“What a strange box. Why make a box of lead?”  Libya mused, “To protect the item inside?”

“Possibly, “Sally replied all professional once again, “Or to protect the outside world from the item?”

Ahmad and Sally haggled over price for a while as Libya and Helmutt mused over the box and its contents.  In the end, as the group had no money the box was taken in kind and Sally took the necklace from Ahmad to be identified.

“If you don’t mind, we’ll accompany you.  We’ve had a long campaign and that necklace is all the profit we’ve made.”

With a curt nod Sally turned to the workshop doors and called one of the apprentices out to mind the shop.

“But only one mind.”  She said sternly and stood in the doorway as if to defend it with her body if they didn’t comply.  The group mumbled agreement and Ahmad followed her into the workshop.

  *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

River sat on his stool staring at the wall.This was his favourite thinking place, and he was trying to get back the image he had been working on before the interruption.  It was a barrel with independant pins, tiny and free floating…no pairs of pins that together held the lock in place unless the key, the right key held them up in such a way….

“My apologies River, but the customers have a piece for identification.  Dey’ve paid with dat unusual box you opened.”  Sally’s voice so close he could feel her breath. It made River shiver in an uncomfortably pleasant way.  He shrunk away from her as she leaned across to place the necklace in front of him.

The necklace was of quality workmanship with the jewels expertly inlaid to the metal in such a way as the metal holding each jewel was virtually invisible.  When he held the piece up to his overhead gas light the flames danced through the gems playing against its unusual facets.  It was odd, the stones were cut and engraved in an unusual style that suggested function over form, not to make the best of the light refracting properties of the stones but to gain some use or benefit.

“It’s very light, lighter than you expect.” Said a male voice, the Noisy One from the front of shop.  River turned and scowled at him.

“You’re not meant to be here, I suggest you be quiet or one of the boys will show you you’re place.”  It was something he’d heard his father say.  It didn’t seem to have much impact on the adventurer at first until one of the tradesmen, a big fellow (River could never remember names) stepped away from his workspace and stood behind the Noisy One.  The adventurer stayed quiet after that.

River noted the weight, it was light, lighter than you’d expect most metals to be… except one.  He knew of it, but rarely saw it, hardly ever held a piece made of it in his hands and never in jewelry.   He pulled out a scroll of spells and read one while concentrating on the piece. A blue aura of magical energy shimmered around the jewels, sparked once and then died like a fire grown cold.

“The metal is what the dwarves call mithril, light and strong and resistant to rust.  It’s not uncommon but hard to refine and work.”  He said more to himself than to anyone in the room, “  The stones are emeralds.  They are a consistent colour, good quality but cut strangely, not to make the best of the light but….”  He let his thought trail off as his mind whirled through the possibilities. Something unique that needed to be to be uncounterfeitable.  Something that was linked to a large amount of wealth. Then, in a blinding flash of green light he knew what it was.  It was a clue to finding the perfect lock, what he’d been looking for all his life.

“It is a key, not magical but used in or with magic. I’ll give you 200 gold for it.”

The proposition was given in his usual monotone and as such was almost missed.

“Sorry, what?”  The adventurer said and River heard his tradesman take another step closer.

River spun in his seat and faced the group. They loomed over him large and far too close, he pushed them back with a gesture before he continued.

“It is a key. I will give you 200 gold for it.”

“A key to what?  How does it work? What do you mean, not magical?  How do you know?  I’ll want a second opinion on that price.”  The adventurer asked all in a loud  rush of words that River found unbearable.  Instantly,  he hands flew up to his ears trying to escape the verbal assault.

“Stop it! “River moaned, “Get out! ”

There was a scuffle, the necklace was removed gently from his knotted hands and the Noisy One was gone.  River breathed in deeply and shuddered.  He tried to forget the Noisy One  and get back to work but the idea of a key shaped like a necklace intrigued him.  What sort of lock would it be?  How would it work?  Was the colour of the stone significant, the way they moved the light or just the engraving on their surface?  Where could he start looking?

And then it came to him.  The box.  Sally had taken the box in exchange.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

The herald walked the streets calling the fifth watch, as the tradespeople and apprentices in the workshop of Rathbone Locks and Security packed up for the day, gave their respects to River and left for home.  River liked this time best, the silence of the workshop was the only companion he cherished and its arrival was often received by a deep breath and  a small smile.  Unfortunately, today was Friday and worse, the last Friday of the month.  Already Sally was waiting in her coat and hat with a bundle of notes to hand to River.

“I can’t go, I have to study the box.” River mumbled into the top of his drafting table.

“You ‘ave ta go, it’s more than my jobs worth to make sure you go.  You know your father.”  Sally scolded gently worry lining her pretty face.

River nodded, if Sally didn’t make him go, the Rathbone Private Security Forces (RPSF) would, with sweaty hands and loud rough voices and the smelly body odour of old boots. Claudius Rathbone esq. was not a halfling you said no to.

With a customary slump of his shoulders, River stepped down from his workbench, sliding the heavy chest onto a small trolley and wheeled it to Sally, stopping only to receive the notes from the book keeping River’s father was bound to ask about.

“Thanks River.  You’ll be fine.” As River started walking away Sally kissed him on the forehead, a chaste little kiss, but it made River blush and scrubbed his head.

“Sa-lly.”  He whined childishly, but smiled nonetheless, a deep red heat filling his face.

The street from the docks and merchants quarter where the workshop was gently slopped up up the hill towards the gentile residences of town was busy that evening, full of the industry that that town patron, and River’s Father, approved of and encouraged.  Once a fishing village, Riverton had grown into a sizable township in one lifetime. Built on the Eireamhon River, survived and thrived on the river and the traffic that plied its deep waters, but those who could afford didn’t live near the noisome river, its noise, its smells, the humidity and disease carrying insects.  River’s destination, as on every Friday, was the largest and most ostentatious of the houses on the hill, the Rathbone residence.

The box’s weight was on River’s mind as well as his shoulders as he strained against the leather harness attached to the cart.  So far, he had only made a preliminary examination of the box and knew it was made especially for the jewel it had protected.  Local wood had been used to create a framework for the necklace to sit in, which had been covered in lead plate, padded with raw wool, also from local sources, and the velvet lined.  This suggested the lock the jewels opened was also local, but local for one type of tree or sheep could be within 100’s of miles, further than River had been in his entire life.  The lead walls of the box though unusual, were just lead and had no protective properties other than that innate to the metal.  The runes embossed into the soft metal required more investigation.

River was savouring the thought of  later that night, plowing through his texts in search for answers.  The idea carried him through the bustle of the high street as shops closed for the night and people walked together in the twilight of a summer evening.

He almost missed the stonebound mansion that was his father’s home .  It was a cough and “Excuse me, Master River.” that broke him from his musings.  Just behind him a well dressed man stood in an open door way.   “Can I help you at all, sir?”  Dawson, the Rathbone stewart and most senior of Claudius Rathbone’s staff leaned stiffly out the double doors, a curious patient expression on his face.  He was professional, polite and always where he needed to be, such as standing in the door waiting for River to walk past.  River  turn his little cart around and started dragging its street grimmed wheels up the short flight of steps into the marble foyer, much to Dawson’s distress.

“Please Master River, let me take that for you.  I’ll make sure one of the boys can be assigned to look after it.”  Dawson (River didn’t know his first name, he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard his first name) held out a hand to receive the harness from River.  River stared at the hands for a moment longer than was comfortable for Dawson who started to fidget.  Eventually, with exaggerated  movements, River placed the rough leather in the neatly manicured hand.

“It is important.  Keep it safe.”  River emphasised, not letting go of the cart until Dawson was was stumbling to agree.  “O-f course, Master River.”

River gave the box a long glance back over his shoulder, marking that Dawson gave strict instructions to one of the houseboys for the box’s care as it disappeared around the stone corner of the house. Then, with Sally’s notes wrapped tightly to his body, River made his way to the dining room.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Dinner at the Rathbone residence was simple and hearty, much to the lady of the house’s disgust.  She was highborn from the city and felt that life as an ex-adventurer’s wife was overrated.  A full rack of roast beef was laid out on the long dining table between herself and her gregarious husband.  Surrounding that were platters filled with choice cuts from other beasts and a few roast vegetables, mostly for decoration.  When she suggested a soup course, Claudius just laughed and said soup was peasant food and they need not live like peasants.  Peasant or not, Lady Rathbone’s stomach could have done with a lighter meal than the one presented.  She ate a little, for appearance’s sake, and would order something on bread later.

Every dinner at the Rathbone’s was a celebration as Claudius had the knack of inviting every travelling merchant, adventurer, and (as far as she was concerned) lay-about for a meal where stories were shared and the wine would flow as far as the truth was stretched.  As usual, Claudius had found himself three unlikely ruffians in the high street that day and he and the human leader  of the group were huddled together talking about ancient temples and fabulous riches.

Ahmad Soobroyen was quite charming as that sort came, a little too forward, a little too grubby. He had kissed her hand like a hero out of the fables, and then appropriated a whole bottle of wine from the staff and proceeded to drink it to the last drop while Claudius regaled him with his famous adventures.

The half orc, by the only name Helmutt, was intimidating with his massive hammer that he refused to give up to staff.  He sat surrounded by platters, both fists full of food, stuffing first one then the other into his gapping maw.  Nothing but unintelligible grunts coming from that direction.

The third was a terrifying tiefling woman names Libya Thyrakas, all red skin, swept back horns through thick black unbound hair and a tail that lashed disconcertedly like an upset cats.  She sat in silence picking at the few vegetables that were on offer.  Lady Rathbone tried making conversation with her and the tiefling replied politely enough even intelligently, but what do you talk about with a tiefling? What did they know of polite society?

And then River, Claudius’ son, shambled into the dining room and took his usual seat.  Lady Rathbone had long ago given up holding discourse him.  Besides being an idiot and having the social graces of an untrained ape, he was a constant reminder of Claudius’ more adventuresome past that she would rather keep to dinnertime stories, not moping around her dinner table sloping gravy all down his front.  Again.

Tonight, the tiefling and then the human adventurer stopped their meals to watch River who had forgone his usual stuttered formal greetings  and sat down in gloomy silence.“Well, master locksmith, fancy meeting you here.”  The human flushed from wine and good food turned in his seat to look straight at River.  River sank further into his seat.  “Feeling better after this afternoon, you certainly gave me and your staff a shock.”

“Shock?”  Claudius perked up sensing  a good story.  Lady Rathbone imagined she could almost see his pointy ears perk up like a dog’s through his mop of grey curls.  “River, don’t tell me you’ve finally had a little excitement of your own?”

“Hardly that sir, “  The human smirked and Lady Rathbone took an immediate dislike of him.  As little as Lady Rathbone liked River, there was no need to make fun of him at his own father’s table.

“My adventuring party went to his establishment for advice on the box we were telling you about.  I must say he’s a dab hand with the locks, and a silent mover, didn’t know he was there until he was poking around in the trap.  Then it was open and he was  gone again, just the way he had come.”

“That’s the Lightfoot in us.”  Claudius boasted once again of his less than noble heritage, “Sure and nimble is the Lightfoot way.  But surely one lock was not the cause of shock and drama, tell on my lad.”  Claudius said to the young man who continued,

“But when we asked to have the item identified and valuated he went into a rage, demanded I sell it to him for 200 gold and had his thugs throw me out of the workshop when I wanted a few answers for my payment.”  The blood was rising in the young man’s face, he had clearly had enough to drink and Lady Rathbone made a discreet signal to Dawson to water the wine.

“A rage? River?”  Claudius snorted  in derision and slapped the table, he too was a little worse for the drink.  “I’m sorry Ahmad but being his father I can claim to know River as well as anyone can and I can tell you he is incapable of anger of any kind.”  He looked solemnly at his son and sighed heavily, “ Actually, I’ve come to realise that outside the world of locks and keys my son has no passions at all.  Not for food, or woman or music or adventure.”

Ahmad, snorted derisively at River.

“And his evaluation was wrong.  He said the necklace was worth 200 gold.  I can’t get anyone to give me more than 50 for the thing.  They say the jewels have been damaged and the metal is uncommercial in it’s current form.  The whole piece is virtually worthless.”

Lady Rathbone made another gesture to hurry on the dessert course.

At his news Claudius looked darkly down the table to where River sat, arms wrapped about papers clutch tight, food untouched.  Claudius could overlook any number of indiscretion from his child, would have actively encouraged some, but wasting money was not one of them.

“River, would you care to explain yourself?”  Claudius Rathbone stood up in his chair gaining the few more inches needed to see over the roast meat spread out over the table.

River started rocking in his chair.

Lady Rathbone waved away the desserts and stood up with stately grace, all eyes moving to her.

“Well this has been a pleasant evening, but I can see that Claudius and River have business to talk about as is their custom,” She looked meaningfully at Claudius and he sat back in his chair with a thump.  “ Would you three adventurers care to join me in the study for coffee and liquors?”

The tiefling stood gracefully to comply, the half orc following her lead stood less gracefully as his chair crashed to the ground and the tablecloth he’d tucked into his shirt lifted and spilled platters of food in a wave around him.  At the roar of breaking crockery, a scramble of staff appeared to clear the mess away and the human also rose from his seat and address Lady Rathbone.

“Unfortunately, my Lady we must be off.  I thank you deeply for your hospitality.”  He gave a drunken bow, grinned evilly in River’s direction and stumbled out, the other two in his wake.

Lady Rathbone excused herself from the dining table, glad for the quiet of her private apartment and her sandwich.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

River was still shaking and twitching as he left the dining room sometime later.

When he’d seen the noisy one again, he’d wanted to turn around and leave, wanted to hide until they were gone.  But then Lady Rathbone had spotted him and ushered him to a chair with her big meaty hands.  River just did as she instructed and waited, the notes that Sally gave him his only protection.

At that moment he wished for the silent, velvet darkness inside the box.  Six thick sheets of lead and wood away from anything or anyone.  As the noisy one started talking at him, River thought about the box, the runes on its surface and what  it could mean to the key, for he was sure that necklace was a key. The perfect key, one that used interlocking surfaces or light or both to unlock…something.

“River, would you care to explain yourself?” Father’s voice tore through River’s thoughts and he remembered that he was at the dining table and everyone was staring at him.  That’s when he felt himself rocking.

River was barely aware of the others leaving and soon it was just River and his Father in the echoing space of the dining room.

“River, listen to me boy.  River.”  Claudius said from his position at the top of the table.  River was listening, at least some part of him was, but his body kept up the steady mechanical swaying, like the pendulum on a clock.  There was a thunk as Claudius jumped down from the dining room table and marched around to where River sats, seemingly oblivious to his father’s actions.

“Stop that rocking this instant and act like a man.”  He snatched the paperwork away from River’s grasp ripping several pages.

River continued to rock.

In silence only broken by the soft rustle of paper, Claudius scanned the notes and grimaced.

“These figures seem in order, did Sally put this together for you?”

River nodded.

“She’s too good for you and that company.  Luckily.  What did she have to say about you buying that trinket of Ahmad’s?”

“Nothing.”  River mumbled, making Claudius scowl even more.

“Nothing.”  This seemed to be too much for Claudius who burst into anger,  “Nothing to say to her worthless boss.  She’s worth two of you, you who don’t even notice such a lovely thing exists.  I don’t want to hear that you’re wasting company money on junk.  I didn’t build up my wealth by sitting on my arse and dreaming all day long. I work hard and long, my youth spent adventuring, gathering collateral enough to build myself a store, then chain of stores.  I built this town into the centre of trade it is and I won’t have you squandering away that inheritance on baubles, is that clear!”

River nodded, though it was hard to tell through the rocking.

There was a long silence where Claudius just looked at his child.  River was sure he had more to say, there was always more.  Tonight, Claudius was silent and staring.  Without moving his head, River glanced at his father.  He just stood there, hands clenching and unclenching by his sides.  Words formed on his lips but no sound came out.  Eventually, with effort that made him stutter, Claudius spoke, so low River sitting right there almost didn’t hear it.

“Is..is there something I did wrong, River?  Did I treat you badly to make you they way you are?”

There were a great many things that River didn’t understand about people.  Why they talked so much, and so loud, why laughter was so important and why sometimes they cried.  Why touching was so important to them and how they could stand to eat and drink the many things they did.  Now here was his father, the self-made man that everyone, regardless of how big they were, looked up to, asking him these questions?

Claudius Rathbone had given his bastard son a home, education and his time and effort.  He had trained River as he had been trained by his family, to be clever, to be quiet and to never let them catch you.  River didn’t know what made a good father, but he couldn’t imagine another.

River, turned his father and, not having any words to say, just shook his head.

“I guess all parents want their children to be like them, to continue their work.  Maybe that’s just vanity.  I just wonder sometimes…  You’re mother was a  good woman.  Flawed like all of us all, but full of life. She said… and I never doubted her, but… sometimes I don’t know how you can be my son.”

River said nothing.  He didn’t understand how they could be related either.

Claudius sighed.

“Okay, River you can go.”

River leaped down from his chair and didn’t look back.

“Oh and River, get to dinner on time next week.”

River blindly nodded to whatever Dawson said the front door and with numb hands took the harness to his cart from nameless servants.  Uptight and strained from the dining room confrontation, River automatically trudged home, not even stepping aside as a troop of the RPSF marched up the high street, big hobnailed boots crashing onto the cobbled.

River understood that his father was not happy with him, had known it all his life.  River had always found the tasks that Claudius did without thought difficult and had to practice hard to even gain his father’s grudging approval.  That changed when Claudius first introduced River to lockpicking and trapfinding. It was the one time that River had known Claudius’ approval and genuine respect.  The search for the perfect, unpickable, unbreakable lock had ever since become an obsession.

At the pink sign of a lady’s petticoat, known throughout the district as The Ladies Favours, River turned his little cart from the cobble street to the rutted dirt alley.  Behind the dancehall filled with lively music, laughter, dancing, ugly men and painted women, were the quieter private quarters of the tavern staff.  Into the cold single room he had once shared with his mother, River dragged the cart holding the box.  The cramped quarters were lined with book shelves that rattled and swayed as the cart bumped into one or the other until he could close the door.

River shuffled around the cart and lit a hooded oil lantern sitting at a desk.  Now glowing in the dim lantern light, neat piles of sketches, drawing materials and reference books, lines of quills, penknives and ink bottles of different ink lined up opposite the simple chair.  Above the table, behind a clear piece of glass,  hung a detailed map of the Eireamhon River, from its source at a lake in the foothills to the east, out to a meandering delta to the south west, with Riverton clearly marked two thirds the way up. The only other items in the room were a single bed, a potbelly stove, a small set of draws  and the hand cart and box.

It was with a sense of relief that the difficult part of the night was over and River could now sit down and decipher the box.  Quick hands fell to a clean sheet of velum and a piece of charcoal.  Carefully, River laid the paper over the engravings on the boxes lid and lightly drew the charcoal across the surface.  High ridges caught the charcoal leaving a smudge on the vellum, engraved section were unmarked creating a negative of the engravings.  When complete it showed the full text on the box in one glance.  This, River pinned to the wooden wall above his desk and pulled out his books.

River liked languages.  Much like locks, once you had the key the mystery hidden in the script was revealed.  There were patterns to written languages that were sometimes missing or obscured by cultural references long lost.  Cracking an obscure piece of text was similar to cracking a lock, you just needed to look for the patterns and if you were lucky find a key.

Sometime that night, after the hotel had gone quiet and the working girls had stumbled back to their private quarters,  River found a poem written in the script of the box.  It was in ancient orcish no longer spoken, but in the book the poem had been translated into elven.  The key had been found.

Grey morning light filtered through the dusty window behind River as he finally put down his pen.  The lines in the original text had rhymed but rendered in common were as follows:

Cursed is the one that disturb

Vvaraak’s glory

Where the palms grow,

Under rock, over fire, under water, over air.

Locked safe for his return.

 

River hadn’t known what to expect from the inscription, something more than these cryptic lines that was sure.  He tried to remember what the necklace looked like, if there was any other information but his tired mind refused to work.  Sleep was what it demanded and eventually River had to agree.  Without another thought River crawled into bed and awaited sleep knowing that he would have to get another look at that necklace if he was to get any further in finding his perfect lock.  Before another coherent thought crossed his mnd, sleep finally claimed him and he knew no more.

Under the shadows of a cloudy night, a figure stalked through the streets of Riverton.  Only the keenest most aware would have noticed the darker shadow within the shadows as it made its silent way down from the main street into the more squalid areas in town.  Here, the lumpen mounds of refuse and unorthodox construction methods made movement even easier and the shadow moved quickly to its destination, The Broken Spar.

A sailor’s tavern in use and occupation, it catered for travellers who couldn’t afford the fees charged at establishments further up the hill.  Owned by a retired riverboat captain the inn was small and mean but neat and well run for what it was.  It was also the current haunt, so the gossip went, of the adventuring group that was making such a noise trying to sell a worthless piece of dungeon junk.  One thing that you could rely on living in a tavern was gossip. Off duty girls chatting, delivery boys with news of the day, travellers from near and far talking through their spare time all brought news, as long as you had sharp ears.  Now River, barefoot and silent, climbed effortlessly up the rough wooden walls off the inn a second floor window.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Libya leaned upon on her unwrapped bedroll staring into the darkness of the cramped bedroom.  As the group were down to their last gold coin (hers she mused sullenly) they shared the space, the two boys taking opposite ends of the rickety bed while she lay out a space near the guttering fire.  The light of the fire now barely made it past her few possessions, her spellbook a pouch of precious spell components, a waterskin, backpack and her bedroll.  She had studied her spellbook before the fire got too low to read by.  Now she flicked through the pages of incantations and gestures as if they were old friends.  At times like this, when the boys were silent and things looked grim she wondered if her spells were her only friends.

Adventuring had sounded like such glamorous life not that long ago.  As a tiefling she found many doors closed to her.  Her devilish looks turning most people away.  At least with Ahmad and Helmutt she felt like a misfit among misfits.  And when things were good, Ahmad was gregarious and generous.  Helmutt was always kind, in his way, but even he forgot you existed if he’s stomach was empty.  And right now was not the best of times.  Their last coin spent, it was only a matter of time before they were kicked out of even these meagre accommodations.  They needed a job, but Ahmad was obsessed with getting a good price for the necklace.  For days he had dragged them all over town to every jeweler, silversmith,  pawn broker, dress shops even knocking on the doors of a few fine houses to sell the necklace, but no one would give more than fifty gold, and that was only to break the whole thing down for parts.  If only he had taken the halfling locksmith up on his offer instead of abusing the poor fellow.  Anyone could see he hadn’t been right in the head.

Once again Libya contemplated leaving Helmutt and Ahmad and finding a place, somewhere.  Maybe Lord Rathbone could offer her a place as an in-house wizard? Maybe chronicler of his probably overblown biography?

Finally giving up for the night, Libya unrolled her bedroll and lay down, but sleep did not come.  Her thoughts, numerous and noisy kept circling around in her mind making sleep impossible.  Instead she concentrated on the sounds of the night, the last snap and shift of the dying fire, the twin snoring from Ahmad and Helmutt on the bed, a soft scrambling from outside the window.  The scrambling noise made Libya think of a rat climbing up the rough wooden walls of the inn and she shuddered.  She had just steeled herself to get up and knock the vermin off the wall when the tiny window of the room slowly opened and a small, dark figure entered the room.  If she hadn’t been so awake she could have easily missed the figures entry.  The whole building seemed to hold its breath as the shadow crept into the room.

Libya lay perfectly still as she watched the shadow within the shadows of the room slink towards Ahmad and Helmutt’s travel packs and systematically go through each one.  They were thorough, not leaving a pouch unsearch, but also careful, nothing overtly disturbed.  It was clear to Libya that the stranger was searching for something in particular and there was only one thing the party had that a catburglar of this quality could be remotely interested in.

“You won’t find it there.”  She whispered into the darkness.  Instantly the figure froze.  If she didn’t know where they were she could have sworn they were figment of her overtired mind.  “Ahmad sleeps with the necklace, you’ll never get it off him”

The figure turned to the bed as if contemplating that very thing.  “Cocky,” Libya thought, “they thinks they can pick-pocket Ahmad, and who’s to say they can’t.”

She whispered again, “You know the necklaces worth, why not share it with us and there is no need to risk discovery.  Helmutt is not gentle with thieves.”

The figure shifted again, this time to look in her direction.  In the dying light of the fire she could make out little, their features were dark, reflecting almost no light, but their eyes were wide brown and knowing.  With the same fluid confidence the figure started back towards the window.  Slowly Libya put her hand into her pack and drew out a stub of candle, with care she touched the wick to the embers of the fire and the small flame ignited. At the same time she spoke a simple cantrip and shut the window with a loud bang waking Helmutt and Ahmad.  Their heads shot up from opposite ends of the bed and bleary eyes searched the night for what had disturbed their slumber.

Lifting her candle high, Libya now could see the figure was small, child sized and barefoot.  In dark greys and browns.  Face, feet and hands sooted to darkness so even now in the light of the candle flame it was hard to determine who the intruder was.

“Hello, little locksmith.”

The locksmith now exposed turned away and tried the window, it was locked fast.  Faster than Libya had expected the Locksmith raced for the door but by this time Helmutt was enough himself to leap up and grab the thief around the waist.  An inconherant roar went up from the little figure and Helmutt’s big meaty hand covered his mouth and half his face as well, silencing the noise.  At this the Locksmith fell limp and the light of intelligence went out of his big brown eyes.

“Interesting, “ Thought Libya getting up to bring her candle closer, “Not as dim as he makes out.” She gently touched her finger to the Locksmith darkened skin, it came away clean.  Not just soot then, something that doesn’t leave tell tale marks behind.  More intriguing still.

“What the blazes is going on?  A thief?  Throw him out the window Helmutt and let us get some sleep.”  Grumbled Ahmad as he fought out of his bedding to sit on the edge of the bed.

“I think if you were wise you would offer this thief a proposal.”  Libya said quietly and both Helmutt and Ahmad looked at her astounded.

“Why would you want to keep a sneak thief around, Libya?  He can’t be very good, he’s been caught red handed.”  Ahmad who still hadn’t really looked at  who the thief was scrubbed his tired face with the back of his hand.

“Hey, I know him.”  Helmutt, having got a better view of the limp figure he held. “He’s the locksmith who opened that heavy box.”

“Oh ho!” Ahmad stood up looking the locksmith square in the face.  The little figure squealed and squirmed under Ahmad baleful gaze but could not get away from Helmutt’s grip. “Tell me Libia, why should we offer this idiot anything but a trip  to the city guard?”  Ahmad smirked at Libya and the familiar urge to slap it right off his arrogant face reared up.  The knowledge that he really did appreciate her opinion held her in check.

“One, they will only hand him over to his father which will do nothing but make the only influential man angry with us.  Two, he’s the only one who shown any interest in that curse necklace and we need the money.  Three, he’s good.  He climbed the wall outside this window with only bare hands and feet, he’s quiet and hugs the shadows as if born to them.  He’s trained in locks and with luck he’ll be good at traps as well.  Since Joshua’s….accident.”  Libya looked straight at Helmutt who only grunted in reply. “We’ve been in desperate need of those skills.  Four, he knows something about this necklace, has ever since spotting it.  We need to know what he knows.”

“But he’s an idiot Libya, he’ll only get in the way and get us all killed.”  Ahmad whined, a sure sign that she was winning the argument.

At that moment, the locksmith bit the meaty palm of Helmutt’s hand.  In surprise, Helmutt loosened his hold and the locksmith breathed out, shrinking his chest and slithered out out Helmutt’s grasp entirely.  There was nowhere for him to go so like a cornered terrier the locksmith went onto the attack.  In one fluid moment he swung his legs at the back of Ahmad’s knees knocking him to the ground with a grunt.  At the same time a dagger appeared in his small nimble hand and now, with the advantage of height gone, he was able to headlock Ahmad the dagger sharp blade forcing a rivulet of blood from his exposed neck at its slightest touch.

“I am not an idiot, You are the idiot!”  The locksmith whispered with venom in his voice.  “You’re noisy and rude and I don’t like you!”  Helmutt went  to grab the locksmith but was stayed when both Ahmad and Libya put up their hands.  Ahmad did not move but to look at Libya, shock and surprise clear in his eyes.

“You’re right, Master Locksmith,”  Libya said in her calmest, most gentle voice. “He is an idiot, “  Ahmad frowned, but did not protest.  “He is loud and sometimes it causes problems.  But he has the necklace and he can help you.  If you kill him, then Helmutt here, “ She pointed to the Orc standing ready, his great maul ready to pound flat the halflings head, “ will probably kill you and then no one will get to see how special the necklace is.  Ahmad knows to be quiet and polite now, please let him go and we’ll show you the necklace.”

“Open the window and I’ll let him go.”  The little locksmith said in his odd monotone, the venom of before gone.  With a thought and a gesture Libya opened the window.  The little locksmith pushed the off-balance Ahmad straight into Helmutt’s path and lept for the window in one fluid movement.  Libya almost laughed watching the halfling perched on the window sill like a scolded cat ready to disappear at the first sign of trouble. Fortunately, both Ahmad and Helmutt didn’t see the humour in the moment and both stopped where they were, Ahmad dabbing at the cut on his neck with a finger.

“The necklace.”  The locksmith stated flatly.  Ahmad opened his blood stained collar to reveal the necklace around his own neck sparkling evilly in the candlelight.

“And how would we know you won’t fly out that window as soon as you have your clever hands on it?”  Ahmad said gently, neutral and unthreatening.  “ We need to come to some sort of arrangement, don’t you think?”

The little thief sat further back on his haunches and thought.

“To cooperate, to advance mutual interest? Partnership?”

“Partnership,”  Ahmad smiled, now they were in his speciality,  “10% of all treasure found after party expenses.”

They eyes of the locksmith scanned the three party members,

“25% is fair,” he said and then surprised them all by smiling a shy little smile that exposed his white teeth against his blackened face, “Father would have wanted 30% before expenses.”

Libya glanced to Ahmad fearful that he would bluster at the halflings audacity. She was relieved to see that his face was calm and thoughtful.  Finally in the same calm tone he replied.

“It would be fair, for a full party member.  Do you intend to come along with us little locksmith?”

The halfling nodded timidly, his eyes growing large and white in his black face.

“It will be dangerous, our last trap finder did not come back alive.  Are you sure?”

The nod again, this time firmer, a decision made.

“Good!”  Ahmad announced in his take-charge voice and thrust out his hand for the halfling to shake.  Libya was sure the locksmith would leap out the window, instead he scowled and crossed his arms,

“Penalty clause, one gold coin for loud rudeness, each offence.”

It was Ahmad’s turn to scowl.

“I like it, “  Libya agreed hoping to breach this difference, “It will be nice to adventure without being yelled and cursed at for a change.”

Ahmad turned to Libya  a hurt expression on his face.

“You do have a potty mouth.”  Helmutt added in his deep baritone.

Deflated Ahmad turned back to the locksmith,

“It seems I have been overruled.  I agree only if this penalty will be opposed on ALL party members equally.  Deal little thief?”

With a huff, the locksmith leaped lightly down from the window sill and looked at Ahmad’s outstretched hand.  Grudgingly he took the large calloused hand in his own small gloved one.

“My name is River.”

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

The room the adventuring company had always been small.  Helmutt always had to tread carefully in case he stepped on a sleeping Libya or piled up equipment and could not bend over in case he hit someone with the handle of his hammer.  Once the little locksmith  was given the necklace to examine he took over a piece of floor  filling it with candles, a notebook filled with small neat writing, a magnifying glass and a pencil.

The excitement of discovering the locksmith and the tussle that had resulted had been replaced with silently sitting or standing and watching the locksmith, an occupation that Helmutt was never any good at.  River first noted down any squiggles he found on the necklace through his magnifying glass into his notebook.  He then compared the new squiggles to old squiggles.  Helmutt wasn’t sure what all this scribe work was for and was becoming more and more bored and more and more aware of his growing hunger.  The rumbles of Helmutt’s empty stomach finally became too much of a distraction to the halfling who complained about the noise.

“I can’t help my stomach, it needs food and we haven’t the coin for any.”  Helmutt complained, swinging his arms wide and almost knocking Ahmad in the head and sending Libya flat to the floor to avoid his maul.  Without further word, the locksmith pulled out a small purse of coins and threw it at the half orc.

“Bring us all back some breakfast, Helmutt?”  Ahmad added as if he had provided the money for provisions.

Secretly thankful to get out of that claustrophobic room, Helmutt grumbled his way into the morning bustle to find the nearest bakery.  By chance he walked past the locksmith shop where a crowd of tradesmen, apprentices and the sales assistant stood outside the locked door.

“He’s busy, pouring over our necklace.”  Helmutt called to the group as he passed, but the young half-elf who had served them wouldn’t be content with that.

“Tell me wot you mean by dat?  River’s never missed a day’s work in ‘is life why would ‘e start now for your crummy necklace.”  She said indignantly, her thin hand clutching his arm.  He could have brushed her off, he could have just kept walking but her concern was genuine and held him fast.
“How do I know?!  All I know it he wanted it enough to try stealing it last night, nearly got it too, sneaky bugger.”

“Thiefin’?”  The shop girl let go of his arm in surprise.  Helmutt began worrying if he’d said the wrong thing, and then she smiled. “Well, ‘is da will be surprised.  Is ‘e with you then, part of your group?”

“Ur…yeah, I think.  At least Ahmad and him shook hands and all.  Even bargained Ahmad up and that doesn’t happen often.”

Now there was no doubt, the young woman was smiling and so were some of the older tradesmen listening in on the conversation.

“Well, who’d ‘ave thought it, hey?  You look after ‘im now, ‘e’s special, that one.”  This time the touch on the arm was gentle and motherly, a pat to reinforce her words.”  It made Helmutt  nervous.

“Who says I wouldn’t…I mean…uh…yeah, sure.”  Helmutt could feel a blush coming and tried changing the subject.  “So do you want me to tell him to come open up?”

The shop assistant smiled again in a way that made him feel giddy.

“Don’t worry about us, the benefits of working with skilled locksmith is…”  She turned and one of the locksmiths was already at the lock.  There was a click and the door swung open, “You can tell River that we’ll look after dis place, ‘e just has to come back in one piece.”

Helmutt went on his way still looking for breakfast and maybe a pub open for a morning drink.  The conversation with the pretty half-elf had left him feeling ashamed and empty.  River’s addition to the team highlighted their recent loss.  Guilt over the death of their previous trapfinder weighted heavily on Helmutt, more than he let on to the others.  He saw himself as the protector of the party, the one that kept them out of trouble and the meat shield when he couldn’t.  The loss of Joshua was a stain on his honour and self confidence.

Helmutt walked through the town caught in his own morose mood, oblivious to hooded eyes watching.  A stall selling small beer and hot meat rolls caught his attention and he sat heavily on a rickety stool, ordered and sunk into a grey funk of self recrimination.  Around a corner figures watched and talked, one finally leaving while the other stayed, also taking a seat at the stall.

The temple trip had started out so simply.  Ahmad had found out through his contacts about the temple and that no one had successfully made it all the way inside but it was suspected to hold a treasure of enormous value.  Travel to the temple had been difficult, but no more than usual for the wild reaches outside the influence of  civilisation.  They had all made it to the temple in one piece and had made camp that night, their last night, outside its doors.  The next day, Joshua had just found a trip-line and was trying to disarm it.  The masonry of the old building had not survived the ravages of time well and Helmutt leaning back on a wall setting off the collapse of a whole hallway.  The floor gave way and Joshua fell from sight.

The group continued to explore the temple complex and eventually found another path down but no sign of Joshua. The discovery of the box and their flight from the collapsing temple meant they never got a chance to look for Joshua’s body, never had a chance to say goodbye to an old friend.

Helmutt ate his meal, ordered more meat rolls for the others, and  made his slow way back down the hill to the Inn.  When he stepped into the room it had gone from a silent tomb to lecture hall with the locksmith reciting an old poem from his book.  They all looked tired and frustrated with what the locksmith had discovered.

“Gul-bala.”  Helmutt said without thinking in response to one of the lines as he handed out the rolls.

“What?”  Ahmad said scrubbing his tired face with the palm of his hand.

“Not the place where the palms grow;  Gul-bala.”  Helmutt replied matter of factly.

Now all three faces turned to him, six bright eyes in the darkness.  It was disturbing.

“What?”  It was Helmutt’s turn.

“Tell us what you mean by Gullballar.”  Ahmad encouraged, making space for Helmutt on the ground.”

“No, Gul-ba-la.  You said it, but it’s not a description, the place where the palms grow.  It’s a name, Gul-bala, the ancient capital of the Orc nation.”

Almost instantly Libya and Ahmad spoke,

“Of course!”

“There’s an Orc nation?”

“Was.”  Spoke up the halfling despondently, “it doesn’t exist anymore.”

“And they were notorious for leave no written records.”  Libya added”

At that Helmutt gave a derisive noise and leaned back against the wall, the thin boards of the wall creaked under his weight.
“Writing, who needs that when you have memories.  What do you want to know?”

Now the enquiring faces turned to each other, new hope lighting their eyes.  River flipped through his notebook excitedly.

“The box and the necklace have the same text though the necklace does not have the curse the box does.”  The halfling babbled in his odd monotone, excited but lacking the usual life that other people gave their language.  “ Firstly who is Vvaraak?”

Helmutt snorted with laughter as if this were some sort of great joke.  Who hadn’t heard of Vvaraak?  But all three  just looked at him straight faced and expectant.

“Whose Vvaraak?!  Only the green dragon that guided the Druidic Orc nation to glory and honour.”

River scribbled a note in his book, the other two mouthed over the top “A dragon hoard?”

“And where the palms grow you say is actually the name of a place?”

Helmutt was not laughing this time,“Yeah, the great city of the Orcs, Gul-bala.”

“And do you know where Gul-bala is?”

“Well, it doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Do you know where it was?”

Helmutt thought.  All the high stories of his people were sung as long complicated poems.  To get at any detail you had to sing the passages pertaining to the topic in question.  It could be laborious for even the best of bards, and Helmutt had never paid too much attention to the old tales, until now.  He started singing the Song of the Druids that talked about the foundation of the Druidic order under Vvarraak, the rhyme and rhythm helping to keep at least most of it the song straight in his mind.

Ahmad and Libya had on more than one occasion told him his singing sounded like wildebeest stampeding.  Ahmad clapped his hands to his ears in protest but River hushed him and listened intently to Helmutt and the song.  It was an odd feeling to be the focus of so much scrutiny.  Helmutt often had people watch him either out of fear, suspicion or curiosity, but usually when he caught their eye, people would quickly find  a reason to turn away.  As a result, Helmutt rarely looked anyone in the eye.  But here was a tiny halfling, a creature so small he could stuff him in his backpack staring straight into him as if the words of the song were written there.  River sat in concentrated silence, taking notes when needed otherwise remaining perfectly still.  It was disconcerting to Helmutt who more than once apologised when he stumbled over words.  Eventually the words failed him completely, and the song petered out to half remembered phrases that only half made sense.

“Well?”  Ahmad asked impatiently after the noise had died down.

“Well what?”  River replied coolly folding up his notebook and tucking it and his magnifying glass away.
“What did all that hee-hawing tell you, tell us about Gul-bala?”

“A great deal.  Once old maps of the trade ways, other major capitals and the flows of water ways are established we shall have a clear map of….”

“Smoke!”  Libya leaped to her feet grabbing her equipment.  The rest of the party took a moment to look around and finally spotted the thin tendrils seeping under the door.

River scrambled for the window but even here flames licked the wood shingle cladding the Inn.

“Punch a hole in the roof!”  Ahmad ordered pointing to a spot above the bed.  Helmutt complied thrusting the head of his maul through the splintered rafters and slats to the open air.  In one moment Ahmad had the bed vertical leaning against the wall the straw-filled mattress flung forgotten to the floor.  The bed now made a makeshift ladder up into the rafters.  First River, Libya, then Ahmad and Helmutt carefully climbed the bed and into the relatively clean air above.

All around thick flames encircled the Inn leaving precious few escape routes.  One was over to the roof of a nearby building a few metres of empty air and a three storey fall between. Ahmad, without a hesitation, leaped the gap rolling to his feet on the other side calling the others across.  Libya went next, only just making the roof and needing a well timed catch from Ahmad to get her to safety.  Helmutt looked to the halfling almost clinging to to his leg.

“Your turn, little thief.”  Helmutt said as reassuringly as possible.

“Too far. 2.8 metres far too far to jump, 12 metres a long way to fall.”  River calculated and shook his head.

“Too far to jump you say,”  Helmutt grinned wickedly, he was going to enjoy this, “How about fly?”

“Fly?”  The halfling squeaked just before two meaty hand once more grabbed a hold of him and flung him like a sack through the air across the gap between building into Ahmad’s waiting arms.  Ahmad staggered under the halfling’s sudden weight.  Quick footwork kept both of them from falling through the roof of the new building and Ahmad gently set the halfling down.

Now Helmutt looked to broach the gap.  He felt confident that he could make the distance, but was unsure the slate roof on the other side could take his formidable weight.  Without a glance back he started his run up.  Unfortunately the fire had already weakened  rafters at that end.  Just has he made his big push to propel himself across the gap, the roof collapsed, Helmutt was propelled down  the two storeys to the alley between the buildings.  He looked up through the smoke and occasional flame at the three faces looking down with concern.  He wondered at that moment if he could stay there the buzz of adrenaline in his ears, his friends safe and sound. That was until an ominous creaking and groaning came from the wall beside him.  Without a thought for injuries sustained in the fall, Helmutt leaped up and out of the alley.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Ahmad had never liked the inn that fate and found them, but he never expected to watch it burn.  The owner may have skimped on many things, but a previous life as a sailor had taught her the dangers of fire.  All candles were shielded, all fires well built and maintained.  She wouldn’t have a cook fire in the place fearing a fat fire starting. A disturbing thought crept into his conscious mind.  Accidents happened, but was this one?

The adventuring group stood and watched as the old inn burnt to the ground despite the efforts of villagers.  With a gesture, Ahmad moved the group along placing a hand on the halfling locksmith as he did.  The little guy flinched under his touch and Ahmad couldn’t help but feel an instant pang of guilt for the way he had treated him.  Still, he was so small, fragile and…odd.

Joshua came to Ahmad’s mind and was quickly brushed aside as a wave of guilt swept through him.  Forcing his thoughts back to the present his whispered low to River,

“How quickly can you get access to those maps and make your calculations?”

“Comparisons have to be made over many maps.”  “I have some at my home but others I should check with Father’s collection and a trip to the University.  Weeks of work a few months with travel.”  The halfling replied in his stilted monotone that sounded oddly excited at the prospects.

“If you could only use the maps at your home and possibly the references at your Father’s?”

The halfling grumbled  and squirmed under Ahmad’s light touch.

“Today and tomorrow if Father is ‘in a mood’.”  He said the last with more life as if he’d borrowed someone else’s voice for the expression.

“I think that could be a good idea, I feel we are no longer welcome in Riverton.”

Ahmad saw Helmutt and Libya flinch at his words.

“Riverton is a safe and welcoming town.  If there is trouble the Rathbone Private Security Forces are here to help.”  Again the halfling seemed to parrot someone else’s words and intonation.

Ahmad looked over at two of the RPSF loitering on a corner watching the villagers about their daily business.  They looked like thugs dressed in uniform, bullies with procedures and a hierarchy.  At the same time a figure whipped away from sight behind the RPSF members,  between two buildings and the hairs on Ahmad’s neck stood on end.  He couldn’t be sure, but his senses told him otherwise, they were being watched.

“Do you know anywhere we can stay while you work?”  He whispered to the halfling who nodded and pulled away from his grasp.

They followed him to a bar just up the street only a lick of paint better than the inn they left burning behind them.  A sign with pink ladies undergarments swung in the breeze.

“ I’m not going in there.”  Libia protested, “You do know what this place is don’t you?”

The little halfling nodded looking up at the sign,

“My mother worked here.  It’s my home.”  He said innocently without shame.  He walked in and Helmutt followed a grin spreading across his face.

“We won’t be here long, maybe they have private rooms we can rent for the day, River must have a room or apartment surely.”

Libya looked at Ahmad, determination and anger and even fear crossing her face.

“I made a promise, no matter how bad things got, no matter what the reason I would never stoop so low.  I am a wizard, University trained and honed as a practitioner of the magic arts and I will not set foot in  that.”  Libya voice had been getting louder as her anger grew she pulled herself up and whispered in a hoarse voice, “…house of ill repute.”

Ahmad laughed.  He couldn’t help it.  Here they were burnt out of their old accomodation, there was an oppressive feeling settling over the town and definite feeling of being watched, and here Libya was worried what some local would think of her for stepping into a whore house.  The look burning in her eye and the thought that she would rather die than have people think badly of her soon put a stopper on his laughter.

“Look Libya, River, the halfling, you insisted join the group, lives here  His mother worked here.  You know what that means don’t you?  Do you think any less of him for it?”

Libya anger subsided and she had the good grace to look embarrassed,

“No but River doesn’t care that’s all he’s known and… it’s not the same for women.”  She said unable to make eye contact with him. “I had to work harder than anyone to be recognised as even equal to everyone because I’m female and I’m a tiefling.  I won’t give up that hard earned reputation without a fight.”

“Good.”  Ahmad clapped, “I agree,  if anyone gives you any trouble, burn them to ash.   And no matter what happens you know that Helmutt and I have your back.  But I really think it’s best we get off the street right now.”

Libya was silent, the emotions warring with each other across her features.  Eventually, she pulled a long heavy shawl out of her backpack and wrapped it over and around her head so only a patch of red skin and violet eye showed.  With a nod she stepped past Ahmad and into The Ladies Favours, tail twitching..  Ahmad let go the breath he had been holding and stepped in after her.

Mid morning any day the Ladies Favours was quiet.  With the excitement of fire to draw the denizens out into the street the bar area was deserted, a lone barman restocking shelves.  The barman brightened when he saw River walk in and noticeably chilled again when the half orc lumbered in after him.

“Ho, River, is he with you?”  The barman asked pointing to Helmutt as the muffled Libya and Ahmad also stepped into the gloom of the tavern.

“I’d be careful where you point that thing. “ Helmutt growled drawing himself up to his full almost 2 metre height.  Intimidation radiated  from the half orc and the barmans finger drooped and then disappeared entirely.

“All with me, given them what they want on my account.”  Mumbled River as he stepped out a back door, Libya following.  Ahmad and Helmutt stopped in their tracks when they heard, “…on my account.”  They looked to one another as if reassuring each other they had heard correctly, then stepped up to the bar and gave it an appraising look.

Ahmad in particular looked carefully from one bottle to another behind the barman.  Whereas Helmutt was happy with beer in the biggest stine the bar could offer, Ahmad had other ideas about exploring the bar.

“I would like a Silverglen Absinthe, then a snifter of  Ranewen Brandy and keep going through the alphabet like that until we either run out of liquors, letters or consciousness.”  He smiled happily at the barman, ensured that at least for one more day he could slip blissfully into the arms of drunkenness.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Libya slipped in the front door of the Ladies Favours and straight out the back door to the ramshackled building that made up the apartments of the Ladies Favours residence.  At mid afternoon the bustle  of this backstreet was a shock to the quiet of the bar itself or even the purposeful  industry of the main street beyond.

Here women and children vied for the little space there was for all the ordinary activities of life.  Several women worked together washing clothes while other tied lines from the tavern outer wall to their dwelling and hung up clothes.  Still others were taking advantage of the overhead light to get some much needed mending done while sitting together chatting about everything and nothing.  Children filled the gaps in between, holding onto mother’s skirts, playing tag, bouncing homemade balls, teaching each other to read or playing with makeshift toys.  To Libya it all looked thoroughly domestic and respectable, you’d have no idea that these same ladies would be selling their bodies that night and the results were sometimes the children of the lane.  Slipping through the chaos, River maneuvered like one born to it, which he was.  The women all waved at River and he acknowledged their greetings with a stilted nod or a wave.

Libya had trouble keeping up with the halfling and almost lost him in the maze.  Where he would slip through a group of children playing, the gap would disappear for her and she’d bump into the children upsetting the game. Where River could move effortless past the gossiping women, Libya had to ask their pardon (which caused a number of stares and no end of embarrassment).

Eventually River made it to a small plain wooden door and unlocked it not with a key but a series of gestures.  Libya was sure he had manipulated the lock manually but  to her eyes the door seemed to pop open as if by magic.  Unfortunately, the interior of did not match the beauty of its lock.  It was one small room only a few metres wide and deep with the door and a small dirty window for light.  There was tiny wood stove, table, bookshelves full of texts she’d only seen at the university, a chest and bed with the remaining floor space dominated by a handcart with the small wooden chest they had first brought to his shop.  River moved around the cart,  ignoring its dominating presence in the room, to his desk where, even on this bright day, he lit a lantern.

“Um… River is there something I can help with?”  Asked Libya standing in the doorway.  River turned as if noticing her for the first time. His eyes looked through her, appraising her without taking her in.  Libya shivered.  River went to stove and started a fire.  “I’m university trained and experienced in many types of research.”  She went on as the little room very quickly started heating up.

With a nod River  left the fire and move to the book shelf pulling out books he thought would be useful and placing them on the halfling sized bed.  Libya sat down on the bed only just off the floor and scanned the titles.  A history, from the point of view of defensive engineering, a census from thirty-seven years previous which included a list of landholder and tenant farmers,  a book of collected stories about adventurers who had ventured into dragons lairs (forwarded by Claudius Rathbone) and a collection of poetry and songs of the local region.  Leaning back against the wall of the small room she stretched legs across the bed and picked up what she thought would be the most useful of the books, the history.

It was soon obvious that this book catered more to River’s love of the mechanical as it was filled with detailed descriptions ( and often gruesome  illustrations) of traps and siege engines created for dungeon defence.  Though some of the example did go back to the period suggested  in Helmutt’s songs there was nothing on a great fortress or city of the Orcs.  By this time Libya had done away with her heavy shawl, it was just too hot.  Folding it carefully she placed it behind her back making herself just a little more comfortable.

The second book on dungeoneering was also fruitless being a sensational look at adventurers stories.  Highly dramatised and based solely on the survivors anecdotes, Libya soon gave it up as a waste of time.  They were looking for an undiscovered dragon hoard, not one supposedly despoiled by previous adventurers.

The third book was surprisingly more interesting, the census of landholders and tenant farmers in the district.  As the heat from the fire and lack of sleep the previous night started to take its toll, names, many Orcish in origin started swimming in front of Libya’s eyes.  There was a landholder called Gotubar who had a tenant farmer called Barersh.  Another family has rented several farms in the area under the name Oguodall.  Not a direct link to their undiscovered hoard but it was confirmation that there was a sizable Orc presence in the area that survived to recent times.  This backed up the boxes construction as being of local source.  She put this aside and drawing on this new found hope started on the last book of songs and poetry.

It wasn’t until a small wet hand grabbed Libya’s and pulled that Libya jerked awake.  The poetry book fell from her sleeping hand and in its place was a baby, no more than 18 months old.  Of obvious mixed race its pointed ears hinted at elven, a stocky frame of maybe a dwarf and a slight green tinge to the skin which reminded Libia of Helmutt.  The wet hand was back in the slobbering mouth, large brown eyes staring right into hers with innocent honesty.  The baby smiled showing the first sign of large canines poking through soft pink gums.

“Sotir, where are you my apple dumpling.” Came a woman’s voice from outside the open door.  A young woman half orc shorter than most appeared in the doorway. “Oh, there you are.  And a new arrival.  Pleased to meet you, I never thought I’d see the day that River would have a woman in his bed.”  Said the baby’s mother with simple good humour.  Libya bridled all the same.  She would have jumped out of the bed except for the baby now crawling into her lap, clean baby smell and sunshine filling the air.

“I am not…I would never….”  Was all Libya could say.

“She doesn’t work.  She’s an adventurer.”  River mumbled to no one in particular, not lifting his eyes from his maps.

“I mean no offence,”  Said the young woman realising her mistake “ But there’s not been a woman in his place since River’s mother passed away, the gods bless her soul.”  With ease she plucked the baby from Libya’s lap just as the gooey hand was just about to reach out and touch her face.  Libya wasn’t sure if to be relieved or disappointed.

“Oh River, it’s so hot in here.”  With the same grace the woman moved the baby to one hip as she opened the stove and damped down the fire.  The temperature of the room dropped quickly to where Libia felt she could breath again.

“Thank you.”  Libia said bowing her horned head to the woman unsure of how to address the woman and still unable to stand in the tiny room.

“Don’t  think of it, River tends to forget there are others around sometimes.”  She looked fondly at the halfling still working from one map to another.  “My name is Ulara and this is obviously Sotir.  We get a lot of adventurers at the Ladies Favours, but not many of them make it out the back to the staff quarters and none of them are as pretty as you, please excuse my earlier assumption.”

At Ulara’s words  Libya felt the heat in her face once more, but this time it had nothing to do with the temperature.  It was hard to remember a time when she had ever been called pretty, or even comely.  To be called so by a resident of of the Ladies Favour was confusing.  With a shake of her head, Libya tried to put the thought out of her head and back to the purpose at hand and acknowledged Ulara’s apology.

“We’re researching our next mission, in search for a missing city of Orcs.” A thought lit up a dark corner of Libya’s mind and she turned to Ulara.

“You don’t know anything about Gul-bala, or a city of the Orcs that once existed somewhere is this region?”

“No Miss, nothing as grand as a city, but my people came from a settlement up river called Gabara where mountain streams collect at a lake, the source of the Eireamhon.  It was mostly Orc living there, but the whole of Gabara would have been a handful of houses and a shrine to Bahamut.”

“A shrine to Bahamut?  Older than the settlement?”

“Very old, no one knew who had put it up, it had always just been there.”

“And there wouldn’t happen to be any unusual plant of some sort growing in that area?”

At that Ulara gave a start, “Why yes, I’d never thought about it, but you never see them further down the river.  They’re a date palm  that grows only in the shaded areas around the lake.  We called the fruit Serpent Scat.”  She laughed at the memory, making Sotir giggle with glee.

Libya felt sparks flying between her eyes and her thick hair felt as if it were standing on end.  Not Gul-bala, but Gabara, a settlement of Orcs not too far away.  And then a Shrine to Bahamut.  Was it too much of a stretch to imagine that the shrine had once been not to a metallic dragon but to a chromatic?

Libya looked across at River who had suddenly become very still.  He looked up at a map under glass hanging just above his desk.  In one movement, River leaped from his seat to a standing position on his desk his nimble fingers finding then following a thin blue line of a river all the way to jagged teeth denoting mountains.  Libya kneeled on the bed looking over the halflings shoulder and saw in a tiny neat hand the name Gabara beside a circular lake in the foothills.

“We found it.  We found it….”  River kept intoning his finger tapping the glass in time.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Ahmad’s head lay gentle against the cool surface of the bar, the dwarven whisky he could no longer remember the name of warming in its glass tumbler beside him.  He watched fascinated as the liquor swirled every time a drop from his finger broke the surface.  To his mind, barely holding onto consciousness, it was the whole world in a glass, birth and death, beginnings and ends all appearing and disappearing one after another in a golden glow.

A whoop and the clatter of feet stepping in time accompanied by the out of tune singing, exploded from the back door breaking Ahmad’s contemplative mood.  He sat up and stared as he saw Libya and River dancing in circles around each other, and it looked like Libya was leading the bemused halfing.  Ahmad looked again, the hallucination persisted. He rubbed his eyes and eventually resorted to splashing a full jug of water in his face. If anything the image in front of him became even more confused as Libya broke away from River flinging her arms into the air and started spinning circles.  In a whirlwind of red tail and black hair swirling behind her, she flung her head back in a raucous  trill that pierced straight through Ahmad’s inebriation.

“What…what has got into, have you finally gone insane?”

Staff of the tavern came in through the door to watch the spectacle and clap along with the tune.  Others with instruments started playing and all of a sudden there was a small party on the dance floor of the Ladies Favours.  With them came an unsteady Helmutt blearily trying to take in the scene.

“Did I miss something?”  He said to Ahmad when he made it back to the bar.  Ahmad could only shake his head, which did nothing for his sense of wellbeing.

Ladies started joining Libya on the dance floor, copying her spinning dance, trailing scarves behind them in imitation of her hair and tail.  The colours and movement sent Ahmad’s senses into a whirl, but he found he couldn’t take his eyes off the swirling diving, laughing, trilling, tiefling in the centre of the chaos.  Of all the years he had known Libya, he had never seen her like this, so full of life and excitement.  She had always been the sensible, thoughtful one, the one that always held the more impetuous Helmutt and himself in check.  The thought that apart from him Libya could be this happy sobered Ahmad up the rest of the way and his mind started making the connection.

“They’ve found something, something important.”  He said to Helmutt before calling River over.  The halfling, having lost his centre of energy when Libya danced away, just stood in the dance floor staring into the distance, his face radiant.  Lost in his own thought and over the dancing and music, it took several tries before Ahmad was able to get River’s attention.  Once he had, the halfling trotted over bursting with their new  discovery.

“It’s at Gabara, the palm, the dragon, the lake, under the mountains….”  River babbled it all out in a nonsensical mess that required the type of deciphering that Ahmad’s drunken mind could not perform.  After many minutes of repetition and sorting through the facts both Ahmad and Helmutt had a good idea of  the magnitude of the discovery.

“We should leave as soon as possible, before anyone interested in our movements knows we’ve gone.  River, how quickly can you get ready to leave?”

The question had stopped the nervous halfling dead in his jitters.  Ahmad had a suspicion that though the thought of adventure sounded great when it was just a puzzle in maps and chests, actually leaving his home had him frozen to the spot.

“I don’t know what to take, will it get cold? What if there are bandits?  Will there be villages for food and lodging?”  Ahmad watched amused as the halfling brain grasped the size of their endeavour.

“Helmutt take him to his room and see what you can do about kitting him out.  Remember a to grab a cloak and a weapon if he has one.  Meet you at the docks in an hour.”  Ahmad whispered to the half orc as he got down off his stool and made a beeline for the still dancing tiefling.

For his still sobering brain, getting through the ring of dancing women was a challenge, nearly tripping on a scarf  and sprawling at Libya’s feet.  As it was he recovered enough to grab Libya into a dancing embrace and used his momentum to spin her in another direction and out of the circle.

“We found it!  It all fits, Helmutt’s tale, the rhyme on the box, even the damn palms.”  She panted excitedly making no movement to escape his grasp.  “We’ve really hit the big time with this one Ahmad and it’s all thanks to you!”

Ahmad started in surprise, “Me, what did I do? You and  that clever halfling did all the work while Helmutt and I got drunk at the bar.”

Libya laughed and spun jubilantly in his arms, “You kept us going and together when we couldn’t sell that necklace, you took my fears seriously and brought us directly to where we needed to be, with River.  You always shouldered the tough decisions, even when it meant leaving a friend behind and you’ve never once made me feel like you doubted we would succeed.”

Ahmad stopped dancing, stunned by her words.  He had only felt he could push on, plan and think of a future because Libya and Helmutt were right there with him.  He glanced at the bar knowing that if he were left on his own that would be his home and family. With a suddenness that took Libya by surprise Ahmad picked her up by the waist and spun her high in the air.  She was so thin after weeks of hard living, light and fragile.  Her cry of surprise became another shrill peal to the accompanying dancers who joined in.

“We have to get out of here, now.” Ahmad whispered into her ear after gently placing her back on the dancefloor. “We’re meeting Helmutt and River at the docks.  Do you think you can dance us out of here?”

Libya’s exalted face grew serious and she nodded stepping lively into the group once more, dragging  Ahmad in her wake.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

River had lived his whole life on the banks of the Eireamhon.  Named after it and his life shaped by it, it came to a surprise, that he’d never until this moment, taken a boat trip on it.  From the wharf where boats rocked and bumped  in the Eireamhon’s slight swell River could see the millions of tiny fish, the fisheries  that first drew people to this spot, to build their community.

When he lifted his head the view was dominated by row upon row of barges and other river travelling boats.  Able to carry huge amounts of stock in a safer and relatively straighter route than roads, Riverton now grew rich on the business they brought, the port duties they supplied and exposure to a wider world that could have been imaged by the original fishers.

And now he was leaving.  His and the rest of the parties bags and equipment lay at his feet as the other three went from boat to boat trying to find passage up the river.  That’s all it took to turn his life upside down, a question with a ship’s captain and the world as he’d known it wouldn’t be the same again.

“Hello Master Rathbone, fancy seeing you down here by the docks.”  Called  a voice from across the waters before him.  River turned his head to see a middle aged man with a scruffy beard and weather bleached clothes and a an open smile.  He was standing in a small sailing skiff tying down rolls of material that River could only assume were sails.  River nodded as he usually did with people who he wasn’t sure of, the man wasn’t one of this Locksmiths or apprentices, he didn’t work for River’s father though he had seen him before.

“You probably don’t remember me, Captain Roig, your Father invited me to dinner one evening.  Generous fellow your father, is he well?”  The old man continued, picking up on River’s confusion.

River’s face cleared as he remembered the old man sitting with his father talking about river travell.

“You spoke of locks to my father.  Locks and weirs for controlling water in a river.” River commented, remembering how the mention of locks had got his attention until he realised they weren’t necessarily the security sort.

The Captain’s face brightened, “You’re right, there’s a fair few of them between here and home out on the coast.”

“Any up river?” River asked

“Ooh, one or two, but once you get past civilisation there’s nothing but wild river until you reach Serpents Lake and the source of the Eireamhon.”  The old man looked more closely at River standing surrounded by bags. “Planning a trip yourself, Master River?”

“I need to go to Gul-bala, now known as Gabarra.”

“All the way to the source then.  Not much up there now since your Father put Riverton on the map, all the families moved down here for better jobs.”
“Orc families.”

“Aye!  Never realised it myself but they were all half orc up there.  The last left a few decades ago and your father hired them on as security.”  At this the older man looked a little concerned and looked up and down the docks.  “Not meaning any disrespect, but I don’t much like the look of some of the new fellas in that Rathbone security.”  River nodded rounded eyes agreeing with the old man and his concerns.

“Up river you say…”  The old man pondered once again looking at River’s luggage, “I guess there’s more than you going, Master Rathbone?”

River nodded and pointed out the other three walking along the docks talking to anyone who would stop and listen.

“I do need to go upriver, but have been putting it off due to the river and lands around being so wild, not safe for a man alone, you understand.”  River didn’t but nodded anyway.  He wasn’t sure how dangerous the water and land could be but agreed that if it was dangerous it was better to be with others.

“I don’t need to go quite as far as Gabarra but one good turn deserves another especially for a respectable young halfling such as yourself.  If you and your friends help me get to my destination then I’ll help you by getting you to what’s left of old Gabarra, what do you say?”  the old sailor spat in his hand and held it out.  Normally, River understood the meaning of a handshake, to seal a deal or to make cordial relations, but the spitting seemed unnecessary and a little disgusting.  Instead, River picked up his bag and put it on his shoulder.

“Where do I sleep?”

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

A shadow moved to watch the adventuring party load their baggage onto a small skiff moored  at the dock.  It was clear that some arrangement had been made to leave and leave now.  It irked the person that they could not follow the group and deal with them themselves, but he was confident that this adventuring party would not make it to their destination.

From in their robes the figure drew out a small dark wooden figurine.  A keyword spoken and the figurine grew and developed feathers, black as the ebony of the original figurine.  The eyes of the bird blinked once and looked  knowingly at its master.  The shadow whispered a message to the bird then let it go.  The bird quickly rose above the level of the buildings of Riverton and made it’s way east and upriver.

The shadow remained on the dock until the skiff, with the four member adventuring party neatly stowed away, shoved off, unfurled a triangle sail and made its way after the bird.

 

End of Part One

 

A war dream

 

A female nurse caught by shrapnel in the leg is awaiting evacuation as the army moves on to victory in Europe.  She’s in a tent with a number of wounded who she shares her time with.  Here they receive cursery attention by medical staff and ocassional victimisation from corrupt superior officers.  But at the same time they are left alone to share.

She possesses an ability to see the thoughts of those she touches which has made her a very good nurse and the centre of this tiny community of damaged people.  She sees the pains that have nothing to do with their injuries and helps heal their hearts.

She’d saved a kitten from death and the tiny ball of fur is protected and fussed over by all the inmates of the tent.  The cat has learned the trick of holding still and being quiet when visitors enter the tent and as a result he’s called Sniper (as he hides out of sight and takes cupid potshots at each of their hearts).

A colonel is brought in suffering burns and bullets wounds to his legs.  The patients all feel that this is the end of their small community as it can only be a matter of time before Sniper is discovered.  To their surprise things improve as the colonel’s presence keeps the bullying officer away and from stealing the things sent by families.

It is quickly understood that the colonel is delusional.  At one time his dreams of enemies all around make him climb out of bed.  He’s legs, unable to support him, give way and he collapses on the nurse re-hurting her leg and nearly squashing the hiding Sniper.

At the moment of contact she sees into him mind, the paranoia of not knowing where the bullets are coming from.  Leaping out of his jeep and seeking protection from the sniper’s birds in it’s metal skin.  She feels the blind panic as he fires his pistol at what he believes to be a place a sniper is hiding.  The realisation that the sniper has targetted the petrol tank of the jeep, feeling the spilled gasoline on his legs.  The blind determination to kill the sniper before he ignites the spilt fuel.  Aiming carefully, holding his breath…

The feelings are so intense the nurse forgets who she is for a while lost in the moment.  When she finally pulls herself out of the memory she bullies the colonel back into his bed (putting aside her own personal pain which has now flared up).  Taking the cat the nurse gives it to the colonel,

“This is Sniper, your sniper.  He’ll sit on your shoulder and knock out the enemy, he’ll keep you safe.”

Like he’s been listening Sniper settles down on the colonel’s shoulder, curled up warm against the tortured man’s neck.  When colonel is quiet the cat is quiet, but when the colonel’s heart begins to race the kitten’s purrs are loud, as loud as a machine gun in the colonel’s dreams.  From then on his dreams become shorter and less intense.

Finally the injured are shipped out on various hospitals behind lines. Sniper goes with the colonel with a makeshift dogtag around his neck.

“Sniper.  DOB June 1945.  Medical.  To travel with Colonel…”

No Doubt

For All Hallows Read 2012.  My personal scary story.

There was no doubt about it.

I looked into the rear view again.  

The black car was still there.

The driver, silhouetted against the late sun beaming through the rear window, was squarely male.  

It had started as a game I played on the way home.  It was my way of paying attention to the flow of traffic around me.  “What cars are following me home?”  More than once I’d circled the block when a car followed me for a little longer than expected.

The car behind me, a dark sporty things glowering in the evening light , pulled out as I left work and had been hard behind the whole trip.  Its engine, purring like a predatory beast, cut through the tinny sound of my hatches radio.  I turned it up but only made the tinniness louder; the throbbing bass of the car was distinguishable underneath.

I tried changing lanes, but somehow the black cars malevolent presence clung to me, now following in my blind spot.  Without craning my neck and taking my eyes off the traffic ahead I couldn’t see it.  The engines growled behind my shoulder.

A flutter of panic rose into my throat and stopped my breath.

I gulped, refocused my thoughts and tried to relax my fingers on the steering wheel.

“Don’t be stupid.  It’s five-thirty on a weekday afternoon. ” I said out loud in a tone that reminded me of my mother.  “No one is following you because you’re just another nobody going home from a day at work.”  I checked the two door locks were down just in case.

Kilometres of terror followed as the black car slipped into a spot once more behind me; once more the dark presence in my rear view.  I tried peering at the driver, tried to discern some features.  Did I know this person?  Male, possibly young with dark hair and a bristling of stubble on his face that haloes in sunlight.  I couldn’t have picked him out of a line-up if my life depended on it.  I feared it may.

So engrossed in my stalkers image I didn’t notice the school zone until I hit the raised pedestrian crossing at more than usual speed jarring the steering wheel out of my hand for a moment and knocking me back into reality. A scream and a squeal of tyres from behind made me reluctantly look once more.  There was the black car swerving into oncoming traffic and back blaring its horn.  

Panicked, my foot hit the accelerator and my car lurched down the street, weaving between the cars.  There was no thought of fight as I slipped down side streets twisting and turning away from my pursuer.  When I couldn’t see the black car in my rear-view I pulled over and breathed.

“Get a grip!”  I said, once more mother was advising, but what did she know? Had she ever had a black car stalking her?!  What could I do?  Where could I be safe?  In my mind I scanned a map of the local area and realised my salvation was only a few blocks away.  The local area police station was just a few minutes  away.  I just had to remain unseen by the black car until I was inside the station and then I would be safe.

I sat back in my seat catching my breath when the sharp black profile turned the corner at the top of the street.  There was no more time for planning, I sped off in as straight a path I could take to the police station.  The driver had spotted my car; the roar of the black cars engines followed me down the street.  I raced through round-abouts horn blazing, brakes of other drivers squealing.    A semi-trailer heading for the industrial estates came to a shuttering halt as I cut it off.  Pedestrians watched and stared as my hatch and the black sports car raced to the police station.  It was an unfair race the black car gain all the time, but I had the lead and the police station was in sight.  

My car lurched when it hit the curb, a crunch of metal on concrete denoted something had broken underneath, but I didn’t stop to check.  Before my car had fully stopped I was out and running for the entrance.  A police woman drawn by the commotion opened the door ahead of me.  The sport car came to a screaming halt in front of the police and the driver stepped out.

“Please, I’m being followed by that black car since I left work.  It tried to run me off the road near a school!”  I blurted unsure I was making any sense at all.

“Okay, are you hurt?  What’s your name?”  The police officer beckoned me in all the time keeping an eye on the man marching towards us.  I assured her I had not been hurt and gave her my name.  She nodded and told me to stay inside while she confronted the driver of the black car.  

Another officer took me aside, took my details, made me go through my story while I watched the driver and the woman officer walk to the front of my car.  He pointed at something and the woman officer bent down to inspect it more closely.

“And you have no idea what all this is about?”  Said the officer taking notes of what I said.
“None, “I looked at the driver as the woman officer stood up and beckoned him to the station. He was in his early thirties, dark haired with a neatly trimmed beard.  His dark eyes bore blazing holes through the station’s window at me. “I’ve never seen him before.”                                                                                                                                 
I was quickly ushered into an interview room as the driver entered the station.  The room was bare and empty.  I could hear the driver yelling and cursing and felt glad to be off the road away from that lunatic.  I took a deep breath and slumped into one of two chairs in the room.  

Steps outside the door made me turn back to the door. The door swung open and the woman officer stepped in shut the door firmly behind.

“This is how it stands.  Twenty minute ago we received calls from eyewitnesses outside a scholl not far from here.  They reported a hit and run and two cars matching the description of your car and the black coup.”

I blinked.  When did this happen? At the crossing when the black car swerved?  I told the officer what I saw again.

“And you were looking in the rear view the whole time?”  She asked and a cold sweat broke out over my face.  “Could you tell me about the damage to the front of your car?”

Her voice held no doubt.

A Mage’s Awakening: A Shadow Cities Story

“Samkara? Sam?”

*Knock, Knock, Knock*

“Samantha, it’s Spiritbreaker…urgh…George. I was worried. I followed your beacon here. I had to knock on a few neighbours doors to find your house.”

*Knock, Knock, Knock*

“Sam?”

 * * * * *

Sam had had a good day. Customers drove up for petrol, came in, exchanged pleasantries and money and left. Sam was in the centre of a web of activity. Releasing pumps, providing change, running the cash machine. It was comfortable and familiar. Her name tag may have read Samantha, but in her mind she was Samkara dispensing the justice and the grace of the mages to all in the Shadow Cities.

“Samantha, fill the impulse displays. They’re getting low.” Said the voice of the petrol station owner, but Sam did not respond. “Samantha?” A large heavy hand touched her arm. Shocked, Sam leaped off her stool.

“Oh, Mr Naidu! Did you want something?”

“Samantha, I called  you. Are you feeling alright?”

 “Just focused on the task at hand, Mr Naidu.” Sam tried to say as chipper as possible, but she knew she looked pale and tired. She hadn’t slept after the brush with the Architect mage. The altercation had left her uneasy.

 “Good to hear.” Her boss replied in a tone that suggested the contrary. “All the same, maybe a change of task is warranted. Please fill the impulse displays.”

Sam did as she was told without complaint, all the time here mind was in the shadows. She didn’t notice the customer in the gloves and dark clothes enter and loiter at the back of the store. She didn’t see him act strangely as he wrapped a bandana around his face and didn’t see the knife until it was in front of her.

“Give me the money or I’ll cut her!” Said a harsh voice muffled by the bandana, the hunting knife resting against her skin.

“I’ve got your money you don’t need to hurt anyone.” Said Mr Naidu from behind the counter, the register door popped open and he started taking money out.

“Put it in a bag you moron or I’ll cut her I swear I will!” Sam stood still oblivious to all that was happening to her. She saw the knife, its serrated edge, the gleam of the metal, felt the cold razor-sharp point.

Slowly she looked into the face of the robber, stared into his bloodshot eyes. With her will focused on her target, her finger she traced the rune for the War Chant of Light.

Nothing happened.

The plastic bag handed over,  the knife was withdrawn from sight.

Mr Naidu rang the police, dealt with the customers, ushered Sam into the staff area and talked to the constables when they arrived. Sam sat and held a cup of tea she’d been given and answered the questions of the police. A blanket was thrown over her and she took in the news that a taxi was waiting to take her home, no expense.

Once in the cool of her dark bedroom Sam’s mind was seeking the Shadow lands. Her body crashed into the rumpled bed covers as her conscious mind was looking out over the silhouetted maps of her neighbourhood. Out in the mundane Sam had felt numb. Above the Shadow Cities her aura seethed and crackled its core crystalline, faceted, cold and hard. The constant breeze of the Shadow lands sent the sparks flying into the ether illuminating her realm in a pale green glow.

Under this eyrie light, a small section not far from Sam’s dominators stayed stubbornly black. Sparking and hissing Sam’s conscious mind was drawn to it, hoping it was what she thought it was. 

 It looked like a small patch of blackness surrounded by eight faint blue lines all radiating out from the emptiness. But, below the blackness there was an intense feeling of energy, of power that only the most ancient spirits projected.

Sam’s voice rang out over the general ether to all who were up to hear. “Spider, Newlington beacon! Head south!”

Peas started dropping from everywhere and mustering around where the slumbering Arachne Weaver. One by one the gathered mages drew their runes and released them. Within the collective white glow of explosions the blue lines pumped energy into the black shape and it glowed a malevolent purple. The lines grew, propelling the head and torso of the spider way above the mages present. Spirits of all Houses and elements gathered at the feet of the monster camouflaging it and making it difficult for mages to target. Now roused, the beast drew on the personal energies of the mages to heal itself. Each mage closest to the beast felt weakened and quickly jumped back to a safe spot to heal while others took their place.

Sam did not leave the front lines. Downing pot after pot of mana and healing right on the front line she kept up the fight until the weaver was overwhelmed and finally destroyed. A peace spread out from the epicentre of the battle. Mages congratulated themselves at the destruction of the spider and started thinning.

 “Good spider. Got a heap of energy from that monster.” Spiritbreaker to Sam who he found listless and still after most of the mages had left.

“Breaker. What’s your name?” Sam asked casually.

“Er…Spiritbreaker, you know we don’t give real name…”

“What’s your name?” She said more urgently this time just to him, mind to mind. It was a form of communication that was intimate and could not be ignored.

“George, I’m… my name is George.”

“Samantha,” Sam replied. “They call me Samantha.”

 “Are you okay?”

“I was in a hold-up today. I tried to use the war rune.”

 “In real life? Are you crazy?”

“But it didn’t work. Then there’s a spider and we fought and destroyed it. The war rune worked here.”

“Well yeah, Sam. Magic doesn’t work in the real world.”

“Are you sure?”

“Sure that magic doesn’t work?”

“No. Sure that it’s real.”

Stormbreaker was silent for a moment. The two of them just floated in the dark over the Shadow Cities. A few stray spirits drawn to their aura light pulsed like ghostly jellyfish in the sea of the underworld. It was a lonely and barren place. Perfect for a broken soul.

“Look, Samantha. Sounds like you need to talk to someone…”

 “I’m talking to you, talking in a way I can’t do in the other place…”

 “Okay, I’ll come to you. I know generally where you live, but what house, what street?”

“You’re here with me Breaker; you don’t need to go anywhere, except…” There was a hint of a smile in the communication. It made Spiritbreaker shiver.

“Except?” He asked tentatively.

“Except to hunt spiders.”

They hunted through realms searching for the tell tale signs of Arachne Weavers all that afternoon and into the night. Every call for help they answered and though they didn’t destroy every spider, they helped everyone who asked for aid. They blazed across the world, hopping from friendly beacon to friendly beacon until they found themselves in Tampa, Florida in a realm so dense in gateways it was difficult to make out the spider web of roads beneath them.

Sites like these were rare and highly sought after as the many gateways attracted a range of spirits. As a result many of the gates glowed white and pure, neutral but not untouched. Sam noticed that a number of gates had the marks of mages who had claimed that area as their realm once a long time ago. Now, like ruins, they pointed to what had been, giving no sign as to what happened to the mages who had called this place home.

“Samkara, I’m done in. I’ve used up my last pots and need to get some sleep. I think you need some sleep too.” Spiritbreaker said unsure he would be heard. He’d been fearful to leave Sam alone but he just couldn’t keep up this constant fighting.

“There’s a spider here, can’t you feel it?” Sam replied, hopping from gateway to gateway.

“Put a call up, let someone else fight it. Don’t you feel tired?”

Sam stopped her hopping. “Yes, very tired. I feel…drawn thin. Stretched. I need…” Sam tried to form the words but they failed. Instead, images of being tied down; being pulled tight like the string on a bow flooded the intimate level of communication so that it hurt Spiritbreaker to see them.

“Sam that’s your body telling you need to rest. Back down, have a good nights rest and I’ll come find you tomorrow.”

 “You’d come to me? In …”

 “…real life, yes.”

“Promise?” The question was asked with such longing that tore at Spiritbreakers soul.

“Only if you back down now.”

“Spider, Palmetto Beach beacon!” Came a general call over the ether and Spiritbreaker groaned inwardly, wishing the call could have waited a moment longer.

“A spider! It’s so close.” Sam leaped back to the gateway where Spiritbreaker waited.

“You said you would back down.”

“A spider, Breaker. An enemy we can hurt and destroy, doesn’t that make you feel…”

“Powerful, strong?”

“Alive!” Sam finally supplied, “Being here is being alive, breaker.” With that she leapt for the beacon and the battle. Groaning with his entire being, Spiritbreaker followed.

When they arrive the battle was already in full swing. Hundred’s of mages in concert, battled the massive beast marching across the plains of shadow. Spiritbreaker had made a promise to himself he would just sit back in this one, keep the healing up to Sam and hope that with this concentration of mages that the battle would be over soon. But, as soon as they arrived, Sam disappeared into the throng and Spiritbreaker was left scrambling to find her.

“Sam, where are you?” He yelled into the general ether but was drowned out by the machine-gun explosions of mages spells igniting one after another. A wave of negative energy emitted by the spider rolled through the mages and Spiritbreaker found he had to move back or be banished from the shadow lands entirely. From a high point above a nearby dominator, Spiritbreaker looked out over the broiling sea of mages green and orange. Both groups focused on the common enemy, timing their attacks for best effect. It was from this advantage point that Spiritbreaker finally spotted Sam, a lone green aura among a mob of Architect orange.

Sam was in glorious oblivion. At that time it was immaterial who she stood with in the battle as long as they were all focused on the defeat of the spider. Her war runes weaved into those of the Architects beside her making a force greater than the sum of the individual runes. The great beast in front of them was teetering; one last push would see it go. With her last remaining energy and all her concentration, Sam pushed…

…and the Shadow Cities rang with a thundering crack, a snap that crossed the planes.

 Sam’s aura suddenly took on a lightness, as if finally being released from a long held tension. In shock, she floated stunned in the sea of orange around her. Instead of the constant buzz of voices of so many mages in one place, the shadows were silent, warm and inviting. She moved without thought out of the crowd, her pure white light illuminating all the mages dull green and orange auras. She left the site of the battle, its dominators and beacons far behind and just drifted, drifting with the currents of the pulsing gateways safe in the shadows’ embraces.

 * * * * *

The door opens and a middle aged man gray and drawn opens the door.

“Oh, sorry I must have the wrong house again.” George smiled sheepishly, “Could you please point out the Mage’s house? I’m a friend from the Faction.”

If it was possible the man’s face went grayer and his eyes filled with pain. “She’s not here.”

“Is she alright, she was upset and I got worried…”

“I said, she’s not here. Not anymore.” The man said in dull finality that ceased all argument and chilled George to the bone.

“What…?”

“She was my baby girl, and the spirits took her. I didn’t think it was dangerous, I didn’t think…”

Subconsciously George stepped away from the door. “No, she was strong. She fought the spider, I saw her!” Shaking his head, George looked back to the old man willing him to say he had lied. Instead the old man took a step out to him and reached out his rough gardener’s hand.

 “You saw her? In the Shadow lands? You saw her…go?”

“She was my friend…” Was all George could say as he let the strong hand take his and lead him inside.

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