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The Annals of Pelor
The Light of Pelor

…continues from Book #01, Chapter #08, Scene #04

Synopsis

The 22nd Day of Ches in the Year of the Sudden Journey

Awakening from a restful sleep after their tiring journey back from the ruined keep the heroes seek answers to many questions on the history of the lands.

With natives of the Old Continent living and breathing before them their chance to discover the lore of old is within their grasp.

Cast List

Scene Length

This scene started on Monday 27th February 2012 and is expected to be completed by the end of Friday 16th March 2012.

Players are expected to be able to post at least once a day.

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Storyline
Blackengorge

01

It was not long after the heroes had retired to their chambers that the sun rose slowly over the eastern horizon. Its strength bore down on the early morning mists, burning them away with ease and warming the land below them. For late Ches it was unusually warm and bright, but the inhabitants of Blackengorge did not mind. Their usual routines of farming and slowly building the town were lacklustre today, though, as the excitement grew about meeting the new arrivals in town, the ones that were claimed to be natives of this land, and the celebration for the heroes that had found them.

It would be some time before these ideals could be met, however, and the townsfolk went about their chores distracted, forever looking over their shoulders at the height of the sun to mark the passage of time.

The sun reached its zenith — a majestic yellow orb in a clear blue sky — and the excitement and fervour grew. There were no signs of activity at the inn, or at the temple, though. Skillet had kept the doors of The Bronze Lion firmly shut, allowing the adventurers to rest, and even the Temple of Pelor had ushered those away to the simple shrine near the marketplace to perform their morning ablutions rather than throwing open their doors to the morning sun as usual.

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Storyline
Blackengorge

02

Tradden had slept well — being hit, cut, slapped, smashed and crushed by a large statue was conducive to such behaviour.

When he did finally come to it was as the sun had reached its peak. With a fuzzy head Tradden pulled on most of his gear without really noticing who else was up or still around. In fact, for once he deliberately didn’t look to mix with anyone — it was time to strike out on his own for a bit. He sank his two swords into the handy sheathes crisscrossed on his back, more out of habit than anything. His armour he decided to leave — he had worn it enough recently and would instead enjoy being completely light-footed for a while. He emptied most of his pack, just taking with him the one thing he would definitely need.

Descending the stairs his senses were immediately assailed by the panoply of smells coming from the kitchen. He stopped at the second stair from bottom, wondering about the merits of adopting a Zero-like approach to breakfast.

Only a few moments later two of the children playing in the street outside the kitchen door of The Bronze Lion witnessed a tall man, a bunch of bacon stuffed his mouth, some bread in one hand and a hunk of cheese in the other hightailing it out of the door, with an irate Juliet, Skillet’s assistant, in fast pursuit. Armed with a rolling pin and a bad temper it was one of the most dangerous threats the fighter had faced, or rather not faced, since his arrival on the mainland.

Fortunately for Tradden he soon outpaced her and by the time he had stopped to finish the bacon he found himself outside the temple. He did consider looking in on the various folk who were new additions as of the previous night, but thought they were better left to the ministrations of the Church. He did, however, resolve to seek out Celestia — it had been some time since he had seen the mysterious elf. None of the interchangeable girl acolytes who always seemed to be around had seen her recently and she was otherwise nowhere to be found. One of them mentioned that she spent a lot of time near the shoreline to the north of the beach near the cliffs and otherwise kept herself to herself, not being seen outside of coming back to the town to buy some foodstuffs.

Slightly disappointed Tradden bade them farewell and offered up a quick prayer to Pelor before heading towards his main objective of the day. Even before reaching it he knew that the occupant he so badly sought was not there. The tell-tale smoke from the forge chimney was not evident, and a brief check inside indeed confirmed that the smithy was empty. Caldring was elsewhere.

Tradden, always thinking, had already worked out where she would be, and a guard at the south gate confirmed his suspicion — she had been working out at the Tower of Mists.

Mindful that a trip to the tower would take him outside the city limits he considered heading back to get his armour and equipment. ‘Nah,’ he decided, loudly. A nearby sparrow sat atop the main wall above him appeared to nod in agreement with this decision. Doing his best to ignore it, Tradden set out — if he came across anything he couldn’t handle he would just have to outrun it!

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Storyline
Blackengorge

03

Surprisingly, Zero was the next to rise.

Tradden’s enthusiasm did not extend to the subtleties of being stealthy and quiet and the young fighter’s banging and stomping to get changed for the day in the room next door had woken the rogue.

He pulled on a simple cloth tunic and breeches — the best he could find at such short notice, and pulled faces at the buffed metal plate that served as a mirror on the dresser. There were a couple of cuts and bruises on his face and his beard needed a trim, but that would all add to the charm and dazzle that he would be able to inflict on some female company later in the evening.

The trials of the previous few days had taken its toll on his usually rotund figure, though, and as he turned to the side he saw a leaner figure reflected back at him. He couldn’t decide whether he liked it or not and resolved to think the matter over during a very hearty breakfast. He slipped downstairs to find the little halfling almost waiting for him and ordered a large meal, handing over one of the gold coins they had found to cover all expenses.

Skillet took the gold, paused and then studied the markings. For a moment Zero thought he was to going to hand it back and request proper payment, but after a quick bite of the side of the coin, the halfling stuffed it into one of his pouches, shrugged and turned towards the kitchens.

Zero grabbed the diminutive landlord on the shoulder before he could go and enquired after the best place to get some new clothes. Skillet seemed a little puzzled by such a request, but offered the names of Cornelius Lowfield or Effie Greenwood as the best people to supply such wares and let Zero know where they could be found.

With a short while before the rogue’s breakfast would be served, he headed out into the sunshine and across the plaza. He’d decided on Cornelius as the one to supply his new tunic, there was something about the Lowfield name he liked.

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Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

04

Khalin was a late riser, his sleep troubled by nightmares brought on by the uncertainty and potential blemish upon his ancestry. He had always had pride in his clan and lineage and the accusations from the dragonborn Rhasgar and the dwarvish rogue Rangrim weighed heavily on his thoughts whilst he slept.

When he came downstairs into the main bar area he saw Miri and Aukan already there, picking at table laden with breakfast goods. With a hearty greeting the dwarf sat down at the table, suddenly feeling the emptiness in his stomach, and joined them in satiating his appetite.

Over the breads, cheeses, warm and cold cured meats and fruits, all seemingly sprung from nowhere, Khalin made polite conversation, describing parts of Blackengorge as he knew them from his short time here and explained his voyage over the sea.

Both Miri and Aukan were intrigued at his story of the The Guiding Fire and its terrible fate, remarking that from tales others had told them, there were no such ships and crews off the Dragondown Coast, on the Midnight Sea, far to the east of their homeland in the Nentir Vale.

Khalin probed somewhat about Miri and Aukan’s homeland and drew a rough picture of the lands in which they lived. The Nentir Vale, as they called it, stretched west to east almost fifty leagues between two mountain ranges, with forests at north and south about thirty leagues apart to form simple, yet effective, borders. From what Miri could remember about their trek over the Stonemarch and their capture by the hobgoblins, she estimated the western-most of these mountain ranges, the Cairngorms, to be twenty or thirty leagues from here.

The pair explained to the dwarf about the major towns in the area — Fallcrest, almost in the middle of the Vale appeared to be a central trading hub, perhaps fifteen-hundred strong. Winterhaven, in the south-eastern foothills of the Cairngorm Peaks, was a smaller town, and where the group they had rescued were mainly from. To the southeast of the Vale was the small barony of Harkenwold, and to the northeast Nenlast, by a huge lake.

Most intriguing to Khalin, however, was when they talked of Hammerfast, a dwarven settlement to the east, towards the Dawnforge Mountains. The pair seemed a little coy at detail, however, and the warlord resolved to probe Rangrim for further information when he rose.

As for any maps, the pair thought Sorrow would probably have some, and Khalin’s curiosity and eagerness started to outgrow his hunger for breakfast.

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Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

05

Kireth was cold. He shrank back into the shadows of his robes and continued to shiver. He had not slept, nor did he feel he needed to, yet he was tired within his soul. The agonies placed upon him by the portal were still there, chilling his body and clouding his vision and thoughts.

He had heard Tradden rise, the clumsy oaf, staggering out of his bed and dressing with enough noise to wake the dead. Probably the young fool thought he was being quiet and lithe. He’d also heard Zero scrabbling around in his room, probably preening himself before heading down for something to eat. The ordered movements of Khalin were last on Kireth’s list — the dwarf likely still deep in thought of his ancestry, which did not matter, rather than concentrating on the here and now. The dwarf’s angst was apparent to all to see on the trek home.

Yes, home. It was clear to Kireth that this place seemed more like home than with the pitiful fools of the Mages’ College in Deepingwald. The tutors with their inward-facing goals and objectives. No real ambition or lust for power. Pitiful. Here Kireth had already found powers and skills beyond many of his tutor’s comprehension. And this was just the start.

When he had found he could not sleep he had begun to order all of the books and tomes and glimpses of information he had found. Many things were becoming clear to him, many paths opening up before him. And now a new vista opened before him, a new civilisation that may hold more learnings and pathways.

Once the agony and chill of the portal left his body he would be free to continue his study and grow the power that sparked within him. For now he would be content to make his plans.

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Storyline
The Isle of the Mists

06

Tradden’s journey to the Isle of the Mists was in fact uneventful. An hour’s steady walk brought him to the edge of the lake. At the Boathouse, still boarded up for now, a few more rowing boats had appeared from nowhere and were tied up at the small serviceable dock. The walk had actually been quite enjoyable — it was a fine, sunny afternoon and the lake was as flat as he had ever seen water. It took around fifteen minutes for Tradden’s long, strong strokes to propel one of the row-boats to the isle, heading into the centre of the strange mists without fear. The boat scrunched up onto the pebbly beach with so much force that Tradden didn’t even have to tie it up.

The exterior of the tower was pretty much as it had been. The carcasses of the stirges that had attacked he and Khalin had been removed, and the only real tell-tale signs of the struggle were the odd dried bits of goo here and there.

A bored looking guard outside of what now passed for the main tower nodded as he made his way down into the chamber discovered only a tenday or so ago. At the bottom of the once-barricaded stairs things were much different, though. The chamber previously inhabited by the Rust Monster was now an ordered workshop, presumably as it had once been. Someone, Caldring perhaps, had made it almost a different place. No longer was there a layer of dust and soot present on all surfaces — the furniture and other items had been laid out inside very neatly. The corpse of the Rust Monster was gone. Tradden would not have recognized it had he not known otherwise.

In fact, as it transpired the only unkempt aspect of the room was the smith herself. Tradden first noticed her just as his foot reached the floor proper. The elf was just visible as being inside the now open ‘blast doors’ which covered the furnace, her behind sticking out into view. This did nothing for Tradden’s nerves. As he silently moved closer he heard a muttering, something about the ‘blasted mechanisms’ and ‘heat’. He cleared his throat as he neared. ‘Ah, Tradden.’ It was a slightly dry sounding voice, probably from the heat he thought. ‘Excellent,’ she continued. His heart raced a little. ‘Pass me that device there,’ a thin, soot covered elven hand pointed at a flat-bladed instrument on the nearby desk. His heart slowed down a little.

He picked up the instrument — it was vaguely familiar. Old Mr Ironfoot had used smaller versions for fixing in screws in the various things he had made. He pressed it into her backwards pointing palm, which was quickly retracted. After a few seconds there was a satisfied grunt.

He waited for her to turn around. A few minutes went by. He sat in a casual fashion on the edge of the metal table where the screwdriver had been. In the end he cleared his throat again.

‘You still here?’

‘Erm. Yes. Yes I am.’ Right, it was going to be one of those was it? Same tactics as before then — start with something that will interest her. ‘I, er, brought you something back from our last outing. Thought you might find it interesting.’

There was nothing. No reply.

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Storyline
The Lowfield House

07

‘Ouch!’ screamed Zero, and not for the first time.

‘Stay still, then!’ croaked a voice. Cornelius Lowfield was an elderly old goat, Zero had surmised. How the old stick had managed to live so long — he was probably in his seventies — the young rogue wasn’t sure. He was gnarled and crotchety and his hands quivered and shook so much whilst holding the sharp pins that Zero almost wished he were back in the ruined keep, fighting undead, than here facing this abominable foe.

He couldn’t doubt the cantankerous tailor’s skills, though. In the short time he had been here, Cornelius had already whipped up a couple of dress outfits and was well underway with the third. Zero was a little dismayed at the selection of materials and even accessories, but what the man could do with simple cloths and leathers was outstanding.

Small talk was one of Zero’s greatest assets. Usually it was with the ladies, but he could turn his hand to impress most people with his wit and charm. None of it seemed to work on Cornelius, though. Zero had barely been able to work out why the tailor had come across the Great Sea to help found Blackengorge in the first place.

When the call had gone up in Deepingwald and The Islands for craftsmen and families to make the journey it had been Cornelius’ grandson, Elwin, that had stirred the family into accepting the challenge. His drive and enthusiasm had spurred them on to apply for the trip, an application that went through quickly to the surprise of many. Although Cornelius was skilled as a tailor, and his son Robert an excellent farmer, the rest of the family had no specific trade or area of expertise of great value.

However, the sheer enthusiasm, helped along by the backing of money from Robert’s sale of the farm, appeared to seal the deal, and the Lowfields were added to the Register for the crossing. Times had been hard for them in the first few months, but they had all worked hard in helping the whole settlement prosper, and Cornelius was immensely proud of his family.

With another of the gold pieces, Zero paid up-front for Cornelius’ services, agreeing to return the next day to pick up his finished garments. He toyed with the idea of strolling past the temple, perhaps to see if Dania or Perissa were there, but he knew that time was pressing and the Town Council meeting was nearly due. He was still unsure of what had happened out there over the past tenday, and wanted to talk to the others to straighten it out in his head before the meeting.

His steps somewhat lighter with the thought of new clothes and perhaps the arm of a lady in the evening, he wandered back to The Bronze Lion.

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Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

08

Khalin had found the conversations with Aukan and Miri quite pleasant. Aukan had described his race and background after Khalin’s polite questions, describing some of his early life in the northern Cairngorms with his tribe, a mountain-dwelling people. Goliaths were fairly rare within the Nentir Vale, most keeping themselves to themselves on the foothills and higher slopes of the mountain ranges, but some, like Aukan, had ventured down into the towns to seek a purpose or goal for their lives.

Aukan was a warden, a protector of the natural world from those would dare corrupt or destroy it. He had taken a vow upon reaching adulthood to be like a mountain, standing fast against the buffeting wind of anyone or anything that would defile the world around him. Khalin could relate, somewhat, to Aukan’s belief in his own destiny, but wished that he could forget the stain upon his kin that still surrounded him.

The warlord stiffened as Rangrim came down the stairs, a little unsure of what other revelations the dwarf would bring forth. As luck would have it, the doors to the inn opened more or less at the same time, and Rhasgar hobbled in, ably assisted by the devil-horned woman. Miri ran to the door and wrapped her arms around the small woman, the joy on her face that Sorrow seemed to be alive and well apparent for all to see. Aukan grinned, his smile wide and broad, and even Rangrim shouted a greeting of joy. Within moments, though, all made a beeline for the table and the foodstuff that lay strewn about, hunger overcoming any other thoughts.

Sorrow was a tiefling, Khalin learnt. A race often at odds with the dragonborn, a history of violent clashes and warfare between the two leaving most of their people with deep distrust of each other. Sorrow and Rhasgar appeared to be different, however, a complete friendship with mutual trust and admiration.

For a moment Khalin thought his questions on the tiefling race had overstepped some sort of cultural boundary, but was relieved to find that it was only confusion on the others’ mind that he did not know their history. The tieflings were a race born out of devilish ritual, hundreds and hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years ago, where humans of city states had pledged their allegiance to devils in exchange for burgeoning power. Their bodies had been transformed into a mockery of devilry and the pact was upheld, but with consequences. Their empire lasted for hundreds of years, centred around a now forgotten city of Bael-Turath, ever in conflict with the dragonborn of Arkhosia, both contending for worldwide dominion, both destined to fail and fall.

How a tiefling bard, as Sorrow described herself, and a dragonborn paladin, as Rhasgar surely was, had met and formed such a long-lasting friendship Khalin could only guess. However, the warlord did find out how they had all banded together. The group called themselves ’Altair’s Talons’ after Rhasgar’s mentor, another dragonborn paladin named Altair.

This paladin had received a vision from Bahamut to bind a group together under a single banner for the good on Nentir Vale and even the lands further stretched. They would fight evil, first within their lands, and then beyond. They were at the start of their journey, a young and untried group perhaps, and their first venture outside of the relative safety of the Vale had so nearly ended in disaster. As such they had lost one of their number and were now a long way from home.

At the mention of Ulmo, the dead halfling’s name, the conversation started to dry up. Khalin felt a little uncomfortable and had nothing he felt he could say. He tried to turn the conversation around to Hammerfast and dwarves, but the melancholy looks on the group sat around him stayed his hand.

He was even glad when Kireth appeared from the rooms upstairs.

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The Bronze Lion Inn

09

Kireth stalked down the stairs impassively, his robes swirling around him, and his hood drawn up. He could Khalin sat at the table next to the foodstuff, the mere thought of eating churning the mage’s stomach. With him were Miri, an enigma and puzzle yet for Kireth to solve; Aukan, a goliath he presumed; the dragonborn Rhasgar, paladin of Bahamut; the rogue dwarf Rangrim, his life owed to Khalin after the statue had fallen, yet seemed to conveniently forget it; and the newcomer, Sorrow, he guessed, a tiefling judging by his studies of the tomes in his room.

Khalin offered a greeting, as did some of the others, but Kireth only returned with a simple nod, his grey-ashen face hidden from their view. Ignoring the food on offer he walked over to the fireplace, trying to blow away the chill from his bones.

He stood there immovable for some moments, awaiting the Town Council, his thoughts racing on what their next request may well be, and whether he would follow their instruction.

Almost uncannily on cue, the door opened and Valino, followed by Barghest, Tymander, Tremak, and Beltak entered the inn. Skillet hastily prepared tables, chairs and drinks for the entrants but frowned when Tymander indicated that he needed to prepare more thoroughly — it seemed that the whole town wanted to come to see the ‘show’, to meet the newcomers, and to understand the heroes’ story.

Skillet flushed red and began to furiously arrange tables and chairs to accommodate so many people. The three Council leaders greeted the guests and found somewhere to sit. A trickle of townsfolk through the door swelled to a torrent and before long the inn was full with people, all waiting for the meeting to start.

There was a hushed anticipation from the townsfolk as the meeting was about to begin. But one of the number was missing.

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Storyline
The Tower of the Mists

10

‘It’s arm-our…’ Tradden spelled out to Caldring, said in a slightly playful, drawn out tone.

That got her head out from behind the blast doors. She stood up, drawing herself to her full height. She was still damn impressive, even covered in soot and dirt. Oh, and with no eyebrows. ‘Well?’ she enquired, wiping her hands rather pointlessly on a rag just as dirty as the rest of her.

Tradden fished in his pack and brought out the one item within — the battle-harness, gently tossing it across the short space between them. Catching it she turned it over a few times in her hands, appraising it in the same way a merchant might an animal in one of Deepingwald’s many markets.

‘Interesting enough. Clearly functional and meant for war. Slightly enchanted. Worth having if you don’t have anything else. Not really my area of expertise — I prefer metals. One of the guards would benefit from it no doubt. Valino will give you something for it.’

‘I don’t want…’ it was tossed back to him, knocking him out of his verbal stride, ‘…anything for it.’ He placed it gently next to him on the table. Caldring was already turning back to the furnace — was he already having to rescue this conversation?

‘On that note,’ he cut in, ‘have you had chance to look at that armour I left you with. The, erm, chain mail?’

‘Ah!’ she said, suddenly bright again. ‘Yes, I have.’ She strode over to one of the other tables, Tradden in tow, and pulled some brown sacking off from over what was revealed to be the armour in question. It was still on the makeshift structure from before. It looked like a bit more had been done to it from whence he had last seen it, but still looked far from complete.

‘I believe I have deduced what is needed to complete this fascinating piece. Essentially I will need to re-forge the missing sections here, here, and here.’ Tradden was already lost. ‘That is simple enough, but, I cannot soil this fine work with any old material. No, I would need a substantial amount of material from already enchanted items, perhaps two sizable examples, to work with and refine and perhaps even reduce to their base constituents so only residuum…’ Tradden really was lost now. He grinned nervously. ‘…remains. I could then reforge and infuse the missing pieces through one of the standard ways, probably using El Hiarathain’s second technique, or even attempt some of the techniques within these tomes once I have time to study them.’

‘Right. Great,’ replied Tradden. He shifted uncomfortably. She seemed to be waiting for something. Tradden, who was always thinking, thought harder, furiously replaying what she had just said in his mind and trying to make sense of it.

‘The harness?’ he said weakly, after a few moments.

‘Yes. Yes, that may do for about half of it,’ she agreed, casting her eye over it again this time the way a cat might eye up a mouse already caught under its paw. ‘What else?’

‘Erm… I… don’t… really…’

‘Your bracers?’

‘No,’ he replied, chuckling slightly at the absurdity of it.

‘Your longsword?’

‘No!’ he recoiled back slightly, one hand subconsciously reaching behind his back in a protective gesture. He was genuinely alarmed at this point.

‘Well, let me know.’ And with that she headed back in the furnace again.

Tradden was speechless (regular readers will know that this is rare). He stood there for a moment, mouth slightly quivering up and down as if he was going to say something further but in the end he just calmly made his way to the stairs, stalked past the guard without a word and crunched his way back down the shingle beach to the boat.

Perhaps it was the way the wind had whipped up a little, perhaps it was Tradden’s tired muscles starting to wane already, perhaps it was just the last few days exertions generally taking their toll. Either way, it took a lot longer to row back to the mainland than it had to get to the island. By the time he was tying up the boat at the makeshift dock he had already realized he was going to be late for the Council meeting.

Limbs now positively aching (why was it always the day after?) he half-limped the trail back to Blackengorge, hurrying his way back through the gates without the usual pleasantries, he headed towards The Bronze Lion. As he approached he heard a strange, regular knocking sound. It made him stop and look around. Nothing. Strange. Even stranger it appeared to get even louder as he approached the main doors, which he burst through without further thought. (Tradden later reflected that he could stand to learn a lot about doors from Zero. The Rogue had never ‘burst’ through a door in his life).

He entered to an entire room of people looking right at him. He gave them his best ‘Hey — it’s me!’ grin, which was meant to disarm and enchant. It hadn’t worked again looking at the array of faces now in front of him. Khalin, a free space next to him reserved, was once again pinching his fingers on the bridge of his nose, his eyes shut and his head shaking slightly.

Tremak was many things. One of those things was that he liked punctuality. Tradden looked at the man, sat in the middle of the Council, and could see a heat haze rising up from his reddened head. It obscured the relief and detail of the high-backed chair he sat in. The tapping was revealed to be one of Tremak’s solitary fingers hammering up and down on the oak table.

‘Erm… so… how is everyone?’ he asked of the room.

A dwarven arm snaked out and pulled him down into the free space next to him. There was one, last withering stare from Tremak and then the meeting began in earnest.

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The Bronze Lion Inn

11

Once Tradden was seated Tymander cleared his voice, scanned the awaiting horde, and addressed the newcomers and in turn the heroes.

‘On behalf of Blackengorge, and indeed The Islands, I welcome you to our humble settlement. And for our heroes, a successful and thankful return.’

A cheer rose up from the crowd within the inn and even Kireth could not help but feel some swell of pride.

The council addressed each of the newcomers in turn, asking after their welfare first, and then turning to their professions and homesteads. From then on, the conversation appeared to turn into a long drone.

To Kireth it appeared little more than a show — the Council were not digging into any detail, simply getting the bare glimmer of information that would satisfy the swelling masses behind them and allow the newcomers to feel at ease. He sat back in his chair, his hood remaining over his face, and thought his own thoughts.

To Tradden, however, the show was enthralling — in turn the heroes were asked to describe their exploits, to which he took the fore, embellishing the story in places with howls, growls, and bellows in more or less the right places. Even the furniture did not escape his story — chairs and tables were clambered upon and the whole play resulted in a round of applause that reddened the young fighter’s face.

For Khalin the charade was frustrating — the Council seemed to have forgotten the plight of Rindall, and what other evil may still be out there. He was keen to see what maps and plans Sorrow had, and how they could find out more of these lands. He itched to be poring over maps and plotting their next move.

Zero was bored, there were no two ways about it. Tradden’s epic description of events had been amusing for a while, but the trappings and pleasantries of the welcome conversation were hideously tiresome. He longed to be in smaller company, without all of the necessary ritual and baggage that this meeting entailed.

The newcomers, Altair’s Talons as they had called themselves, seemed to be mildly amused at the whole event. Rhasgar kept a respectful posture and tone in any conversation, but Rangrim, Miri, Sorrow, and Aukan spoke little, keeping watch on the whole affair with wry smiles.

Tymander had enquired about the size and locations of the towns within the Vale and what goods and services they provided. His thoughts had immediately turned to the question of trade routes and the possibilities for mercantile exchanges for mutual profits. Tremak’s concern appeared to be centred around the temples and worship of the Vale and in particular where the heads of the various Churches were situated. He appeared to be appeased at the fact that Pelor played a prominent role within the area. Barghest seemed interested in the number of guards and able fighting men, and the lay of the land of the Stonemarch and the Cairngorm Peaks. Defending any caravan across these lands to the east would take many guards, perhaps that Blackengorge could ill afford.

After a while the conversation began to stilt. There were still many unasked questions, but there was a wealth of information that the Council had learnt. They excused themselves, thanked the Talons and the heroes once more, and retired to the temple to contemplate. Many of the townsfolk took this as an opportunity to greet the Talons, some nervous at shaking hands with Rhasgar or Aukan, but all expressing pleasantries and welcomes.

‘Thank Moradin that’s over,’ sighed Khalin, wandering across to the bar to get an ale. ‘Perhaps now we can get on with some real planning, eh? And perhaps work out what to do about Rindall.’

Tradden nodded in agreement, although he wasn’t totally sure what he was agreeing to, his attention mildly distracted as he looked for Caldring amidst the throng.

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Storyline
Barracks

12

After a quick draught and a quench of thirst Khalin decided to visit Valino. Although the guard sergeant was a stickler for duty and process, he sometimes seemed to be the only one that made any sense in this chaotic world. Valino would know what best to do about Rindall, and where likely the dwarf would be. He bade a quick goodbye to the others and left through the front door of the inn.

The guard barracks were not far and it did not take Khalin too long to walk across the plaza and the practice grounds. Dusk was approaching even though they had not been up too long and the temperature was dropping with little cloud cover. Without his usual armours, furs and cloak the dwarf shivered.

There seemed to be little activity in the town, as folk were either still at the inn or had made their ways home to talk excitedly amongst themselves about the newcomers and the hope of civilisation within their grasp. Only the occasional low of a cow or the cackle of a hen disturbed the night above the distant hubbub of the inn.

Valino, of course, would not be at the inn, he would be on duty somewhere. He was always on duty. After a brief check with the barracks Khalin suspected that Valino would be on the eastern tower, its wooden frame slowly being replaced log by log with stone from the new mines and any that had been recovered from the Gorge Wall. A short climb up onto the watch platform confirmed his suspicions.

‘Hail, Sergeant Valino,’ the warlord greeted him. Valino was looking out far to the distance in the east, squinting through the growing darkness, his eyes ever watching. He did not seem overly-surprised at Khalin’s sudden appearance.

‘Good evening, Master Khalin,’ the sergeant replied, not yet turning to look. ‘I assume you come for news of Rindall?’

The question took Khalin aback a little, quite astute of the sergeant.

‘Yes, do we have any sign?’ he asked, trying not to show any surprise.

‘No,’ sighed Valino, turning slowly to face the dwarf, ‘we do not. I will send out a small party at first light, but with strict orders not to go further than the Gorge Wall. I’ll send Tudor and Thunderthimble out, maybe even Lowfields with them for some experience.’

The sergeant was referring to Helener Tudor, the only female guard — one that even Zero was careful not to treat as anything other than a guard — as well as Beloin Thunderthimble, one of the dwarves that Khalin had made quick friends with when they first arrived in Blackengorge. Edwards Lowfield was one of the youngest of the guards, barely a man, and previously had the dubious honour of ‘protecting’ the jetty on the beach to the west. With no ships likely in the near future from across the sea, other experiences would have to suffice for him.

Khalin nodded sagely — part of him would be content with Valino’s role, organising and preparing defences, training and managing the troops. Another part would not — the adventurous streak, the thirst for knowledge of history and ancestry.

‘We’ll go out and search too, if you like,’ offered the warlord scanning the darkening horizon himself. ‘More eyes and ears and all that. I’m sure between us we’d soon find him.’

‘Let’s hope Tudor can find him on the morrow. If not, well, perhaps we may have to take you up on the offer. We cannot spare any guard here.’

‘Then let me know,’ said the dwarf. ‘I will go and check on Gilmorril. Perhaps the elf scout has come round?’

With a hearty slap on Valino’s shoulder, Khalin turned, descended the wooden ladder, and headed across to the temple.

FEB
29

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

13

‘Never let it be said that an Uhlit does not pay when it comes to his round!’ exclaimed Zero, loud enough so that everyone at the table could hear. A precariously held set of drinking vessels were clunked down on to the rough wooden table. Mostly they were standard tankards, each quickly claimed by Rangrim, and Tradden, with Zero purloining one for himself as he sat down. The remaining drinking vessel was essentially a bucket — hastily yet skilfully adapted by a canny Skillet, who fussed about having never seen a goliath before but obviously recognized someone who was going to get through, and pay for, a lot of ale. A large hand wrapped around the handle. Despite the size of the container the beer within had a life expectancy of but moments.

‘Superb!’ answered Tradden, greedily taking a swift gulp. A line of frothy white foam was left across his top lip. He smirked. ‘Out of interest, who actually paid?’

‘That fellow over there,’ replied the rogue without looking up, one arm casually pointing in the direction of one of the townsfolk who was currently at the bar staring at his coin purse in a I-thought-I-had-brought-more-than-that kind of way. The fine black silk comprising the sleeve of the rogue’s shirt ruffled as he waved his arm, reflecting the flickering internal torchlight of The Bronze Lion the only way a really black black can do.

‘Nice threads by the way,’ praised Tradden, whilst taking a longer, harder pull from his own drink.

‘Yes, they are, aren’t they?’ agreed Zero, holding up his non-tankard arm, examining the endless quality of the work evident even in the slightly-dim, flickery light. ‘That Lowfield chap can work wonders with a needle and thread!’

Now, it was fair to say that since the fall of the Free Peoples record taking and archiving had taken a bit of a back seat — when the focus is on simply surviving, those kinds of things tend to fall by the wayside. That said, there was plenty of understanding across the various races and peoples which inhabited the islands that indicated that alcohol could, and does, have a strange effect on the brains of most creatures, and most certainly humans. It was having one now in fact. On a human sat at that table.

Tradden was drunk. Nicely drunk. He was at that tipping point of it being just right — not too much and not too little. It was the kind of state that hardened drinkers tried to reach and maintain, although the balancing act was difficult. More by luck than management Tradden was in that zone right at that point. Externally the overall effect was not noticeable to anyone in the tavern at the time — to all intents and purposes he was just any other merry drinker. Internally, however, it did have one unexpected effect. Had Zero uttered his last sentence a drink before, or a drink after, it probably wouldn’t have happened. As it was, Tradden’s brain was wired in just the right way, at that particular time, to make a connection with a memory that seemed many hundreds of leagues away. In actual fact, it was many hundreds of leagues away. Scrawled on a forgotten wall, deep beneath an abandoned house in an off-the-beaten location in the outskirts of Deepingwald.

‘Lowfield,’ Tradden said slowly, nearly hypnotically, seemingly staring into the infinite via a mystical, invisible doorway which had presumably just opened above the centre of the big rectangular table.

Rangrim and Aukan were pretty quiet, perhaps slightly wary of the townsfolk or worried about their comrades still being treated in the nearby Church. Either way they had been lost in their own thoughts most of the evening and as such it was only Zero who caught his friend’s rather odd reaction. ‘Are you alright?’ he asked, whispering from behind the tankard and the ale froth now slowly dripping down his beard.

Tradden stared into nothing for a while before suddenly snapping out it, returning from wherever he had been. He looked at Zero. ‘Yes. Yes I am.’ He downed his drink. ‘Last one for me, I am off to bed. I will talk to you about it tomorrow.’

With that the tall fighter stalked through the crowd and over to the stairs, headed for a good night’s sleep.

MAR
01

Storyline
The Temple of Pelor

14

Khalin trudged towards the temple where the remaining wounded convalesced along with the elf scout that the dwarf so wanted to meet. The cool evening air had cleared the warlord’s mind, and the short chat with Valino had brought some cheer. Here was another fellow who disliked the sort of procrastination and ceremonial claptrap which had taken up too much of the late afternoon. There was no denying it, however, the unwelcome revelations regarding Khalin’s ancestors lingered in the background like a distant rain cloud. The dwarf presumed it would remain that way till he could clear his clan’s name.

Shaking his head again to try dismiss the negative thoughts and focus on the matter at hand once more, Khalin realised he’d arrived at the entrance to the temple. Stepping inside he looked around for one of the resident priests to direct him to Gilmorril. He hoped the elf had finally regained consciousness, and that whatever tidings he bore were not grim.

MAR
01

Storyline
The Temple of Pelor

15

The temple was the largest stone building within the settlement and was impressive to say that it had only been erected only half a year hence. Candles littered the area, burning brightly and providing a soft warm glow now that the sun had finally set. Large tapestries depicting many of the stories of the Annals of Pelor hung down over the window arches that contained no glass — their alcoves curved towards the passage of the sun, skilfully crafted to capture the light of the reverent orb during the day, and to magnify and burn brightly at dawn, midday, and sunset.

Eight small cots had been erected within the nave, with some of the wooden benches having been pushed to one side towards the chancel. Two of the acolytes were in attendance, one of the women — Perissa, Khalin thought her name was — and one of the men, the older one, Arion. They were sat on the benches, with what appeared to be towels and hot water laid out on the floor beside them. One of the patients, the older male, was sat up with them, talking softly and slowly.

Five of the cots were still occupied it seemed.

The first held the woman that Zero had carried from the ruined keep. She looked ashen grey, laid there with a white blanket draped across her. A thin film of sweat covered her face and her breathing was ragged, her ample chest rising and falling in a chaotic rhythm. It was obvious to Khalin that she was in the throes of some fever, perhaps as a result of infection from the branding that covered all of the chests of the people they had found alive.

Khalin walked slowly onward, moving to each cot in turn, muttering silent prayers to Moradin for their return to good health. The second cot was claimed by one of the Talons, the halfling, Bekio, twin to Ulmo the deceased. He seemed to be sleeping comfortably and Khalin hoped he remained so — the grief he would suffer upon learning of his brother’s fate would be hard on him.

The third cot was occupied by the grey-bearded dwarf, the same that Khalin had lifted along the Old Road. He looked quite peaceful asleep and now that the caking of blood and dirt had been carefully cleaned away from his face by the acolytes, Khalin could see a familiar tattoo, that of a chain, stretching down from under each of his eyes running down his face under his beard and onto his shoulders. The warlord didn’t need to look to be sure that the chain continued down to the dwarf’s wrists, where the chain would join tattooed manacles. The same tattoo that the dwarf in the torture chamber had borne.

‘He may wake soon,’ the male Acolyte, Arion, said, interrupting Khalin’s thoughts. ‘I believe his fever is over, and through the grace of Pelor he is on the mend.’

‘Good news,’ replied Khalin, keen to speak to any dwarf he could find. His pace picked up as he headed across to the acolytes.

The final two occupied cots held the elf and the half-orc. The half-orc was ashen like the woman, but Khalin was unsure if this was a natural complexion, a racial trait, or from the effects of a fever. Neither was he sure whether the thing was a friend or foe. Caution bade him keep a respectful distance. The elf was whom he sought.

The elf appeared to be in quite a distressful state. Although wrapped in thin linens he was covered in great beads of sweat which poured off him like water, large stains growing on the white of the sheets. He convulsed in fits and starts, tossing and turning and belching out unintelligible spasms of noises like a madman. Khalin looked up at Perissa and Arion imploringly.

Arion shook his head. ‘He is not in good shape,’ the acolyte said with a low measured voice. ‘He has been like this since you brought him here. The brand festers and the fever grows.’

‘Damn!’ swore Khalin, fearful for the elf’s life but also disappointed with another avenue for knowledge closed. ‘Is there anything we can do?’

‘Pelor’s blessing is upon him. His Radiant Servant has seen to that. With time he will recover, of that we are hopeful, but at what cost?’ spoke Perissa.

‘Hmm, and how long,’ growled Khalin to himself. For a moment the dwarf felt helpless, alone, and unsure. Then, with a deep breath, he straightened himself up, gathered his wits and manners, and strode towards the acolytes with almost regal bearing to greet the older male at the acolytes’ side.

MAR
01

Storyline
The Temple of Pelor

16

The man’s name was Lee-da-Gaar Khalin learnt over a short and stilted conversation. The man spoke Common, but with a thick accent that both the warlord and the acolytes found difficult to fully understand. It seemed that Lee-da-Gaar too found their speech difficult to interpret and so the exchanges were short, sometimes confusing, but very useful.

Lee-da-Gaar was some form of priest, loyal to Bahamut the Dragon, and had been studying within a monastic order up in the heights of the Cairngorm Peaks, in an area known as the Ironwalls, at a small temple named Sunderpeak. He did not appear to know any of the others that he had been imprisoned with, and was not a member of Altair’s Talons.

With many an interruption, clarification, and nod of understanding the tale of his incarceration finally made some sort of sense. His temple had been attacked, quite unexpectedly, by a huge black dragon and its army of hobgoblins, orcs, and worse.

The dragon was looking for something, interrogating those few that were still left alive, slaying them when the answers were not satisfying. Of those that remained after the dragon lost interest in the questioning, perhaps a half dozen only, Lee-da-Gaar was one. They were handed over to the hobgoblins, the Bloodreavers, and manacled together.

Some did not make it down the steep snowy slopes of the Ironwalls, their wounds from the battle taking their toll. Lee-da-Gaar was one of only two fit slaves for the hobgoblins to trade. A transaction that took place further to the west than the monk had ever been, pummelled half-conscious and thrown in a bamboo cage towed by horrific beasts.

Others had been added to the cages upon the way, some of those he recognised laid in the cots, but also more dwarves, a couple of goliaths and humans like himself. When they arrived at the broken ruins he thought the torturous journey was at an end, but he found that the torture had only just begun. The still-weeping brand of the circle and horns glowed a burning red upon his chest to prove his point.

He was thankful for his rescue and vowed, by Bahamut’s name, he would aid his rescuers in any way he could. A vow, it seemed, he did not take lightly.

MAR
02

Storyline
The Temple of Pelor

17

Khalin thanked Lee-da-Gaar for the information and enquired after whether he would be joining the others at The Bronze Lion. Lee-da-Gaar shook his head, indicating that he needed to stay and meditate at the temple, to clear his head and understand the path forwards for him. Khalin respected the decision and made his farewells, requesting the acolytes to send word at any change in Gilmorril’s, or indeed any of the others’, status.

With that, he rose from the wooden bench, and headed back out into the night past the cots. He paused briefly at the elf’s, just to pat the man’s shoulder and utter another silent prayer to Moradin. Then he turned and started towards the nave door.

He was yanked back, much to his surprise, an iron grip of a bony hand around his wrist, tight and fast, cutting off the circulation. He whirled in pain and anger and saw the wide open eyes of Gilmorril staring up at him, a fierce flame burning within the pupils.

‘The horns!’ the elf shrieked at him, flecks of spittle cascading down onto the floor around the cot. ‘The horns!’

Then the flame died, the eyes closed and the body succumbed to sleep. The grip relaxed and the elf’s hand fell back to his side. The acolytes rushed over, water and towels in hand, but the elf had resumed his previous ravaged rest, as though the whole scene had never happened.

‘Gilmorril, wake!’ ordered Khalin, grabbing the elf’s shoulders but somehow fighting the urge to pick up and shake the elf. The elf did not respond.

‘We will send word, we promise,’ said Perissa, seeing Khalin’s perplexed look, ‘if there is any change. You look as though you need rest yourself.’

Khalin looked up and nodded at her, stroked his beard, and stalked off into the night and to The Bronze Lion, his thoughts cloudy and dark.

MAR
02

Storyline
The Lowfield House

18

‘Right, so why are we here again?’ said Zero, rubbing the back of his neck and yawning. It was far too early for his liking. Who was out at about before breakfast anyway? Tradden, without the benefit of the hangover he now possessed had roused him and bustled him out of The Bronze Lion without a word of explanation. The fighter had since explained his plan to him twice already but it had gone in one of the rogue’s ears and out the other.

Tradden sighed. They were in an alcove in a part of town Zero half recognized from the previous day. He was sat on a pile of logs nursing his head and rubbing his now grumbling stomach as Tradden stood in front of him dressed in what appeared to be an outfit deliberately chosen as an ensemble and showcasing of his most ruined clothes. It seemed odd — Tradden quite fancied himself and usually dressed as best he could.

‘Right — You know that Khalin suspects that there is a traitor of some kind in Blackengorge?’ the young fighter began.

‘Yes,’ replied Zero cautiously.

‘Well, remember when we first met in that mansion in Deepingwald?’

‘Yes.’ How could he forget? The events that day had basically culminated in being right here right now.

‘And do you remember where you, me and Khalin found Celestia and Kireth? In one of the cells there was some writing. It made no sense at the time. Do you remember?’

‘No.’

‘It said ’Low Field’. Lowfield — your erstwhile tailor!’

Zero thought about this for a minute. Staring down before looking up at Tradden. ‘You got me up early for this? I mean, it’s a bit weak isn’t it?’

Tradden had clearly been ready for this. ‘Yes, it’s not conclusive I give you but it is one heck of a coincidence don’t you think?’

Zero stroked his beard, unconvinced. ‘Hmm. So now what?’

‘Well, you might be right. No sense in going around accusing people of this and that without evidence.’ Grinning, he stepped aside, bringing into Zero’s view the Lowfield residence.

‘I don’t think I like the sound of this,’ mumbled Zero.

‘It’s easy Z — I will go in and keep Lowfield senior busy whilst you sneak in the window and snoop around for anything interesting. No-one else would be able to spot any hard-to-spot hiding places or traps — that kind of thing. Check the drawers, any chests — maybe have a look for secret walls or loose floorboards!’

Tradden was getting carried away Zero thought, standing up. ‘You insult me sir!’ he brushed himself down. ‘I have never entered a building through a window in my life.’ He continued, as if hurt by the very thought.

‘You went in the window at the mansion where we met didn’t you?’

‘You can’t prove that,’ he replied, eyeing the fighter up and down, just in case he could. ‘Anyway, be gone, psh, psh, ppsh!’ He ushered the fighter towards the front door. ‘You just keep him occupied and out of my way!’

All business now, and the grey smog of a hangover put to one side, Zero disappeared around the back of the Lowfield house. With a big smile, Tradden went to the front.

MAR
02

Storyline
The Lowfield House

19

The rogue gave it a few moments, waiting until he heard voices from the front door. He could just about hear Lowfield, but Tradden’s voice was a little too loud, Zero thought, dismayed at the sheer amateurishness of it all. Still, the window of opportunity was here, so to speak, and he quickly clambered through the open portal and silently as he could.

[Zero Stealth Check: 1d20+14+2: 31] - success!

As quiet as a mouse the rogue slipped through the window and into Lowfield’s back rooms. With grace and efficiency Zero began to scour the room with a methodical routine that had served him well on The Islands. Drawers, cupboards and even a wardrobe were checked quickly, both for content and for any other hidden compartments. The eloquently stitched curtains were fingered for secrets within their seams or objects hiding behind them.

[Zero Perception Check: 1d20+11: 28] - success!

However, all the rogue managed to find were a few sharp pins in the end of his fingers and the plain fact that Cornelius Lowfield liked to bite his fingernails whilst he worked.

With a little dismay that he hadn’t found anything, yet relief that he’d finished, he slipped back out of the window, wandering round to the front of the building to greet the still barking Tradden, and a slightly perplexed tailor.

MAR
02

Storyline
The Temple of Pelor

20

When Khalin came down for breakfast on the morrow he was surprised not to find Zero and Tradden already there. He could have sworn he had heard the pair readying themselves earlier in the morning. Perhaps they had gone out for some fresh air. No matter, the dwarf would busy himself with the ample provisions that Skillet seemed to magically find from nowhere. More breads, cheeses and cold meats, as well as fruits, that the little halfling appeared to be able to produce in abundance without fail.

He was the only one down there, the Talons still resting in their rooms, perhaps a little wary of all of the attention they had received the previous day. Still, none of the food would go to waste…

Just as he was about to tuck in, a runner arrived from the temple. It was the little Greenwood girl, Jocelyn, with news of the old dwarf. He had woken!

Thanking the girl and grabbing a hunk of bread, Khalin jumped up and headed out into the morning air, his short powerful legs pumping in a fast walk towards the temple.

Inside the nave the dwarf had indeed woken and was supping on a bowlful of broth that the acolytes had prepared. Whether Perissa and Arion had kept a vigil all night he was not sure, but they had been replaced by Dania and Maxwell, the younger pair.

Under his beard Khalin’s mouth grew into a broad smile as he saw the dwarf looked to be in much better shape.

‘Hail, and well met!’ he declared, offering his arm to the stranger.

The dwarf turned slowly and looked up, a weariness in his eyes. He stood and took Khalin’s arm, grasping the forearm tightly and holding on with gusto.

‘Hark! Borik Glintshield at your service,’ he replied in croaky Common, with a guttural edge.

‘Khalin,’ the warlord started before a short pause. ‘Khalin Grundokri, at your disposal.’

He had readied himself for any retort. The lessons he had learnt from Rangrim and Rhasgar had been short and sharp, but the last two evenings’ thoughts had brooded within him. He was prepared to show his own deeds and prove his worth through his own actions, they would speak louder than any centuries-old myth of his ancestors.

The eyes of the old dwarf seemed to widen for a moment and he quickly looked away subconsciously. The grip on Khalin’s arm did not waver, though, and stayed solid for a few moments more.

The pleasantries concluded, Khalin quickly offered answers to Borik’s questions on where he was and how he had gotten here. The acolytes had prepared him with news of The Islands and Blackengorge’s place in the world and he had had a fair few minutes to contemplate and digest this information. Gradually, however, the warlord turned the conversation around to Borik’s plight, and how he had come to be at the ruined keep.

Borik had been at a mine in the Cairngorms, to the north, not far from Timbervale when orcs and hobgoblins had attacked. Many of his kin had been slain, but some were dragged off and thrown into bamboo cages. The story seemed familiar, the journey across the Stonemarch, the torture and branding. Khalin felt an anger welling up inside him at the lives that the priest in the ritual chamber had ruined.

Khalin considered asking Borik about the tattoos he bore, but felt that it may be too intrusive at such an early stage.

‘What of Hammerfast?’ Khalin asked, changing the subject somewhat.

‘I have not been there in many a year, since I last paid my respects,’ the dwarf replied. ‘It grows in riches and commands the east of the Vale.’

‘Then it stands!’ whispered Khalin to himself. ‘I would see it myself!’

With his curiosity sated, for the moment, Khalin offered to escort Borik to The Bronze Lion, to partake in breakfast. The old dwarf agreed, and the pair thanked the acolytes before returning to the inn.

MAR
06

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

21

When Khalin returned to The Bronze Lion he found it a hive of activity. Sorrow and Rhasgar had taken over one of the big oak tables and had stretched out a number of parchments, held down by tin tankards. They were debating furiously, jabbing their fingers, or in Rhasgar’s case, claws, at various points on the parchments.

Tradden and Zero were nearby, likely having had some input to Sorrow and Rhasgar’s debate. The young fighter seemed a little sheepish and Zero kept firing him stern glances after sucking his fingers. What the pair had been up to Khalin really did not want to know.

Most surprisingly, however, was that Kireth was now downstairs, although he appeared aloof and set to one side in his darkening robes with his hood drawn up even though they were inside. He looked cold somewhat, although Skillet had stoked up a good fire.

The warlord pointed out the names of people to Borik and ushered the old dwarf into a seat near a table holding the remains of breakfast. From the other side of the table Aukan grinned at them both and helped himself to another large portion of bread.

Miri and Rangrim sat close to the goliath seemingly waiting for Sorrow and Rhasgar to finish their discussion as though this happened frequently. Khalin nodded at the pair and headed over to the large oak table.

Spread out across its surface were five or six parchments, some old and faded, some new and crisp, all simple line drawings. Khalin’s heart began to beat faster and faster. These were maps! He almost fell against the table as he moved quickly to get a better look. Yes, they were maps! He scanned them quickly with, what he believed, a trained eye, drinking in their detail.

The parchments to the right of the table were crisp and new, depicting large mountain ranges to the left and right, and forests at the top and bottom. Sprawled within the centre were spidery roads and the clear signs of towns. His breath racing, he decided this was the Nentir Vale.

On the left hand side of the table were the older, more faded parchments. Their level of detail was slim in comparison, with only a few markings, including a rolling set of hills and then forests and cliffs narrowing into a gorge. Upon the hills were inked a pair of dragons in an intricate design.

Sorrow noticed Khalin’s interest and halted her debate with Rhasgar.

‘This is the best we have,’ she began pointing to the left of the table. ‘Details of the west are fairly sparse, as you can tell. I estimate we are here,’ she pointed to the very far left of the parchments. ‘About two dozen leagues from the western foothills of the Cairngorms.’ She traced her finger up the gorge, over the rolling hills and the dragons and to the left of the more detailed mountain range in the centre of the table.

Khalin nodded. From what he had already gathered — the simple maps from the hobgoblin chieftain’s quarters and what Altair’s Talons and Borik Glintshield had told him — the lay of the land was starting to make sense. Sorrow’s hand moved back towards the rolling hills and began to tap up and down on the dragons.

‘Here, though, lies our major problem. If, and it’s a big if, we manage to cross much of the Stonemarch without drawing down a raiding party of orcs, or a band of hobgoblins, we might run into these.’

‘We don’t have any choice,’ Rhasgar interrupted. ‘We must get back, if only for Bekio’s sake. His brother must be buried in Winterhaven. Aiming due east, for Kiris Dahn, and then coming around the south of the Cairngorms into the Vale is the shortest and probably safest route.’ His finger traced a line from the gorge east towards a dot of a town or city a couple of leagues south of the bottom tip of the western mountain range, the Cairngorms. ‘There’s no other sensible way through the mountains at this time of year.’

‘We were captured once following such a route,’ Sorrow replied. ‘I would not welcome that a second time.’

It was obvious to Khalin that the exchange had been heated at times, each with their own opinion on how to return home. He wished he could offer some insightful response.

MAR
07

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

22

Leaving the hubbub regarding maps and the Nentir Vale behind him Tradden moped upstairs and crashed out on his bed, his long frame far too big even for the reasonably sized wooden frame.

He lay for a while, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. It was still too much of a co-incidence that there were words ‘low field’ on the wall of a cell in the mansion in Deepingwald and then a family of people here in Blackengorge by that name. Zero had drawn a blank at the Lowfield residence and if he couldn’t find something, there wasn’t anything there to be found. What was he, Tradden, missing?

Staring for a little longer his head lolled to one side and he stared into nothingness for a while longer, in many ways glad of a few moments peace and quiet. After a little while his eye kept being drawn to Zero’s main pack, stowed under his bed. As it just so happened the angle of his head meant he was looking right at it. It was an unremarkable black pack but had one unusual thing about it — a stick-thing sticking out of the side of one flap. Tradden looked at it, trying to place it. Oh yes — they had picked it up at the abandoned shack the first time around. Kireth had looked it over as it seemed magical, but he couldn’t say what it was. Magical… Hmm.

Downstairs the arguments had subsided for a while. Having seen Sorrow withdraw to one corner of the room Zero moved in. The strange woman, lithe and unusual offered an exotic and new challenge. He was taking no chances, and advanced stealthily, his hands lightly gripping the twin weapons which were, arguably, the most deadly in his arsenal…

‘Wine?’ he asked, sidling up to her with a disarming smile. It was the kind of question which was also a statement of fact. A glass goblet of Skillet’s finest red wine was held up and both his words and actions essentially demanded that she take it from him in the gracious, friendly spirit it was offered. It was a practiced move.

‘It’s been a hard time for you,’ the rogue reassured the tiefling, following up immediately ‘…and,’ he gestured towards the maps, ‘… it doesn’t promise to get any better. You should at least take a moment for yourself.’ He smiled in a playful way. ‘And allow me to join you of course!’

Sorrow smiled and was just about to speak. Zero could tell from the way her eyes looked at him, and the way her mouth started to move, that this had got off to a good start and in his world, a good start was all he needed. Uber-confident he was already starting to play over in his mind later events. This was going to be a winner. It was fated. What could go wrong? At that point a hand slapped into his back, causing him to gently throw his goblet into Sorrow’s lap.

‘Zero!’ said Tradden, slightly out of breath and all excited. ‘We have to talk about your stick!’

This brought the other conversations going on in the inn to a standstill. All eyes were on them now and there was a more than awkward silence. The only thing Zero could hear was the dripping of expensive wine falling from the rough wooden table edge onto the floor, and his own blood boiling. He wondered if it was good form to take out ‘a contract’ on one’s own friend to then carry out one’s self?

‘Erm — sorry, didn’t mean to hit you so hard. Hello Sorrow — are you alright? Oh dear — allow me. SKILLET  — TOWEL FOR THE LADY! Um, anyway, look Zero, we found that stick in the wolf-shack. I think it’s magical and… look, I can see your busy. Can I have it? I want to check something out?’

Zero turned. Had it been Kireth or Khalin they would have seen ‘DANGER’ in Zero’s eyes. Tradden completely missed it. Zero, looking the other way, could only see exuberance in the young lad’s face.

‘Take it…’ he said weakly, before slowly turning back to Sorrow. She was, perhaps predictably, gone. Turning immediately back to Tradden this time ready to unleash hell. He was, predictably, gone, the door just shutting.

Skillet appeared from nowhere and started wiping down the table. ‘You’re still paying for it…’ he made clear.

Zero just sat there saying and doing nothing. After a while he drunk what was left of the wine.

MAR
08

Storyline
The Drax House

23

Tradden, the stick now safely stored in his pack, strode off in the direction of his next port of call — a little abode on the edge of the town.

Despite the fact that it was presumably built at the same time as the other buildings, this cottage, seemed, well, more ramshackle and aged than the others. It didn’t stand out hugely, although the slightly purple hue to the smoke coming out of the chimney was a small giveaway as to the identity of its resident.

After a short delay the wooden door opened to Tradden’s knock, but only a crack. One bushy, white eyebrow appeared first, closely followed by an eye which looked him up and down appraisingly. ‘Yeeesssss?’ said a crotchety sounding voice only slightly muffled from being delivered from behind the gnarled timber.

‘Hello. Umm. Tradden. Aversward. New hero in town? Just wondering if I could, er, have a word, Mr Drax?’

‘Not interested my lad. I am busy with a project extremely important at the moment and it would be dangerous for you to enter-eth. Understand?’

‘Err… yes. Well, maybe not that last bit…’ replied a confused sounding Tradden. He rallied. ‘I have something, erm, magical I think, I wanted you to look at. Something we found outside the walls.’

‘Well, why didn’t you say so to start with? Enter-eth!’

Tradden ducked down to enter the door and on the other side found himself in a large darkened room. It seemed as if the whole cottage was in fact one large space, although it was hard to tell as various oddities hung from every beam and it was cluttered with benches, chairs and unidentifiable other surfaces all covered in various forms of items and, well, junk. Lucius Drax, the singular arcane representative in the town, brushed off a sleeping cat and sat in his favourite chair.

‘Well? What’s the matter lad? Frog got your ears? Hand it over!’

‘Ah, yes. There you go.’ replied Tradden, pulling the stick out of his pack and passing it to Lucius, who started to look it over. With that Tradden stood back, his head bumping into what he hoped was merely a dried up piece of mud hanging on some string.

A few minutes went by, with Drax making few sounds — just the occasional ‘Hmm’, and ‘ahhh’. Tradden eventually felt compelled to fill the silence. ‘Erm — what is the project?’

‘Hmm? Oh, lunch.’

‘Ah.’ sighed Tradden. ‘You said it was dangerous!’

‘It would be dangerous for you if you ate it instead of me, boy.’ The eyebrow was up again. ‘Anyway, this is a strange thing you have brungeth.’ Tradden got the feeling he was being deliberately toyed with now, but continued to appear oblivious to the oddities of Lucius’s language. ‘It does have magical qualities, but, is not from any arcane source that I can identify. Not really my specialism this kind of thing. Besteth I can give thee is that it is some kind of shamanic totem. Perhaps it used to belong to a heathen witch doctor or somesuch? I vaguely recall reading something about this kind of thing in a journal once but darned if I can remember anything about it.’

‘Erm… Sounds less than useful to be honest. I was, erm, on the assumption that, it err…, was not otherwise useful, was hoping it might be something to give to Caldring. She needs items to melt down, or something, to get res-sid-uuumm?’

‘Well you are out-eth of luck there my young fella, it’s not that kind of thing at all. As I say, an odd old stick.’ After staring it it for a moment longer he handed it back to the clearly crestfallen youngster. ‘Anyway, unless you wish to buy anything you are now officially holding up my lunch. Off you go!’

And with that the fighter was ushered out of the door. ‘Farewell!’ cried Lucius as he trudged back down the street. Closing the door he leant back against it for a second. ‘Eth’ he added, chuckling and heading towards the bubbling cauldron of soup.

Once again finding he was doing a lot but not actually achieving anything, the downcast Tradden headed back towards The Bronze Lion, stick still in hand. As he neared he passed one of the paths leading round to the back and heard a sharp sigh coming from the semi-darkness. Back-tracking he stepped inside the shadows to find the tiefling Sorrow sat on a wooden cask. She had presumably been contemplating the infinite as it was only at that point she registered his presence.

‘Whoa!’ said Tradden, holding up both hands as she got up to move off. ‘I just wanted to make sure you are alright.’ She stood still, not moving. ‘Erm,’ Tradden continued, slowing pointing to the red stain on her white shirt. ‘It is, er, possible that I may be partially to blame for that. Sorry.’

‘It’s alright.’ Sorrow replied, after a short pause. Again there was a heavy sigh. The harmony of her voice was quite unusual — Tradden had never heard anything quite like it before. It was lilting, but also a little sad. He could hardly expect otherwise really — she had been through quite a lot in recent days.

‘Look, I will leave you alone — I just wanted to make sure you were alright. Cheer up though — things are not so bad around here.’ He gestured expansively, indicating he meant the circular town. ‘Although,’ he sighed himself this time, ‘it has its issues. No one can tell me what this is for instance. Seems simple enough doesn’t it?’

‘Let me have a look,’ said the lilting voice again, holding out a hand. Her movements were hard to define — oddly flowing and gracious, even with small actions such as that.

MAR
08

Storyline
Blackengorge

24

The young fighter handed over the stick and she carefully examined it with delicate fingers for a while in silence.

‘The carvings are exquisite,’ she finally offered running a slender finger down the length of the shaft, ‘and the feathers appear to have withstood the ravages of time. The black ones are from a raven, if I’m not mistaken, the lighter coloured ones might even be from an eagle. The carvings back that up, I suppose, the beak here certainly seems to be hooked like an eagle’s.’

‘What’s it for?’ enquired Tradden, entranced by her lilting voice.

‘I believe it helps focus the energies from the ground and the trees and all around us, a primal power. Someone trained, or perhaps even just gifted, in drawing power from the land around us and channeling it, such as Aukan, would find such an item useful.’

‘Aukan?’ questioned the young fighter.

‘Yes. He’s a warden — he uses the powers afforded him to become one with the lands and stop all in his path. As gentle as he is, when his rage builds up against those that may defile the lands he is a one-man army.’

Sorrow handed the stick back to Tradden, wiped her hands on her leathers, and headed out of the shadows and around to the front of the inn. Tradden followed in step, almost tripping over himself in his impatience to catch up.

MAR
09

Storyline
The Glade

25

Quests, thought Tradden, were supposed to be about fighting evil enemies and saving princesses. At least, that’s what the copy of ’Ye Mystical Hero Adventures’ he used to read as a child had lead him to believe.

The reality was quite different — near death experiences in sacrificial chambers with architecture out of a mad maniac’s dream seemed to be the norm. However, there also appeared to be another end to that scale, one he was at right now whilst participating in the ’Quest Of The Stick’. As it was, he figured he had come this far so he might as well continue. That led him to where he was now, cautiously approaching a leafy glade an hour’s walk outside of town.

He had been surprised not to find Aukan at The Bronze Lion — he had seemed fairly inseparable from the other Talons. Tradden had followed his fairly easy to follow trail (as a goliath, over a foot taller than Tradden and the weight of a bear, people tended to notice him) which had led him out of the West Gate, heading northwest in the direction the guard had pointed him to.

The trail ended at a glade, serene and beautiful with tall slender trees and a large pool of clear, crystal water sprinkled with broad lily-pads. Willow trees grew at the side of the water and their long loping branches swayed in the gentle breeze. Tradden was overcome with a sense of calmness and tranquility, and his breath, puffing after the quick walk from the town, settled into a slow and steady rhythm.

At the edge of the water was a small rock cairn, a posy of dried flowers at its feet. Tradden drew near and squinted at an inscription beaten into a small bronze plate attached to one of the rocks.

Fernand Cooper

‘May the moon always shine.’

2nd day of Elient
Year of the Ruins Reborn

Concentrating on the cairn and scratching his head Tradden had almost missed the goliath. There Aukan stood to the side of the water, basking in the midday sun that filtered through the canopy of the leaves. He was a funny looking old fella, thought Tradden. Essentially just a big human, a really, really big human, size apart there were tell-tale signs that he was something else. His eyes were a pale colour, not spookily so but very different, his skin was an odd blueish-grey colour mottled with darker patches and speckled with small growths of bone that protruded through the skin on his shoulders and arms. Strangely, for such a big person he didn’t seem particularly threatening, but Tradden remembered the sheer, brutal power he had displayed when battling the wolves. The furry devils might as well have had a tree fall on them. Tradden realised he was stood near the edge of the water staring. Aukan was staring right back, an almost serene look on his face.

‘Erm. Ahem,’ coughed Tradden. Aukan’s head simply lolled to one side ever so slightly. The rather gormless looking smile remained fixed in place. Not knowing what else he could do, the young fighter stepped forwards until he was stood a few paces away. Aukan’s gaze hadn’t wavered — he still continued to look at Tradden with his rather blank smile. His head lolled the other way.

‘Nice glade you have here,’ said Tradden, gesturing around. ‘Very, um, foresty around the edges.’

Nothing.

‘Erm, hope you don’t mind me bothering you? Hoping you might be able to help me with something? I have just been speaking to Sorrow…’

‘Ahhhh. Sorroooww,’ interjected Aukan, nodding slightly.

‘Yes, er, Sorrow. She said you might know what this was?’

He reached back into his pack with one arm and fished out the stick. Holding it out for a second he proffered it over to the goliath, whose head had once again lolled back to the other side as he studied the piece of wood now held out without touching it.

‘Stick,’ he said, simply.

‘Yes,’ replied Tradden, fighting back a frustrated tone. ‘I know that. I think there may be more to it than that, but no one really seems to be able to say. Sorrow thought you might have a better insight?’ This was something Tradden was beginning to doubt. Whatever a Warden was, Aukan just seemed to be a big, simple chap. His next comment did nothing to debunk this hypothesis.

‘Sticks not always just sticks,’ Aukan said, a twinkle in his eye. ‘Follow me.’

The goliath turned and started off through the trees to the west, away from the town.

Despite Aukan’s simple demeanour, Tradden suddenly decided he quite liked the goliath. It was a pleasant change of pace from Khalin, always thinking about next moves, and Kireth from whom a straight answer was impossible.

‘Sure, why not,’ smiled Tradden, to himself, and jogged forwards to catch up with the disappearing goliath.

MAR
09

Storyline
The Stone Circle

26

Aukan marched ahead, seemingly knowing where he was headed, with Tradden behind, desperately trying to keep up. The trees were getting closer together and brambles lay upon the ground snagging and clutching at the young fighter’s heels. Aukan, however, seemed unperturbed by the undergrowth and his long legs kept a steady rhythm that Tradden struggled to match.

After fifteen minutes or so the goliath stopped and looked from side to side as if getting his bearings. Tradden, puffing and panting by now, came up alongside, bending over and clutching at his knees to catch his breath. The walk had been short, but for some reason it had taken the wind out of his sails. He raised an arm and was just about to speak when Aukan beat him to it.

‘We are here,’ the goliath said and stepped forwards into an area clear of trees.

‘Where?’ wheezed Tradden and looked up to see where Aukan had gone now.

Sun bathed the undergrowth with a dazzling light at it reached its midday zenith. The clearing was circular, the trunks of the surrounding trees forming its perimeter in an orderly fashion, and it drew his eyes towards the centre with an unnerving dizziness. The brambles of the surrounding wood encroached into the clearing but were then supplanted by some huge, thick, black vines. They curled around the clearing, menacingly, as though a snake constricting its prey, black and twisted, large thorns protruding from their hideous sides at regular intervals.

Tradden touched one of the thorns as he moved towards Aukan to judge its sharpness, and was greeted with a sharp shaft of pain, blood trickling from his finger. The cut was long, deep and wide although he had only touched down with the slightest pressure. Putting the finger in his mouth he vowed not to touch another.

‘Where are we?’ he asked, suddenly feeling cold and chill.

‘Your barkeep,’ replied Aukan, not taking his eyes off whatever he could see within the clearing, ‘he said there was one here. I didn’t dare to believe, but it is true.’

‘One what?’ queried Tradden, a little puzzled and not for the first time. ‘A bloody prickly vine?’

There was a low rumbling growl from the goliath that grew in volume and it took Tradden a few moments to realise it was a laugh. He joined in, weakly.

‘No, no,’ said Aukan eventually. ‘A circle. Look past the vines and you will see.’

Tradden frowned, not seeing. Then, as he looked closer he could see them. Large white rocks, jutting out here and there under the vines and brambles, weather beaten, pockmarked and rough. They ran round, parallel to the tree line, in a wide circle, with a central stone, more polished and smooth than the others, in the centre atop a shallow mound.

The young fighter shivered convulsively nearly grabbing a vine, and certain pain, in his haste. He steadied himself, however, without the need of a handhold wondering what the queer feeling meant.

‘Let me see the stick,’ Aukan commanded, turning to face the young fighter.

Tradden looked up at him. The goliath’s gaze was penetrating, his eyes bore into him, almost menacingly Tradden thought. There seemed a shadow around the goliath’s frame, black and fluid, stretching out past aeons and wrapping Aukan in a living blanket. The air grew cold and stale, still as ice, the taste of rotting vegetation lingering in the roof of his mouth. Tradden thought he was going to pass out. Meekly, he held out the stick and the goliath snatched it from him, pushing the frail human away with an almighty shove and roaring with laughter.

The young fighter fell into blackness.

MAR
09

Storyline
The Stone Circle

27

He came to cradled in Aukan’s huge arms.

His head throbbed wildly and his cheeks and neck were wet with cool water that the goliath was carefully trying to pour down his throat.

‘Steady, there,’ coaxed Aukan softly. ‘You’ve had a little tumble.’

Tradden flinched and his arm started to move towards his shoulder for his sword before he remembered he had not brought it with him. ‘Fool!’ he thought, Khalin would not be impressed.;

‘I think you managed to poison yourself on the vines,’ the goliath continued. ‘You went quite a funny colour before the life drained out of you. Good job you missed the rest of the vines on the way down.’ He chuckled. ‘I think you would have been quite unwell had I not grabbed you. How do you feel now?’

Tradden still wasn’t sure what had actually happened, it had felt so real. The headache certainly was real though. ‘Lousy,’ he replied through a thick mouth.

Looking up, he could see that the sun had moved quickly across the sky and was now just over the tree line. He’d been out for a couple of hours at least. Shakily, he rose to his feet, steeling himself against any further dizzy spells. When none came he breathed out and relaxed and the headache started to ease.

The air in the circle was sweet and cool, the gentle breeze blowing away any lingering sense of nausea. The cut on his hand had stopped bleeding and a thick crust of blood had already started to congeal. He would get that seen to as soon as he got back to town. As he looked at his hands he noticed he no longer held the stick and worriedly looked around for any sign of it. Aukan held it in his hands. The huge goliath saw Tradden staring at the item.

‘You gave this to me just before you feinted,’ Aukan suggested. ‘An interesting item, something that well matches this circle here I believe. It’s watching and waiting.’

Why did everyone talk in riddles? Tradden thought. ‘What, the stick?’ he asked.

Aukan looked at the stick and then across the stone circle. ‘Both,’ he answered. ‘They’re both waiting for something and watching for it. The stick is a totem, a device for one connected with primal energies to expand and channel their power. This one soars above the land on wings of sight, blessed by the feathers of ravens and eagles, circling, and watching for something to return.’ The goliath looked up into the skies as he spoke and crossed the heavens with an upraised arm. ‘The circle waits here to be discovered and to be put to use once more.’

Tradden didn’t feel as if he were much the wiser. ‘You said you didn’t believe there would be a circle here. Why?’

The goliath moved closer to the young fighter and lowered his voice, acting almost surreptitiously. ‘Our legends tell of a series of stone circles tended by druids long ago, protecting the land and…’

There was a snap of a branch nearby and both Tradden and Aukan glanced across the circle. A black-robed figure strode out into the vined area, its hood drawn up over its face. Not for the first time did Tradden feel himself reach for a non-existent sword. It looked across at the pair and pulled down its hood. It was Kireth!

MAR
09

Storyline
The Stone Circle

28

‘What in the gods’ names are you doing here?’ quizzed Tradden as Aukan rose, passed the totem back to him, and became the silent giant once more.

‘One might ask the same of you,’ replied Kireth in a whimsical drone. ‘I am taking in the airs,’ he continued aloofly. ‘I have not been well.’

Tradden looked at him closely. He did look a little peeky — his face looked pale and withered and bags hung under his eyes as if he had not slept since he had returned.

‘You still don’t look well, are you sure you’re alright,’ Tradden asked, noticing Aukan head back towards the direction of the town from the corner of his eye.

Kireth’s eyes seemed to light up playfully with his comment.

‘Oh, yes,’ replied the wizard, smiling at the young fighter. ‘After my walk I feel much better.’

A smile grew on Kireth’s lips as he studied the boy. Somehow, it unnerved the lad.

‘Yes, well,’ he stammered ‘We’d better be getting back, hadn’t we?’

‘Indeed we should,’ Kireth replied, the smile never leaving his lips. ‘Do lead the way.’

Hesitantly, Tradden took one last look at the overgrown stone circle, and then started the slow walk back to town with Kireth in tow behind him. After a few minutes he realised what had unnerved him so much.

He couldn’t remember the last time he saw Kireth smile!

MAR
12

Storyline
The Temple of Pelor

29

The journey back to town was uneventful, although largely silent. Tradden rubbed his sore hand from time to time and tried to engage Kireth in conversation, but apart from the occasional monosyllabic response the mage seemed not to be one for talking much at this point and the young fighter gradually gave up the losing battle.

By the time they reached the West Gate Tradden’s hand was aching and the tips of his fingers were tingling quite badly. He mumbled some apologies and headed over to the temple, as Kireth strolled towards The Bronze Lion.

To his surprise, Rhasgar and Miri were there. Word had reached them whilst Tradden was at the glade and the stone circle — Bekio had awoken.

The little halfling looked tired and pale, but most of all he looked sorrowful. There was no doubt that Rhasgar and Miri had been here to let him know the news of his twin. Bekio appeared tall to Tradden, perhaps half-a-head again taller than Skillet, with black spiky hair that increased the perception of his height. He’d had time to dress, in dark cloths emblazoned with embroideries of mystical runes and sigils, perhaps more to impress than serve any real function. Now, he stood to one side of the temple, Miri’s arm supporting him and Rhasgar offering soothing words.

Tradden nodded over to the trio, hoping that his quiet respect would show his sympathy for the little man, before seeking out one of the acolytes to clean and dress his hand.

With the acolytes still busy with the needy, Gilmorril the elf, the lady, and the half-orc, it was left to Beltak to see to Tradden. The scribe professed to being a less-than-adequate healer, but Tradden had seen the man perform miracles in battle and was more than happy for Beltak to treat him. The scribe took one look at the cut and surrounding inflammation and asked Tradden if he had been at the stone circle. When the young fighter nodded, Beltak left him alone for a moment to get some salves and pastes, returning with some small pottery jars, the contents of which he spread over the wound recanting prayers as he worked. Tradden felt a soothing warmth spread across his palm as the cut began to close before his eyes, a dark purple ichor spilling out and dripping onto the floor.

‘Valino brought me back some of the vines from the circle,’ Beltak had explained whilst he worked. ‘Vile things, black and twisted, and their thorns were razor sharp like talons of some strange beast. You could almost see the poison dripping from them. It was less than a day before they withered and died, crumbling in upon themselves until they turned to dust. We’ve warned most people to stay away from them, I’m surprised you went over there.’

After only a few minutes Tradden’s hand felt much better — the pain had eased almost completely and the tingling sensation had gone. An angry red scar in the shape of a crescent was all that remained for now. He flexed his hand, he would have no problem holding a sword which relieved him somewhat. He thanked Beltak and stood to return to The Bronze Lion.

MAR
12

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

30

Khalin finally managed to sit down and grab a small bite to eat. The last couple of hours in The Bronze Lion had almost been stifling.

He’d managed to understand Rhasgar’s and Sorrow’s plans for how they may return to the Nentir Vale and committed to memory the maps they had in all their detail. He also felt he had been some use to them, offering suggestions on how they may attempt to avoid any hobgoblins or orcs or even the dragons. He wasn’t sure which way the offer had been made, the offer from Khalin and the group to accompany the Talons to assist their safety, or the offer from Rhasgar to take Khalin and the group along with them to see the Vale, but the warlord didn’t mind, the offer stood, and he was edging on acceptance.

Then the messages started.

First it was good news — the halfling Bekio had come round at the temple. The Talons were delighted, but their excitement tempered when they realised they had to bear the news of Bekio’s twin, Ulmo. Rhasgar and Miri offered to go and tell him, the others agreed, and they left for the temple.

The subsequent messages were still running around in Khalin’s mind and he wasn’t sure what to make of them at all.

The runner that had come from the temple waited until Rhasgar and Miri had left and then offered Khalin a note, sealed with an inscription of a burning sun, the symbol of the Church of Pelor. The note requested, perhaps even demanded judging by the tone, that the group take a letter of introduction, in utmost secrecy, to the head of the Pelorian Church in the Vale. Khalin had passed the note onto Zero, but the rogue just shrugged with indifference. The warlord wished that he had the counsel of Kireth, but the wizard was nowhere to be found.

Another message was relayed not moments later, but at least this one was in person. Tymander Small, head of the Blackengorge Merchants Guild, small as it was, had entered The Bronze Lion and asked to speak with Khalin. The two had sat at a table where Tymander had expressed his desire to formalise trade routes with the Nentir Vale, to bring much required goods into Blackengorge and to help the town grow in size. Perhaps with trade another ship could be funded and built, and the exciting news returned back to The Islands.

Khalin could see many of Tymander’s points and even offered up some of his own, but was startled to find that Tymander thought that a wagon laden with goods from Blackengorge would be the best opening gambit to open up trade relations. He argued the point about a waste of resources if the expedition ran into trouble in hostile country, and that the town could ill-afford to send even two of its oxen, but the enigmatic Council member would not be swayed. He left to allow Khalin to consider the offer.

Just as Khalin thought his day could not get any more complicated he was approached by Jason Henrikson of the guard who held a letter for any governor of any city within the Vale with a request to send guards and fighting men for Blackengorge to help build and strengthen the town.

The dwarf was gracious with all the messengers but was clever enough not to make any firm commitments either way. He needed to talk to Kireth, and Zero and Tradden as well. He would not make any decisions without their agreement. He still brewed over the puzzle of Rindall, and that of the so-called ’spy’ in Blackengorge. He had also yet to talk with Gilmorril. Disappearing off to the east on a journey fraught with danger and with no timescale for return was exciting and what he had always yearned for, but the loose strings that played on his mind in this little town still had their own pull.

The warm bread and cheese from Skillet’s larder held no real comfort and it was with some relief that Khalin saw Kireth return to the inn, followed only a few minutes after by Tradden. The warlord gathered them and Zero close. A time to make decisions was nigh.

MAR
14

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

31

Once again the companions’ favourite table was subjected to the brutal assault of drinking vessels being carefully ’thrown’ down onto the rough oak. One wooden stein of beer for the dwarf, a metallic goblet of red wine for the human fighter and a similar goblet containing only fresh, hot water for the human mage. The three sat on their own now, huddled in a slightly conspiratorial fashion.

‘Where is Z anyway?’ asked Tradden.

Khalin shrugged. ‘He has been here most of the day. Skillet’s wine stocks have suffered — he was pretty merry last I saw him. Likely he has gone to sleep it off.’

‘Right, well, Listen.’

‘Oh, we are all ears,’ whispered Kireth, sat back, sunken in his chair adding something to his hot water and taking a sip. Despite clearly not wanting to be there the mage appeared to be in much better spirits, although that was hard to tell at the best of times. The others took it to be so having become more aware of the miniscule turning up of his mouth at either sides when was now a giveaway if you knew what to look for.

‘Yes, well,’ Tradden tried not to sound unnerved. ‘We need to decide what we are going to do. The Talons. They all seem very nice but… well, there is something about them that makes me uneasy.’ He looked angrily sheepish. ‘I can’t explain it.’

Khalin stroked his beard thoughtfully. ‘They are an… unusual bunch I grant ye, lad, but Rhasgar seems wise enough.’ He took a swig of his ale. ‘Don’t forget, they were prisoners at the underground keep and have suffered a fair bit. Rhasgar seems wise and whilst paladins can be a bit narrow-minded he is a follower of Bahamut — we have seen his connection to his patron and that is beyond doubt.’

‘I’m not sure — we actually don’t know a damn thing about them!’ argued Tradden, slamming his goblet down on the table and sitting back in his chair, arms folded.

‘Well, that seems fairly academic. They are heading back to Winterhaven one way or the other,’ stated Khalin. ‘As far as I am concerned I intend to make further searches of the land around Blackengorge. There are answers that need to be found regarding what happened at the battle of the wall and…’

At this point, Tradden simply exploded, leaping forward out of his chair into a standing position.

‘What? Still with that? All you have done for the last few days is mope about something that happened hundreds of years ago and go back and forth to a temple trying to speak to an elf that won’t wake up!’

Khalin said nothing, visibly dumbstruck by this sudden outburst from Tradden. It was unlike the boy. Bewilderment turned to anger at the sudden criticism being levelled his way.

Tradden continued, however, his tone perhaps now slightly more measured having blown whatever top had previously had something bubbling underneath. ‘Look, if we can get to one of these big towns that the Talons have told us about, I will help you research what happened. I have spent enough time in libraries to be useful. In fact, I would like to do it. However, now, right now there are more pressing issues. You saw the map — that whacko in the basement of that hell-hole we just visited had plans for an undead army to sweep down into Blackengorge and presumably that is still a risk. This whole place stands to be wiped from existence! Whoever is behind this plan now know we are here and quite frankly if we, us,’ he circled his hands in a pointed motion, ‘don’t get out and stop them, as we have been doing, the next thing we will see is a legion of undead outside asking if Mr Valino is playing out. And that is before we even get started on potential traitors in town! You need to get your head out of the past and into the now. We need you.’

MAR
14

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

32

The dwarf was wearing a helmet and his bushy beard covered most of his face. Despite that, the warlord’s face was a very sharp shade of crimson. The way he now held himself suggested every muscle in his body had tightened to the point of nearly snapping. His hand tightened around the now empty wooden stein, which splintered noisily, spilling both froth and blood onto to the table.

Ever cool, Kireth didn’t flinch despite the fact that internally he was convinced the dwarf was about to launch himself over the table at Tradden. As per usual the boy didn’t even realise danger when it stared him in the face. For one who proclaimed to be experienced in the ways of dwarves, he had crossed any number of lines. This would be interesting.

None of the three were aware of a more immediate threat however. Up in the darkened rafters there was an assassin. Right at that moment the shadowy figure was taking aim with his crossbow. Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. The stock of the high-powered projectile device currently pointed in the general direction of Tradden, and slowly an invisible bead was levelled at the target, which was now unobscured, static and had no armour to speak of. His aim was steady and true, the bolt sharpened and lethal. He pulled the trigger, knowing he would not miss. He didn’t — the bolt hit true, slamming the target against the nearby wall where it stayed, pinned in place. For a second there was only the sound of red liquid dripping onto the wooden floor from the wound caused by the bolt.

‘What the? Hey — that was my drink!’ howled Tradden, looking at the section of wall where his crumpled goblet was now nailed in place.

Out of the sky dropped Zero, more lithely than any of them might have imagined possible.

‘Ha!’ he pointed in Tradden’s face. ‘Now we are even!’

He was evidently still a little on the inebriated side, but was clearly enjoying himself. ‘In fact, not quite even. You will buy me a drink. In fact, you will buy three! Anyway, what are we talking about?’ he beamed.

MAR
15

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

33

Khalin raised his eyebrows. Foolish nonsense, but it took eyes off him for a second and it was all he needed to re-assert himself in the most important place of all — in his own mind. The history of his kin at the battle of the wall was important, he felt it in his bones. Tradden was wrong about that. Admittedly, the fighter was otherwise correct. He had been caught up with his own personal concerns when there were larger issues to attend to. He felt liberated by this realization. Enlightened even.

‘Rhasgar?’ he called out, with an authority in his voice the others had not heard before. ‘A moment, if you could?’

The dragonborn wandered over from the group of Talons sat at the other side of the inn who had no doubt been watching events at their table with interest.

‘Without numbers to mount effective assaults or defences along the way our capacity to take direct routes anywhere is compromised. That much is clear from your own intelligence and experiences. That said, we came here to help the people of Blackengorge in this endeavour and I will be damned if the threat of a fight with a dragon or two is going to put me off!’

Rhasgar started to chuckle at the clear flippancy of the warlord’s comments. Then he caught his eyes. Never had he seen that look in the eyes of any dwarf. By Bahamut — he was serious!

‘We will head to Winterhaven. The Council asks various tasks of us and I will not refuse — to do so would be tantamount to rowing back to The Islands right now. We will escort a wagon of goods and move as fast as the gods will allow. I might have Tradden here paint a target on the side before we go, it won’t make much difference. I suspect a fight or two is in the offing, be it goblin, undead or whatever, but this time we will be damn well expecting it. If this means our respective paths diverge then it has been a pleasure making your acquaintances and may Moradin bless your path ahead.’

The Paladin took a breath and looked as if he was going to argue or give his own input, but again caught Khalin’s eye and saw a battle he could win. ‘I understand. We will discuss and begin to make our own preparations.’ He chuckled, nodding towards his own group. ‘A group decision may take years in any event!’ With a bow he went back to the Talon’s table.

Turning back to his companions, Khalin faced Tradden, who was now looking a little sheepish. ‘Look sharp, lad — you are partly right. Perhaps I did need a kick up the arse. However, do you swear on the Axe of The Dwarvish Lords that you will one day help me discover the truth behind the Battle of the Wall?’

Skillet, who knew his best customers needed looking after, was at this point bringing a goblet of wine for Zero. He was offering it up, but it was intercepted by Tradden, who snatched it just as it was about to be deposited in Zero’s hands. ‘Hey!’

‘Of course!’ avowed the fighter, holding it up in a toast.

Using his good hand, the warlord took a generous swig out of the full new stein Skillet had brought, wiped the foam from his whiskers and proclaimed, ‘And as for the undead? Why do you think I’ve been trying to see Gilmorril my lad?’ The dwarf punctuated the point with a wink, his old swagger perhaps starting to peek through again. ‘Don’t you worry about the undead. You leave them to myself and Aecris!’

Kireth looking on, sipped from his goblet, saying nothing.

MAR
15

Storyline
Blackengorge

34

A new realisation dawned over the warlord as he wiped another film of foam from his moustache. If the group were to journey to the east laden with goods, then he would need to sort and direct the logistics. He drew a heavy sigh. In his youth he had dreamt of conquering the Old Continent, of exploring its furthest reaches and re-uniting ancient clans and kinsmen. In the short time he had been here he had found a dark cloud nestling above his own clan name and was now going to be spending his time worrying about how many goods could be safely stowed away on a ramshackle cart pulled by a pair of stubborn oxen. So much for the adventuring life!

‘I’ll go see Tymander,’ he suggested after a few moments’ contemplation. ‘I’ll let him know we accept his request, and Barghest, and Tremak. I suppose they’ll need a little time to sort out a wagon and determine the supplies for trade.’

With another small sigh of resignation he rose from the table, made his farewells, and headed out into the evening air.

Within the hour Khalin had accepted the requests from the Town Council personally, bearing three sealed envelopes — one with the seal of the sun, one with the seal of a shield, and one with the seal of a rose — along with the promise that a wagon would be built on the morrow, ready for leave the day after. Tymander himself would oversee the selection and loading of the wagon with trade goods, and would see to it that the group, including the Talons, would have provisions and rations safely aboard to match their expectations.

His work completed for the night, the dwarf looked wistfully over at The Bronze Lion, before heading up to the temple. Just in case.

MAR
15

Storyline
Blackengorge

35

The day had been the most exhausting for Kireth since his return to Blackengorge. The long walk he had undertaken had certainly refreshed him somewhat, but now he was tired and aching. The ordeal from the ruined keep and the chill of the portal had taken much out of him, perhaps too much, and his road to full recovery would be long and arduous. It would only be a matter of a day or two before they would be setting off into the wilderness once more, and he must conserve his energies for the journey.

With a pleasant smile he stood up, making his excuses, and headed off up the stairs into his room, locking the door securely behind him. As he turned from the door he looked over to the bed. His head cocked to side slowly as he drew down his hood. There on the pillow, standing out in harsh contrast to the white of the sheets, was a single violet flower. A hyacinth, perhaps the first of the season.

MAR
15

Storyline
Blackengorge

36

The rogue had managed to get himself fairly merry on Skillet’s wine and was half-contemplating another stint in the rafters with his crossbow. The other half of his mind was telling him to go and get some fresh air, though, to clear his head and prepare for the journey ahead. The two sides raged in battle for what seemed an eternity and at last the sensible side won, the lack of female company in the inn tipping the balance. He lurched upwards from the table without so much as a by-your-leave to Tradden and swayed out of the door.

The cold evening’s air hit him quite hard, trying to blowing away any befuddlement but bringing on a dull ache in his head. He hadn’t really thought about where he was going, just to get a bit of fresh air. He wrapped his cloak around him and began to walk around the central plaza, following the round cobbled path in a wide circle whilst he thought.

Thoughts didn’t come easily. As soon as one fleeted to his mind it danced away just as quickly. He would have to cut down on his wine intake. He was even starting to see things — a figure off in the shadows, bent over as though hobbled and old, something in its hand. A weapon? He staggered closer, trying to work out what it was.

He didn’t see the shrine of Pelor, though, sticking up straight out of the ground at the edge of the plaza. As the figure moved away into the blackness he tried to follow and connected head on with the wooden frame. For a moment he stood there, dazed. Then he keeled over to the side landing on a carpet of white. As he drifted off into a forced sleep his last thoughts were on the comfortable bed he lay in. ‘Oh, snowdrops, how lovely,’ was all he thought before blackness took him.

MAR
15

Storyline
Blackengorge

37

Tradden felt rather alone. Khalin had gone off to talk to the Town Council, Kireth had gone upstairs presumably to sleep, and Zero had lurched out of the door via a long and winding route. He had slowly finished his wine, sorting his thoughts and desires, but now had need of some company. The Talons were engaged, deciding on how best to travel back to the Nentir Vale — along with us, Tradden hoped — and the others they had rescued had already retired for the night. Even Skillet seemed unusually busy.

He shrugged and headed out into the growing night. Perhaps he’d wander past Caldring’s, just in case she was back from the tower.

There was no sign of Zero outside, nor of Khalin. In fact everything was very quiet. He was a little surprised how dark it had gotten — perhaps they’d spent a little too much time enjoying themselves in the inn and time had passed them by. It had also grown cold. His breath stood out starkly against the moonlight, large clouds rising and dissipating into the air.

He wandered, rather aimlessly truth be told, across the plaza, more or less in the direction of Caldring’s smithy. He knew she wasn’t there — no smoke rose from her small chimney and his heart sank a little. He decided to turn back and call it a night. He turned about and had to jump back in alarm!

Standing behind him, appearing silently and out of the blackness somehow, was the old crone that had accosted him with flowers once before. She held out another bunch now, pushing them towards his face, their stark whiteness almost glowing in the moonlight.

Tradden tried to move to one side, but the crone, Yolanda he remembered, matched his step and thrust the flowers towards him once more.

‘Pheasant’s Eye daffodils,’ she croaked, her voice croaking and aged. ‘Nice flowers.’

The thrust came again like a sword cut.

He fumbled in his pockets for some coppers, but only found a silver. ‘Here!’ he offered, pushing the coin towards the old crone like a shield.

The coin was snatched and the flowers roughly transplanted before Tradden could refuse. The old crone held him with a steely glare.

She began to speak, sing perhaps, her voice cracking and wheezing as she spoke:

Flames are released to
Heal the riven,
Alighting the fire
Hence unbidden.

Unhidden and bared
By the warden,
Through shadows of black
Flow the circles.

The last of the last
Protects nothing
’Til pearls of the blood
Freely given.

An oath to fulfil
By the eagle,
The chains of the eye
Still unbroken.

At the end she pushed Tradden’s elbow upwards and the flower heads squashed against his face. The young fighter exploded into a fit of sneezing.

When he recovered, the old crone was gone.

MAR
16

Storyline
The Tower of the Mists

38

The next morning Tradden once again woke early and set out on a trip outside the walls. The fighter was nothing if he was not a learner and this time he wore both armour and took his weapons, but only after first taking in a good breakfast downstairs. After some coins had changed hands he was now, courtesy of Skillet, the proud owner of a pair of high quality leather gloves which were remarkably thin yet tough. After all, some of the plants in this land could be quite sharp!

His first stop was once again the Tower of Mists. The morning was fine, but cold — the kind of day where intakes of breath stung cold on the back of the throat and lungs. For Tradden, used to city living, it was enough of a novelty to be exhilarating. After an hour of walking and rowing he once again found himself passing an asleep guard (he probably should report him to Valino) and descending down to the basement of the tower.

Caldring was stood, arms folded and one finger against her chin, studying a set of papers somehow affixed to the wall of the furnace. She looked, well, she looked as she usually looked — covered in soot and oil and looking like she had not seen clean water in a number of days. It was early to be working, but as far as he could see there was no way down here to tell what time of day it was unless you actually left the room, which he suspected she didn’t. Tradden had never really thought about it before but wondered if Elves needed less sleep than humans?

After nervously introducing himself once again and explaining that no, his gloves were not ladies gloves, he ploughed on as best he could despite her ‘not bothered’ demeanour and explained the latest developments.

‘It seems to me that you could be really useful to the town if you came along. It will be dangerous for sure, but if we can get through to Winterhaven… well, establishing a trade route looks to be the only way start ensuring the long term safety of Blackengorge and The Islands.’

She looked like she was seriously thinking about it so Tradden moved in for the kill.

‘Who knows what we will find along the way, and Winterhaven itself sounds like a big place with plenty of opportunity to rediscover lost arts and find new materials — that kind of thing. The Talons all have weapons and armour the like of which I have never seen.’

‘There is a lot to do here,’ was all she said, but she didn’t look wholly convinced.

‘Also, it would be nice to have you along,’ Tradden gave her a smile-special and a knowing kind of nod. ‘So, whaddya say?’

MAR
01

Storyline
The Shrine of Pelor

39

Zero had awoken upon the grass, near the small shrine with a start. The morning sun burned through the shrine’s hoop aligning almost precisely with its angle, the spring equinox only just passed. The Light of Pelor had favoured him, waking him before too many people were up and about to notice his presence.

The light, although too intense to begin with, enforcing the rogue’s headache, had gradually warmed him up, bathing him with its beauty and washing away his sins. When he actually moved, instead of the pains he expected, he had none. It was if the light itself had leant him strength and cleansed his body. Quickly, he had risen and scampered back to The Bronze Lion before anyone really noticed.

Tradden had already breakfasted and left, probably pining for the smith Zero thought with a wry smile. Some of the others had not risen, but Khalin sat to one side readying his pack.

‘We’re not going until the morrow,’ Zero called out to the dwarf.

Khalin looked up, regarding the rogue with some mild amusement. ‘Then maybe that will give you time to get cleaned up?’ he jested, nodding at Zero’s clothes, covered in grass and snowdrop petals.

‘Yes, well, got to, uhm, ’test’ them before we head out into the wilderness, eh?’ he responded, brushing some of the petals away onto the inn floor.

‘Oi!’ piped up a small voice. ‘I only swept that an hour ago!’

It was Skillet, armed with a vicious looking bundle of cloth. The diminutive figure stared at Zero for some moments. Zero stared back, but it was no good, there was something quite disconcerting about staring at a halfling that had made up his mind to be awkward. The rogue gave in, as gracefully as he could, and bent down to pick up the detritus.

‘Hmm,’ scowled the halfling, ‘anyway, this is for you.’

When Zero got off his hands and knees Skillet presented him with the bundle of cloth. ‘Little Alicia Lowfield brought them round. Said they were all part of the price you paid. Looks like you might need them.’

Skillet dropped the bundle into Zero’s hands, sniffed once, loudly, turned on his heels and walked back over to the bar.

‘You can finish tidying before you open it, though,’ he continued, before disappearing off into his fabled back room.

Zero kicked the remaining few petals under one of the nearby tables, always keeping an eye on the door of Skillet’s room, and then unfolded the bundle. His heart leapt with joy. There, unwrapped to see, were three more outfits all as skilfully made as the first — wonderful colours and delicate embroidery snaking its way down the sleeves and across the chest.

He held one up with pride. At least you got your money’s worth in this town!

MAR
16

Storyline
The Temple of Pelor

40

Another pleasant boat trip and walk later Tradden found himself back in town. Careful to avoid any flower related assaults, he picked his way carefully through the now bustling (or what counted for bustling in Blackengorge — Deepingwald Central Market is was not) paths to the temple. Once inside he found the room he was looking for, knocked, and stuck his head around the door. Predictably the occupant was at his desk, writing.

‘Ah — Beltak! Well met. How goes it?’

‘Ah, um, Tradden Aversward. Yes, um, Pelor smiles on us all this fine day.’

In truth the scribe looked less than happy to be disturbed from his work. Whether the fighter didn’t catch this or didn’t care was not clear — he still came to sit on the corner of his desk.

‘Are those ladies’ gloves?’ the scribe questioned.

‘No,’ said Tradden, patiently, ‘they are not.’

‘Oh, well,’ continued Beltak, glaring witheringly at the section of desk on which Tradden now sat.

‘Here’s the thing — I take it you are aware of the expedition to Winterhaven?’

‘Of course, His Radiant Servant has talked of little else.’

‘Of course,’ nodded Tradden, noticing the little sigh that followed the statement. ‘Well, it seems to me that you could tag along?’

Beltak looked stunned before breaking out into a nervous little chuckle. ‘Why,’ he gestured around the room as if it were the sole reason for staying, ‘would I want to do that?’

‘Oh, come on! You record everything that is going on around here — it’s well known. Seems to me that you wouldn’t even be here unless you recognised that the trip to Blackengorge was going to be a notable event in our history?’

‘Go on.’

‘If you stay here, realistically not much is going to happen. Day to day life will continue — Valino will walk around turning up his nose at everything, Yolanda will act weird and generally I dare say it will be fairly hum drum. However,’ Tradden leaned in, ‘this expedition is the future of Blackengorge. If you want to be there when we first make contact with another town. and of course when great deeds are being done along the way, that is where you want to be!’

The scribe simply stared at his book.

MAR
15

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

41

Khalin turned his attention from the vain rogue back to his own pack. He’d packed and repacked it a couple of times, trying to find the best combination and order for the items he wanted to take on the journey east. Tradden and Zero seemed to be more concerned with jaunting around the small town rather than preparing, but they were younger and maybe that was their own way. Kireth had not been down from his room yet, and perhaps he was preparing for the journey in his own special way also.

He was still frustrated that there had been no word from the temple on Gilmorril’s condition. He had ventured up to the temple the night before, after the decisions on the journey had been made. However, the elf was still in the grips of fever, convulsing and sweating profusely, and no closer to recovery. He’d asked for a runner to be sent to him, whatever the time, day or night, if there was a change in condition, but none had yet arrived.

None of the Talons were yet downstairs, all sleeping off the excesses of the previous night no doubt. If they were the heroic group they claimed to be they would be ’all business’ today, preparing for the journey and ensuring their heads were clear for the morrow. There was no harm in the feasting and drinking from last night. Who knew, if there really were dragons out on the Stonemarch, it might be their last chance to enjoy themselves thoroughly.

Neither had Khalin seen much of Borik or Lee-da-Gaar. The old dwarf was probably still fast asleep, snoring no doubt. The monk was likely meditating in his room, or was out in the sunshine stretching and practicing bodily moves that were bring slight guffaws from the town guard.

‘Where were his weapons?’ they had asked as the monk slowly went through practice rituals of arm and leg extensions. ‘How’s he going to fight a goblin at that speed!’ they had laughed.

To his credit, Lee-da-Gaar had not even acknowledged the guards’ taunts, let alone retorted to them. Perhaps he’d not even noticed, judging by how much concentration he had placed on his practice.

As he strapped the final buckle across his pack and slid the leather strip into placed he sat back. He was prepared. He was ready.

MAR
19

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

42

At that point Tradden strode in and threw himself into a chair across from Khalin, which groaned in protest, adopting his often seen ‘hands behind the head’ position. No one sprawled like Tradden, Khalin thought.

‘I don’t get this town,’ he stated, after a few seconds of silence. ‘I mean, you would think that after, what, a year nearly here at least some of them would want to get out and see this new land. I thought these were supposed to be brave pioneers but none of them seem to want to pioneer anything!’

Khalin absentmindedly took out his hammer and started to clean the head. ‘What’s on your mind, lad?’

‘It’s Caldring,’ said Tradden, batting an empty flagon back and forth with one hand, the other now bunched up and supporting his chin. ‘I thought she would want to come and see the new towns. Maybe see new smiths and such like. She made it clear she thinks here is the best place in the whole damn land and isn’t going anywhere. Oh, I thought we could ask Beltak along and actually I think he would like to come but he won’t drink a glass of water unless he has orders from Tremak, so he is staying also. Probably just as well — first library we hit we would lose him forever.’

Khalin knew that Beltak was less of a concern to the fighter than Caldring.

‘You, know,’ the dwarf said, making a particularly long stroke down the haft of Aecris, ‘you really need to stop chasing after elven women. No good will come of it.’

Actually, Tradden was coming to this conclusion himself. Right at that moment he had to shake his head to get long, curvy, luscious red horns out of his mind.

‘Maybe. Anyway, I am ready to go when you are.’

MAR
19

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

43

As lunchtime turned to afternoon there was an unexpected visitor at The Bronze Lion. Beltak, the scribe, appeared at the threshold, panting slightly and looking flushed. He scanned the common room until his eyes fell upon Kireth and approached the mage almost reluctantly.

‘Master Kireth, may I speak to you, please?’ he asked quietly. ‘Alone.’

Kireth looked at the others and then without a word nodded towards the stairs and headed to his room. Opening the door for Beltak and ushering him in, he took a quick look down the corridors and then closed the door behind them both, uttering a few syllables. The lock clicked.

‘The past few days have been most exhilarating,’ the young priest began at pace, whirling to face the mage. ‘Just finding people from the Old Continent would have been special, but to find out that they have towns and perhaps even cities is incredible.’

Beltak looked up at Kireth with a broad beam on his face. It was obvious that the scribe could barely hide his excitement.

‘I have spent some time with Sorrow, the, uhm, tiefling, and she has tales of wonder to tell of the ancient days. Her songs and sonnets will leave me with many tendays of work. Look,’ he continued, thrusting some parchments towards Kireth’s face, ‘I have written most of them down as she spoke and will begin to collate and cross-reference them as soon as I can.’

Kireth politely declined to read the parchments — he was sure that he would have time at a later date. There was obviously something more that the scribe had to tell. Beltak paused, waiting for Kireth to read the notes, then withdrew them when it was obvious the mage would look at them later.

‘But, the most interesting tales have been from Lee-da-Gaar,’ Beltak continued, desperately trying to keep Kireth enthralled. ‘It seems his order at his temple, Sunderpeak Temple in the Cairngorm Mountains,’ the scribe’s voice seemed to relish talking about places that in his dreams he only hoped existed and now were quickly becoming a reality, ‘they had records, albeit sketchy, of some of the history prior to the Downfall. It seems that even here on the Old Continent after the last battle history was hard to keep except that which was passed down orally.’

Beltak was into his full swing now. Kireth hardly had to say a word, just nod and smile every once in a while, and drink all of the information in.

MAR
19

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

44

Beltak took Kireth’s general silence as a good sign. The mage was listening. He rushed out his next words, each one rapidly tumbling from his mouth into the next — it was almost difficult for the mage to keep pace.

‘Lee-da-Gaar tells of a great battle to the west, perhaps where the Gorge Wall stands now, where the ’Ruler of Ruin’ drove his horde against King Elidyr and crushed the ’Flame Imperishable’. The King was slain and his Last Legion, his King’s Guard, fled in terror. The details are thin, but Lee-da-Gaar believes that the records themselves have more detail — just the basics of history were taught. Oh, if I could just get my hand on these annals! Perhaps you could visit this temple with Lee-da-Gaar, help him reclaim it, and bring back the records?’

The mage was silent for some moments, thinking along all the paths of possibility. Beltak took this as a sign of indecision, and pressed his point.

‘I looked deep within our own annals on this subject once more, once I had Lee-da-Gaar’s transcription. I wanted to cross-reference some of our own records, but, uhm,’ the scribe began to look very sheepish. ‘I think I might have mislaid some of the old parchments, though, in my haste from previous study. I cannot find them. His Radiant Servant will be furious!’

Kireth’s head jolted upwards and he caught Beltak’s eyes. The young scribe seemed fearful of the consequences of his actions, scared perhaps. The mage’s mind was decided.

‘Then perhaps it would be best for you to accompany us, then? If you wish to raise your favour with His Radiant Servant, what better way than to shed the Light of Pelor on the histories and annals of old first-hand?’ offered Kireth.

Beltak had not expected this, even with Tradden’s request earlier in the day. He didn’t feel that Tremak would allow it.

‘B-but, His Radiant Servant, he wouldn’t allow…’ he started.

‘You just leave His Radiant Servant to me,’ smirked Kireth. ‘Meanwhile, you should start packing. You have a long journey ahead.’

MAR
19

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

45

As Beltak left The Bronze Lion he held the door open for one of the guards. In uniform they were a rare sight in the inn, Valino’s orders very clear on that matter — only off-duty. Somehow this seemed to be official business.

Khalin looked up and studied the boy. He’d memorised most of the guards’ names even in the short time he had been in the town — it seemed quite natural to the warlord to do so after many outings with the Border March. It was Robin Drakesmellow, one of the youngest of the guards, although quite a soldier already according to his strict sergeant.

Robin looked around the inn, seeking someone out. Spotting Khalin, he wandered over slowly.

‘Afternoon, Master Khalin,’ he began with a broad countryside accent after removing his helm.

‘How can we help?’ replied the dwarf, always keen to assist the guard.

‘I’m looking fer Master Tradden an’ Master Zero if it be all the same,’ Robin replied, looking past Khalin’s shoulder at the youthful pair, who suddenly exchanged worried glances.

Khalin was a little disappointed. With guards’ business, he hoped to be the first one to be asked, but these two? What had they been up to? He moved to the side, allowing Robin to get a good view of them, and frowned at them himself.

‘I’d like you to ’company me, if it please you,’ Robin requested with a firm, if uncertain tone.

MAR
20

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

46

Zero had more or less been ready for the journey on the morrow. Even with the thought of a long march into unknown danger he was in quite chipper spirits and was even starting to look forward to it. This unexpected turn of events, however, led to a fleeting sense of anxiety. His mind whirled as his thoughts turned to what the guards could want with him, where had he slipped up? His face showed no such signs, though, hidden behind a perfected mask of a genial smile.

‘Er, of course,’ the rogue replied in smooth tones, rising from his seat. ‘Always happy to assist our boys of the guard.’

He playfully patted the arm of the guard before turning and slapping his hand down on Tradden’s shoulder before the youth could say, or do, or move, or think anything.

‘What’s all this about, Robin?’ asked Khalin with a slight note of disapproval in his voice aimed at the pair of humans next to him.

‘Oh, it be the smith, sir,’ replied the guard. ‘Says she wants, er, woulds like Master Zero to come and see her at the tower, like.’

Tradden’s face brightened when Caldring was mentioned, but then flushed red when he realised she’d asked for Zero and not him. The rogue just smiled and winked at him.

‘Says that the tall one better come an’ all.’

Tradden went redder.

Khalin relaxed and looked over at the pair once again. ‘Well, go on then,’ he commanded like a parent scolding his children. ‘Don’t keep the lady waiting!’

Zero breathed out as the anxiety flooded away and the space was filled by curiosity.

‘Indeed,’ he proclaimed, swirling around to face Robin, his cloak brushing irritably over Tradden’s face. ‘Lead on, young man. Come on, tall one, we need you for the rowboat!’

The rogue chuckled as he followed Robin out of The Bronze Lion, with Tradden sulking behind.

MAR
20

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

47

Kireth came down the stairs into the common room just as the door to the inn was slammed shut by Tradden. He saw Khalin sat alone at a table, his head in his hands shaking it slowly from side to side.

‘Where are they going now?’ enquired the mage.

‘The Tower, to see the smith,’ replied Khalin, looking up. ‘Those two are going to be the end of me!’

‘Indeed they may,’ agreed Kireth, ‘but not, I fear, today.’

The mage paused for a moment, as if to say something important, but then turned towards the door. ‘I will be out for a short while, I have business at the temple. However, I am ready for the journey tomorrow now.’

As Kireth left, Khalin grumbled into his ale. ‘Well, that’s alright then, isn’t it?’

MAR
20

Storyline
The Isle of the Mists

48

Zero sat in the prow of the rowboat like a lord. Occasionally he wafted his arms about showing off his newly embroidered clothes and gesticulating at Tradden to either slow down or to speed up.

‘What in the nine hells does she want you for?’ Tradden had asked as they had climbed into the wooden boat at the boathouse.

‘Well,’ mused the rogue, ‘they all crack in the end, don’t they?’

In truth, Zero was quite unsure what the smith would want with him, but was quite intrigued. He’d not been to this fabled tower before and was quite enjoying the ride through the mists. For once it was nice to have something slightly unnatural and exciting happen and yet knowing that there wasn’t a hideous monster lurking at the other side.

As the rowboat snaked up onto the shingle of the island, Zero was already leaping off like a seasoned buccaneer. It was left to Tradden and Robin to tie the small wooden craft up to the post that had been rammed down into the beach.

‘This way,’ ordered Zero, pointing up the beach towards the dim outline of the tower through the mists and setting off with his head held high.

‘We know,’ muttered Tradden under his breath, finishing the knot of the rope and following Zero up the slope.

MAR
20

Storyline
The Earth-Fire Forge

49

Tradden caught up with the rogue just inside the entrance of the crumbling ruin, leaving Robin to his duties out on the island. The broken tower stones and rotting crates were still strewn around the interior, only the area around the trapdoor leading down into the chamber below was ordered and cleaned.

‘I love what she’s done with the place,’ Zero beamed.

‘She’s done wonders,’ Tradden scolded, suddenly feeling quite protective. ‘Come on, we need to go down here.’ He headed across to the trapdoor and lifted it up revealing a blast of warmth from the softly lit chamber below.

‘Hmm, down, always down,’ mumbled Zero, but followed the young fighter into the depths.

Caldring had indeed worked wonders. Even since the short hours that Tradden had last been here more of the forge had been cleaned and restored towards its former glory. The young fighter wasn’t sure where the elven smith found the time or the energy.

The bookcases had been repaired and moved to the far side of the chamber, a thin metal protective plate covering the front like a door. The worktables had been cleaned and all of the small pieces of intriguing metal arranged and laid out in ascending size order. One of the tables was clear except for the strange thin-metal frame that Khalin and Tradden had found. There was no sign of any soot or dust except for on the smith herself. Anvils of various sizes, and even some of strange shapes, were arranged to one side, small tools and hammers laid upon them ready for use. Next to them were small baths of liquids, maybe water, maybe not, resting next to a number of freshly hewn blocks of stone from the mine to the north. Behind the stone, next to the forge grate were three wooden mannequins, all bare except the last which held a gleaming mail shirt adorned upon it. The grate to the main forge was closed.

Caldring, covered in soots and oils and crusts of charred leather, stood before the forge grate, her back to the entrance and the men. She turned when she heard them approach and Tradden immediately saw the fresh cuts on her face, as though she had been clawed at by a beast.

‘I hear you are good with your fingers?’ she questioned, looking at Zero.

The rogue broke into a smile and nudged Tradden with his elbow. ‘See? Cracked,’ he whispered.

MAR
20

Storyline
The Earth-Fire Forge

50

Tradden took an involuntary step forwards. ‘Your face,’ he mumbled, ‘what happened?’

‘A minor setback, that is all,’ Caldring replied. ‘My fingers are not as nimble as some. I would have asked Skillet, but I would prefer to leave all of my valuable items where they are, rather than be on display in his back room. Therefore, I called upon you.’

It was Tradden’s time to smirk. ‘Second to a halfling, eh?’ he whispered into Zero’s ear.

Zero frowned. ‘So what exactly is it that you’ve asked me here to do?’

The smith strode across to one of the worktables, the one with the thin-wire device. She picked it up effortlessly, it was obviously extremely light. She held it out for all to see.

‘This,’ she said. ‘I think I’ve figured out what it is and how to use it. However, as you can see,’ she pointed to a couple of loose wires that had sprung to one side, ‘it has suffered some damage when it has been down here. I tried to repair it, but the wires snapped back, cutting my face. I need someone with an expert touch to re-assemble it.’

‘And that’s where I come in, I suppose,’ grumbled Zero, his enthusiasm dampening with the thought of the mundane.

‘What does it do?’ asked Tradden his curiosity, conversely, beginning to pique.

Caldring became more animated and engaging as she started to talk about the frame. ‘It wraps around the stone blocks like these,’ she pointed at the freshly hewn stone. ‘It’s enchanted, some quite powerful magic from what I can tell. Note that the blocks are the same size as the ones brought back from the Gorge Wall. With the right heat applied to the frame whilst it is wrapped around the block it will impart some of its magics, searing the block and bestowing an aura of protection upon it.’

Her eyes were positively glowing whilst she talked of the craftsmanship of the wire frame and of the processes involved.

‘If we can mend it, I think I can reproduce the protective stones. Whoever created this was a great smith!’

‘And how do I help mend it?’ asked Zero, doubtful that he should be involved in such craft.

‘It appears to be quite simple, if you have the dexterity and patience,’ the smith replied. ‘You need to be near the heat to allow the wire to become supple, and then you just need to lever these two broken pieces here under the others. It sounds simple, but I’ve tried a few times and cannot do it.’

Caldring turned and pulled the lever to open the grate to the forge. Zero took a step backward as the huge metal door slid to one side, freshly oiled and greased to avoid any sound. The heat that flooded into the room surprised him.

The smith casually walked towards the forge and into the heat and laid the wire frame down on the giant anvil within its gaping maw. She looked back at Zero expectantly.

‘You expect me to go in there?’ he shrieked.

MAR
20

Storyline
The Earth-Fire Forge

51

‘Go on,’ Tradden urged, nudging Zero forwards from behind, starting to enjoy himself. ‘Nothing to be scared of.’

‘I’m not scared!’ retorted Zero. ‘I just, uhm, work best under certain conditions, that’s all.’

The rogue cautiously walked towards the forge, grimacing slightly at the heat. ‘You coming?’ he asked Tradden.

‘Me? Erm, no, I’ve got to stay here, uhm, to look after things.’

The rogue frowned at the young fighter and ventured closer to the heat. It certainly was stifling and he had no idea how Caldring could stand there apparently unaffected. Beads of sweat started to break out on his brow.

He joined the smith at the giant anvil and turned over the wire frame in his hands. It certainly was light, much lighter than he expected. Whatever metal this was, it certainly wasn’t common.

Slowly the rogue turned to business — the transformation was invisible to those around him, but Zero was starting to become very proficient in his skills. He could slow and steady his breathing, keep his hands and fingers rock solid, and he could spot the tiniest imperfection or loophole in a mechanism with his sharp eyes. With a few minutes study, all thoughts of the heat gone whilst he worked, he had worked out how to fix the device.

He pulled out a small delicate tool from his pack and set to work.

[Zero Thievery Check: 1d20+11+2: 16] - failure!

He pulled the prongs to one side and tried to lever them back in but to his surprise they whipped back in a sharp motion and slashed across his palms. Blood welled up on his left hand and began to drip down his wrist.

‘Ow!’ he bawled, alerting Caldring and Tradden to his plight.

‘Don’t get blood on the mechanism, or the forge!’ Caldring shouted and sprang forward with an oiled rag that she wrapped around his hand before any blood could spill onto the floor.

‘Bloody thing,’ Zero spat, annoyed at the contraption. ‘Thanks for your concern.’

Tradden held his gloved hands up to show the rogue with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Ladies gloves,’ was all he said. Zero did his best to ignore the taunt shrugging off the smith and going back to work once more with a determination to try to fix the thing even if it killed him. He selected a different tool, and tried again.

[Zero Thievery Check: 1d20+11+2: 29] - success!

This time the wires slid perfectly into place and the nestled snugly under one of the main supporting wires. As they clicked into place the front of the wire frame fell out like a cage door and Caldring gasped in delight.

‘Yes!’ she cried, ‘you’ve done it.’ She grabbed hold of the rogue and kissed him roughly. With an embarrassed look she then backed off and took the wire frame cage over to one of the stones, wrapping it around one of them with glee. It was a perfect fit.

MAR
20

Storyline
The Earth-Fire Forge

52

Zero stepped out of the intense heat into the slightly cooler work area. Tradden stepped forwards and pulled the lever to close the forge grate. Producing a handkerchief from nowhere Zero mopped his brow and then removed the oily rag from his hand that Caldring had given him, and swapped it for the clean handkerchief.

Caldring continued to work upon the stone and wire cage without speaking.

‘Ahem,’ coughed Tradden. ‘Erm, what happens now?’

It was some moments before the elven smith replied.

‘Oh, yes. Erm, well I have many days of study here to complete the investigations into this stonework. You can see why I can’t come with you to the east. There is too much to do. Even Sorrow seemed reluctant to leave this place, it held so many mysteries.’

‘So, that’s, uhm, it?’ the young fighter asked politely.

‘Er, yes,’ Caldring replied. ‘Thank you very much for your help.’

‘And, er, what did you ask me here for?’ he continued, his voice hopeful.

The smith looked at Tradden as though trying to understand why he was still here. Then a realisation dawned on her and she shook her head. ‘Of course,’ she started, moving across to the mannequins with a bound. ‘Here.’

She took the mail shirt from the mannequin delicately and held it out for Tradden. It was the Eladrin chain that had previously been half-finished. It now looked more or less complete.

‘I consider it my prentice piece for this forge. Your own armour is, well, pathetic in comparison — I’ve no idea where you bought it. Some pawn shop in the Rookery I imagine. There are only so many repairs it will take. If you keep getting hit like you appear to do so, then you won’t make it to the east. I’m sure this will offer some well-needed protection.’

‘You finished it?’ the young fighter asked, incredulously. ‘Without the items you needed?’

‘It’s not perfect, by any means, but it is solid armour and will serve you well. There is something of this forge within it — please show it to the best smith in the Nentir Vale, and tell them of this forge. They will be able to see it in the metal and the reforging if they are worthy. When you return, and I hope you will, I will finish it. I promise.’

Tradden’s heart lightened as he took the armour. Not only did it gleam and ripple in the soft light, but Caldring hoped he would return!

‘I thank you from the bottom of my heart for such a gift, but I sense that for now this is farewell, dear smith,’ he said eloquently, with a small bow. ‘May our paths cross again soon.’

‘Good luck on your travels,’ she replied, watching the young fighter for a few moments before kissing him awkwardly on the cheek and then turning back to her work.

Tradden turned lightly on his heels and strode across the workshop. As they headed back towards the stairs Zero grumbled at him. ‘So you get a brand new set of armour and I get a bloody hand, eh?’

It was the young fighter’s turn to gloat.

‘You can row back, too!’ he said to the rogue as they headed back up the stairs. When they reached the top he looked at Zero slyly. ‘I guess they all crack in the end, eh?’

MAR
27

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

53

When Zero and Tradden stepped in to The Bronze Lion Kireth had already returned and was sat near the fire with the glimpse of a smile upon his face. Khalin perched at the other end of the oak table, his head buried in parchments with maps and inventory lists, scratching his beard and grumbling. Borik, Lee-da-Gaar, Rhasgar and Sorrow were sat around him, assisting him in place names and features of the area. The rest of the Talons were on an adjacent table, leaving the preparations to Khalin and Sorrow, a few of the villagers joining them in a drink.

As they approached the table Khalin looked up and noticed Zero’s bloody handkerchief still wrapped around his palm.

‘What have you been up to now, m’lad?’ he asked, almost exasperated.

‘He should have been wearing some nice leather gloves,’ Tradden chirruped, sliding down onto the bench next to Sorrow in what he hoped was an athletic, heroic, and surreptitious manoeuvre. He winked at the tiefling and showed her his gloves. She didn’t seem overly impressed.

‘Aren’t they lad…’ she started.

‘Yes, the finest leather,’ the young fighter interrupted quickly. ‘Would have saved old nimble fingers here a cut had he been wearing some, I’m sure.’

‘Helping Caldring with important business,’ Zero piped up, ignoring Tradden’s taunts and answering Khalin’s question. He slumped down onto the bench and then waved his good arm in the air for a moment. Skillet appeared almost magically behind him. ‘A wine, good man,’ he said to the halfling. ‘Medicinal, of course,’ he added with a wink at Sorrow.

There was a long sigh from Khalin and the dwarf shook his head slowly before returning to the parchments.

MAR
27

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

54

‘So,’ Khalin started, his focus back on the task at hand, ‘the Draxes and Kaden Small say the wagon will be ready tonight. Kaden has all of the fastenings forged, it’s just a matter of bolting them onto the wooden framework. The wheels are already completed he says, they’ve been tyred and the axle is already fitted. The iron tyre will help on the rough cobbles, he thinks, although it may be quite loud. The oxen have been fed, so they’ll be ready to be harnessed in the morning.’

‘Tymander says he’ll have all of the goods loaded and secured just after sunrise and I’ve arranged for ten days of supplies for the thirteen of us. There’s the Talons, us, Lee-da-Gaar, Borik, and Beltak.’

At the mention of the scribe Khalin looked up at Kireth who continued to appear to be amused with himself. The mage had not discussed what he had said to Tremak, merely that Beltak would now be accompanying the party to record their heroic deeds.

‘We’ve also arranged for a secure and respectful place for Ulmo’s body on the wagon,’ he continued, looking up at Rhasgar who nodded. ‘Borik here is a capable drover, so will lead the oxen — one other can sit on the front plate with him in turns for a rest. Our full packs can go at the back of the wagon.’

Rhasgar and Sorrow nodded.

‘With the wagon we have no real choice except to follow the Old Road to the Gorge Wall Gate and then see how direct it takes us east. With any luck it will take us directly to the southern tip of the mountains, about two dozen leagues from here.’

He paused for a moment, grabbing one of the scrolls and laying it out. On the map of the Nentir Vale he pointed to the mountains on the left-hand side of the parchment. He drew his finger down to the bottom of the mountain range.

‘At the southern tip of the Cairngorms is Kiris Dahn — a ruin,’ Khalin said, looking up at Sorrow for confirmation. ‘From here we can head northeast into the Vale following the road over the Gardbury Downs to Winterhaven, another dozen leagues or so.’

He rolled up the parchment slowly.

‘With the wagon we’re only going to be moving half a dozen leagues or so a day. We’ll need to rest the oxen and the going might be slow on the Old Road. Assuming we don’t bump into anything untoward we should get to Kiris Dahn in four or five days, Winterhaven in another couple of days after that.’

‘And if we do bump into something untoward?’ questioned Kireth from the far side of the table. The group all turned to look at the mage.

‘Well, we’ll just have to deal with that, won’t we?’ smiled Khalin, obviously eager to be off. ‘Aecris has stood idle for a few days — I’m sure it will be happy to teach some more hobgoblins some manners!’

This drew a rousing cheer from the assembled group, echoed back from the other table with the rest of the Talons. Flagons were raised and a toast was proposed.

‘I’m not sure it is hobgoblins I am concerned about,’ muttered Kireth to himself as the others congratulated themselves and turned once more back to the fire.

APR
02

Storyline
The Bronze Lion Inn

55

With plans laid and a long journey ahead of them the majority of the travellers made for an early night. The thought of setting off just after dawn with a sluggish head and weary body did not appeal. The road to the Nentir Vale was long and perilous and they all knew that they needed their strength and wits about them.

Kireth was the last to retire for the night, the mage’s pale face gleaming in the firelight as he sat half in the roaring light and half in the darkness of shadow. Skillet watched him from behind the bar, not fearful but cautious around the wizard. Kireth didn’t appear tired, merely waiting for the show to begin on the morrow, drinking whatever strange brew he concocted himself, herbs, spices, and other ingredients mixed within one of Skillet’s less-potent wines. Through his fingers within the folds of his robes he absentmindedly passed trinkets he had picked up on the journey on the Old Continent so far; a small bone scroll case with parchments picked up along the way, the small worthless amulet carved with the spiraling circles, the skull-cap of the broken wand from the ritual chambers, the small tomes of the half-mad elf, Helvec, and another, now cleaned of mud, that led his way. What other trinkets would he find along the path to the east, what other powers would he gain?

With a nod at the halfling behind the bar he rose from his seat, the fire seemingly giving him no warmth tonight. As silent as a ghost he climbed the stairs and retired to his rooms, now ready for the travels ahead.

APR
02

End of Scene