Alaria had arrived in Hawkview shortly past midday. She’d made her way through the city to the guild tower of the Fellowship of Alkari. She arranged for lodging and a meeting with the resident administrator, as her master, the wizard Vertior had instructed.

Former master, Alaria thought to herself with a smirk.

Vertior had surprised his pupil with the announcement two days prior. It brought tears of joy to Alaria’s large chestnut eyes and she enveloped the old mage in hugs and profuse thanks. Six long years of study and research in the Academy, four more years of study and practice under Vertior’s tutelage, a lifetime of hopes and dreams and finally, her apprenticeship was to be at an end. She would be able to explore the world of magic of her own volition and the wider realms beyond the secluded Mage-lands. Vertior then tasked her with a final errand on his behalf.

She was given two scrolls and a palm-sized square of folded parchment sealed with wax. The red sealing wax was pressed with Vertior’s sigil and surrounded with various sigils some of which Alaria knew to be protection magics. The envelope contained some small round hard item, a ring perhaps or a coin. One scroll was for a “Magister Kurklani” at the mage’s guild tower in Hawkview, which she was to deliver upon her arrival. The other scroll and the folded sealed parchment were to be taken to another old friend, someone calling themselves “the Green Witch of Welford.” Welford, Ventior explained, was a small hamlet north of Hawkview “…that produced the most delicious apples.”

The following day, Alaria had filled her pack with her spell books and components, assorted vials, charts, other trinkets and tools for magical, alchemical and astrological work, and a single change of clothes. Her father gave her a modest purse of coins and Vertior supplied the eager traveler with a scroll containing additional spells for her to study and practice and a simple wand of smooth white wood banded in copper. Upon command, Vertior instructed, the wand would release powerful bolts of lightning, but “…only in an emergency…” as it could only be used three times before the wand’s magic was expended.

Alaria said her farewells to family and friends, grabbed her staff, and practically skipped through Ablidon to the docks. She arrived at the ship chartered for her by Vertior nearly an hour earlier than she needed to be. Her mind aflame during her entire trip across the bay recalling what she’d learned of the people and cultures of the realms, the great mages of the realms, heroes of history and of how best to enhance her arts in the realms.

The tower was easily found and identifiable by the well-known (at least among the people of R’Hath) sigil of the guild inscribed large above the door. A simple cantrip revealed the secret glyph to the young wizardess.

Shortly after her arrival, she met with Magister Kurklani. He was a short bespectacled man in dark robes with a grey whispy beard hanging from his chin reminiscent of a billy goat's. His mantle was emblazoned with the guild sigil and an array of other magic symbols, most of which Alaria could not decipher. He greeted her politely and quietly unfurled and examined Vertior’s letter, adjusting the thin framed glasses perched on his hooked beakish nose. The guild master was an old friend of Vertior and the kindly old wizard assured Alaria he would be helpful in her errand, the final task of her apprenticeship. Alaria shuddered with excitement at the thought.

Kurlani held the letter up and, with a minor flick, the scroll rolled itself up and disappeared into one of the guild master’s billowing sleeves.

“Well, it seems that Vertior thinks quite highly of you, Miss Staver. This mission you are on is no small task. Of course, you will have our support in whatever manner I can provide. Specifically, Vertior asks to arrange some protection for your journey as you have not traveled outside the Pricipalities before.”

Protection, Alaria thought. What kind of protection could she need to visit some farm north of the city? Alaria managed a polite giggle, “Magister, I thank you and master Vertior for the concern, but I hardly think a fully-trained magess of R’Hath requires ‘protection’ to cover a few miles of farmland.”

“Yes, well…”, Kurklani adjusted his spectacles, “…out of deference to your mentor and my friend, I will do as he asks. Ehm, ‘few miles’ did you say?” Alaria sees a thought crossed the magister’s mind. “Do you know where Welford is?”

“Yes.” Alaria chirped, eager as always to have the right answer. “Well, kind of.” In her haste to complete her task and continue on her unsupervised way, Alaria hadn’t really considered it important. She figured any resident of Hawkview would probably be able to direct her to one of the farming villages north of the city. “Master Ventior said it was north of the city.”

Alaria didn’t see the amusement when the guild master began to chuckle.

“Erm, yes.” said Kurklani, “That is correct. But it would seem Ventior has not lost his sense of humor in the years since I last saw him.” He chuckled a bit more before clearing his throat, adjusting his glasses and regaining his composure.

“My dear, Welford is in the Laklands…which arrre, in fact, north of Hawkview.” Seeing no recognition from the young magess, the magister continued, “Welford is the furthest village to the north and west of that region, along Lake Imerlis.” The guild master looked over his glasses as if this were an explanation Alaria should understand.

Alaria, sensing a problem to her plans of freedom, inquired calmly, “And precisely how far, Magister Kurklani, are the Laklands, Lake Imerlis and Welford from Hawkview?”

The powerful old mage seemed to whither a bit before the cool glare of the recently released apprentice. Clearing his throat before answering, “Well, the Laklands you can make in about…”

Elsewhere that same afternoon in Hawkview, along the Street of Streets, a pair of figures hovered in the shadows at the edge of a narrow alley between a tavern and a warehouse. They leaned casually against either side of the alley, shrouded in the late afternoon shadow, watching the bustling passerbys on one of Hawkview’s most traversed thoroughfares.

The Street of Streets extended the breadth of the city connecting the wealthy district of aristocratic residents to academies, artisans and scholars to the markets and shops of the downtown and continuing on into the “less wealthy” areas of the wharfside.

The two figures, one short and stocky and one tall and lean kept their eyes, specifically, on the comings and goings of the large establishment across the cobblestones from their vantage point. The large two story wood and stucco building took up most of the entire block, with a stables and carriage house beside and behind the main building. A large sign shaped like a sword sheathed in a bright red scabbard hung over the main entrance’s thick double doors.

The Ruby Scabbard was, perhaps, the most popular inn and tavern in the city. Established long ago when the currently lackluster neighborhood was the best in the city, “Ruby’s” was especially popular with the diverse persons within and passing through the city that followed a life of adventure. It was known among the “less honorable” of the populace as a hotbed for information on anyone from the Lord of the City to the fishmonger. Tales and rumors coming from Grinlia to the Island Kingdoms were told and retold before Ruby’s immense fireplace, at its long bar, large tables and within its private alcove booths. The Ruby Scabbard was also known, among adventurers, as the best place in the city to pick up jobs. People from all walks of life at all levels of society used the posting wall in the Ruby Scabbard to attract and hire those with the special skills they required.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” inquired the tall lean figure.

The shorter scoffed under his breath. “Right, Jenks. And if I don’t?” replied the shorter of the two.

“If you don’t, then…You know. Giles won’t let’cha in.” replied Jenks.

“Pff. Won’t let me out, neither, is more like.” The short shadowed figure drew a dagger from beneath his dark grey cloak. After a casual glance and he slid the blade back into its sheathe on the back of his belt.

“Look, Stumpy, I like ya. Yer a whiz with the locks n’ things. I’m sure Giles could come up with something else for yer test.” Jenks offered. “This place is impossible. It’s crowded all of the time. Most of that crowd is armed or spell-wielding...or both! Landing in the castle dungeon after the Guard got you would be the best you could get.” Jenks thinks for a moment. “None of us have ever tried to roll this place. An’ Bobrik’s always been real good by us. I don’t get why Giles would send you here.”

“That’s simple, he doesn’t want me in. He’s scared cuz he knows I’m better than him and if I get in, I’d be running the show in no time…and I like you too, Jenks, but call me ‘Stumpy’ again and I’ll feed your jewels to guard’s mastiffs. Gottit?”

“Errrr, yeah, I guess that might be.” Jenks concedes rubbing the back of his scrawny neck and looking distractedly at the Ruby Scabbard. He seems not to have heard the threat to his “jewels.” Jenks thought to himself how his comrade was unsuccessful at the last three heists he attempted. “But, still don’t mean you have to do this job. Have Giles get you another one.”

“I said I’d do this one.” The short figure spat into the alley. “I accepted his challenge. A promise is a promise, Jenks. ‘Honor among thieves’ and all of that. I’m still a dwarf of his word.” The cloaked figured moved out of the alley into the afternoon sun revealing “Stumpy” to be a muscled dwarf in leather armor beneath the dark grey hood and cloak. Judging by the rich brown beard that barely skimmed the top of his chest, one could assume him young by dwarf standards.

As way of goodbye he called over his shoulder to his fellow rogue, “After tonight, Duor Darkesmythe will be the most famous thief in Hawkview n’ Giles will be kissin’ my bearded dwarven arse.” With that, the dwarf started to saunter casually down the Street of Streets, heading to an alehouse closer to the docks that he enjoyed.

A few people turned their heads at this proclamation with questioning glances but continued about their business. Jenks smacked his forehead and backed deeper into the alley’s shadows before scaling the tavern wall and disappearing across the city rooftops.

“TWO WEEKS?!?” Alaria burst. “I’m supposed to deliver this tiny thing to someone two weeks away?”

“Could be another week or so before you’d arrive in Welford.” Kurklani calmly finished. Kurklani’s mouth twisted into a crooked smirk reveling in his composure in the face of the young lady’s obvious lack of control. “Ventior always did have an odd fondness of pranks.”

“Yes, he does.” she said, slightly pained. “Another three to four weeks just to get there?” Alaria turned her head and scowled at the wall.

“It appears so.” Kurklani calmly replied.

Not that she had anything against Ventior nor had he ever treated her badly. In fact, she’d been the recipient of more than one of his “jokes” during her years in training. Here she thought her errand would be finished the following day and then she could wander south to the great city of Andril and explore the wonders of the world contained within. Now it would be nigh on two months before she’d even return to Hawkview.

For a moment the young woman sat silent before Kurklani looking defeated, crestfallen. The guild master felt a pang of pity. He vaguely recalled the joyous day he concluded his training. It was a grand feeling and it seemed Ventior’s “prank” was to take that feeling away…or at least delay it. It was somewhat cruel, Kurklani thought.

Alaria’s large lovely eyes slowly rose to meet the magister’s. They were filled with a cool determination. “Where can I find some sellswords?”