Shackled City Epic: "Vengeance" (story concluded)

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    Shackled City Epic: "Vengeance" (story concluded)

    Greetings! Upon concluding my Travels through the Wild West series of stories, I’ve created this new tale, which involves a group of 1st level characters whom I will run through the Shackled City “Adventure Path” of modules that are being published in Dungeon magazine. The complete series of eleven modules in this series have been released: “Life’s Bazaar” in issue #97, and “Flood Season” in issue #98, "Zenith Trajectory" in #102, "The Demonskaar Legacy" in #104, "Test of the Smoking Eye" in #107, "Secrets of the Soul Pillars" in #109, "Lords of Oblivion" in #111, "Foundation of Flame" in #113, "Thirteen Cages" in #114, "Strike on Shatterhorn" in #115, and finally "Asylum" in #116. This series ultimately takes characters to level 20, just like the original “Adventure Path” (i.e. The Sunless Citadel et al.).

    This story is entirely a work of fiction, although as with Travels I’m using standard D&D 3.5e rules behind the narrative. I’ve taken a few liberties with the material; I've located the story in the Forgotten Realms, and I may change a few minor details here and there. There might also be a few connections to Travels, as astute readers from that story will quickly realize...

    Character statistics are provided in the Rogues' Gallery thread linked in my signature. As always, I appreciate all feedback. Thanks for reading.

    * * * * *

    Chapter 1

    It was a stark and bracingly clear day, with the sun a bright orb in a sky that was one unbroken sheet of azure that stretched from horizon to horizon. A few wisps that weren’t quite clouds hung in the distant sky where the land met the vast expanse of the Shining Sea, barely visible even from the rising hills that gradually rose from the border of the Forest of Mir until they graduated into the jagged heights of the Alamir Mountains.

    It was a rough, untamed region. The mapmakers put it within the borders of Calimshan, and the city of Almraiven with its magical wonders and gleaming towers of bronze was only a few days’ ride distant to the south. But the difference between the low country along the shore of the Shining Sea and the interior highlands was more than the sum of the miles that separated them, and the barrier of the Alamirs, for all their looming majesty, was only a slim separator from the chaos and violence of the city-states that perched like boils along the western shores of the Lake of Steam.

    But for all that it bore a look of pristine isolation, the region was not entirely untouched by the taming hand of civilization. The long coastal road that ran hundreds of miles from Manshaka to Almraiven continued north along the shores of the Bay of Almraiven until it rose up into the Alamirs, forging a tenuous connection between Calimshan and the lands around the Lake. And there were settlements here, few and far between, but adapting to the demands of life in the region in often creative fashion.

    One such sign of habitation was the winding road, little more than a track, that wound its way up into the hills from the lower country that abutted the Forest of Mir. This trail had a lengthy pedigree, originating hundreds of leagues distant in the Tethyrian city of Saradush, but here, out in the middle of nowhere, it seemed of little function save for accommodating the occasional wild creature traveling on its own private errand.

    High above this landscape, coasting on the updraft that rose up out of the hills, a single eagle hung alone in the sky. As it followed a general southerly course, it flew over a pair of travelers making their way in the same direction along the road far, far below. For a moment the bird swept lower, as if curious, but then it changed course and headed abruptly westward, toward the unbroken sea of green that marked the expanse of the Forest of Mir.

    One of the travelers looked up at the raptor as it flew off, tracing its movement with her eyes, one hand held to her brow to offer shade against the midday sun. She was tall and lean, clad in plain but well-made traveling clothes, a tunic of faded green cotton over breeches that were tucked into calf-high leather boots. Numerous pouches dangled from the belt that ringed her waist, as well as a sheathed dagger, and over it all she wore a long woolen cloak with a cowl pulled tight around her face despite the warmth of the sun. Wearing the cowl so kept her features encased in shadow, but revealed enough to show that she was fair-skinned, with a few stray wisps of rust-colored hair showing around the edges of her face.

    “It’s just a bird, Zenna. Sheesh, relax, will you?”

    The speaker was the tall woman’s companion, who cut quite a different figure. She was a gnome, her three feet of height barely bringing her up to the other woman’s waist. Her face was youthful, almost childlike, although there was a knowing twinkle in her bright green eyes. In contrast to the closed-off, almost suspicious manner of her fellow traveler, the gnome bore a friendly, open air about her. Her auburn hair fell loosely around her face, curling at the ends where it hung just shy of her shoulders. She was clad in attire similar to her companion, although her clothes were more muted in coloration, soft grays and dusky browns that blended well with the surrounding landscape. She too was armed, with a small sword on her hip that looked deceptively large on her frame, and the wide arm of a light crossbow jutted out from over her shoulder, above the compact traveling pack that she carried. The two walked together in a manner that bespoke long familiarity, the taller shortening her stride automatically to match the slower gait of her short companion.

    Zenna turned and glanced down at the gnome woman. Her eyes, shaded by the edge of her cowl, were dark orbs that flashed with emotion.

    “There is reason for my caution, Clarese, even if you will not admit it. This is more than just a lark; these are dangerous lands, in more ways than one.”

    The gnome rolled her eyes. “Gads, you love the drama. I keep telling you, if they’d really wanted to find us, they would have long ago.” At the other’s suddenly penetrating look, she added, “Yes, yes, I’m wearing my pin. Anyway, I’m not a child, no more than you, anyway; I know to be careful. And call me by my chosen name, if you please; I show you the same courtesy, ‘Zenna’.”

    Zenna’s features took on an expression that bespoke long sufferance with the mannerisms of her companion. “It is a vulgar name for a young woman.”

    “I like it. ‘Mole’ suits me well, and it’s not inappropriate for an adventurer, don’t you think?”

    “Very well, Mole; I wouldn’t want it said that my upbringing had not included instruction in proper manners for a young lady.”

    The gnome laughed, knowing full well that this conversation was one they’d already had before and likely would again. Zenna’s lips tightened, and she opened her mouth to say something further, but Mole interrupted, “Let’s change the subject. So this place we’re going, this ‘Cauldron,’ it’s really built on the inside of a volcano?”

    “Indeed. From what I’ve heard, it’s quite unique. The town is constructed in concentric layers, descending down into the rim of the caldera.”

    “Aren’t they afraid that it’ll erupt someday? I mean, it doesn’t sound like the safest place to build a settlement, if you ask me.”

    Zenna laughed, but it was an edgy, sardonic sound, in contrast to Mole’s easy and light laughter earlier. “Apparently it’s extinct, or sufficiently so that the residents aren’t preoccupied with the matter; there’s even a lake in the center. I think that the concern was more with security, given the nature of the region, and the site is defensible.”

    Mole shot her friend a sly look. “And do you think you’ll find what you’re looking for, in this place?”

    Zenna didn’t respond, though her jaw tightened slightly. Mole, regretting the provocation, immediately shifted the conversation yet again.

    “So, how much further is it? My feet feel like we’ve already walked to Halruaa and back.”

    “We might have been able to afford horses, if you hadn’t given away half your purse to those thieves in Saradush.”

    “They were just children,” Mole said. “And it’s not like we’re broke; they needed it more than we did, and there’s always more gold to be had.”

    “An interesting philosophy,” Zenna commented. “I’m sure there’s more than a few laborers, peasants, and tradesmen who might disagree with you. In fact...”

    She broke off as Mole abruptly touched her arm softly. The young gnome was scanning the trail ahead, where the road twisted raggedly between a series of squat, uneven hills. The entire area was choked with thick, nearly dead brush that crowded up onto the fringes of the trail, along with the occasional stunted tree eking out a meager existence on the stony soil of the hills. A great deal of cover.

    “What is it?” Zenna hissed, tensing as she scanned the area.

    “There’s something there...” Mole began, already reaching back for her crossbow. She’d barely touched it, however, when the brush flanking the trail ahead stirred, and three men appeared. The trio were ragged-looking specimens, their dull brown garments further darkened by layers of dust and dirt, sporting careless beards and hard, almost feral looks that took on a particular intensity as they regarded the two women. All three bore weapons at their belts, and one also clutched a loaded crossbow that he brandished menacingly.

    “You jees leef thet bow where eet ees,” said the crossbowman, the steel point of his quarrel lined up decisively with Mole’s chest.

    One of his companions, a reedy man with a nasty scar that ran down the left side of his face, chortled, caressing the hilts of a pair of long knives tucked casually through his belt. The final stranger, who carried a scabbarded blade almost large enough to be called a sword, smiled at them, but the expression carried little in the way of warmth.

    “Good day to you, ladies,” he said, and the calm way he spoke seemed to make the statement just that much more menacing.
    Last edited by Lazybones; Tuesday, 18th July, 2006 at 02:14 AM.

  2. #2
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    Here's a map of the area where this story is set:
    Attached Files Attached Files  

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    sweeeee'eeeeet.


    Good to see you back...





    uh, not that you really left.


    Last edited by CoopersPale; Friday, 20th June, 2003 at 04:53 AM.

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    I wasn't able to follow Travels from the get go, but I'll certainly be trying this time around...

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    Shackled City

    I am certainly looking forward to seeing the Adventure Path in action. Knowing now that is going to run to level 20 certainly means I am going to be committed to buying Dungeon every other month for quite a while...

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    I am looking forward to this. I like the way you began it Lazybones. Good to see your name on a story hour again.
    Last edited by Reg Dword; Friday, 20th June, 2003 at 05:15 PM.

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    Good to see you back in the saddle.

    Nice choice for your new story as well... I ran this adventure for my group and found it be extraordinarily well written.

    There are a few nasty bits -- if you rouse the defenders below, they can muster overwhelming force -- but it is one of the best published adventures I've seen. Our group had a lot of fun with it.

    Looking forward to seeing your take on it! Oh, and I hope your characters do a bit better than mine... they lost one to a creature in the city, nearly lost two more, and cleaned out the area and "won" by sheer bullheadedness. Kind of amusing.

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    Originally posted by wolff96
    Looking forward to seeing your take on it! Oh, and I hope your characters do a bit better than mine... they lost one to a creature in the city, nearly lost two more, and cleaned out the area and "won" by sheer bullheadedness. Kind of amusing.
    Well, you know me... I always take it easy on my characters, and only rarely is there a death among the PCs or "good guy" NPCs...

    Story continues on Monday.

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    Chapter 2

    “What do you want?” Zenna said, as Mole stood frozen, her eyes locked on the crossbowman’s deadly quarrel, beside her. Zenna herself felt a cold terror grip her somewhere deep down inside her gut, but she willed it aside through a sheer force of will.

    The man with the sword stepped forward, flanked by the crossbowman on his right and the scarred man with the knives to his left. A good ten paces separated the two groups, but there was no shelter close enough to offer a possible escape from that crossbow.

    “Just our due, m’lady, just our due,” the leader said. He took another step closer, slowly, as if not to spook them.

    Mole started shaking, and let out a tremulous sound that might have been a sob of terror. She leaned slightly over toward Zenna’s leg. Still looking as though she was paralyzed by fear, Zenna could just make out the words that drifted up in the lyrical speech of the gnome tongue.

    Can you handle the crossbowman?

    Zenna reached down and patted the gnome, as if to console her. “Look, we don’t have anything... we’re poor travelers, we’ll give you what little we have, just don’t hurt us...” Under her breath, she added, also in gnomish, Need distraction...

    “Please don’t hurt us!” Mole shrieked, falling to her knees in the middle of the dusty trail. “Please!” she repeated, clutching her hands before her.

    If the bandits—for they were clearly that—were moved by the display, they did not show it. The knife-wielder chuckled again, and licked his lips, his eyes drinking in the lines of Zenna’s figure. The crossbowman said nothing, but the bolt-head did not move, holding both of them in line as ready targets.

    “This doesn’t have to get ugly,” the swordsman said. “Throw down your weapons, and you won’t be harmed.”

    “Yeah, I’ve known women who believed men who said that,” Zenna said, her voice tinged with equal measures of bitterness and sarcasm.

    “We can do this the hard way, or the easy way,” the bandit persisted. “The easy way, you might not like it, but you’ll walk away from it, I promise. Zeek here,” he said, with a slight nod toward the scarred man, “he likes the hard way.”

    Suddenly Mole let out another loud shriek, drawing the attention of all three men to her. She fell to the side, as if collapsing, but at the last instant she tucked into a roll, springing back to her feet in a single smooth motion. Even as she regained her footing, her arm snapped up, and a gleaming object flew from her fingers toward the bowman.

    The crossbowman had tracked her movements with his weapon, and as she rolled to her feet he sneered and tightened his grip on the trigger of the bow. But even as Mole began her maneuver, Zenna was taking action as well. Her stare became intensely focused as she drew her hands across her body in a complex pattern, weaving an invisible lattice with her slender, nimble fingers. Arcane syllables erupted from her lips, words not meant to be spoken by mundane folk.

    The swordsman had drawn his blade, but as he recognized the signs of spellcasting, quickly threw himself aside.

    The scarred man, on the other hand, drew both knives and leapt greedily toward Zenna.

    A cone of blazing colors erupted from Zenna’s fingertips, engulfing both the charging knife-fighter and the crossbowman behind. The scarred man screamed as the lights overwhelmed his senses, knocking him unconscious. The crossbowman fired even as the color spray hit him as well, but Mole’s thrown knife had glanced off of his arm, doing no damage but throwing off his aim just enough so that the deadly bolt passed harmlessly between them. A moment later he, too, fell to the ground, out cold.

    Two of the three bandits were down, but the third, the swordsman, had dodged out of the path of Zenna’s spell and now lunged at her from the side. The woman, her own vision dazzled from the effects of the color spray, did not appear to see him at first.

    “Zenna, look out!” Mole cried. The gnome leapt into the path of the man, slicing at him with her shortsword. The bandit quickly dodged back, and the two faced off, their weapons of roughly equal size, but the human towering over the slight figure of the gnome.

    Zenna blinked, then hurriedly drew back out of the way of the melee. The swordsman grinned as he took the measure of his foe, but his expression twisted into a frown as Zenna, now safely clear, started casting another spell. He quickly lunged forward, knocking aside Mole’s blade and thrusting his own weapon deep into her shoulder. Mole cried out and staggered back, a blossom of bright scarlet erupting over her tunic from the savage wound. The bandit was already rushing forward, hoping to finish the mage before she could unleash her magic upon him.

    But Zenna completed her spell, and with a gesture the swordsman staggered, his sword dipping limply in his hand as a mental fog dropped over him. The daze only lasted a few moments, but even as he shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, Mole came up behind him and with a vicious cry slipped half of the length of her sword into his back. The swordsman staggered forward a step and crumpled, but the attack had clearly cost the gnome, for she too fell, her sword slipping from her fingers to clatter uselessly in the packed dirt of the trail.

    Zenna was there in an instant, bending over her friend. The wound was critical, she saw immediately, with blood continuing to gush out onto her shirt. Zenna, who was no stranger to battlefield wounds, quickly applied pressure to the wound with her hand, and clumsily tore off a length from her own undershirt to fashion a makeshift bandage. Her vision grew blurry as she worked to save her friend, and she realized that tears were flowing down her face.

    “Damn you, Mole, don’t leave me...”

    The gnome’s eyelids fluttered, and she looked up at her friend, the pain evident in her eyes. “I... I’m hurt bad, Izandra. I’m sorry...”

    “You’ll be alright... we’re not far from Cauldron, I’ll get us there, you’ll see...”

    Mole’s face twisted in pain as the wizard drew the bandage tight about her shoulder. Zenna—Izandra—feared that the thrust might have punctured her lung, but there was nothing she could do about it now. In Cauldron, there might be a priest that could provide magical healing; here there was no option except to wait for her friend’s death.

    Mole took a ragged breath and looked up at Zenna. “Those others—they’ll recover shortly, and won’t be in a good mood when they do...”

    Zenna nodded, and gently laid her friend down before she stood. With a grim expression, and her hand clutched so tightly on the hilt of her dagger that her fingers were white, she turned and walked away.

    Shortly that problem was permanently solved.

    Mole was pale, and her eyes had closed, but the bleeding at least appeared to have stopped. For a moment Zenna’s heart clutched in her breast as she feared that Mole had died, but then she saw the soft rise and fall of the gnome’s chest, and relaxed.

    But that relief was only temporary, as she cast her gaze around her at the vast, empty hills that surrounded them. Mole needed healing, and she needed it soon.

    Zenna worked quickly, first shrugging out of the light traveling pack that she wore under her cloak, and then dumping the contents of two of her larger belt pouches—holding a miscellany of basic gear—onto the ground. She opened the pack and quickly took out small packets of food, rope, a few spare shirts and assorted undergarments, and a compact lamp with a hooded shutter. She also took out a half-full waterskin attached to a leather throng, which she tucked into her belt. The backpack was now all but empty, and she quickly put it back on. She glanced down at the cloak. Without the concealing cowl, the full light of the afternoon sun illuminated her, revealing the details earlier obscured. She was young and attractive, her red hair framing soft, delicate features.

    And also a pair of short, ivory-colored horns that jutted from her head just beyond where her forehead gave way to her cap of hair.

    Quickly she bent down and recovered the cloak, sweeping it across her shoulders and snapping its clasp back into place before tugging the cowl back up to conceal her features. She then bent over the unconscious form of her friend, quickly divesting her of excess gear much the same way that she had just done for herself. Mole’s pack and crossbow were quickly discarded. Zenna glanced down at the gnome’s sword, now sticky with the congealed blood of her enemy, considering for a moment, but finally left it where it lay.

    She bent low and wrapped her arms around the motionless form of her friend, and with a grunt lifted her as gently as she could. Mole wasn’t that heavy, but Zenna wasn’t very strong, and she knew that the burden would grow quickly with every step.

    Without even a look back at the three corpses lying in the dirt, she started down the long road ahead, a road that she quietly hoped led swiftly to Cauldron.

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    Chapter 3

    As the sun began to set behind the distant western horizon, the fifty-foot high city walls of the city of Cauldron, fashioned of massive slabs of black malachite, blazed with a glow that seemed almost magical. In the light of the setting sun the wall became a temporary shining crescent that ran halfway around the circumference of the great caldera. It was a dramatic sight, but one that the city’s four and half thousand residents, accustomed to the view, generally ignored as they hastened to complete their day’s business before the final waning of the day.

    As the final remnants of sunlight faded and the city settled into shadows the glows of lamps and torches began to pop up throughout the city. From above it appeared as though the lights were clinging to the interior slope of the crater, for the town descended in concentric rings until one reached the lip of the dark lake that filled the center of the dormant volcano. A hundred sounds filtered together within the confines of the bowl; the clop-clop of horses and the creak of wheels as teamsters hurried home after the final run of the day, the general sounds of a hundred different conversations as folk likewise returned from their daily labors, even the whisper of the evening breeze from the mountains as it passed over the walls and swirled for a bit within the crater before continuing on its way.

    Zenna staggered with difficulty down the wide boulevard of Obsidian Street, the outermost of the four avenues that ringed the interior of the crater. The pain in her arms and legs had subsided to a mercifully dull ache, but every step she took felt increasingly difficult, as though she was walking up a hill that grew steeper with each passing stride. In her arms, clutched against her body, she bore the limp form of Mole, only the labored sound of her breathing offering reassurance that her friend still lived.

    Around her passed shadows, the citizens of the crater town. Her own mixed heritage gave her the power to see as clearly in the dark as in the brightest day, but to her eyes the people around her were still shades, insubstantial beings rather than living, caring people. Thus far, at least, the people of Cauldron had proven less than considerate, not that Zenna had expected anything different. Since leaving her home, the tiefling girl’s perceptions of the world had grown increasingly cynical. Faerûn was a cruel and heartless place, this sentiment only reinforced by the things that she saw and heard, and only those with strength and determination survived.

    She could not know that the people of Cauldron had been confronted with their own difficulties in recent tendays, and that it was in part the stranger woman’s own demeanor that drove them away, rather than offering to help. Those few people she’d asked for directions had been startled at the way she’d appeared, a cloaked figure with her cowl drawn well down to conceal her face, carrying a heavy burden close against her body, and speaking with a voice drawn to the edge of hysteria, turning away half-before the surprised townsperson could fully realize what was happening.

    But Zenna, in her agitation, lacked the perspective to see this, instead projecting her own feelings onto the strangers around her.

    At least she’d gotten into the city, she thought grimly. The guards had been suspicious of the lone woman arriving at the north gate as the sun was setting below the horizon, but at least they’d let her bring Mole into the guardhouse, and one of them, an old veteran who’d clearly seen his share of battlefield injuries, helped by cleaning the ugly wound in the gnome’s shoulder and applying a fresh bandage. They’d directed her to the church of Helm, a short distance from the north gate, where she could find a cleric to help her injured friend.

    Zenna bit back a curse as her boot scuffed on a loose paving stone, barely recovering from her stumble before she fell. If those guards had sent a rider to get a cleric, Mole would already be well, instead of just clinging to life. That part of her that was mired in cynicism wondered what the guards would have said if they’d seen her true form. The change self spell was among the first that she’d learned, allowing her to hide, at least for a brief time, the obvious features that betrayed her heritage. That brief duration, in fact, was what had driven her to haste, all but grabbing her friend from the surprised guardsmen and heading into the city to find the promised cleric.

    A thin voice in the back of her mind whispered a warning, of how the clerics of the Vigilant One might respond to her appearance, but she squashed that thought ruthlessly. She could not afford to let that divert her, for Mole’s sake.

    But it was with a sob that she hurried on, carrying her stricken friend.

    She passed before the mouth of a dark alley, and it was her distraction, rather than an inability to see through the shadows, that caused her to miss the watcher until she was almost right on top of him.

    Surprised, she drew back suddenly, as the dark figure stepped out from his vantage in the lee of one of the high brick walls of the alleyway.

    The stranger was a man, and with her darkvision Zenna could clearly see that he wore a mask—no, his face was painted, with a garish design that covered half of his face in black, the other in white. He wore his greasy black hair tugged back into a ponytail, and a silver stud glinted slightly in one earlobe. He was clad in a black tunic that could not fully conceal the bulk of armor underneath, and the hilt of a short stabbing sword jutted from his belt.

    “Move on,” the man hissed. “This is none of your concern.”

    Belatedly, Zenna became aware of a commotion further down the alley. Looking in that direction, she saw a pair of tall men, attired and disguised in similar fashion to the one before her. The two men were assaulting a third figure, who was sprawled out on the dirty cobbles between them, trying in vain to shield himself from the kicks that the other two were raining down on his torso.

    Zenna felt two things simultaneously; a tremor of fear that clutched at her gut like a cold hand, and a surge of anger that was so intense that for a moment red flecks flared in her vision. The man watched her, his eyes wary, with a touch of nervousness as they flicked out over the main boulevard, but all Zenna saw was the sinister mien, the threat inherent in the man’s posture, that hilt that his hand drifted toward...

    The conflicting surges of emotion gave her strength. Clutching Mole against her body with one hand, she twisted the fingers of another in an arcane gesture, close against her body where the man would be unlikely to see in the gathering gloom. She felt a tingle as magical power flowed through her, the touch of the Weave that always sent a rush like the first flush of intoxication into her body. It was addictive, that feeling.

    Zenna opened her mouth, and the cry she uttered was a stark scream, sounding too-loud in the quiet murmur of the evening.

    “Guards! Guards!”

    “Damn it,” the masked man muttered, coming forward quickly, his sword hissing as it issued from its scabbard. He lifted the weapon with its hilt forward, perhaps intending to quiet her with a quick blow to her head.

    But Zenna’s spell was already taking effect, and even as the echoes of her cry faded in the night, other sounds were audible from a short distance down the street. The sounds of heavy boots on the cobbles, the clank of metal on metal, the voices of men drawing nearer. On hearing them the man abruptly came up short, his attack arrested in mid-stroke. With only the briefest hesitation he darted into the alley, where his two compatriots had already interrupted their assault, listening.

    “It’s Gothrok’s boys!” the watchman hissed, and with that the three turned as one and darted down the alley, where it sloped down sharply toward the next lower street below. Behind them their victim lay stirring on the ground, moving in obvious pain.

    The sounds of the approaching guards faded—it had been merely an illusion, a ghost sound cantrip summoned by Zenna’s magic—and the young woman started back down the street toward her destination. Before she’d gone more than a few paces, however, she hesitated. In her arms, Mole was quiet, but Zenna could feel the soft rise and fall of her chest. As the rush of excitement from the brief confrontation faded, her exhaustion returned tenfold, and only determination kept her from sagging against the front of the nearby building. For a moment, she thought she could almost hear Mole’s voice, remonstrating with her in that way she always did.

    Sighing, she turned back to the alley and the battered victim of the masked men’s mugging.

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