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Forgotten Lore (Updated M-W-F)

Lazybones

Explorer
Hey there Story Hour forum, been a while.

For those who don’t know me, I was very active on this forum from roughly 2002 through 2010, posting stories that were a mix of fiction and campaign write-ups. Writing these stories was a way of familiarizing myself with new editions and campaign settings; I wrote 3e stories set in the Forgotten Realms, the Shackled City campaign path, and Rappan Athuk, and a 4e story set in some of the early published modules for that ruleset. My last story here was a write-up of an online campaign I ran that was a conversion of the original X-COM game using the 2002 CRPG Neverwinter Nights. Since then I’ve mostly been writing and self-publishing novels (I won’t do any advertising here but if anyone is interested send me a PM).

When 5th edition came out I bought the core books, but haven’t really had a chance to delve into them until recently. I decided to write this story in order to acquaint myself with the new rules. As with most of my past stories this one is fiction based on the rules, I did not actually have players run this or roll dice. I’ll include stat blocks and some of the other game information as appropriate.

When I was active here before I had a reputation as both a frequent poster and the “Cliffhanger King”; I’ll try to live up to both traditions. My current plan is to post updates on a M-W-F schedule.

Here we go.

* * *

Book 1: YOU MUST GATHER YOUR PARTY…

Chapter 1

Two men, one young and one old, were sparring with wooden swords in the enclosed courtyard behind the smithy. They went back and forth in the confined space, their boots kicking up swirls of dust that were caught in the violent sweeps of their weapons. It was obvious from one look that both were smiths from their builds, their arms and chests chiseled with cords of muscle under taut flesh. They had clearly just come from their labors inside, the younger man bare-chested and slick with sweat, the older wearing an old leather apron seared with black marks. But an observer would quickly note that their sparring was not just an idle game. The younger of the two looked to be barely past adolescence but he fought with an intensity that bespoke many long hours of practice. His opponent was at least twice his age, but he too moved with a calm efficiency that caught the youth’s aggressive swings with parries that quickly turned into darting counterattacks.

The pace intensified rather than slowed as the session continued, the clack of blades forming a rapid staccato. The two were so intent on their clash that neither appeared to notice the slender young woman who slipped through the half-open side gate. She did not look like the type of person who would escape notice often. The pale blonde hair that framed her features and toppled onto her shoulders didn’t fully hide the slightly pointed ears that suggested elvish blood in her heritage. She was dressed in a light blue coat in a fashionable cut over gray trousers tucked into knee-high boots. But as she turned through the gate the afternoon sunlight briefly blazed on something she was carrying: an exceptional silver lyre with seven strings.

The flash caught the attention of the younger man, who turned his head just as the elder launched into a decisive backhanded sweep. The youth realized his mistake too late and threw up his weapon in a desperate parry. The older man pulled back his stroke before it would have caromed off his opponent’s forehead, but the impact still knocked the practice sword from the young man’s grasp. It flew across the courtyard and slid to a stop right in front of the visitor.

“Ah… sorry,” she said as both men turned to face her.

“Quite all right, Miss Leliades,” the older smith said. “It appears we need to work on our concentration, in any case.”

The younger man colored slightly as he hurried over to recover his fallen weapon. “Hi, Glori,” he said.

“Hey, Bredan. Master Karras. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I could watch you two fight all day.” She let her eyes flick over the young smith’s muscled torso in a way that had the flush on his cheeks deepening.

“Ah…” Bredan said.

“We were nearly done with the day’s labors, in any case,” the elder smith added. His voice had just a hint of a southern accent, adding a bit of exotic flavor to his words. He looked over at Bredan. “You should go, buy this girl a cool drink. Maybe walk down by the river, where it is pretty now with all the flowers.”

“But uncle, I thought you wanted me to finish working on the hinges for Jofram…”

“Bah!” Karras interrupted. “You would rather stay in the forge then go out into the town? You are a strange boy! Now go, wash up, and put on a clean shirt!”

Bredan shot Glori a wry look before he headed toward the smithy. His uncle tossed him his wooden sword, and the young warrior hung both weapons on the rack beside the door before he went inside. There was a practical armory of simulated arms there, from axes to spears to swords of all size and shape. Most were made of wood, but there were some blunted iron blades as well. From the wear on the two big swords that they’d been using it seemed like the greatsword was the preferred choice for their sparring sessions.

“And how are you, Miss Leliades?” Karras asked once Bredan had gone inside. “Still performing at the Boar’s Tusk?”

“Mostly, though lately I’ve been spending more time in the taverns along Mercantile Way. Things have been pretty slow of late. Not as many caravans coming through.”

“Trade is like the tide, it ebbs and flows,” Karras said, though Crosspath was hundreds of miles from the seacoast. “We keep busy.”

“I’ve heard some reports of trouble in the north,” Glori said, fidgeting with the strap of her lyre while her eyes drifted back toward the closed door where Bredan had gone inside the house that backed onto the smithy. “The caravan guards say that the raids have been stronger than usual. Orcs, goblinoids, maybe worse. Rumor has it that King Dangren’s sending troops north to Adelar.”

Karras was quiet for a moment. “I’ve heard that as well,” he finally said.

Glori shifted her attention back to the old smith. “Do you think there will be a war? The King, he could call upon the elves and dwarves for aid again, like in the time of King Alephron.” She seemed both excited and frightened by the prospect, her pale green eyes all but glowing.

Karras shook his head slowly. “I’ve been in a war,” he said. “I hope you and Bredan never have to know what it is like to be caught in one.”

“But surely the fighting wouldn’t make it this far south…” she began.

“War is like a pestilence,” the smith said. “It spreads rapidly and has an effect that extends well beyond those it touches directly.”

Glori nodded toward the weapon rack. “But you spend all that time preparing, training Bredan to fight.”

“The world is what it is,” Karras said. “I want Bredan to be ready for it. I promised his father.”

Is he ready?” Glori asked. “I mean, he seems pretty good with that big piece of wood, but I’m not much of a judge of that kind of thing.”

“From what Bredan says, you have some skill with the smallbow.”

“Yeah, well.” She flicked up the hair covering the side of her face. “Comes with the ears, I guess.”

“I have known more than a few elves in my time,” Karras said. “Enough to know that they earn their skills through long and intense practice, the same as everyone else. Archery is not a hereditary trait.”

Her lips twisted in a smirk but before she could come up with a quip in response the door burst open and Bredan reappeared. It was clear he’d washed and changed in a hurry; his shirt, while more or less clean, was still untucked, and his damp hair was a tousled mess. He was buckling on a belt that supported a small purse and a dagger in a plain leather scabbard. Karras shook his head as his nephew kicked the door shut behind him and came over to rejoin them.

“Is there anything you need from town, uncle?” Bredan asked.

“No, no. Go on, have fun.”

“I’ll be back before supper…”

“Bah, I give you leave to go, and you try to argue away your freedom! You are a strange boy. Go, go!”

“I’ll keep an eye on him, Master Karras,” Glori said, decisively taking Bredan by the arm and steering him toward the gate.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Thanks, carborundum!

Here's some more about our starting pair and their quest. We'll meet the rest of the party on Monday.

* * *

Chapter 2

“Thanks for… you know, back there,” Bredan said, as he and Glori walked along the street that led into the core of Crosspath.

The smithy was situated on the edge of town, sharing company with other shops and businesses that produced loud noises or unpleasant smells. Bredan waved to one of the stablemen at Cody’s Yards as they passed, while Glori wrinkled her nose and looked dubiously at the horses in the paddock that extended back from the road.

“Your uncle just wants you to be happy,” Glori said.

“I know. I just don’t want to disappoint him. Ever since father… he’s been very good to me.”

“He was in the king’s army, he saw an awful lot of the world outside Crosspath.”

“I know you saw a good part of it too, before your master…” With a flinch and a glance over at her he quickly snapped his mouth shut. Her jaw tightened but she let him try again. “You’ve traveled a lot,” he finally managed. “But nothing in all the stories you’ve told me has convinced me that people are any different out there than they are here.”

She briefly laid a hand on his arm. “I’ll I’m saying is that he might surprise you.”

“Speaking of surprises,” he said, on more certain ground now. “What’s this visit about, really?”

She looked over at him and offered a subtly exaggerated blink. “What do you mean? I’m getting a cool drink and maybe a nice sunset walk along the river.”

Bredan snorted. “I’ve known you long enough to know when you’re up to something, especially since that’s usually all the time.”

She sniffed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Come on, you’re going to tell me sooner or later, might as well do it now.”

She shot him another considering look, then nodded. “I heard about a job.”

“I thought you had a job.”

“No, a job for us.”

“Glori…”

“Are you going to hear me out, or not?”

“Fine.”

“Do you know Starfinder?”

“The wizardess?”

“Okay, first off, it’s ‘wizard,’ it’s not a gendered term. That’s very sexist, and the kind of thing that could get us off on the wrong foot with her.”

Bredan rolled his eyes, but he was careful to turn his head away first. “I’m already not liking this. What does a wizard need with a smith and a bard?”

“Well, hear me out. There’s something she needs. From the Dry Hills…”

“No,” he said. “No!” he repeated, holding up a hand when she tried to cut in. “Aren’t you the one who always says that every story about the Dry Hills begins in two ways: ‘So we were in the Dry Hills and ran into these bandits,’ or ‘So we were in the Dry Hills and ran into this terrible monster?’”

“You’re exaggerating. Besides, from what I just saw, you could handle either, if we got you a real sword.”

“My uncle would never allow it.”

“That’s odd, I thought you were an adult.”

“Make fun, but it’s a terrible idea. Dangerous, for one.”

“She’s offering four hundred.”

Bredan nearly tripped, though the road was only a little bit muddy. “Gold? Wait, no, I don’t want to know.”

“How much do you make working for your uncle again?”

Bredan didn’t bother answering the question. “I’m a smith, not a treasure hunter. And besides, everyone knows that the ruins in the Dry Hills were all looted.”

“Then it will be an easy score. Starfinder will pay half even if the place is empty.”

That’s stupid, Bredan started to say, but he bit the words off before they could escape his mouth. He didn’t actually know any wizards, but they had strange ways and were different from ordinary folk, everyone knew that. “It’s still too dangerous for two people,” he said.

“Well, as it happens I know a lot of folks,” Glori said. “I bet I could find a few more people who might be interested. Or there might be others who respond to the notice, it was posted over at the Tusk where anybody could see it.”

“Based on the sort of folks I’ve seen you hang out with, that’s hardly reassuring,” he said. But when he saw the effect his words had he quickly added, “I’ll think about it, okay? I will, I promise. And I’d have to talk to my uncle, my absence from the forge would affect his business. Especially if I never came back,” he added in an undertone.

“That’s very fair,” she said.

He started to turn around, and she asked, “Where are you going?”

“What? I thought this was why you came to see me. I really do have a lot of work to do.”

She stood in the road and folded her arms across her chest. “I believe I was promised a drink, and I intend to collect.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 3

Quellan was in a hurry. Normally he tried not to rush. For one thing, it was undignified, especially when he was dressed in the plain wool robe that was the common attire at the monastery. For another, it tended to startle people when they saw him approaching quickly.

He imagined that he could feel the ground shaking under his feet, though the stones of the monastery were each the size of a cart. He was wearing soft slippers that made a slapping sound as he hurried—not quite running, that would be unacceptable—through the familiar halls.

As he came to the intersection next to the Chamber of Contemplation he ran into Sister Delia. Not literally, of course—the old woman might not have survived that—but even so she looked up at him with an expression that was stern and obviously critical of his haste.

“Is there a fire in the rectory, Brother Emberlane?” she asked.

“No… no, of course not, Sister,” Quellan said. His voice was deep and a bit guttural, no matter how he tried to work on his annunciation. It was difficult to speak clearly when one had tusks the size of a thumb jutting from one’s jaw, or a splayed nose the size of a tea saucer that whistled whenever he breathed heavily.

He liked Sister Delia. She was one of the few people at the monastery who never looked at him differently because of his mixed origins. She could be equally stern toward everyone, and was not intimidated by a half-orc that loomed over her like a giant and could crush her with a single swipe of his mottled arm.

“So what brings you running into the Halls of Meditation? Has the Master of Books received a new volume? No, that would draw an entire stampede of you Hosrenites…”

Quellan’s hand reflexively sought out the wooden icon that hung from a long throng almost to his belly. The thick disk was carved with the representation of an open book on the front, the symbol of his service to Hosrenu, god of knowledge. Delia wore a similar icon around her neck, but hers bore the blazing sun of Sorevas. It was one of the little games at the monastery that the adherents of the various faiths teased each other, but Quellan knew well enough how unusual it was to have a sacred place where the followers of different faiths could collaborate and cohabitate in an atmosphere of relative tolerance. That such a place could thrive in a town as isolated was Crosspath was a testament to the will of Abbess Laurine, who had been leader here throughout the reign of nearly a dozen Arreshian kings. Just the fact of the monastery’s existence had probably saved his life, Quellan thought.

Delia was still looking up at him, and he realized he hadn’t responded to her comment. “Ah, no, Sister,” he stammered. “I was looking for Brother Stonefist. I have… I’m on an important errand for the Abbess.”

Delia quirked an eyebrow impressively. “I see,” she said. “I believe that you will find Brother Stonefist meditating in the Rock Garden.”

“Thank you, Sister,” Quellan said. He could feel Delia’s eyes on his back as he continued on his way, and he managed to keep a measured stride until he’d rounded the next bend in the hall. Then he resumed his brisk pace.

The Rock Garden was squeezed into the narrow space between the back of the Greater Hall and the stone wall that ringed the monastery complex. This late in the day the sun had already dropped beyond the wall, though the upper part of the hall was still ablaze in light that sparkled golden on the narrow windows of the solarium.

True to its name, the space was mostly bare stone, punctuated by a few sparse patches of plants that didn’t need much in the way of direct light to prosper. But the Rock Garden was anything but dull. Quellan found its sparseness refreshing. Every stone felt like it had been painstakingly situated in its proper place. The paths that wound through the area offered changing vistas that stimulated thought and offered privacy in a place that often felt crowded, at least to him.

He didn’t have to go searching for Kosk. The dwarf was kneeling in the gravel near the entrance to the garden. He was bent forward so that he appeared to be staring intently at the ground directly in front of him.

“Is that a new form of meditation?” Quellan asked.

The dwarf did not respond at first. The position he was in had to be terribly uncomfortable, but Quellan had given up trying to comprehend the various rituals of physical discipline and denial practiced by the monastery’s small cadre of monks.

“I am practicing envy,” Kosk finally said.

Quellan walked over to join him, but the dwarf made a gesture for him to remain back a step. Curious now, the half-orc sat down, heedless of the gravel that poked him through the coarse fabric of his robe.

He could see now that the object of the dwarf’s fascination was a tiny black beetle, barely the size of Quellan’s thumbnail. It was moving slowly across the gravel pathway, weaving around larger bits of rock while apparently unaware of the scrutiny being paid to its progress.

“What are we envious of?” Quellan asked. “The simplicity of its life?”

“Focus,” Kosk said. “To this creature, this yard is like a vast desert. The bits of gravel are like boulders, these pebbles mountains. There are two vast creatures watching that could crush the life from it with a casual step, yet it continues on the way to its destination.”

“That bush over there?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Kosk abruptly rose up. He stood in an odd manner, placing his hands palm-down on the ground and then levering his body up until his entire weight was balanced on his hands. Then he bent his elbows until his bare chin was nearly touching the gravel before he thrust up and with a grunt flipped up onto his feet. Quellan was strong, a gift of his bloodline, but he knew that his friend carried a lot of power in his compact form. The dwarf was not a young man, and his body and face bore the marks of an interesting life. He’d arrived at the monastery only shortly after Quellan, almost five years past now. Kosk never spoke about his past, and Quellan had never thought to pry. The dwarf was unlike anyone else at the monastery, certainly all of the other monks, and perhaps that more than anything else had made the half-orc want to make him his friend.

The dwarf was watching him with a look that was growing increasingly impatient. Quellan stood in a more conventional manner, brushing off the bits of gravel that clung to his robe. “I have news.”

“I can see. I haven’t seen you this excited since the Librarian got that fifth volume of The Histories of the Northern Civilizations in last month.”

“This is actual news. A mission. From the Abbess. There’s this wizard in the town, she has a job, the Abbess owes her a favor, she—the wizard—she needs this artifact that’s…”

“When do we leave?” Kosk interrupted.

“Leave? Ah, we’re supposed to meet with the wizard tomorrow morning.”

“All right then.” He started to turn away.

“Don’t you want to hear more about the mission?”

“I reckon you’ll tell me on the way.” The dwarf flexed his thick fingers. “I’ve been out here meditating for a bloody hour. Right now, I need to break something.”

Leaving the cleric to look after him in surprise, Kosk trudged back across the yard and went inside.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
I thought about posting the stat blocks at this point, but I think I'll finish getting things set up first.

You've probably already noticed that I'm playing around with some of the standard RPG tropes here. Hopefully it will be obvious when I'm using 5e mechanics without taking the reader out of the narrative.

* * * *

Chapter 4

They ended up staying out later than Bredan had expected.

The streets of Crosspath were fairly dark as he and Glori made their way back toward the outskirts of town. The street lanterns that lit the way in the town center became less frequent as they proceeded onward, and the night pressed in around them in the gaps, enfolding them in deep shadows.

Bredan was feeling a little unsteady. They’d each had a few mugs of ale with their dinner at the Boar’s Tusk, where Glori received free meals and discounts on drinks due to her regular arrangement there. A few of the locals asked her for a song or a story, but she waved them off with a few smiles and promises of later performances. Afterwards they’d stopped off at The Ragged Tinker, another of the taverns where Glori was well-known, and someone had thrust a full mug into his hand. Bredan couldn’t justify turning down a free drink, so…

He focused on putting his feet down carefully on the uneven surface of the road. Glori, walking beside him, seemed to be having no difficulty with either the drink or the darkness. Of course she had the sharp eyes of her elven heritage, Bredan reminded himself. He had to admit that he was glad she’d come along. He’d tried to insist that she remain in town, so she wouldn’t have to walk back alone in the dark, but she in turn had reminded him that she knew how to take care of herself.

As they walked he found out about her ulterior motive, as she continued the conversation that had dominated dinner. She didn’t quite bring up the wizard’s offer again—she’d promised to give him time to think about it—but she regaled him with familiar tales of the treasure hunters who had brought fortunes out of the Dry Hills, uncovered caches of artifacts from the long-lost Mai’i Empire or long forgotten fragments of magical lore. Bredan let her go on, didn’t offer comment, but he knew that those stories were set in a different time a decade or longer in the past. Adventurers and fortune-seekers still occasionally came to Crosspath, but it was as a waystop on the way to someplace more interesting.

The breeze shifted and Bredan smelled something, an acrid reek of something burning. He looked over but realized that Glori was no longer there, and that she’d stopped taking. He turned around, confused, but saw her just a few steps back, staring past him with a startled look on her face.

When she saw that he was looking at her she said, “Bredan…”

But he’d already turned back and stared at the road ahead. The night was almost complete in that direction, but he could see a faint glow over the uneven outlines of the buildings that lined the right side of the road. That glow was just enough to reveal plumes of smoke that rose up into the night sky.

“Bredan!” Glori called, but he was already running, heedless of the hazards of the muddy road in the dark.

By the time he got within a hundred yards of the smithy he could see the flames pouring up from the top of structure. When he finally came around the bulk of the adjacent stables he could see that the entire building was on fire, both the shop in the front and the living quarters attached to the back. He was dimly aware of men rushing around near the stables, no doubt trying to keep the fire from spreading to their property, and the panicked screams of horses. But his main attention was on his home for the last ten years being consumed as the fire tore through it.

He didn’t realize that he had started forward toward the flames before Glori grabbed hold of his arm and yanked him back. “Bredan!” For a moment he almost tore free, but then the fear on her face helped pull him back into himself.

“My uncle…” he said.

“Bredan!” a voice shouted from across the street. He turned and saw that the hail had come from the covered porch of Kesren Tull’s shop. The leatherworker was there with a couple of other people, but Bredan’s attention instantly focused on the blackened form sitting propped up against the front of the workshop. The onlookers made way as Bredan ran over to them.

As he knelt beside his uncle he saw with relief that it wasn’t as bad as it had first looked. The elder Karras was covered in soot, and his breathing was ragged, but he was alive and conscious.

“What happened?” Bredan asked.

His uncle looked up at him and tried to say something, but a spell of coughing overcame him and Kesren had to hold him up. It looked ridiculous, the diminutive gnome supporting the comparatively huge bulk of the smith, but at the moment Karras looked more than his age. “I don’t know,” Kesren said. “I was in the back of my shop… I smelled the fire before I saw it. By the time I got to the street the whole place was engulfed in flames. Your uncle, he just barely got out ahead of it.”

Karras tried to speak again, only to fail as his coughing fit redoubled. “Get him some water!” Kesren yelled, but Bredan turned and looked for his companion. “Glori…”

The half-elven woman was already kneeling beside him, shifting her lyre around so that it dangled in front of her. She drew out the small silver plectrum that she used to pluck the strings, and took a single steadying breath before she began to play.

Bredan had heard Glori play her lyre many times, but he had only seen her work its magic on a few rare occasions. He could feel the change with just the first few notes. The folks gathered around them grew quiet, and even the sounds of chaos coming from across the street seemed to fade away as the music swirled out of the strings. The lyre seemed to glow as Glori’s fingers rippled across the instrument, and for a moment Bredan thought he could almost see the notes drifting between her and his uncle. Karras immediately stopped coughing, and his body arched as he sucked in a deep breath.

A moment later Glori stopped playing. Even though he hadn’t been a direct part of her working, Bredan felt as though a load had been lifted from his shoulders.

“Uncle?” he asked.

Karras took in another breath. “I’m fine. Thank you.”

“What happened?”

“I… I don’t know. I was working… there was a flash, and then fire… everywhere. I barely had time to get out. Everything lost… it’s all gone…”

He tried to get up, but Bredan, Glori, and Kesren all pushed him down together. “I’m fine, I tell you,” the smith protested, but Glori put on her stern face. “You need to rest, Master Karras.”

“You can stay with us tonight,” Kesren said. “You and Bredan both.”

“They’re bringing a cart,” another of the bystanders said.

“Nonsense. I can walk,” Karras said. He stood up, slowly, the others lingering around him in case Glori’s healing magic hadn’t fully negated the effects of his brush with death. He crossed to the railing that ran across the front of the porch, and stood there staring at the shell of his home and business.

“I’m sorry,” Bredan said. “I should have been here…”

“No, don’t take this on, it’s not your weight to carry,” Karras said sternly. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll figure it out.”

More people were arriving from the town, some carrying buckets or shovels or other tools to fight the fire. It didn’t look like the fire would spread; one benefit of being on the outskirts of the town was that the buildings tended to be further apart than in the more concentrated core. There would still have to be patrols, alert to the possibility of embers traveling on the evening breeze landing on a dry shingle or a mound of hay bales in a back yard. But there was nothing that could be done for the dying building. All the two smiths could do was watch as the flames swirled up into the night and everything they owned was consumed in a blazing pyre.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 5

Bredan ducked low under a fallen beam and carefully watched where he was putting his feet as he moved into burned-out wreckage of the smithy. He had known every inch of this place intimately before the disaster, but now there were only ruined echoes of the once-familiar workshop. Only the two anvils were more or less intact, but one was completely buried by fallen debris and the other was covered in a crust of crisped shingles and ashes that distorted its distinctive shape. An acrid stink filled his nostrils and tickled his lungs with each breath he took.

“Uncle?”

He didn’t shout, but his voice sounded unnaturally loud in his own ears, as if the fire had transformed the interior of the shop into an empty temple. But a moment later he heard a shuffle and a call from the back room. “Bredan. I’m in here.”

It was only a dozen steps from the entry to the open doorway, but Bredan took them slowly and with care. He thought he’d been prepared by the destruction in the front of the shop, but as he reached the doorway he sucked in a startled breath.

The fire had been even more thorough here in its destruction. The neatly-ordered racks and their carefully-sorted cargoes had been transformed into a gory wreckage. The day was overcast and dreary, but even if the sun had been out it couldn’t have done more than highlight the devastation. The entire back wall of the room had collapsed along with the roof, letting in the pale light of the morning. Bredan’s uncle was over by that mound of debris, digging in the rubble. On seeing Bredan he waved him over. “Come here, give me a hand with this.”

“Uncle, you shouldn’t be in here, it’s not safe.” Bredan looked up at the few roof beams left intact and the damaged walls that were still left around them. “This whole place could collapse.”

“I just needed to get one thing.” From the soot smeared on his arms and his face he’d been digging around for quite some time already. For a moment Bredan’s mind flashed back to the way his uncle had looked the night before when he’d been lying on the Tulls’ porch, unable to move and barely able to breathe. For a moment he felt a tight fist close around his chest at the vividness of the memory.

“The cleric said you needed to rest,” Bredan said.

Karras paused in his excavation and wiped his brow. His hand left a smear across his forehead. “I’m fine, Bredan. Really. It was just bad luck, is all. But I’m here, and I’m all right. Okay?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Now come on, I’ve almost got it, but it’s pretty well buried.”

“What is it?” Bredan asked as he came forward, curious despite himself. He’d been in this room thousands of times, but he’d never been aware of anything buried in the back corner, away from the last of the racks that lined the length of the room.

“Your legacy,” Karras said. “Here, I’ll hold this up… just reach down in there and grab the end of the box.”

Bredan tensed as his uncle levered up a fallen beam, causing the whole mound of rubble to creak menacingly. But he knelt in the debris and reached into the dark space underneath the collapse. His hands immediately closed on something just below ground level; it must have been buried under the floor when the place was intact. It was blocky and heavy, but Bredan’s muscles had been built up from all the work in the forge and in the many sparring sessions besides. He had to plant his foot carefully where it wouldn’t strain the already precarious pile of debris and drag the object slowly clear with brute strength. It was a wooden box, long and low. Once Bredan had pulled it out of its niche Karras let the beam fall and the two smiths staggered clear with their prize as the rubble of the fallen wall shifted back into place.

The box was covered in soot, and at first Bredan thought it had been wrecked by the fire, but as he ran a hand over its lid he realized it was solid and almost completely intact. His fingers encountered a pattern etched into the lid, and he wiped the ashes clear to reveal an abstract sigil he did not recognize.

“What is this?” he asked.

His uncle wiped his hands on his coat, and for a moment looked uncertain. “As I said, it’s your legacy. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about it sooner. I made a promise, a promise that I would keep it for you until you were ready.”

Bredan’s eyes flashed back to the box. “What’s inside?” he asked, his throat suddenly dry in a way that had nothing to do with the ash and smoke in the air.

“Open it.”

Bredan had already noticed that the box was unusual, but only when he started looking for the hasp did he notice that it lacked either a locking mechanism or hinges. The ashes had highlighted the seam around the top, confirming that it was not just a solid hunk of wood, but there was no indication of how it was opened. Bredan had his dagger, but was reluctant to pry open the box given that he still didn’t know what was inside. He shot a questioning look at his uncle.

“It will open for you,” Karras said.

With that mysterious comment hanging in the air Bredan reached down and ran his fingers along the lid of the box. He was going to try and pull the lid up but didn’t get a chance. He felt something, a faint tingling that passed up his fingers, then the box sprang open of its own accord.

Once it was open he could see the clever construction, the recessed interior hinges and swinging metal arms that supported the lid. The box was lined with soft felt and was free of even a speck of soot. Somehow it had survived the fire and being crushed without any effect upon its contents.

Those contents were spread across the full length of the container. Bredan reached down for what he first thought was a folded blanket until he felt the familiar strength of steel. As he grabbed hold of the material and pulled it free he saw that it was a hauberk of fine mesh chainmail, a full suit that had be worth hundreds of gold pieces. The Karras smithy hadn’t done much work with armor—there was a specialist in town who handled that and weapons—but Bredan knew enough to know that what he was holding was exceptional quality.

There was more in the box, matching greaves and other accessories to the armor, but moving the suit had revealed something else that caught his attention. Careful to place the armor down on the edge of the box so as to avoid getting fouling it in the charred muck of the room, he drew out the sword.

It was in a scabbard of black leather trimmed with red, attached to a baldric so it could be worn slung across the back. The size of it explained the bulk of the box; it filled the entire length of the container, tilted so the point and the pommel fit neatly into opposing corners. It was a true greatsword, the blade alone nearly five feet long.

Bredan held his breath and slid the sword from the scabbard. He did not know how long the sword had been kept hidden here, but the blade was pristine, without even a speck of rust or any other blemish to mar its length. It felt surprisingly light for its size, but Bredan knew that was deceptive; after a few swings it would start to bear down in its wielder’s grip. It was both similar to the wooden practice sword he’d trained with and entirely different at the same time.

“You’ll have to tend it, and the armor too,” Karras said. Bredan started; for a moment he’d almost forgotten that his uncle was there. “I should be able to dig up some metal oil and whetstones, and some scouring sand. The leather wrap on the hilt will need to be replaced regularly too.”

“I know, uncle,” Bredan said. “You taught me well.” He hesitated a moment. “Whose sword was this?” he asked, though he thought he already knew the answer.

Karras’s eyes held confirmation even before he spoke. “These things belonged to your father.”

Bredan lowered the sword to rest across his lap. “Am I ready?” he asked.

His uncle nodded. “I’ve taught you all that I know. Just remember that the world out there is dangerous, and not all of those dangers will come at you when you’re expecting them.”

Bredan nodded. He put down the box and looked at his new possessions.

“You don’t have to do this, you know,” his uncle said.

“I know. But it’s time.”

“All right. Well, let me help you with this. It’ll take some getting used to.” He laughed. “I guess I should have trained you more in carrying this kind of gear.”

“Carrying heavy objects has definitely been a part of my training.”

“I suppose.” He picked up the armor. “I’ll take you through the steps one by one, so you’ll know how to do it yourself, out there. It goes a lot faster with someone to help.”

“Thank you, uncle.” For everything, he wanted to add, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to say the words.

The elder Karras clasped him on the arm; maybe the words weren’t necessary. As he carefully unfolded the armor he said, “Oh, I almost forgot, when we’re done here I have something else for you.”

“This… all this is more than enough.”

“Yes, but I wasn’t the only one… well, you’ll see. Now pay attention while I show you how you put this on properly.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
It took a lot of consideration to find a Background that fit with Bredan's character concept.

* * *

Chapter 6

When Bredan emerged from the wrecked smithy the first thing he saw was Glori. The half-elf woman was standing next to the raised porch of the leatherworker’s shop across the way, chatting with Kesren Tull. It looked like she was showing him her lyre, the silver flashing even in the weak glow of the overcast morning.

He hesitated for a moment, but she must have somehow sensed his presence, for she turned around and looked his way. When she saw him her face erupted into a broad smile that made the glint from the silver of her instrument seem pale by contrast. He suddenly felt self-conscious but trudged over to meet them. The chainmail was heavy but the weight was well distributed. He had no doubt that it and the sword slung across his back would leave his muscles sore after a day carrying them.

“Young Master Karras, you look quite… different,” Tull said.

“I guess I look pretty silly,” Bredan said.

“You look like a warrior,” Glori said. He looked askance at her, but there seemed to be no teasing in her tone or manner. “Is that your father’s gear?”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“I didn’t. It just seems… right.”

“A moment, a moment before you go,” Tull said. The gnome ran inside, shouting after them to wait.

Glori looked down at what he was carrying. “What’s that?”

“A shovel. And an iron pot.”

“I can see that. What are you doing with them?”

“Ah… some of our neighbors came over with gifts this morning, apparently.”

“That was nice of them. But why do you have them? Wouldn’t your uncle…”

“The gifts were for me. It seems that someone spread the word about what we were planning.”

Glori’s look was pure innocence. “Hmm. Okay, I can see where a pot would come in handy. But… a shovel?”

“Hey there was a suit of clothes, too. And a purse. They took up a collection. Ten golds! Can you believe it? It appears that I’m some sort of folk hero now, just because I’m apparently dumb enough to go treasure-hunting in the bloody Dry Hills. Don’t laugh.”

With an obvious effort Glori’s expression turned serious again. “No, really, it’s nice. And now that I think on it, I think it was General Laxom who wrote that half of an army’s work was digging, and that a shovel was just as important as a sword to bring to war.”

“You’re making that up.”

“I never lie when it comes to history.”

Bredan gave her a dubious look that turned evaluative as he took in the details of her attire. Her outfit was stylish but definitely practical, with sleek trousers tucked into knee-high boots and a vest of rigid leather covering her from throat to hips. Over that she wore both a thick coat and a warm-looking cloak that was currently pulled back to give her arms full range of motion. In addition to her lyre and dagger she carried a compact hunting bow and a quiver of arrows that hung from her hip opposite the instrument.

Glori noticed his scrutiny and did a small hip-twist to show off. “How is your uncle doing?” she asked.

“He’ll be okay,” Bredan said. “It’s hard for him.” He waved his hand vaguely behind him in the direction of the wrecked smithy, unwilling even to look at it again.

“Yeah,” Glori said, understanding what he meant.

“Here, here,” Kesran said as he returned. He was carrying a pair of leather packs, one thin and compact, the second square and bulky. Both were covered with decorative scrollwork that showed trees and other plants in the case of the smaller one, and a martial theme of crossed swords and shields for the bigger. Kesran grinned as he held them out to Glori and Bredan.

“Please, accept these humble gifts,” the gnome said.

Bredan hid his reflexive groan. “Oh, Master Tull, we couldn’t…” he began, but the craftsman quickly shushed him. “You must honor me by taking them. Please, you and your uncle have helped me many times, and Miss Leliades, there have been more than a few customers who said that you sent their custom my way. And besides, as my dear later father used to say, every adventurer must have a good backpack! And comfortable shoes. A good backpack, and shoes.”

“Here, I can hold your shovel,” Glori said. Bredan shot her a look but handed it over and took the big pack. He wondered how he was going to manage both the pack and the sword. As if reading his mind the gnome started adjusting the straps for him. “I gave you this one because of your great strength, from the forge. You can fill it with all the many treasures you will find in your adventures.”

“I don’t know about all that, Master Tull,” Bredan said.

“Nonsense,” Kesran said. “I am certain that you will become quite famous, both of you.”

“Well, that would be something,” Bredan said. He looked over to Glori for help, but the bard had already put on her pack and was smiling at him as the gnome helped him make sure his sword was clear and the pack was in place. For the moment they put the iron pot and his tools inside the pack, which looked like it could fit the gnome and a few of his companions inside comfortably. Bredan had to kneel so Kesren could get at the straps, and when he got back up he definitely felt it in his knees.

“Thank you, Master Tull,” Glori said when they were ready. “You do us honor with your gifts, and we will put them to good use.” With a subtle bow she thrust the shovel back into Bredan’s hand, took him by the elbow, and led him down the street.

“So what was that all about?” Bredan asked.

“It was a nice gesture, I thought,” Glori said.

“No, I mean, how did he knew that we were going adventuring?”

Glori looked over at him. “Well, you don’t exactly look like you’re heading off to fix the hinges on some farmer’s barn door.”

“Glori…”

“You made him feel good, that he was helping. Him and the others. You and your uncles have made a lot of friends here. You should be grateful.”

“I’m not used to being treated like some kind of hero.”

“Sir Bredan, master of the blade, lord of the martial dance. Wielder of the mighty shovel of destiny.”

Bredan hefted the shovel in mock threat. “Once we’re in town I’m going to find someone to take this back to my uncle.”

“We’re not going through town.”

He blinked at that. “Where are we going?”

“I thought you said you knew Starfinder?”

“I said I’d heard of her, like everybody in Crosspath. I’ve never been to her house, or tower, or… whatever.”

“It’s a perfectly normal house, and I know exactly where it is. Just outside of town off the south road.”

“I didn’t know you and this wizard were old pals,” Bredan said.

In response Glori just rolled her eyes at him.

They continued on in companionable silence for a while. Glori took them on a route that bypassed the center of town and led them instead through the outskirts to the southern trade road. Bredan found that he was actually glad for that; while he normally was happy to talk with the other townsfolk he wasn’t in the mood for their questions or condolences over what had happened to the smithy. The few people they spotted gave them curious looks but didn’t stop to chat.

The houses and shops had started to thin around them when Bredan finally spoke again. “So I take it you didn’t find anybody else to join us for this crazy quest?”

“Not directly, but I heard that the monastery is sending someone.”

“The monastery?”

“That’s what I said. And before you ask, I don’t know who it is yet.”

“How did you find out that they’re sending someone?”

She grinned and shot him an amused look. “I have spies everywhere.” After a few more steps she asked, “Worried about reducing your share of the reward?”

“No. Like I said before, the more people the better, and I suspect a cleric would come in real handy in the Dry Hills.”

“What’s bothering you, then?”

“I don’t know. I just… I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing, leaving like this.”

“It’ll just be a couple of days. A week at most. And then you’ll have a pile of gold, and you can rebuild the smithy and buy a bunch of those big hammers you smiths use to beat on metal all day.”

“I think you have a somewhat simple view of my profession,” Bredan said.

“Could be,” she said lightly. “But look, we’re here.”

Bredan blinked in surprise. The wizard’s house was not what he had been expecting. The place was just a small cottage, nestled against a hill that rose up steeply behind it. The exterior was immaculate, with fresh paint on the window frames and door and a path of round stones that wound through a neatly-kept garden bounded by a whitewashed picket fence. The roof was tile rather than thatch, but otherwise this might have been the dwelling of a middling farmer rather than a renowned practitioner of the arcane arts.

Glori apparently was not surprised at all; she had already opened the gate in the fence and gestured for him to hurry up. Bredan swallowed the sudden nervousness that had begun to stir his insides and followed her to the door.

There was a small bell-rope next to the entry, but they didn’t need to use it; the door swung silently open at their approach. Again Glori didn’t seem to find anything unusual about that, and Bredan had no choice but to follow her inside. It took him a moment to navigate the narrow doorway with his various burdens, but after a few moments he was able to get inside without breaking anything.

The sight that greeted them took him aback. The interior was as neat as the outside, the décor plush and decorative without being overwhelming. There was an assortment of chairs and couches, a number of bookshelves populated by thick volumes and assorted knickknacks, and a couple of rugs that looked thick enough to sleep on. But it was the size of the room that alarmed Bredan; he didn’t need a measuring line to know that its dimensions were significantly greater than the exterior walls.

“Magic,” he breathed.

Glori elbowed him. “Don’t be silly. It’s just built into the hillside is all.”

Bredan flushed as he realized she was right. But as he gave the room a second look he belatedly realized something else; they were not alone.

The two men had been standing on the far side of the room, partially obscured behind the mass of a stone hearth that looked large enough to roast an entire pig, if not a small cow. As Glori and Bredan entered the pair turned to face them. Bredan felt his hands twitch and he had to resist an urge to adjust his sword; the strangers hardly looked friendly.

One was a half-orc, and he had both the size and ferocious appearance typical of his race. He was clad in a suit of iron scales that Bredan reflexively identified of being of quality make, and carried both a flanged mace and a round shield banded in iron slung across his back. He watched them intently but without apparent hostility.

His companion, however, was surly in both his demeanor and expression. He was a dwarf, though oddly enough he lacked a beard. Unlike his friend he didn’t wear armor, just a loose-fitting linen garment that was fastened with ties at his legs, wrists, and throat. He wore leather bracers that were looped through with what looked like narrow strips of metal, and he carried a quarterstaff sized to his height with iron ferrules crimped at each end.

Bredan started to reach for Glori to move her behind him, but again he was too late. “Hey there!” she said, skipping forward to greet the pair. She extended a hand to the half-orc, and once he enveloped it in his thick fist gave a firm shake. “I’m Glori, that’s Bredan. You guys here for the job? I mean, the wizard’s mission?”

The dwarf scowled, but the half-orc said, “Um… yes?”

“Oh, you’re a priest of Hosrenu?” Glori asked.

The half-orc’s gaze dropped reflexively to the icon he wore on a long throng around his neck. Bredan stepped forward, curious despite himself. He had not encountered many clerics of the god of knowledge, and the last thing he would have expected was for this uncommon stranger to be one of them.

The half-orc fidgeted and looked nervous, which oddly made Bredan feel more confident. The dwarf had folded his arms across his chest and looked impatient. Now that they were closer Bredan could see that what he’d first taken for metal strips inserted into his bracers were in fact slender knives. That realization did not reassure him.

Glori just kept looking back and forth between the half-orc and the dwarf with an expectant look on her face until the former cleared his throat and said, “Sorry, I’m being rude, aren’t I? My name is Quellan Emberlane, and my companion is Kosk Stonefist. We’re from the monastery here in town.”

“Oh, of course,” Glori said. “I’ve only been out there a few times, but it seems like a very peaceful place.”

“You looking to dig a hole, boy?”

Bredan blinked at the dwarf’s question, then realized he was still holding the shovel. He flushed and looked around for someplace to leave it but at that moment a door in the back of the room opened and someone new came into the room.

This time Bredan wasn’t the only one to do a double-take. The figure that came in was… well, huge didn’t seem sufficient to describe him. He had to bend low to clear the top of the doorway, and when he rose to his full height his head nearly scraped the ceiling. Even Quellan would have only come up to his chin or so, and from what Bredan could make out under the flowing robe he wore he had muscles to match. His features looked human for the most part, though there was a slightly olive tint to his skin that was unusual, and his brow was just a bit too prominent to be typical. His eyes were dark orbs sunk deep under that protruding shelf that fixed on each of the four guests in turn.

“The Lady will see you now,” he said in a voice that sounded like stones being crushed into gravel.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 7

The giant stepped back to let the others pass. Bredan was the last, and once he was through the door the big man fell in behind him. The young smith had never felt small before, but this fellow’s hands looked big enough to enfold Bredan’s skull like it was a child’s ball. His neck itched with the thought, and he wished he was carrying the sword rather than the shovel. The giant wasn’t carrying any obvious weapons, but Bredan imagined that it wouldn’t take much effort for him to snap bones with those huge mitts.

He had to make an effort of will to turn his attention to the room ahead. They walked through a short hall and passed a few other doors before they entered a small study. They had to be deep in the heart of the hill now, and despite Glori’s earlier reassurance Bredan still felt a bit of awe at the effort that had gone into the construction of this place. That thought that magic might have been involved made his skin tingle.

Other than the lack of windows the room was otherwise ordinary, comfortably designed with wooden panels covering the walls and more thick carpets spread out over the plain stone floor. In addition to another two doors there was a narrow hallway that led out of the room at an angle that kept him from seeing very far in that direction. A pair of bright lamps filled the room with light. There were more shelves that contained further books and knickknacks, but here the latter tended more to the uncommon and strange. Bredan found himself staring at a glass jar that contained an entire creature immersed in a dark liquid. The thing looked like some odd combination of a housecat and a miniature person.

He was so immersed in the weird thing that he was the last to notice when the wizard came in. She was an elf, which made her age difficult to guess at first glance. Her hair was flowing silver that came to her shoulders. She was dressed in a long robe of pale silk that whisked over the stone floor with each step she took. Her manner was brisk but not unfriendly, and she shook their hands when she introduced herself to each of them in turn.

“Telene Starfinder,” she said when she came to Bredan.

“Bredan Karras.” Her hand was as small in his as Glori’s had been in Quellan’s earlier, but she squeezed firmly and lifted her eyes to meet his. “You are the smith?” she asked, still holding his hand.

“Um… yes?” Bredan said.

“Interesting,” she said. Her lips twisted slightly before she released him and gestured them toward the slender chairs that ringed the room. Bredan looked at his dubiously, but when Quellen was able to settle into one without it shattering he took his seat.

“Thank you, Mog,” the wizard said. Bredan realized he’d forgotten the giant attendant, who bent low and exited through another door without a word.

“Would you like anything?” Starfinder asked as she crossed to the last chair, a plushly-padded seat next to a desk that was conspicuously clear of the clutter that occupied the rest of the room. “Tea, perhaps?”

“I think we’d like to get to the business at hand,” Kosk said. Bredan looked over and saw that while the dwarf had gone over to his chair he hadn’t sat down. He looked sort of like the way that his uncle did when they were about to start sparring. He’d folded his arms across his chest but he hadn’t relaxed; he looked to Bredan like the tensile energy stored in a coiled spring.

Bredan’s throat suddenly felt dry. “Um… if I could maybe have a glass of water?” he asked.

“Certainly,” Starfinder said. But instead of getting back up or summoning her giant she merely crooked a hand, as if gesturing someone closer. Bredan looked at the others and was about to get up to serve himself—though he didn’t see where the beverages were located—when a tray drifted into the room.

Here was magic, and no denying it—the tray was floating across the room unsupported, at about the level it would be if a man was holding it. It held a pitcher of water and several glass cups. Bredan shot a look over at Glori, but his friend was just grinning in appreciation.

“Cool, an unseen servant,” she said. “Majerion knew that spell.”

Bredan tried to appear unconcerned as the tray drifted to a stop in front of him. He hesitated again, unsure if he was supposed to pour a glass for himself, but then the pitcher lifted into the air and filled one of the cups. He waited a moment longer then finally took the glass. The water was cool and he gulped it all down before putting the glass back on the tray. “Thanks,” he said, relieved when the tray drifted back across the room. Quellan and Glori accepted water, but Kosk merely watched stone-faced until the tray had disappeared back to where it had come from.

“To business, then,” Starfinder said. “Have any of you heard of the Eth’barat?”

Bredan looked over at Glori, who seemed to know every story that was out there, but her face was blank. The half-orc likewise showed no recognition, but then the dwarf said, “They were some kind of magic cult in the last days of the Empire. Or so I heard.”

“Of a sort,” Starfinder said. “The Eth’barat did arise in the closing days of the Mai’i, when they had passed their zenith but before the signs of decay had become obvious. But their leaders were students of history as well as of magic, so they recognized the pattern before it had become obvious to all. The name means, ‘Keepers of the Flame’ in the Old Speech. They sought to preserve some of the lore that had been accumulated in the seven centuries of the Empire, the secrets of power that had been achieved when they were still in their early years of vitality and scholarship. They began preparing caches where they could secure some of that legacy, hidden sites well-protected by traps and guardians.”

“But the Eth’barat could not have anticipated just how swiftly the final collapse would come. They had only just begun their great work when Emperor Tivolus came to the Sapphire Throne. And of course, the story of what came next is well-known. The Eth’barat were swept away on the same flood of history that consumed the Empire.”

“What is it you want us to find?” Glori asked. “A horde of magical artifacts? A book of ancient spells?”

“A gemstone,” Starfinder said. “A slightly-irregular crystal sphere, roughly the size of two fists pressed together. The Stone of the Eth’barat.”

“What’s this stone do?” Kosk asked.

“It is an aid to divination magic,” the wizard replied.

“What, you mean like a crystal ball?” Glori asked.

“Something like that,” Starfinder said. “But more of a guide to the flows of magic within our world, and the worlds beyond.”

“Is it dangerous?” Quellan asked.

“No more so than any other magic.”

“That’s not a no,” Kosk pointed out.

“The Stone should be safe enough to handle, but I will provide you with a container that will give you an added layer of security, and make the Stone almost undetectable from scrying or other detection until you return it here.”

“That suggests there are other folks out there looking for it,” Kosk said.

“I know I am not the only scholar interested in the Eth’barat or their lore,” Starfinder acknowledged. “But while the Stone is useful, it is not really the sort of thing that draws the attention of rulers or the powerful. It is not a weapon, I assure you.”

Bredan raised his hand. “Um… could we go back to ‘traps and guardians’? Are you saying the place you’re sending us is still protected by defenses that are centuries old?”

“Yes,” the wizard said. “The Eth’barat worked in secret, but they knew that they could not rely solely upon that to protect their caches. So they relied upon magical defenses that would, if necessary, far outlast them.”

“And there is one such cache in the Dry Hills?” Quellan asked.

“Yes,” Starfinder said.

“I guess they weren’t as good at keeping secrets as they thought,” Kosk said. “If you could track it down after all this time.”

“I have spent decades tracing the Eth’barat,” the wizard replied. “I have traveled from the ruins of Carpathian to the buried city of Om Malask. I have explored Sesrek Nul, and stood upon the stones of the Way of Wise Kings.”

“I thought Sesrek Nul was underwater now,” Quellan said.

“It is,” Starfinder said, with a twinkle in her eye.

“Back to the Dry Hills,” Kosk said. “I assume you have more specific information for us to go on?”

“Indeed.” Starfinder turned to her desk and touched one of the drawers. When her fingertip brushed the handle there was a subtle flash, gone so fast that Bredan thought he might have imagined it. She pulled it open and took out a rolled scroll that she handed to Glori. “This is a map of the area, along with a description of the Stone that should be sufficient for you to recognize it on sight. I would certainly expect it to be hidden, perhaps magically masked or concealed in some manner. There are also some notes on two other Eth’barat sites that were previously explored by other teams of adventurers like yourselves. The defenses seem to be different for each cache, but you may find some clues there on what to watch out for.”

Glori opened the outer scroll. Putting the page of notes carefully aside, she examined the map. The men leaned over to take a look.

Bredan had seen maps before, but this one entranced him. It was exceptionally detailed, with clever drawings of hills and forests that made him feel almost as though he was looking down on an actual landscape from above. The map showed Crosspath and the surrounding trade roads, but most of it covered a span that included not only the Dry Hills but the barren lands beyond that extended all the way to the Silent Woods and the lands controlled by the elves.

Glori, in her practical way, had focused on the marker that presumably indicated their destination. “I think I recognize this region. That’s the area that they call the Godstones, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Starfinder said. “The shrine of the Eth’barat is built into one of the bluffs. It’s rather off the beaten path, far from the ruins frequented by treasure hunters and the like.”

“That means there might be more natural hazards present,” Quellan pointed out.

“I understand the danger, that is why I have not made the journey myself, and why I am willing to pay what I am offering.”

“Speaking of, um, payment,” Bredan ventured. “That’s an equal four-way split?”

“I leave that up to you, of course,” Starfinder said.

“We are here to repay a debt owed to you by Abbess Laurine,” Quellan said.

Glori perked up at that. “Oh, so you’re not claiming a share?”

“Any share owed to us goes to the monastery,” Kosk quickly interjected. “But looking from this,” he said, indicating the map, “It’s at least a few days out, and that much back. We could probably use an advance to purchase supplies.”

“A not unreasonable request,” Starfinder said. She reached into another drawer of the desk, one that Bredan noticed didn’t spark at her touch, and took out a small leather purse that she handed over to Glori. The bard jingled it in her hand and grinned. “You guys trust me to be banker?”

Kosk frowned, but Quellan said, “Of course.”

“There are fifty gold pieces in that purse. The rest will be paid upon return, as stipulated in the offer,” Starfinder said.

“Half if we make it there but don’t find anything, right?” Glori asked.

“Of course,” Starfinder repeated. The way she said it, and the way she looked at each of them in turn, it didn’t sound that stupid to Bredan after all.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 8

The bell attached to the top of the door announced their arrival with a tinny jingle. The shopkeeper emerged from the back room with a pile of winter coats tucked under his arm. He broke into a smile as he recognized Bredan and Glori, though that grin faltered a bit as Quellan and Kosk followed them through the door.

“Ah, Bredan, Glori, it’s good to see you. And your… friends?”

“Hi, Tellar,” Glori said. “This is Quellan and Kosk, they’re part of our group.”

“Come to purchase supplies for your expedition into the Dry Hills?” the shopkeeper asked.

“Does the whole bloody town know where we’re going?” Kosk growled under his breath. They had already had several encounters with Glori’s friends on the way over to the general store, and most of them had paused to offer them luck and safety on their expedition.

Glori elbowed him and muttered back, “When you have friends, they express an interest in your life. I don’t imagine you would understand.” To Tellar she said in a normal tone, “We need to be fully kitted out, and we’ve got hard money.” She jingled the purse that Starfinder had given them in a way that had the dwarf rumbling again, something about “easy marks.”

“Well, you know you’ve come to the right place,” Tellar said. “We haven’t had many adventurers come through Crosspath of late, but I still remember how to put together an explorer’s pack…”

“Just rations, and maybe some rope,” Kosk interrupted. “Can never have enough rope.”

Glori turned to face the dwarf. “Look, I’ve done more than my share of traveling,” she said. “I know what you need on the road.”

“And I’ve seen more than my share of would-be adventurers fill their packs with junk that ended up dead weight, often literally,” Kosk shot back.

Bredan left the brewing argument behind him as he wandered deeper into the shop. The store carried a wide range of common goods, arranged onto aisles of shelving that placed key items on display. He was thinking about the purse that the elf wizard had so carelessly handed them. Fifty gold pieces, more money than he’d ever seen in his life. And that was only half of what his share of the reward would be if he completed Starfinder’s errand and found her magic stone.

Fifty gold pieces was two months’ work for a smith. A real smith, like his uncle, not an apprentice like himself. His uncle paid him two silvers a day, a decent wage, and one that had allowed him to spend an occasional evening at the Tusk or another of the local taverns and still put away some coins into his savings. But this was something else entirely. He’d known that rebuilding the Karras smithy would be expensive. That’s why he was here. A good set of smith’s tools could run twenty golds or more, let alone the cost of lumber and glass and cloth and chemicals and all the rest that would be needed to rebuild the business. At least they could pull nails and make hinges and other fittings themselves, once they got the forge running again.

But the thought of the money was just a distraction from what was really bothering him. That reality was driven home when he came to the end of the aisle and saw a glass-fronted display case in front of him that was securely locked. Inside, arranged on the top shelf as if directed at him, was a small crossbow. The sight of it was a vivid reminder that they weren’t going on some casual stroll. The Dry Hills were not a safe place, and it was quite likely that they would encounter someone or something who wanted to kill them. That was even leaving aside the apparently homicidal intensity with which these long-dead sorcerers whose property they were seeking protected their secrets.

“You should buy that.”

The unexpected voice startled Bredan, and he almost jumped. He turned to see Quellan watching him with an apologetic expression. The half-orc was quiet for a man his size, or maybe Bredan had just let his attention wander too much from his surroundings. His uncle said he did that, sometimes. It was a habit he would have to lose, and quickly, he thought.

Bredan leaned over and looked at the small tag attached to the bow. “Ah, it’s way more than I can afford,” he said.

“Still, I expect it might come in handy to have a ranged weapon on this trip. You do know how to use one?”

Bredan remembered the lessons his uncle had drilled into him, the wide range of weapons-both real and mock—that he’d trained on. “Yeah, I know how to use it.”

“Well then. I have some extra gold. I will buy it, and you can repay me out of your share of the reward.”

Bredan hesitated for a moment, but the cleric’s suggestion made good sense, and finally he nodded. “Okay, sure, thanks.”

By the time they finished making all their purchases and exited the shop the sun was almost touching the uneven line of hills to the west. They’d already agreed to spend the night in Crosspath and get an early start the next day. With his pack bulging and his new crossbow perched awkwardly atop it Bredan figured he would need some time to get everything balanced. Glori suggested a stop at one of the local taverns to drink a toast to a successful mission, but the cleric and monk both demurred. But before parting ways Quellan called them over into the shadow of the shop.

“In case I forget tomorrow… I have something for each of you.”

He produced from his pouch a small box that he opened to reveal four tiny vials enfolded in cotton padding. He handed one to each of them. The vials contained a clear blue liquid that seemed to sparkle in the fading light of the day.

“What’s this?” Bredan asked.

“Healing potions,” Quellan explained. “A gift from the Abbess. I thought we should each take one… just in case.”

“A generous gift,” Glori said. “Thank you.”

Kosk accepted his potion without comment and tucked it into a pocket of his robe. Bredan held onto his for a moment longer. His brain couldn’t help but generate scenarios where the contents of the vials might be needed. He flinched when Glori poked him in the arm and nearly dropped his potion. “Isn’t this exciting?” she asked.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 9

Bredan hurt.

His arms hurt. His legs and feet hurt, the exact location of the pain shifting from one moment to the next regardless of how he adjusted himself. His back and neck hurt, especially since it had taken him some time to figure out how to arrange his varied burdens so that the straps didn’t strain his muscles. Even his butt hurt, which was a bit strange since this was really the first chance he’d had to put it to use since they’d set out that morning. It felt like an eternity ago instead of just one day.

He looked around the camp. Everything seemed to be in order in the light of the fading sun just barely peeking out between the uneven line of the western horizon in the distance. He had to acknowledge that Kosk had selected a good spot. From above the little valley nestled in between the seemingly endless parade of hills had seemed like a choked and unappealing thicket, but the dwarf been right that they would find water there. It was only a tiny stream small enough that any of them could step over it without straining. But it had been enough for them to wash up, fill their water bottles, and put together a stew that had tasted like just about the best thing he’d ever eaten. The tangles of dry brush that surrounded them offered at least some protection from both the harsh evening wind and any predators that might stop by during the night, and it kept their fire hidden from casual view.

Bredan winced as he rolled his shoulders, trying to work out the kinks. He had thought he was in good shape from his work in the forge, but it turned out that entirely different muscles were involved when it came to trudging for long hours over difficult terrain while carrying thirty pounds of iron mail, a full pack, and several large and awkwardly-shaped weapons.

It was Kosk who had set the pace, and the dwarf had set a grueling one even considering the fact that his legs were shorter than the rest of theirs. The dwarf was sitting a few feet away, his legs folded under him in a manner that would have been excruciating if Bredan tried it. Kosk didn’t make any effort at idle conversation, and the young smith had no problem keeping things that way. No doubt the dwarf was already thinking about how early a start they could get tomorrow morning.

Bredan didn’t understand his hurry. They each carried a full ten days of rations, though based on how hungry he’d been before dinner the shopkeeper’s estimate of how long the food would last might have been optimistic. Bredan thought he could eat another meal of the same size right then without straining himself. But even if it took a bit longer to find this hidden shrine they should still be fine, as long as they could keep finding water. They could even hunt, maybe. He knew how, though he had to admit that he hadn’t seen much in the way of local wildlife during their first day of travel. That might change when they were further away from Crosspath, though.

He looked up as Quellan returned to the ring of stones they’d arranged around the campfire. The half-orc carried Bredan’s cookpot and their mess kits, washed clean in the stream. Glori came with him, and Bredan admitted he felt a bit of satisfaction at the way she tried to hide a wince as she settled down onto a vacant stone. At least he wasn’t the only one having a bit of trouble with the dwarf’s forced march.

“I think we should maybe each tell the others a little something about ourselves,” Quellan said when he’d put the pots and mess tins away.

“Ah, exposition!” Glori said.

“What?” the cleric asked.

“You know, background information. Establishing the characters for the listener. It’s a common feature in most stories, but you have to be careful not to overdo it; most times the audience wants to get right into the action.”

“Um, Glori, this isn’t a story,” Bredan said.

“Of course it is! It’s almost the story… the heroic journey, four flawed but sympathetic heroes from widely different origins come together to confront common danger and deadly threats that must be overcome to gain the reward…”

“Are you saying there is anything you haven’t told us about you and your friend today?” Kosk asked. “You haven’t shut up for more than five consecutive minutes all day.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being friendly,” Glori said, lifting her chin.

“What I meant,” Quellan quickly added, “Is that perhaps we should talk a bit more about our relative capabilities.”

“Aye,” Kosk said. “The wizard might not have cared if you’re any good with those weapons you carry, but I do.”

“If you’re so concerned, why didn’t you ask before we set out?” Bredan returned.

“I think what my friend means…” Quellan began, but Kosk cut him off with a raised hand. “This job’s an obligation,” the dwarf said. “We’d have gone regardless. But now that you’re here, we need to know if we can rely on you. We might come upon a situation where having someone at your back you can rely on might make the difference between life and death.”

“I’ve seen Bredan fight,” Glori quickly said. “He’s very good.”

It was hard to say who looked more doubtful, Bredan or Kosk, but Quellan didn’t give either a chance to comment. “All of the clerics at the monastery receive a basic training in fighting, and the use of simple weapons,” the half-orc said. “But most of my contribution will come from my connection to Hosrenu. Though the power of the god I can heal wounds and perform other minor magical workings.”

“Glori can cast spells too,” Bredan said.

When the others all turned to look at her the bard flushed. “It’s not me,” she said. “It’s this.” She shifted the lyre around on its strap so that it rested in her lap. “It was a gift from my mentor Majerion, before he… before he left. It’s magical.”

“What spells can you cast with it?” Quellan asked.

“It can cure wounds, you like said.”

“She saved my uncle’s life,” Bredan said. “It was… remarkable.” For a moment the two young adventurers’ eyes met, and Glori smiled.

“What else?” Kosk prompted.

“Just some… some minor enchantments. Just tricks, really. The sort of thing that’s popular with the tavern crowd.” Kosk opened his mouth, but to preempt him she began playing, plucking a soft melody on the strings.

A light shimmered into being above the campfire. It resolved into a tavern scene rendered in miniature. It was silent, and the details were blurry around the edges, but to Bredan it was like looking through a slightly cloudy window. He could almost feel the warmth radiating from the scene, but he knew that if he reached out and touched it his fingers would pass through it like it wasn’t there.

“Even a minor glamour can be useful,” Quellan said. “I am sure your magic will come in handy, Miss Leliades.”

“Just Glori, please,” she said, smiling at the comment.

“What about you?” Bredan said suddenly, nodding toward Kosk. “What do you do? You don’t wear armor, you don’t have any weapons except for that stick and those tiny knives, and all you’ve done thus far is complain.”

“Bredan…” Quellan began, but Kosk interrupted him again with a raised hand. “Fair question,” the dwarf said. He got up and began looking around the camp. He paused and picked up a stone that was slightly smaller than the stew pot.

“You’re a monk, right?” Glori asked. “I’ve heard stories. You guys can do physical feats like breaking boards, jumping over buildings, walking on nails… or hot coals, even water…”

“Walking on water?” Bredan asked dubiously.

“Don’t get him started on the nature of ki,” Quellan said.

“Chee?” Bredan asked.

“It’s a kind of physical magic…” Quellan said.

“Don’t bother with the book answer,” Kosk said as he picked up another rock. He had a small collection tucked into the crook of his arm now, though he seemed to have no difficulty with the awkward burden. “Most of what you’ve heard is just fables and exaggerations. Now I won’t say there’s no such thing as monk-magic. I’ve seen frail-looking old men who you’d think would be barely be able to climb a flight of steps perform feats that most folks would call impossible. But it’s not sorcery. Most of it is just training and discipline. Shaping the body to do what you want it to do. Like the boy and his bulging biceps from his forge.” He dumped the rocks down between Bredan and Glori.

“What are these for?” Bredan said.

“You wanted to know what I can do. Pick these up. Throw them at me. Try to hit me, as hard as you can.”

“You don’t have to…” Glori began, even as Bredan reached for one of the rocks. Quellan sighed and picked up another.

“Better to know who’s got your back,” Kosk said. He walked over to the far side of the fire and took up a position facing them. “Whenever you’re ready. All at once, you don’t have to wait. Pretend I’m a slavering ghoul coming to tear your bloody guts out.” When none of them moved he barked, “Well? Throw!”

At that Bredan cocked his arm back and hurled his rock will all his considerable strength behind the cast. Kosk barely seemed to move, but somehow the rock slid right past him, missing his head by less than an inch before vanishing into the thicket behind the camp.

“Come on, I said all together,” the dwarf said.

Bredan picked up another rock, and after looking at the others for confirmation he threw it, this time aiming for the center of the dwarf’s body. All three rocks shot out at him, but the dwarf was already moving. Spinning on one foot, he snapped out the other and deflected Bredan’s rock while twisting his body to avoid Quellan’s. For a moment it looked as though Glori’s rock had just disappeared, but as the monk finished his spin and came back to his starting point they could see him holding it in the crook of his arm.

“Okay, I guess you can watch my back, then,” Glori said.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Now that we've gotten the party established and on its way here are the stat blocks for first level. Equipment lists are not exhaustive, just the highlights.

* * *

Bredan Karras, Human Male Fighter, Level 1
AC 16 (chain mail), hp 12, Str 16, Dex 11, Con 15, Int 9, Wis 14, Cha 13
Attacks Greatsword +5 melee (2d6+3 damage), Light Crossbow +2 ranged (1d8 damage)
Background: Folk Hero
Skills: Animal Handling +4, Athletics +5, Perception +4, Survival +4
Special Abilities: Fighting Style: Great Weapon Fighting, Second Wind
Equipment: Chain mail, greatsword, light crossbow and 20 bolts, light hammer

Glorianna (Glori) Leliades, Half-Elf Female Bard, Level 1
AC 15 (leather armor), hp 10, Str 10, Dex 16, Con 14, Int 12, Wis 8, Cha 16
Attacks Shortbow +5 ranged (1d6+3 damage), Dagger +5 melee (1d4+3 damage)
Background: Entertainer
Skills: Acrobatics +5, Deception +5, Sleight of Hand +5, History +3, Investigation +3, Performance +5, Persuasion +5
SA Darkvision, Bardic Inspiration
Spells (DC 13, 2 1st level slots/day): 0/Dancing Lights, 0/Minor Illusion, 1/Animal Friendship, 1/Cure Wounds, 1/Heroism, 1/Sleep
Equipment: “Magic” Lyre, leather armor, shortbow and 20 arrows, dagger

Kosk Stonefist, Hill Dwarf Male Monk, Level 1
AC 13 (no armor), hp 12, Str 15, Dex 12, Con 16, Int 10, Wis 14, Cha 8
Attacks Quarterstaff +4 melee (1d6+2) and Martial Arts +4 melee (1d4+2), or darts +3 ranged (1d4+1 damage)
Background: Criminal
Skills: Athletics +4, Deception +1, Insight +4, Stealth +3
SA: Dwarven Toughness
Equipment: quarterstaff, 10 darts

Quellan Emberlane, Half-Orc Male Cleric, Level 1
AC 15 (scale mail, shield), hp 10, Str 16, Dex 8, Con 14, Int 12, Wis 15, Cha 10
Attacks Mace +5 melee (1d6+3 damage)
Background: Acolyte
Skills: Arcana +3, Insight +4, Intimidation +2, History +5, Medicine +4, Persuasion +2, Religion +5
SA Darkvision, Relentless Endurance, Savage Attacks, Knowledge Domain
Spells (DC 12, 2 1st level slots/day): 0/Light, 0/Spare the Dying, 0/Thaumaturgy, 1/Cure Wounds, 1/Detect Evil and Good, 1/Guiding Bolt, 1/Shield of Faith, 1/Command, 1/Identify
Equipment: Scale Mail, Mace, Shield
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Book 2: STARTER QUEST/FINDING THEIR FOOTING

Chapter 10

The Dry Hills weren’t really that dry, when you got down to it. While there weren’t any actual forests or meadows full of blooming flowers there was plenty of plant life, from the stubble of weeds that filled in the gaps between the boulders on the stony crests to the sere tangles of brush that populated the low points between the rises. Travel through the region would have probably been easier if the place was as stark as its name suggested. They had particular difficulty navigating the gullies thick with thornspike and the prickleburrs that took advantage of every last bit of soil on the steep hillsides.

Occasionally their route led them over a crest that offered an expansive view of the region. There was a certain stark beauty to this place, but Kosk barely paid it any heed. He’d spent enough time in places like this in his past, places close enough to the trappings of civilization to be profitable but isolated enough to provide shelter from the searching eyes of those who protected the civilized folk. It hadn’t been that long ago in terms of years, but in terms of who he had been and who he was now, it may as well have been a lifetime.

Kosk wasn’t the right bastard he’d been back then, but he allowed himself a certain smug pleasure at pressing the children to a hard pace. He could admit privately that maybe his calves were feeling a bit tight and that the muscles in his back had started to twitch. He would not have been surprised if the tally of his years was higher than that of his three companions put together. But he’d put his body through a lot worse both before and after dedicating himself to the monastic path, and he had no difficulty pushing on through the pain.

Around midday—a lingering low overcast made it difficult to tell exactly—they paused for a break along one of the rocky crests. The boy smith flopped down, exhausted. The girl, to her credit, seemed better off, but then again she wasn’t carrying around a ridiculous weight of armor and unnecessarily large weapons. That sword of his might have looked impressive, but Kosk had taken down men like him with nothing more than a dagger.

A different life, the dwarf reminded himself.

Quellan came over to join him. The half-orc didn’t seem winded, but then again Kosk knew he was the sort who wouldn’t complain even if he had an arm hanging by just a few sinews. They stood there together in companionable silence while the dwarf checked the map. They’d agreed Kosk would carry it since he had the most experience with wilderness travel. He didn’t really need to take a look, as he also had a good memory and they were still a good day at least from the general region where they would find their destination, but it was something to do while he waited for his friend to say his piece.

“You’re pushing them rather hard,” Quellan said finally.

“So? If they can’t keep up, then they should open their mouths.”

“This may startle you to hear it, but you can be a little intimidating sometimes.”

Kosk snorted, but after a moment shot their resting companions a quick look before returning to his scrutiny of the landscape spread out in front of them. In a softer voice he said, “You know that the two of them won’t last two seconds if we run into something real bad out here. You do know that?”

“I think they might surprise you,” Quellan replied.

Kosk happened to glance over at that moment, so he saw the way the cleric’s eyes flicked over at the others as he turned to leave. Saw the way they lingered in one spot in particular.

“Oh, lad, you’re asking for trouble,” the dwarf muttered under his breath.

The terrain grew even more rugged as the day went on, and their pace slowed regardless of Kosk’s efforts. The hills grew steeper, forcing them to go around rather than over them, though that hardly made the journey easier. At one point they made their way into a ravine that offered no way out, forcing them to backtrack and lose a full hour’s progress. They found just enough sources of water to keep their bottles full and ease worries of a shortage. Quellan had prepared a spell that would cleanse any impurities out of any standing pools they encountered, but thus they had found just enough flowing streams and springs that they hadn’t had to use his magic.

They were moving though a strand of scattered trees interspersed with knots of dry thornspike when Kosk felt a sudden premonition of danger. He’d long since learned to trust his instincts, but as he scanned their surroundings he detected no obvious threats. He’d heard small animals scurrying deeper into the undergrowth at their approach and they’d startled the occasional cluster of small birds into flight over the course of the day, but this felt different.

He glanced back at the others. They’d gotten a bit strung out, though Quellan was only about fifteen paces back and the girl, bringing up the rear, was maybe twice that. In between them the boy smith was trudging with his head lowered, apparently completely oblivious to his surroundings. Kosk had to bite back a curse.

Quellan looked up and obviously saw something on his friend’s face, for he reached for his mace. “What…” he began.

He didn’t get a chance to finish his question before an arrow shot out from the trees. It narrowly missed the cleric and shattered against a rock a bit further down the slope.

That got the smith’s attention, as his head shot up and his eyes grew wide. “Ambush!” he yelled.

No kidding, Kosk thought as he dove for cover.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 11

As soon as Bredan realized they were under attack, he shouted a warning to his companions and reached for his sword. He didn’t panic, but as he tried to unfasten his baldric and swing the weapon around it got caught up in the straps of his pack. He tried to swing the pack off but that got caught too as the crossbow attached to the back became tangled in his coat.

Cursing, he looked up and realized two things: first that the unseen archer still hadn’t revealed himself, and second that he was the only one still standing out in the open.

Kosk might have laughed as he watched the smith’s idiotic antics, except for that fact that the boy was about to get himself killed. Whoever had shot at Quellan had not revealed himself, but there could easily be a dozen enemies hidden among the trees that flanked their route. The dwarf was well-protected behind a protruding stone, while Quellan had likewise found good cover a bit further down the slope. But he heard a clatter of rocks from further back and knew that the girl was probably about to do something stupid to save her idiot friend, like charge blindly into the ambush. That might be why they hadn’t shot the boy yet, and were waiting for someone to come to his aid.

Growling, the dwarf grabbed hold of his quarterstaff and leapt over the rock, poised to charge into the trees.

But he didn’t get a chance to cover more than a few steps when a loud voice cried, “Hold! We mean you no harm!”

Then why’d you shoot a bloody arrow at us? Kosk almost shouted back, but instead he said, “Show yourself!”

A figure appeared from the cover of the trees. The muscles in Kosk’s arms twitched when he saw that it was an elf. He carried a bow that he held over his head in one hand, the other held out to show it was empty. There were a few subtle motions behind him to suggest he wasn’t alone.

“I apologize for the attack,” the elf said. “I am Calevas, eldritch knight of the Order of the Il’duir. We are from the Silent Wood, and we are here tracking a party of orcs.” He gestured toward Quellan as if to explain the nature of the mistake.

The cleric rose slowly up out of cover. “No harm was done,” he said. “We haven’t come upon any sign of such a party, though we have only been in the hills for a day and a half.”

“You are a priest?” the elf asked, nodding toward Quellan’s holy symbol.

“I serve the god of knowledge,” Quellan said. “We’re from Crosspath, heading toward the Godstones.”

“You got some friends back there?” Kosk asked. He knew Quellan would chatter all day if given the chance, and he still wasn’t all that sure whether the elf was just trying to draw them out to give his friends a better shot. He glanced back and saw that the smith had finally managed to get his sword out, though he was smart enough to keep it in its scabbard. The girl was standing at his shoulder, her own bow at the ready with an arrow at the string but pointed at the ground.

Calevas slowly raised his free hand and four more elves emerged from the trees. Kosk recognized them as wood elves, dressed for the hunt in swirls of pale colors that blended with the landscape. They looked rather wild, with streaks of pigments darkening their faces and bits of foliage woven into their hair. That was one reason why humans sometimes called the residents of the Silent Wood “wild elves,” in contrast to the southern elves of Tal Nalesh or the Spiralspire. That was just like humans, to judge everyone against their own standards of what they thought civilization should be like. Kosk thought he could pick out the one who’d made the shot; he stood a bit back from the others and didn’t quite meet their eyes.

“The Silent Wood’s a long way away,” Quellan said. “You have been tracking these orcs for a long time?”

“Since they entered the forest a week ago,” Calevas said. “The ones we chase are just the survivors of that intrusion, numbering perhaps a score. They left more than a hundred of their brethren dead behind them.”

“That’s not much of a war band,” Kosk said. “Sounds like they were either stupid or desperate, to enter the Wood like that.”

“They paid for their mistake,” the elf said simply.

“I hope that you find them,” Quellan said. “Believe me, I know full well that their kind are capable of.”

Calevas stared at him for a long moment before nodding. “If you should find them before us, the elves of the Silent Wood will pay a bounty for proof of kills.”

“Proof?” Glori asked.

“Usually taking the ears is the easiest way,” Kosk said. The girl didn’t say anything, but her lips twisted in disgust or disapproval.

“It grows late,” Quellan said. “Perhaps you would like to share camp with us?”

The elf leader shook his head. “No. We still have a great deal of terrain to cover. You are certain it is clear to the south?”

“We said we didn’t see anything,” Kosk said.

“Very well. Safe travels.” Without waiting for a response he turned and vanished back into the trees at a sprint, his companions falling in behind him. The elf that had almost shot Quellan shot them one last look that might have meant anything before he, too, was gone.

“Well now, that was a bit of excitement,” Quellan said.

“Do they really cut off ears as trophies?” Glori said.

“If you saw what an orc raiding party could do, you’d be less squeamish,” Kosk said.

“The enmity between the elves of the northern woods and the orc tribes of the mountains is a deep one,” Quellan said. “We’re not in a position to judge them.”

“They didn’t seem that interested in what we are doing in the Dry Hills,” Glori noted.

“I doubt they care,” Kosk said. “The wood elves generally prefer to stay in their forests. That they’d come this far south testifies to the grudge they bear.”

“Let’s just hope we don’t run into these orcs,” Bredan said. He still looked a bit sheepish from his earlier misadventure.

Kosk shot him a hard look, but finally nodded. “We’d better start looking for someplace secure to bed down for the night. Hopefully them elves will clear the immediate area for us, but you never know what you’ll find in a place like this.”

“With luck, this encounter will be enough adventure for one day,” Quellan said.

As they prepared to resume their march, Glori went over to Quellan and said, “You were pretty mild to that elf who nearly shot you.”

“An honest mistake,” Quellan said. “I wish I could say it was the first time something like that had ever happened.”

“Don’t worry, that elf’ll be in trouble when he gets back home,” Kosk said.

“Why?” Glori asked. “Because he almost shot a priest of Hosrenu?”

The dwarf shook his head. “No. Because he missed such an easy shot.”
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 12

Their second night in the Dry Hills was quiet and unremarkable. The night passed swiftly for those wrapped in their bedrolls, slowly for those awake on watch. The encounter with the elves had put them all on edge, and once they had eaten their evening meal they let the fire go out, leaving them to shiver in their blankets before exhaustion finally dragged them under.

The sense of gloom lingered over breakfast. They ate quickly and collected all their gear, cleaning up any sign of their presence as best they could before setting out again. The morning overcast lingered as the day went on, accompanied by a hard wind that gusted through the gaps between the hills, tugging at their cloaks and rustling the dry brush.

The terrain remained just as difficult as it had been the day before, but it was clear that they were making progress. When in the dells with their thickets of thorny brush and labyrinths of boulders it felt like they were crawling, but occasionally they would reach a crest to get an expansive view of both the ground they’d covered and the route ahead. For most of the morning the hills ahead had seemed to grow, until they climbed yet another ridge around noon to see a series of tall bluffs ahead of them.

“The Godstones,” Glori said. Kosk consulted the map briefly then led them forward again.

As they drew nearer to their destination the landscape changed subtly, the spaces between the hills growing wider. The Dry Hills remained true to their name, with streams or waterholes rare enough that they filled up all their bottles each time they found a source. Bredan’s father had taught him a little bit about survival in the wilderness, including how to find water and which plants were safe to eat, but for the most part they had to rely upon the stores they’d brought with them. The smith realized that his earlier thoughts about hunting to augment their rations had been foolish; the creatures of the Dry Hills clearly knew how to remain hidden.

The sun was just starting to peek out from behind the clouds when their path wound down from yet another ridge into a forest. The trees, mostly oaks and other broadleaf varieties that could tolerate the drought, remained scattered enough that they could always see the sky above. The ubiquitous scrub brush thinned only slightly, forcing them into frequent detours around particularly dense knots of growth.

They were navigating their way around one such cluster when Bredan came to a sudden stop. Glori, following behind him, immediately reached for her bow. “What is it? Orcs?”

“There’s something over there,” he said, pointing to a spot in the shade of a pair of interlaced oaks maybe fifty feet away. Glori came up next to him and followed his outstretched finger with her gaze to what looked like the rotted remains of a third tree that had fallen between them. The branches of the two trees were woven together like lovers’ fingers, but just enough sunlight made it through their canopy to gleam off of something metallic.

“Hey, Quellan, Kosk!” Glori hissed. The pair had gotten a good distance ahead, with Kosk setting his usual brisk pace, but when the bard plucked a single string on her lyre they heard and came back to rejoin them. “What is it?” Kosk asked impatiently.

“There’s something metal over there, under those trees,” Glori reported. Bredan had unfastened his sword, but he kept it in its scabbard as he regarded the trees with wary suspicion.

“Think there might be someone waiting over there in ambush?” Glori whispered.

“No,” Kosk said. “If there was someone there, they’d have moved when they saw they had been marked.” But he kept his attention focused on the glimmer they could all now see clearly.

“Do you hear something?” Bredan asked.

They all listened, but all they heard was the faint rustle of the afternoon breeze. “What did you hear?” Quellan asked.

“Not sure. Something moving.”

“Could have been a small animal taking cover,” Kosk said. But his wariness hadn’t eased. “All right, let’s go check it out. Real slow.”

“Oh, sure, now he wants to go slow,” Bredan said under his breath. But he accompanied the others forward.

The four companions spread out as they approached the fallen tree. There wasn’t much of it left, the trunk and exposed roots riddled with holes wrought by insects and decay. But as they entered the ring of shade under the two standing oaks they could just make out the outline of something that didn’t quite fit.

“Is that… a body?” Glori asked.

The others didn’t get a chance to answer, as they all heard the sound that had alerted Bredan earlier: the sudden rush of flapping wings. They didn’t have to wonder long at the source as half a dozen small flying creatures erupted from under and around the rotten trunk of the fallen tree. The companions only got a moment to register leathery wings, hooked legs, and long, thin snouts before the things let out a collective shriek and dove at them.

“Gah!” Glori shouted as the creatures attacked.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 13

Glori had her bow ready and fired off a shot at the first of the monsters that dove at her. But her aim was hasty and the arrow narrowly missed. She let out a startled cry as her target swept down at her, its claws snapping for purchase as it brushed past her head.

Bredan tried to move to her aid but was intercepted by a pair of the things. He didn’t think, just moved into a ready stance and chopped down with his sword. The heavy blade tore through the first creature’s wing and into its body, cleaving it almost in two. The thing let out a squeak and collapsed to the ground, still twitching.

The other one tried to take advantage of its comrade’s sacrifice, diving toward Bredan’s face. But he reacted as if the attack had been a high swing, ducking under it and spinning around to bring his sword up into a defensive stance. The creature flapped its wings madly and reoriented itself before coming at him again.

Kosk and Quellan met more of the things together. Quellan struck one with his mace and knocked another aside with his shield. Kosk merely waited until his foe was extending its claws to seize hold of his robe, then at the last instant he drove his staff up under its neck. The monster flopped over and landed on its back, still struggling until the monk stomped on it with a sandaled foot.

Glori let out a shriek and yelled, “Get it off me!” As she spun around, trying to reach around with her bow, the others could see the creature clinging to her back.

Bredan’s second foe was fluttering around in the branches of the oak trees, staying out of reach of his sword, but the smith came immediately to the bard’s aid. She saw him and stopped spinning, but as he lifted his sword he hesitated, perhaps aware that he could end up doing more harm than good if he missed his target.

Before he could think of something else to do Quellan stepped between them. The half-orc reached out and seized hold of the creature on Glori’s back. They could all hear the thing’s bones snapping as the priest’s meaty fingers tightened around its body. But it refused to release its grip until Quellan literally tore it free, the sharp tip of its snout glistening red with Glori’s blood.

Bredan started to ask if she was all right, but she interrupted with a pointed finger and a shout of warning. The creature that the smith had been fighting had taken advantage of his distraction and dove at his back. He spun around and raised his sword. He wasn’t fast enough to chop it out of the air like he had the first, but he managed to clip one wing with the crossguard of his sword. The creature bounced off his arm and fluttered to the ground. Unable to fly, it kept trying to get close enough to hook its hooked claw-feet around one of his legs. With a look of distaste Bredan pinned it to the ground with his sword, waiting until it stopped moving before he stepped on its intact wing and yanked his blade free.

“Hold still, lad,” Kosk said as he came up behind Quellan. Glori turned and her eyes widened as she saw another of the things clinging to the back of the cleric’s left shoulder. Quellan didn’t betray any reaction as the monk crushed the bloodsucking monster with a blow from his staff. Once it was dead the cleric reached back and pulled it free, grimacing as the proboscis tore his skin on the way out.

Bredan looked around to make sure there were no more of them before he moved to Glori’s side. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, though she shivered. “What were those things?”

“My people call them strix,” Kosk said. “Stirges, I think is the common name. They are pretty common in the underground realms.”

“Stirges,” Glori said with disgust. “Hideous things.”

“It looks like it got a bite out of you,” Bredan said, checking her back.

“It would have gotten a lot more if it had the chance,” Glori said. She turned to Quellan. The half-orc was wiping his bloody hand on a piece of cloth, but he looked a bit disconcerted at her words. “I’m sorry I panicked,” she said. “I bet that one wouldn’t have gotten you if you hadn’t come to help me.”

“No one was seriously harmed,” Quellan said. “To be on the safe side, I should heal your wound so that it does not become infected.”

“Only if you let me fix yours,” she said. She started to put her bow down and reached for her lyre, only to spin back around as they heard the sound of wood snapping. All three of them turned and lifted their weapons only to see Kosk probing into the fallen tree with his staff.

“No more of them,” the dwarf said, seemingly unaware or unconcerned with the alarm he’d caused. “But this is interesting.”

The others came forward, their wounds momentarily forgotten now that they could examine what had lured them here in the first place. There was a corpse half-buried in the exposed and sagging roots of the fallen tree. He—if it had been a he—had clearly been there a long time.

“He was a warrior,” Bredan said, kneeling to examine the mail links that were visible through the gaps in the mud and growth that covered the remains. But the armor was completely ruined, as was the axe blade and rusted dagger he pried up out of the ground nearby.

“He had this,” Kosk said. He held up a silver brooch, a circular cloak pin shaped to resemble three serpents wound together in an endless loop. The silver was still bright and untarnished. Clearly that had been what they’d seen in the stray beam of sunlight.

Glori looked at the brooch in the dwarf’s hand, clearly interested. “What are those gems in the snakes’ eyes? Tiny emeralds?”

“Too light in color,” Kosk noted. “Peridots, I’d guess.”

Glori looked at him in surprise, then returned her attention to the brooch. “It’s not tarnished at all. Magic?”

That last was directed at the group in general, but Kosk said, “Maybe.” For a moment he regarded the find with interest, but then suddenly he thrust it at Glori. “Take it. We can look at it later, once we’re well away from this place. There might be more of those things out hunting, and they could come back at any time.”

That suggestion got them moving again. Quellan and Glori each healed the other’s injuries. Bredan watched them work their spells. He was already familiar with the magic of Glori’s lyre, though watching it being worked still continued to amaze him. The cleric’s magic was more conventional; he just held his holy symbol and chanted a prayer before touching two of his huge fingers to the bard’s back. A blue glow briefly suffused the area around the puncture wound before it faded to reveal unmarked skin. Glori noticed him watching and winked at him before pulling her coat back on.

“Do you think we’re getting close?” Bredan asked Kosk.

“We’re not getting any closer standing here,” the monk replied. He trudged across the clearing under the trees and continued in that brisk pace he had that ate up strides as quickly as his longer-legged companions.

“Is he always like this?” Bredan asked.

“Pretty much,” Quellan said.

“Look at it this way,” Glori said, pinning the brooch to her coat. “We beat some monsters and found some treasure. We’re already halfway to becoming heroes.” With a final smile at Quellan, she marched after the fast-receding dwarf.

The young smith and the cleric shared a look. “Pretty much,” Bredan said to the unanswered question. They shared a laugh that quickly faded as they gave the gory scene of their first encounter one last look before they hurried to catch up with their companions.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 14

Bredan looked up through the gap in the trees at the bluff that rose up in front of them. It wasn’t the largest of the massive formations that the map and Glori had called the Godstones, but it was still impressive. Bredan could see where the name had come from. It was as if someone had constructed a series of giant stone citadels atop this region of the Dry Hills. The mesas rose up hundreds of feet above the highest of the hills that had given them so much trouble over the last few days.

The one in front of them had a distinctive feature, a cleft in one side that looked like a blow from a colossal giant’s axe. According to Starfinder’s instructions and the map, that was where they would find the entrance to the ancient shrine.

“I have to give you credit, you got us here,” Glori said to Kosk. “Impressive, isn’t it?”

The dwarf snorted. “Any idiot can follow a map.” But he did not look displeased at the comment.

“The question now is, do we set up camp before making our approach?” Quellan said. “We’ll need to wait for morning before attempting the ascent, in any case.”

They all looked west, where the late afternoon sun was steadily dropping toward the distant horizon.

“We might as well get closer,” Kosk suggested. “Likely to be better shelter along the base of the bluff, and it cuts down on the directions an enemy can approach the camp.”

“What if someone else comes looking for the shrine?” Bredan asked.

“Well then, we’ll be in a better position to deal with them, no?” the dwarf said.

They made their way back into the forest, which grew thicker around them. From their vantage it had looked as though they still had a good hike ahead to get to the bluff, but the ground began to rise almost immediately. They passed boulders the size of wagons and even a few that were the size of a farmer’s cottage, forcing them to circle around. The shadows around them deepened as the day faded and Bredan found himself seeing threats in each of them. He took some solace in the fact that both Glori and Quellan looked equally jumpy. Only Kosk seemed unaffected, trudging up the rise with his usual brisk pace. Bredan tried to ignore the twinges in his legs as the change in slope added fresh strain on already tired muscles. He thought about unlimbering his crossbow, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it. He hitched up his baldric so that the buckle was in easy reach and hurried after the others.

They were approaching another of the massive rocks when Kosk suddenly stopped and held his hand up in warning. The others tensed and listened. “What is it?” Bredan finally hissed.

“Wood smoke,” Kosk said without turning.

Bredan sniffed the air and smelled it, just a hint on the gentle breeze. The trees were thick enough that he couldn’t see the source, but it had to be pretty close given how little wind there was.

“All right, let’s check it out,” Kosk said. Bredan was about to unsling his pack to get the bow when an old woman stepped out from behind the boulder.

“You must be here for the shrine,” she said.

They all jumped a bit, even Kosk, though the woman made no hostile moves. She was human and looked to be about sixty. She was dressed in a simple wool robe and appeared to be unarmed, though the oddity of her presence here kept the four adventurers on edge. “Who are you?” Quellan asked. “And what are you doing here?” Kosk added.

“My name is Arras. I am a scholar of ancient lore. Perhaps not unlike whoever sent you here?”

“You seem to know a lot about us,” Quellan suggested.

“I only make assumptions based upon the evidence that is in front of me.”

“We could be bandits,” Kosk said.

“I find it doubtful that a priest of Hosrenu would be in such a company. Or a musician, or a monk of the Open Hand.” She gave Bredan a quick look but didn’t add a comment; maybe she thought he did look like a bandit, he thought. He had the resist a sudden impulse to straighten his hair.

“So you are interested in the Eth’barat?” Glori asked.

“Of course. I would hardly come all this way out into the middle of nowhere otherwise.”

“Are you alone?” Kosk asked her.

“I was,” Arras said with a smile. “I have a camp not far from here. It’s getting late, and I’ll be happy answer all of your questions there.”

The others shared a look that clearly said they were all on the same page in terms of trust, but finally Glori shrugged and said under her breath, “Better to know more than less, I suppose.” In a more normal voice she said to the old woman, “Lead on!”

Arras’s camp was in small dell formed between two ridges of exposed stone that jutted out from the mass of the bluff. They couldn’t see the cleft from that vantage, but based on the way that the ground rose up steeply ahead they had to be close.

As if reading their minds, Arras said, “We’re close. There’s a path that leads up into the cleft. The entrance to the shrine is about halfway up. Watch your step, there.”

The smoke they’d smelled earlier rose from a small campfire concealed within a shallow pit. A thin iron frame that could support a pot was erected over it. Other common items were scattered around the camp, including a bedroll and a few extra blankets, an assortment of waterskins, pouches, and sacks, and a line of extra clothes drying between two trees. The secret of how she’d gotten everything out here was explained by the mule that was cropping grass near the back of the dell. The beast gave them a brief look as they came into the camp and then went back to its supper.

“It looks like you’ve been here for a while,” Quellan said.

“A few weeks,” Arras said. “Unfortunately I have been having some difficulty gaining access to the shrine.”

“Is there a seal?” Kosk asked as she strode around the camp in a circle, taking in every detail while not turning his back on the old woman.

“No, it’s open, but there’s a creature guarding the entrance. And the bugbears that went up there a few days ago are another potential problem.”

“Wait, creature?” Bredan asked.

“Bugbears?” Glori added.

Quellan held up a hand. “I think you’d better tell us what’s going on here.”

“Certainly. But first, let me get you a drink. I think I have a little plum wine left in one of the panniers...”

“That’s okay, we don’t need anything,” Quellan said.

“I insist,” Arras said. “After all, you haven’t told me anything about yourselves yet, or what you are doing here. And if you are in fact a priest of Hosrenu, then you know about the rules of hospitality. Not that there’s anything I could do if in fact you proved to be… unpleasant,” she said with a notable look at Kosk, “but I would feel better if we went through the formalities.”

With that she strode past the dwarf and moved to the back of the camp, past where the mule was tethered to a sheltered niche where several wicker panniers had been carefully arranged under a tarp. She briefly passed out of their view as she bent under the cover and began digging through her supplies.

As soon as she was out of direct line of sight Glori turned to Quellan and Bredan and hissed, “What are we going to do?”

“What do you mean?” Quellan asked.

“Come on… do you really think this old woman could have survived out here alone for weeks?”

Quellan looked at her in confusion. “Well, obviously she did…” but Bredan took her arm and murmured, “What are you saying? That she’s some kind of witch or something?”

Glori said, “Look, I know most of the stories I tell are just… well, a lot of them are exaggerated. But others… I mean, you meet a strange old woman in the middle of nowhere, no, right next to some weird magical shrine, and she’s insisting on offering us a drink…”

“You’re the one who wanted to come here!” Bredan hissed.

“There is no evidence she’s anything other than what she says she is,” Quellan said.

“Just ask yourself, what chance is it that she’s just some old woman who happens to be an expert at survival in a place like the Dry Hills…”

“Maybe she’s in league with those bugbears,” Bredan whispered.

Quellan let out an exasperated sigh. “We only know about them because she told us about them,” he reminded them.

“She’s coming back,” Kosk warned in a soft voice. He was still over by the campfire, but from the look on his face he’d listened in on their entire conversation.

Arras seemed unperturbed as she returned to the main camp. She was holding a small bottle and a handful of cups. “I’m sorry, I don’t have enough cups for everyone, you’ll need to share.”

“Really, it’s okay, we don’t need anything,” Bredan said. “We’re fine.”

“You should ask your cleric friend to explain the rules of hospitality,” the old woman said as she uncorked the bottle and poured a splash of pale liquid into one of the cups. “Not enough of you young people value the old traditions.”

“If we don’t value those traditions, why is it so important that we do this?” Glori asked.

“Call me old-fashioned.” She held the cup out to Kosk. “Here, master dwarf, drink. I know it’s not ale, but…”

Kosk held out the cup and turned it upside down, spilling the liquid on the stones along the edge of the firepit.

“Well now, that’s rude,” Arras said. “I think…”

She didn’t get a chance to finish, as he snapped out a fist and punched her hard in the face.
 

Lazybones

Explorer
Chapter 15

The old woman crumpled, and nearly fell into the fire before she rolled over and lay in a lifeless heap upon the ground.

The dwarf’s three companions stood staring for a shocked moment. “What in the hells did you do that for?” Bredan finally blurted.

“She was lying,” Kosk said.

Quellan hurried forward and knelt beside the old woman. Blood smeared the lower half of her face and continued to pulse from her nostrils.

“Is she dead?” Glori asked.

“I just knocked her out,” Kosk said, but he watched intently while Quellan checked her pulse. “She’s alive,” the cleric confirmed.

Bredan circled around the fire. “You can’t just punch an old woman in the face!”

“You said she might be a witch,” Kosk said with a shrug.

“Yeah, but… we don’t know that!” Bredan yelled back.

“Um… better keep your voice down,” Glori said. She took a wary look around the dell, but the only other witness was the mule, which continued to munch on the grass disinterestedly. “I do have to admit that I wouldn’t expect a witch to go down so easily.”

“Yes, see!” Bredan said, pointing at her.

“What’s done is done,” Kosk said.

Bredan threw up his hands. “What’s wrong with you?”

At that Kosk turned suddenly and stepped up until he was well within arm’s reach of the smith. “Careful, boy,” he said.

Bredan tensed but didn’t retreat. “Or else what, you’ll punch me in the face?” he asked.

A tense moment followed, finally interrupted when the cleric said, “She’s coming around.”

They all stepped back to give the cleric some room. The old woman groaned and stirred. Her eyelids fluttered open, but her eyes remained vacant for a moment before they focused on Quellan. Then they widened and she sucked in a startled breath.

“Take it easy, stay calm,” Quellan said. “It’s all right, everything’s all right.”

She drew back but didn’t try to get up. She reached up and touched her face, but the sight of her blood on her fingers didn’t cause her to panic. Instead she sent a venomous look around the circle of observers. “You hit me.”

“I’m sorry, there was a misunderstanding on our part,” Quellan said.

“On mine as well,” Arras said. “Maybe that symbol you’re wearing doesn’t mean what I think. Or maybe blood tells.”

Quellan flinched as if he’d hit her, but Kosk stepped forward. “You must admit it’s strange, an old woman out here all alone. The Dry Hills are dangerous, and you could have been…”

“A witch? An old hag, like from the stories?” She shot a look at Glori, who looked away, abashed. “Well, I wish I was, then I’d turn the lot of you into bloody slugs.”

Kosk, however, wouldn’t yield. “You pushed that wine on us rather suspiciously.”

She started to get up and the monk shifted slightly, but she only leaned over to where the bottle of wine and the cups had fallen. She filled one of the cups and drank it down in a single gulp. “Satisfied?”

“Look, we’re sorry, but as I said, it was a misunderstanding,” Quellan said. “Maybe we can all settle down, talk more about what you said earlier, about the bugbears, the guardian…”

“I hope they flay you alive, either one,” she said. She got up and walked over to the line of laundry. She took a piece of cloth and soaked it from a nearby waterskin, then used it to rub the blood off her face. “You can do whatever you please, but you get out of my camp, and don’t let me see you back here.”

“Or else what?” Kosk asked.

She glared at him, but Quellan quickly stepped forward. “We’ll leave. But before we go, I’m a cleric, I can heal you…”

“I’m fine,” she said. “Get out.”

Bredan didn’t realize how late it had gotten until they left the camp and the glow of the fire behind them. But there was still enough lingering light for him to stay with the others as they made their way back into the forest. His companions, naturally, had no difficulty, and he envied them their darksight.

“Well, that could have gone better,” Glori finally said.

“Think she’ll try to kill us in our sleep?” Kosk asked.

“If she does, I’m sure you can beat the crap out of her,” Bredan said.

“Look, boy…”

“All right, leave it,” Quellan said, again stepping between them. “Just let it be. It’s getting dark, and we need to find another place that’s safe to rest.”

“If she was telling the truth about the guardian and those bugbears, there may not be a safe place anywhere around here,” Bredan said.

“Yeah, I don’t think I want to run into a bugbear, day or night,” Glori said.

“They’re just big goblins,” Kosk said. “You can wait for us down here if you want.”

“Are you calling us cowards?” Bredan asked.

“I’m just saying that…”

Quellan suddenly stopped and turned so quickly that Glori nearly ran into him. “Look, just… just stop,” he said, holding up his hands toward the other two men. “We all knew that this trip could be dangerous, but we can’t afford to turn on each other, not here, not now. Regardless of what just happened, we have to pull together.”

For a moment they all just stood there in silence. Bredan again regretted not being able to see his companion’s faces in the deepening twilight. But a moment later Glori took his hand in hers, and he could feel reassurance seeping into him from that contact.

“We passed a spot a ways back that could serve,” Kosk said. Without waiting for confirmation from the others he trudged back down the slope.

Quellan looked back at Bredan and Glori, then shrugged and headed after the dwarf.

“I hope we haven’t made a big mistake here,” Bredan said.

“It’ll be all right,” Glori replied. “You’ll see. Come on, we shouldn’t get separated.”

Neither of them saw the glistening eyes that watched their progress from under the half-exposed roots of a nearby tree.
 

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