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John play: Hero for hire

JOHN PLAY
“Play To Win”
SEGMENT 010
“Bleak Caves ”

Sypheros 6, 996

“My brother should be somewhere within that hillside. There are a series of caves there that many people like himself have gone to hide.” Shasta says pointing to an area they should reach that afternoon.

John Play looks to it. Something is bothering him about it. “How long has he been here?”

“He found his way there shortly after fleeing Aundair. Why?”

Silence as he looks at the white clouds and blue sky. Hundreds of birds fly in the sky. The caves would have bird-nesting areas at the higher levels. But something is wrong.

“Will you stop it!” She turns and glares at him. “Everytime we see reach some point of interest or a person or place that is not a village or farming group you assume there is trouble. Stop it. The war is over.”

Play decides to resist informing her that the war has only shifted in tactics. Open warfare was proving too costly for everyone. Just ask the Cyrians. Now it is run through covert efforts. It is part of why he dropped out of the war. No good was going to come of it. At least this way, he may be able to actually help people. There is no paranoia if there is danger. No. Something here is not right. He just can’t place it. It is a 6th sense of his and it has served him well in the past. “Lets go. I want to reach there before dark. Once there, do you know how to contact him?”

“No. I thought we would just ask around.”

“More than likely he will take up an alias. It won’t be as easy as just asking around.”

They continue on in silence. John’s eyes never leave the birds. So many birds and they are all circling above. Circling. A small twist in the bottom of his gut begins to set and grow.

They agree to skip lunch and push on. In a few hours they arrive at the base of the area.

“Hear me out Shasta,” begins John looking around, “This is basically a village of people on the run and looking for sanctuary.” He waves about him once they stop. “They would post guards or have someone here to “greet” us and learn our purpose. I see nothing.”

Shasta opens her mouth to argue but stops. She begins to look around. “Maybe we have arrows notched and aimed at us now and we just don’t see them.”

“Why don’t you ask him.” John says with a grim face and motioning ahead of them. Within a tree is a man hanging from a rope. A quiver of arrows still on his hip.

John pulls his two daggers and slips off his horse. He looks up. The birds. They are circling. Not for nesting but for feeding. They are carrion birds. He hates it when he is right.

There are signs of scavengers of dead bodies. Tracks of big cats, wolves and maybe even bears. No more bears thinks John as he looks for the caves and cause of the carnage.

They find an entrance to the caves. There is nothing here. They walk very carefully there. The bodies he found that could be identified as for cause of death suggest a systematic slaughter of people during the night. Memories stir of why her brother is on the run. The Cutthroat of Calbert. This is exactly what he did. He read several of the reports when Breland employed him. But why do it this time?

Suddenly an arrow strikes the ground before them. John whirls and crouches readied to spring into action.

“Jumpy.” Says a gruff voice from the forest.

John’s eyes search the woods. He spots the figure within a tree but continues to look away. Figure was crouched down like himself. Making for a smaller and harder subject to spot or strike.

“Who are you?” John calls out.

“Where is my brother?” calls out Shasta making John grit his teeth. She would never become a spy.

“I survive. I have an arrow trained on your head. That is enough for now. As for if you had someone here…. I fear he is dead.”

Thinking the several options that are possible, John stops and slowly stands up. He slowly places his daggers away and holds out his open hands then looks to where the assailant was. Key word. Was. John almost jumps and Shasta squeaks as the figure speaks to them from a mere few feet away. John turns readied to strike with his hands if he has too. ½ Orc. Cloak that aids in hiding and blending. Dagger, short sword, bow…. Boots clean suggesting magic. “We come in peace. We are merely seeking someone whom has taken refuge here.”

“I know some of the people here. I can maybe help. In exchange, will you help me with the bodies?”

“Done.” Says Shasta before John can barter.

There were about one hundred people hiding here. Each had a duty within the village. Food, shelter, security or even entertainment. They helped each to survive in these woods. John spotted one man he knew from a mission. A mission that went horribly wrong within the borders of Cyre about ten years ago. It was an early mission.

They learn the ½ Orc’s name. Grysk. He walks the borders of this valley. He watched to make sure there was no trouble within these caves and also to watch for adventurers whom would get into trouble.

They eventually come to the brother’s section of the caves. Strangely enough, much of his belongings are gone. They see no body. There are two bodies here however. Grysk looks at them. They were new to the Caves. On the run. Something about evil that searched for greater evil.

John looks through the belongings of these two. He finds a journal. The best and worst thing a traveler can ever have. Good to remind yourself of things but also allows someone to learn everything you were trying to keep secret. John looks through it while Grysk collects some rabbits for food.

Shasta returns and notes John’s face. “What is wrong?”

“Two eyes.”

“What?”

“One of the travelers had two different colored eyes. Strange but so many that come here have strange things happen to them.” Adds Grysk holding two rabbits.

“One blue and one green?”

“Yes.”

“This journal describes them a great deal. Where they encountered the creature and where it is headed. It has you brother. I am certain of it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Whisper.”

Whispering…. “why”

“NO!” He raises his voice. Whisper was the name Breland gave the demon. It possesses people, killers, and makes them kill. I…. I fought him once. In Sharn. It nearly killed me. I thought I had killed it. I guess I only killed the host.”

“The demon was headed to the mountains of the Demon Wastes. I think it has possessed your brother and by using his skills, murdered everyone here… on a whim.”

Silence as everyone takes in the dire news.

“Shasta, I can not recommend you to follow, though your brother will be there, but I’m headed to the mountains to stop this monster.”

“I’ll go. How dare you suggest I don’t.”

Grysk speaks up. “He means to warn you. A demon has possessed your brother. It controls him. It will use him to stop you also. Unless the demon can be found or forced from his body, he is already dead.”

A long pause. “We go in the mourning.”
 

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JOHN PLAY
“Play To Win”
SEGMENT 011
“Rage Drakes”

Sypheros 10, 996

Play marveled at the trees around him. No. Not trees. Monuments. They were over 20 feet thick and to gage the height meant looking straight up in a dizzying rate. Several hundred feet tall at least he felt. Many of these trees were as big and tall as the buildings in Sharn. It drove him to a near stunned state of mind when he reminded himself these were the small trees. The bigger ones were deeper in the forest.

The stream they stopped at to take a break was wild and free also. It was fifteen feet wide and generally only a foot deep but it had pools twenty plus feet deep. Large Mountain Trout swam within these pools. John avoided the deepest pools as something that could only be described as a Dire Trout charged him. It was not the fear of the fish that worried him but the fear of the bugs and other creatures needed to support such a fish.

His knowledge of berries and nuts was more limited than a druid’s but he was well taught both as a child within the King’s Forest and by several rangers within the Citadel. Though he knew which bugs could be eaten that was nutritious, he was happy to eat the stalling bread and the last of the cheese Shasta had brought along. Looking at the stall bread, he began to think again about the fish. Fish sounded good compared to the bread. Looking to see if Shasta was still bathing, he reached into his belt to a hidden pouch and withdrew a small yellow and brown bead. It was a waste in truth but he could not help himself. “Fire in the hole!” he yelled then spoke a two-syllable arcane word and threw the bead into the pool of water. Even as a streak of brown and green came at it (Dire Trout) the magic activated and a small electrical charge was released. The Dire Trout flopped about on the surface of the pool as a dozen smaller fish surfaced including a catfish that had tentacles like a Displacer Beast.

Using a stick, John collected three large “normal” fish then saluted the their dire cousin before going to clean and cook the fish.

Shasta came up wearing only an oversized shirt as she dried out her hair. “ummmm…. Fish. Smells good.”

Though no halfling, John knew a few things about cooking. He wished he had the seasoning he longed for. He had one that was a combination of salt, black pepper and two other spices the halflings grew and collected in the rain forests of the Talenta Plains. Good stuff.

Shasta finished getting dressed. She looked at the pool where a still stunned Dire fish occasionally thrashed before finally submerging itself leaving the mutated catfish and other stunned or dead creatures on the surface. “Problems?”

“Nope.” John says while turning the strips of flesh over.

Finishing their meal they follow the stream NW towards the Icehorn Mountains where the journal suggested the evil spirit wanted to go. Looking to better get his bearings, John stops his horse and begins to climb up a large tree with thick but rough bark. Many of the grooves within the bark could shield a man from view. There are no branches for the first fifty feet. He climbs out onto a branch to rest his arms a bit. He can just barely see Shasta below as the leaves are of an enormous size. The larger leaves measure about three feet by three feet. He could make a kite from one! He goes to climb higher up when he hears Shasta from above.

“How did you get up there ahead of me?!?” He calls up.

“Magic Silly.”

“Wait up a minute. I’ll be there in a moment.” And he begins to climb once more.

Once he reaches her he looks out and through the large leaves he sees more trees and even more trees. There is a slight hint of a mountain range in the faded distance. “There is the mountains.” He says nodding to it.

“What is that?” she asks pointing slightly south. “Looks like a tower… made of stone.”

“Or an observatory. Many people set up towers here to watch the stars. Some say the stars are part of the Draconic Prophesy.”

“Really? The Prophesy… what do you think it is?” She asks while looking at the stone structure in the distance.

“Words to inspire if not intimidate others to do what powerful people want others to do.” John says with little inspiration or emotion.

“You don’t believe in it? I’m surprised.”

“Why? I’ve never been much of a joiner. I’m always done my own thing.”

“But you…. Seem like one with such a better destiny than that. I assumed it was in part the reason you left the Government service.”

“I’ve been told one never leaves the lanterns. I’m just on extended leave.” He smiles and snorts in dismissal.

“Should we go there for the night?” She asks.

“We can scout it out anyway. The trick is… not your average people tend to use towers or observatories in the middle of the forest like this,” He turns and smiles at her, “Rumors have it dragons built the first ones.”

“I’ve never seen a dragon before. Let’s go.” She replies as she opens up another Dimensional Door.

John steps out of the magical doorway first. He notices immediately the horses are spooked. Even as she steps through next he castes a wary stare into the thick forest. “We are not alone. We better get going. Quickly.”

“John…. WHAT is that?” She says motioning to the next tree over. A large red scaled draconic panther-like creature is watching them. Its tail flaps about in agitation. Its green eyes seem to pierce through their souls. Its Talons tear into the large roots of the tree it was stooping by. A long growl begins to come out of its throat.

“Uh-oh…..,“ Says John as he slowly reaches into a hidden pocket to extract a wand, “Nice kitty……”

The creature seems to stop time as it pounds over the root system and charges them. As it leaps at John he twists and drops to the ground. One claw rakes his back drawing blood. It lands lightly but skids to a stop as its legs pump to turn and charge again.

Taking no chances, John releases a blast from his Wand of Fireball. The green bead of energy rushes at the creature then explodes into a fireball as it bounces off of its forehead. It howls in pain and anger as at the fiery insult and injury. Another green bead of energy streaks at it from Shasta. The creature instinctively leaps to the side even as it bursts. Enraged, it charges again at the Hero for Hire. Once more a lone claw hits him as it leaps at him. More blood is spilt.

John completes his roll and points and fires at the enraged creature once more. The creature once more continues its momentum to avoid the worst of the blast. And runs directly into Shasta’s blast. Smoke and dust clouds the air around them. The creature snarls and charges again but this time it goes for Shasta. One claw strikes her arm as she raises it to defend herself then its sharp teeth clamp down on her shoulder. Its rear legs land on her legs and it pulls and rips at her. She screams in pain.

With the creature caught up in its raking attacks on the sorcerer John drops the wand and attacks with his dagger. It pierces the creature’s hide but does little to it. Still, in that moment his trained eyes scan and search weak spots on the creature. Shasta does her best to avoid the savage attacks she knows is coming. The creature lashes into her spraying blood everywhere. John goes into his own frenzy knowing she is going to die otherwise. The first strike hits a kidney, the second strike pierces a lung and the third shot strikes the eye and drives into the brain.

Wasting no time (leaving the dagger in its head) he pulls out a potion. “Comon comon hold on Shasta Hold on" (-8 and dropping). He pours the first potion into her mouth. Some of it seeps out of the corners of her mouth. It visibly washes down to her stomach and bubbles as it reaches where the stomach once was. The bloody ribbons begin to sparkle and lighten as they nit together. He grabs the next potion and pours that into her mouth also. The ribs nit back together along with the muscles of her chest. Next the flesh pulls together leaving angry looking scars and ripples in her once smooth skin of her chest and upper stomach. John nearly sobs in happiness and she lets out a harsh breath and sucks in more. In a weak voice she whispers “damn..… its….fast…..” then faints in his arms.
 

JOHN PLAY
“Play To Win”
SEGMENT 013
“Farrellax The Golden Scholar”

Sypheros 10, 996

John stops on the stone passage that passes through the dark thick brush and scans the brush for the source of the voice. Once more a voice comes from the brush. John stops and smirks. “Oh really?” Silence.

In a very rough sounding common a serious but small voice calls out to the ex-Lantern. “Why do you come to the Citadel of the Golden Scholar?”

“We were attacked in the forest. I survive. The woman…. May not live much longer without aid…. And safety. Safety that I believe you may have.” His eyes search the dark then zero in on a spot of total darkness.

“We do not take visitors. Even the dying kind.”

Play glares at the patch of darkness. “Move aside lil’ guy. I’m going through one way or another,” and Play takes a strong proud step forward.

From the darkness of the thick brush steps out a blacked scaled kobold wielding a short sword of unique design. In the same strange language the kobold speaks a single word and the sword crackles to life. Play stops, less confidant than before but still determined. “Do we really need to do this?” John slowly lets Shasta slip to the ground.

“No. This is not required.” A female voice calls out. The kobold stops and snarls to the ground. Play stops and looks around. Nothing.

“Follow me outsider. Bring the girl and be quick about it.” Then in Draconic he quells the magic within the sword. The kobold turns and strides forward not waiting for the humans.

John’s eyes go from looking across a small green yard filled with fountains and shaped brush. Beyond those he sees the path follows forward to two very large reinforced doors made of a purple colored material. These protect the entrance to a large castle –like fortress with a large rounded dome in the rear.

The doors begin to slowly open without a sound. The kobold stops and bows his head. Wanting to establish a status of respect, John Play also stops and bows his head. Out walks a woman wearing gold and white robes and a staff of white with a gold dragon entwined about an obsidian globe. “Welcome to the Citadel of the Golden Scholar.”

“Nice name.”

“Bring the woman inside. The sisterhood will see to her. The overseer of this place wants to meet you. Please, follow me.” Six other women dressed in white robes come out and gather up the unconscience woman. John reaches out then stops. Instead he gives a sharp nod of agreement and follows the woman whom seems to be in charge. The kobold disappears back into the brush.

There is a short hallway with many sturdy doors along the sides. One smells of stews and cooking bread. This hallway leads to a very large open study. The walls are covered by books. No not books…. Tomes. Play smirks to himself. The gnomes of Zilargo would be envious. The woman leads him onward to another set of large doors. Another short hallway with doors leads to another set of doors. Here the woman stops but motions for Play to go on. “The future awaits….”

John Play steps in expecting anything except for this. The room is even larger than the library room. The dome is huge. In the center is a glowing orb about ten feet across. Around it floats many smaller globes. They seem to follow a pattern in their rotation. A faint afterglow of the smaller globes follows. Magical runes float then seems to dart and drift to either avoid or sweep at the globes. Then the greatest surprise. John walks to the side of the room and sees something there big. Very. Very. Very BIG.

The huge gold Dragon reaches up and follows the trail of something that looks like a comet. “It’s coming.”

“The comet?!?”

“No. Something…. More dangerous. Something without a face.” The eyes of the dragon are milky. “It will bring chaos to our world. Death and destruction.” It turns to look at the human and the eyes lose the milkiness and become dark blue. “Please…. Sit. Become comfortable.” A chair John did not see before is by the wall nearby.

“Uh…. The woman whom led me here said you wished to see me.”

“Sister Celerity spoke true. I wished to meet you.”

“Well…. Here I am.” John waves his arms out to his sides

“Yes. I am curious…. Once I detected you within the forest…. I tried to scry you. It was not easy.”

“Just born that way I guess.”

“Hmmmm….yes. So you say.”

A pained silence goes by.

The huge Gold Dragon drops to all fours and walks to the opposite side of John. It rears up again to study something floating in the air. “Let us begin again. I am Farrellax, Farrellax The Golden Scholar.”

“John Play…. Adventurer for Hire.”

“…and the woman?”

“My client.”

“Your client is being mended by the Sisterhood. The Rage Drakes nearly killed her.”

“Most people have guard dogs.”

“I am obviously not like most people. But yes they have gotten a bit…. Out of hand.”

“What do you want?”

“Want?”

“Why heal her and why have me here?”

“Humor me young man. I ask little of you,” Farrellax pauses and then looks down on Play, “Those two Rage Drakes need to be taken down. I do not have the time nor the heart to do so. My kobold aids have not the power. I will heal your client and give her rest if you remove my dangerous guardians that have come to be free of their leash and uncaring of their master.”

“Agreed…. if you can resupply us also. We have a long ways to go yet.”

“hmmm…. Yes quite.” The dragon pauses while peering down on the adventurer. He seems to consider the new offer and the young man then quietly goes about looking at his lights and moving parts again.
 
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JOHN PLAY
“PLAY TO WIN”
SEGMENT 14
“RAGE AND DEATH”

SYPHEROS 11, 996

At daybreak John Play gets up and suits up. Calmly he walks down to the room used for medical healing. She is okay and rests calmly. One of the sisters sits by her carefully watching her while reading from a small tome.

“How is she?” he asks.

“Fine. She sleeps well and responds well to the healing herbs,” The sister sets the book down, “You will now hunt down the two creatures in the woods?”

“Looking like it.” John peers down at her while she sleeps then smirks and looks up to the sister. He nods at her book, “prayers?”

“No. It is a book of poems, kind sir.”

“Any about hunting murderous large lizards?”

“No.”

“Aw well. Guess it is time.”

The young woman smiles and diverts her gaze to the floor thus ending the quiet moment of flirtation. John smirks himself as he leaves the room. He cannot help himself and knows this. A part of him doesn’t want to stop…. It’s too much fun.

Though he would not admit it, as he passes the massive library he wonders about the raw amounts of information that is here. The studies of the Draconic Prophesy are here along with anything else that dragon has seen or deduced.

As he reaches the front door he picks up his gear and checks it over. His bow, his magic club and his dagger are there. His potions are there within his magical belt. Wands yes. Thieving tools…. Won’t need but yes. Nothing was taken. Good.

He places his hand on the door. Where is the kobold guard? He is good but not that good. He steps outside and the kobold is merely standing there, waiting impatiently for him. His reptilian eyes blink slowly. He slowly and deliberately points to the path to the bridge.

John quietly steps off the path as he enters the area. The memory of the creatures watching him is clear in his mind. He sees nothing. He walks to the edge of the bridge. Nothing.

He crosses it carefully. He has hunted many people. Many people whom turned out to be more than human…. But these…. Draconic lizards? Fast. Savage attacks. Jump and Pounce from long distances. Claws… Bite… uses surprise. Reminds him of the half-breed assassin from Aundair he met in the war.

John places the dagger into a holder on his chest piece and removes his bow. As he notches an arrow it begins to pulse with subtle energy. “Lethal” he whispers and looks to the trees. Nothing. Then the ground. Nothing.

Five minutes go by.

Ten minutes.

Fifteen.

“Here lil’ draconic doggie-doggie….. here lil’ …..” a snap of a twig is all he has to go by but it’s enough. John pushes his body to the side even as the creature leaps down at him. One claw grazes him tearing into his leather armor.

Both hunters move swiftly and into positions to both attack and defend. (init of 27 and 29). John releases the arrow then drops the bow to get close melee weapons. Ignoring the imbedded arrow the Rage Drake leaps to pounce again but misses all of its attacks. John pulls out the knife and motions to the left. The creature shifts its weight as he had hoped and then backhands into its throat. The backward strike hits deep then he reverses the dagger and catches it along the jaw line. Unable to pounce the creature tries to strike at him as it curls around. The claw strikes him along the leg and then the vicious bite comes. Play grunts in pain as the creature attempts to shake him into the ground. Instead the teeth grate off his bracers. This time he feints backwards then pushes forward with the dagger. The dagger scraps along the creature’s neck frill but he strikes the shoulders twice. The claws miss again but not the bite. John Play finds his leg pulled out from under him and wrenched violently then thrown aside setting him up for a renewed pounce attack.

“Fraggin’ bastich reptilian …..” He rolls over into a defensive position knowing what will come next.

The creature roars in rage and power before surging ahead with its mouth open and the talons spread wide to rip him apart. One claw strikes him as he rolls to the side setting the creature up for his own attack. All three strikes hit. With renewed rage it attacks again. A claw knocks him off his feet and the creature bites down on his leg again and once more he shaken then released and he flops and bounces into a tree.

“ouch.”

The creature rushes after it’s rolling meal whom unknown to it, is readied for his rush. It leaps and misses with its claws but Play’s dagger is driven in deep killing the creature and ending it’s rage.

“Ehhhh…. Lucky for me… I have healing potions. Unlucky for you- I don’t give a ogre’s crap if you recover.” Play weakly struggles with his pack and pulls out a potion. And another. And after a loud bubbly belch a third. “I feel like crap and… yup. There’s number two in the tree branches watching me.” Plays slowly gets up and pretends to stagger about as he moves towards his bow.

John fires off three shots with his bow and all three strike. The creature screams in anger and charges along the ground. Though bounding towards him, John fires off three more arrows. One strikes the throat further enraging the beast. “Oh crap!”

Enraged, it leaps and pounces onto the surprised ex-Dark lantern. One claw strikes an arm and then it bites down onto the other. The impact onto the ground knocks the Drake off of him. John drops his bow and rushes to his feet. He begins to search for his wand as he prepares for the oncoming attack.

Even readied for the attack one claw digs into his leg deeply. Mentally, he quickly dodges distance versus the radius of his wand’s blast effect and fires. He releases one charge that explodes just behind the beast. The hot air rolls over John but the flames strike the drake burning its side. Still angry it attacks again. Again it attacks and again only one claw strikes. And again it suffers from a blast that erupts behind it.

Weakened, it tries to strike again but misses. A third blast drops the creature to its knees. Its head drops to the ground. Blood, boiling from the heat, seeps out. “Bastard” is all he says before withdrawing his dagger to end the creature’s life and fulfill the agreement with the Dragon.
 

JOHN PLAY
“PLAY TO WIN”
SEGMENT 15
“TO THE MOUNTAINS”

SYPHEROS 13, 996

Shasta has recovered well and eager to renew their search for her brother they prepare to leave. They are given food, water, potions of healing and mage bred horses from an Eldeen House Vadalis compound.

Severe weather hampers their travel. On Sypheros 26, they come to be able to see the southern edges of the Icehorn Mountains.

As they travel, they both have the sense of being watched. Though nothing new to him, one he still dislikes being this close to the Demon Wastes. His experience is limited with the Wastes. He knows there are groups of people that try to keep things out of the Wastes as much as contain the realm. Groups that may help or hinder them on their travels to the mountains.

“Where are we?” Shasta asks as the horses rest and get a drink from a river.

“If I recall the instructions and maps correctly we are within the Dragon Dale.”

“Dragon…. “She asks in sudden concern.

“Rumors of dragons that live here do exist. But they seem to exist everywhere.” John refills his water flask then closes it before looking at her again. “They could be watching us now…. IF they do exist here.” He teases.

With a tight smile and a nod of her head she goes to her horse and steps onto the stirrup. “Then we need to be going.”

They continue forward following the river to the mountains. The woods take on a dark and menacing feel and the air becomes colder as they near the mountains… The Icehorn Mountains.

Sypheros 29
The air is cold; snowflakes drift in the air as their horses begin the long climb up the mountain side. Few animals are seen there. Only a handful of crows seem to not fear the cold. The crows watch as the two lone riders travel past them. Suddenly something startles the crows and most take to the sky leaving but one. It watches everything…. With red evil eyes.
 
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JOHN PLAY
“PLAY TO WIN”
SEGMENT 16
“THE EVIL TO COME”

Stretched dark skin covers boney hands. The hands are covered with wood and bone trinkets of power and influence. Within the hands… shaped bones (possibly human) and stones with carved runes rattle before being sharply thrown onto the stretched canvas of clearly human skin.

“Hurrmmmmm… arrrrhhhhh…. Ohhh….ah…. comes. The Seeker…. comes…… searches…..,” the old crone picks up the stones and bones again and once more rolls them. Her dark eyes seem to sparkle with insanity, “…. seeks…. My mistress…. “

Outside but nearby……
The barbarian runs up and over the fallen tree and leaps into the air and lands onto a large boulder with a grunt. He stands up slowly and surveys the valley before him. He holds out his arm and looks up into the painful brightness of the sun and waits. Something dark comes in and out of view from the sun and eventually comes into clear view. A large black crow spreads out his wings and lands on the outstretched arm. The crow’s red eyes bore into the barbarian ranger’s eyes as they communicate silently. “The Seeker comes. The mistress needs to know.” The barbarian looks behind him ,”Go to her Magriss, Go.” The crow lifts into the air and leaves without a sound.

An hour goes by as the crow flies north into the mountains, the trees give way to bare rock to rock covered with patches of snow. The crow then dips down into a valley filled with caves that emit foul smoke and fumes. Undaunted, the animal companion flies into a cave and banks to and fro as it wizzes by several other foul and nasty looking barbarians moving barrels of rock and earth. Then it reaches a room where four figures stand, talking. Two winged females with fangs and rope, a Warforged warrior lacking any weapons stand before a male human dressed in black leather and a cape the color of night. The crow caws once then lands on the shoulder of the living construct. It looks at the human and he nods. “Send the dogs out to greet them. Kill the man. Bring me the woman. Do not harm her unless you wish 100 times the pain done onto you in return.”

The man sits within a well lit room despite the fact it is late at night. His blue robe hints at his family line and the lightly glowing dragonmark on his neck and face reveals his true nature. Zinter d’Cannith looks into a small mirror. He concentrates on it and speaks a few whispered words and the reflection grows dark. A low growl emits from it. “What do you want Cannith?”

“I am only two days away. I trust all goes as planned.”

“Yes. Soon you will have the shards you seek.”

“Good. Until we meet in person then.” And the mirror goes black again then once more reflective. Zinter sets the mirror down. And smiles. His plan moves along well. Nothing can stop him now.
 

JOHN PLAY
“PLAY TO WIN”
SEGMENT 17
“THE DOGS”

“We should reach the area the dragon spoke of tomorrow. Are you ….ready for that?” James asks as he looks to the morning fire.

“What do you mean, Ready?” Replies Shasta as she combs out her hair.

“We seek your brother. He is a ….killer and seems to be … killing uncontrollably. He may not be the man you remember.”

“Faith, James….. have some faith.”

“I don’t have faith in much but my own abilities.” He says with a shrug. “I guess it’s just a part of my job.”

“I figure you never guessed your “job” would involve traveling across the Eldeen Reaches into the mountains near the Demon Wastes. Kinda adventurous even for you.”

“Speaking of the Wastes…. We need to be careful. The Reaches can be very dangerous… and this section is more dangerous than the rest.”

“That is why I have hired you. Even in the wilderness, you can handle yourself – city boy.” Shasta teases.

They as much walk and lead their horses as they ride them in the rough terrain. It is very rocky and hard to traverse. A few broken dead trees exist among the large red tinted rocks and boulders. Steam and vapors seep through the cracks in the little exposed earth there is. Flakes of snow drift but melt before reaching the unnaturally warm earth.

James looks to the sky and sees a lone bird circling high above. “I wish I could see whatever that bird can see. I feel so exposed out here.”

“Why do you suppose my brother came out here? Why did Challah come to this damned place?”

“To hide? No one would ever come here looking for anyone or anything.”

The horse pulls at the reins being held by Play. “Easy boy. Something spooking you?”

“Does the horse know something you don’t?”

“The taste of oats and hay.” James begins to look about being mindful of his surroundings, especially the top of the slope they are reaching.

“Shasta….. be ready.”

“For what?”

“Trouble.”

Play releases the reins to pull free his bow.

He looks up and smells them before he sees them. He raises the now notched and drawn bow and arrow to the crest of the rocks they are near. “Trouble that doesn’t bath much.”

Growls can be heard as several large humanish barbarians rise to the crest of the rocks ahead of the travelers. They hold large spiked flails and wear a mixture of furs from animals of the region. Taking no chances John releases an arrow and quickly begins to fire as they surge forward. With three arrows in it, the lead barbarian continues to lead the attack. Shasta raises her arm and emits a blast of energy from her ring that resembles a golden ram’s head as it strikes another barbarian. It barely slows it down. The two of them find themselves facing twelve of the “human” barbarians.

Play drops his bow and swiftly withdraws his club that glows within his hand as it strikes the barbarian with three arrows in its chest. It growls and dies crawling at John’s boots. Shasta strikes at another barbarian with her Ring of ram but discovers the error of her ways as the barbarians surround her with one striking at her.

Play batters another barbarian several times striking key areas of the human anatomy until it drops. Absent mindedly he then swings and hits another. Shasta ignores the numbing sensation in her arm from the flail attack and castes a spell. The very rocks under the barbarians begin to shift and slide. A few look down dumbly then screech as black tentacles lash out from the rocks and grapple them. The four barbarians struggle under the tentacle’s pull.

John barely notices the magically tentacles as he jabs with the club and swats the barbarian three times across the face. The barbarian spits out broken teeth and gives a bloody smile and a grunt. Even as the tentacles squeeze and struggle with the barbarians Shasta castes another spell. Fumes from below a rock seem to burst into flame and gather into a ball. One barbarian pulls free of the tentacles but instead of retreating, it attacks the tentacles with its flail foolishly as it ignores the ball of fire forming behind it.

John is struck several times as the barbarians begin to concentrate on their hard to strike foe. Newly ticked off now he attacks again. The toothless barbarian is struck in the groin destroying any hope it had of children and even as it begins to cry out its throat is crushed by the upswing. A barbarian smiling at the groin shot to its companion is struck on the hand breaking several bones. The struggling barbarians are further constricted by the tentacles, a bone snaps on one. The free one dodges one tentacle and raises its weapon to strike at it then howls in pain as the sphere of fire rolls onto it igniting its soiled furs. The barbarians struggle with John Play but strike without mercy on the Sorcerer. They attempt to take her down and do successfully strike her several times. She keeps her wits about her enough to keep the flaming sphere attacking the barbarian and the tentacles holding down the others.

Play continues to pummel the one barbarian. Shasta’s spells continue to damage the four barbarians near her except for the two that have circled behind her. They miss as they are distracted by the screams and howls of the burning and the crushed. One more barbarian hits John but not enough to even bother him.

John breaks the ribs on the right then the left of the barbarian whom cannot understand why his heart has been pierced. Play then spins and strikes another between the eyes making them tear. The spells continue to punish the barbarians as Shasta debates whether to attack them further or attack the two remaining barbarians. The flail underscores her defenses making her wish she had redirected the ball of magical fire.

Play pummels a barbarian again even as the tentacles continue to crush three barbarians. The ball of fire rolls away from the one barbarian and strikes another near Shasta. The remaining barbarians begin to become uncertain of their victory. But irrational and chaotic emotions keep them in check as the resist fleeing the scene.

The distraction proves fatal to another barbarian as John crushes its head with a sickening crack. Even as the dead body begins to crumble Play strikes the last barbarian facing him. The spells continue to damage the barbarians. The only one not otherwise pressured snarls and threatens Shasta, showing its obvious fear of her magic but rushes at her anyway. She easily side steps him.

John grins and distracts the last barbarian then strikes the barbarian in the throat killing it completely as the head flops about as it falls and rolls down the rocky hillside. The barbarian has decided to leave. It spits at Shasta and moves up the hillside. John takes a deep breath and picks up his bow again. He walks to the crest to strike the barbarian down then stops. “uh-oh”

There are more barbarians gathered around a heat vent in the earth whom turn and look at the tumbling figure. Then their gaze rises to the lone figure holding a bow. Shasta can hear the screams of anger. “Time to go!”

“Our horses will not escape them, not on this uneven terrain. We make our stand here.”
 

JOHN PLAY
“PLAY TO WIN”
SEGMENT 18
“WAR AGAINST THE DOGS”

Shasta, by his side looks down at the twenty plus barbarians that are now grabbing weapons and beginning to move at them.

“Area spells?” Play asks as much as pleads.

“Like this?” and she weaves her hands in the air and murmurs a quiet incantation. A green bead forms and rises from her hand and suddenly races at the barbarian and has a fiery impact as it explodes and engulfs many of the barbarians before they have even reached the hill they stand on. Twelve of them are engulfed in flames with only one of them having ducked to take less damage. Their leader barks out orders and waves menencely as he commands them to strike. Three arrows strike a barbarian that happen to run before him taking the shots meant for him. He snares through his broken teeth at Play.

She repeats her spell and blasts them again. Most of them do not get up. Others flee or fall and roll while on fire. The leader grabs the hair of the injured barbarian before him and uses him as a shield as three more arrows strike the body. The barbarian smiles at his ingenuity and begins to move forward with the body.

The barbarian forces separate so when Shasta’s third and final fireball spell is released only a handful is struck. Concentrating this time, Play watches the lead barbarian’s legs instead. They are largely covered also by the flesh of his shield is thinner there. He aims carefully and releases. The arrow strikes the calf of the shield and then embeds itself into the foot of the leader whom howls in rage. The other barbarian have reached the base of the rise now and begin to claw and climb at the lose rock and roots of near dead saplings.

Black tentacles rise out of the rock at the base of the hillside and ensnare several barbarians even as they began to climb. “We really need to end this.” Play says as he puts his bow away and places his hand over the opening of his haversack. A wand with a red crystal appears and is grabbed by him. He smiles and begins to do an “enny-minny-mo….” Motion. If the barbarians see him they do not react.

The tentacles hold the barbarians at the bottom and others weave and hover hoping for a foolish target to drift too close. The leader rushes with a noticeable limp but then is blasted by a fireball from Play’s wand. At this point all of the barbarians are either on fire or held within the crushing grasp of the magical tentacles. They don’t last long.

And it’s all witnessed by a large black crow from a branch of a burnt dead tree.
 

JOHN PLAY
“PLAY TO WIN”
SEGMENT 19
“THE AIR SHIP”

Aryth 02

“I don’t like the fact that we faced them. There were signs of dung on their weapons and there is little for water here. Our wounds may become infected.” Shasta says while inspecting her arm once more. “The healing potions we used will heal the immediate injuries but not any disease from them.”

“Disease is the least of our concerns. Remember, we may be dealing with fiends. Their abilities range from nothing to fear and even possession.”

“Possession? Challah….could he have been…”

“I suspect so. Remember what Grysk said.”

Silence as she remembers the caves. “I don’t recall if I asked you but if he is possessed by that demon will you kill him?”

“Whisper. The demon’s name we gave it is Whisper. I hope not. Killing the host doesn’t do any harm to the fiend. It merely returns to its own body or travels to another body.”

“Look, it’s getting late, we need to search for a camp area for the night. Then we can talk more.”

Night comes early this close to the Demon Wastes. They do not make a fire. It may attract creatures and company they do not want. The air is cold but the ground gives off warmth. Is it underground thermal energies or is it an effect of the fiend’s nation whose border they are so near to? Both try not to wonder too long on it.

Still.

James cannot sleep. His mind is full of memories…… whispers of memories if you will. Memories of a lover with two colored eyes…. Of friends… of foes ….all with two colored eyes. Whisper. What does he know about this creature? Little. The people that follow this sort of thing within the Citadel believe it is a fiend that possesses people for both entertainment and power. It may be a female but it is not certain.

John’s knowledge of fiends is limited. He knows much about evil…. Mortal evil. But fiends…..

Huh?!?

John is staring into the night sky. He sees the stars but is in too deep of thought to appreciate them. Perhaps that is why he doesn’t see the moving star until it is close. He snaps out of the memories and stares at the moving star.

“Hello….. what is an air ship doing out here?” He rolls over to watch the ship dimly lit by the ring of fire that lifts and empowers it. It passes him and continues on to the mountains. “This just got interesting….”
 

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