Steel Dragon's "Tales of Orea"


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

Former master, Alaria thought to herself with a smirk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It appears so.” Kurklani calmly replied.

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

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

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

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Steeliest of the dragons

Alaria Staver marched down the winding cobbled street of the city of Hawkview. She had arrived in port that afternoon from the seven hour journey across the Whitegull Bay from her homeland in the Principalities of R’Hath. She turned down Canal Street, holding her head high as she obviously was passing from the more respectable neighborhoods. Alaria stared straight ahead, her right hand clenched around her staff shod at one end with iron and the other with silver. A high slit on the right side of her robe revealed enough leg to receive leers from a few men and disapproving glares from a few women. Alaria seemed to notice neither. Yes, it could easily be said that Alaria was an attractive woman.

She strutted with purpose in thigh-high boots, their short tapered heels clicking on the stones, a high-collared sleeveless robe of violet velvet and long dark brown tresses flowed behind her, enhanced by the occasional breeze coming up from the wharf. Her nose crinkled at the odor of the city. Thankfully the unpleasant smells of urban living were mixing and being replaced with salt and sea wafting up from the docks in the late evening air. Foul odors or no foul odors, Alaria was on a mission and she would see it fulfilled by day’s end.

Alaria noticed the evening guardsman lighting the street lanterns with his taper on a long pole. “Can’t even use magic for the simple things... barbaric.” she thought. A flick of her finger and the lamp across the street from the guard flared to a golden glow, its wick set aflame. She did the same to the next two she passed. The confused guard just looked after her and muttered a questioning “uh, thanks” under his breath, though Alaria was already well passed. Less than a day and Alaria already found herself with limited patience for these people of the Freelands.

She arrived shortly thereafter at the Street of Streets, as the apprentice at the guild tower who’d given her directions said she would, and turned right. She was still over a block from her destination when she noted the red sheathe above the door. The light and noise and scents coming from the building extended a few blocks. A cacophony of voices chatting, singing, music being played unmistakably pegged the place a lively tavern. When the small of roasting meats and baking breads met her nose, Alaria realized she’d barely eaten since arriving on the mainland. Her stomach grumbled a bit. Unperturbed, Alaria strode past the large bouncers at the great oaken doors and into the Ruby Scabbard.

Her staff still in hand, Alaria noted the number of armed people in the crowd. Swords, axes, bows in quivers, yes, and staves were the regular adornment with the clientele it seemed. Several wore armor also. Helmets rested on tables. She recognized at least three insignias of various religious orders. She was also stricken with the array of races. It wasn’t that Alaria hadn’t seen elves or halflings or dwarves before. They were a common enough site in a grand trade metropolis like Ablidon. But to have such a mixture under a single roof was something she hadn’t experienced before. She even saw a group of gnomes off in one of the side booths. They seemed to be enjoying a song, weaving shoulder to shoulder so as to spill much from their flagons. Alaria guessed they’d been in that booth for some time. She smiled to herself, finding companions to aid her mission should be easy enough here. But first, thought Alaria, some food.

After the crowd, the R'Hathi wizardess immediately noticed the inn's namesake. Mounted on the wall above the long bar has a great two-handed sword sheathed within a very large scabbard of crimson velvet entwined with thin straps of black leather. Down length of the scabbard, evenly spaced down the center, were encrusted five fist-sized rubies sparkled and gleamed in the flickering firelight of the inn.

As Alaria made her way to the bar, no small task without being shoved and bumped by elbows and shoulders. Those who noticed her, stared and moved from her path so that she barely had to excuse herself at all. A large burly human in chain armor nearly jumped from his seat at the bar to let her have it.

Braddok had noticed the young woman enter, as had several others. She was quite striking with deep large brown eyes and long dark hair in a purple robe that practically shown in the golden glow of the grand fireplace and candles in the cartwheel chandeliers. The staff and pouches hanging from her belt pointed to her being a mage, almost certainly.

He had been trying to imbibe less than usual until he could talk to Bobrik about getting his chums some work. He’d been in the city for a week and hadn’t gotten a single lead on any treasure to be had. He was glad he had so he could use his full charm on this lovely newcomer. If he could wrangle a mage into his group, the jobs would be sure to flow in.

“Here, my lady, sit here.” At his lead, several other patrons near Braddok did the same.
“What brings such a vision as yourself to this den of debauchery?”

Alaria cocked an eyebrow and smirked at this display.

“Interestingly enough, would you believe I’m looking for you?” she said blankly to the fighter.

Braddok couldn’t contain a laugh. “Surely, my lady, you tease a poor lonely man.” He reached his arm around the woman’s shoulder to which his hand received a swift tap with her staff. He quickly removed it.

“Try that again and you’ll find yourself retracting a tentacle instead of an arm.” She said pointedly.

Yup, thought Braddok. Definitely a mage.

She took the seat offer by Braddok, sizing him up in a glance. The chain shirt was under a tabard of pale blue. He had deep blue eyes and close cropped dark brown hair. A longsword hung from his belt and triangular shield with a black swallowtail falcon upon it sat next to his barstool.

“I am quite serious…if you can use that thing” she said pointing at his belt.

Some of the surrounding patrons who were listening in on the exchange burst into uproarious laughter. Braddok went beet red.

Alaria rolled her eyes. “Your sword? I mean your sword.” The magess looked desperately to the bartender for his attention. “I have had a very long day. I need too eat something and have a nice glass of elvish wine. While I do that, you can regale me with why I should hire you to escort me to the Laklands.” She looked down the bar impatiently at the admittedly very business lone bartender. “How does anyone get a drink in this place?”

Braddok could barely contain his amazement. This woman, this very attractive woman, a mage, sitting in front of him offering him a job. “Bobrik!” Braddok shouted down the length of room to the bartender. “Get this lovely lady a goblet of your finest elfvine and a bowl of your signature beef stew.” Upon which he thought a second and leaned into Alaria. “Uh. Do you like beef stew?”

Alaria contained a chuckle and simply replied, “Yes. Thank you. That’ll do nicely. Sirrrr…?”

“Braddok, my lady. Braddok Kar Barforth. And it’s not ‘sir.’ I’m not a knight…not yet. But my father was.” Braddok wanted to throw himself into the fireplace. Why had he just told her that? Acting the knight was what all the women swoon for. Stupid! “But I will be. Soon.”

Bobrik came over with a mug of ale, a bowl of stew and a hunk of dark grained bread. Alaria took a demure spoonful and was pleasantly surprised at the rich flavor. After a sip of her wine she was equally pleased. She slowly felt the unexpected tension of the past few hours and the long day of travel melt away. The air of comradery and casual warmth was something Alaria had not experienced in quite this way at home. She found it...enjoyable.

“Well, Braddok-Kar-Barforth-not-a-knight-yet. I am Alaria Staver of Ablidon. I am on an errand for my master to the Laklands and I require an escort who knows these lands and can handle their perils.”

“Braddok and company are at your disposal, Alaria Staver of Ablidon.” The warrior grinned.

He let the magess take her meal in relative peace. She took slight breaks to ask a question or two. Specifically, who was “and company”? The two passed some time in conversation, mostly regarding business. When Alaria had finished her meal and was ordering her second glass of the delicious elfvine, Braddok called over one of his fellows.

Introductions were made to Haelan Spurthistle.

Haelan was a halfling with bright hazel eyes, straw blond hair neatly trimmed at his shoulder and an enormous smile. He was dressed in a mail shirt covered with pine green tabard emblazoned with a golden pinecone, pale buckskin breeches that came to mid-calf in the hairfooted style and a hemispherical helmet that appeared just a bit too large for his head. A sturdy looking mace hung at his side (nearly the entire length of his legs) with a head that was shaped to appear like a very large pinecone.

With a broad toothy smile, Haelan took over his introduction, “Haelan Spurthistle at your service, Miss Staver. It’s such a pleasure to meet a real sorceress from the mage-lands. You know, I don’t think I ever have before.” Haelan stopped a moment, tilting his head to think. “Nope. You’re a first.” He said excitedly.

“Well, uh, thank you, Master Spurthistle.” Alaria attempted to be polite. She took a long draw from her goblet.

“Brother, actually.” Haelan interjected his smile unwavering. “Brother Spurthistle of the Hilltenders of Faerantha, but you can just call me Haely. All my friends do back home.”

“I see. Well, Haelan, I cannot say I’ve ever met a Hilltender of Faerantha before, myself.” Alaria replied. It was easier to maintain civility in the face of such unerring sweet friendliness with a little more elfvine. She took another sip.

“So I’m a first for you too!” Haelan exclaimed, beaming. “I can just tell that Faerantha’s blessing in going to be on this partnership. We’re going to become great friends.”

“Indeed.” grinned Braddok in a lascivious way.

“Tentacle.” said Alaria simply. Braddok’s leer quickly faded.

Shortly after, Braddok sent Haelan to retrieve another of Braddok’s company. A few moments later the halfling came bounding down the stairs to the commons. An elf followed behind him moving with fluid grace. He had a tightly toned and lean frame, sharply handsome features and thick grey hair that passed his shoulders and seemed to shimmer in the firelight like liquid silver. As the elf approached, Alaria could see his almond-shaped eyes were a blazing violet, making her robe seem dull in comparison. The elf wore a pair of tight pale grey stockings with a leather jacket of grayish-green trimmed in silver over a black undershirt and the soft brushed buckskin boots of his kind also dyed the grey-green. His grey hair was bound in an intricately carved circlet of silver that also caught the light of the chandeliers and candles and added even more of a sheen to his countenance.

The elf strode up to the bar, easily weaving his way through the noisy crowd without disturbing a soul.

“Alaria Staver of Ablidon, this is-“ Braddok began.

“Erevan Ryvsorai Aiiri of Miralosta.” The elf injected. He bowed slightly to Alaria, took her hand and gently kissed it. Alaria blushed in spite of herself. “Haelan tells me you’re our new friend.” The elf said as he looked deep into the wizardess’ eyes.

“Easy there, buddy.” Braddok interjected before Alaria could reply. “This is a professional arrangement.” Alaria snapped out of the depths of the elf’s eyes. She shot Barddok a dark look.

“Of course.” Erevan said, betraying no emotion. Turning to Alaria, he continued, “Eles ost ni araylla haali a tiirai la horia.” <elvish tanslation: “It is nice to see someone regal and civilized among these people.”>

Alaria gave the elf a civilized nod and replied with almost perfect accent, “Eles em ni aya, eres’kai Aiiri ef’hal.” < elvish: “It is my pleasure, Elflord of House Hunter.”>

Erevan smiled a close-lipped smile. “Your Elvish is very good. They teach you well in R’Hath.”

Braddok, looking to put an end to the conversation now interrupted Erevan, “Erevan here is our tracker. Very good eyes and very good with his bow. He does a little bit of magic too…” Braddok’s line of thought trailed off. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!

This, of course, set the two on a lengthy discussion of the use and working of magic and spells. Braddok ordered another ale and continued to mentally chastise himself.

As the crowd thinned, the four new associates claimed one of the round tables near the huge fireplace and continued to get acquainted. Alaria was careful to be vague about her task, only saying that she had an errand for her master in Welford and needed escorts. When pressed by the innocent inquiries of Haelan, Alaria did allow that she had to deliver a package to her mentor’s associate. But that was all.

Another hour passed. Many of the local patrons had returned to their homes. Many of the Ruby Scabbard’s guests had retreated to their rooms. The commons still held a few die-hard drinkers and a booth and table or two. Finally Erevan, who had been silent through much of the friendly banter, rose from his seat and stretched. “Well, Mistress Staver, I will take my leave of you this night. I trust we are done here and will all see you tomorrow?” The elf again bent a small bow and took Alaria’s hand for a kiss.

The magess rose from her seat. At this Braddok also stood. “Yes. Erevan is right. It gets late and we will have a long journey tomorrow. I should return to the guild tower for my rest as well. I will see you all mid-morning at the tower of the Alkari Fellowship.”

“I shall accompany you. You are new to the city and at this time, some streets may not be safe.” Alaria looked at the warrior disapprovingly. “Even for an accomplished wizard, such as yourself.” Braddok deftly finished.

Alaria consented to Braddok’s escort, saying it would be the final sealing of their arrangement.

“I’ll come too.” Piped up Haelan. Braddok turned and gave the Halfling cleric a scowl. Not taking no for an answer, the hairfoot continued, “If you walk her home, then who’s going to walk you back here? Hmm?”

“Til tomorrow then.”said Erevan. As the elf began to take his leave he stopped as he passed the large double doors. His head tilted ever so slightly and he rushed through the rest of the room and up the stairs. Braddok, Alaria and Haelan did not notice and continued out onto the street.
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Steeliest of the dragons
Finally a fight!

Once outside, the first thing Alaria noted was the bouncers both slumped next to the doorway. She rolled here eyes at the thought of them sleeping on the job. Then she heard the sounds.

A short distance from the door, a group of five or six dark-clad figures stood just at the edge of the light from a street lamp. They beat, kicked, taunted and berated something in their midst.

Alaria was appalled. They could overhear some of what was being said. “This is what you get.” “Yeh, he weren’t too happy to hear yer after his place.” “You ain’t never gonna be as good as Giles.”

Haelan immediately proclaimed. “Hey, you there! Stop that. What are you doing?”

The group of dark-clad men, started and turned to face the three. Alaria could now notice a small balled-up figure among them. With the break in the beating, the assaulted figure looked up and Alaria saw what appeared to be a battered bloody bearded face.

Seeing that it wasn’t actual members of the city guard, one of the group took a step toward them and said, “This is guild business. Not your concern. Keep movin’ if you don’t want some of the same.” For emphasis, the man smacked his club in his gloved hand.

At this Braddok, who really had an impressively large and well muscled physique, drew his sword. Haelan took a step in front of the wizardess and hefted his mace with the pinecone-shaped business end.

Alaria, not expecting or wanting there to be actual violence gave the one who spoke a dark glare and said, “You have made it our business by conducting it in the middle of the street! Now desist and leave that poor creature alone.”

More members of the group turned from the beaten dwarf to look at the would-be heroes. The “leader”, a ruffian of the first order named Goos, scoffed, “A half-pint, a lady an’ a sword ain’t gonna scare off the Dusk.” A few of the other men chuckled at this.

Braddok wasn’t sure what to do but maintained his threatening posture. He didn’t want to start trouble with the Hawkview thieves’ guild. Of course, he was leaving the next day for a while so… "Alaria, I think we should…” Braddok couldn’t finish the thought.

“Well, this ‘lady’ has a guild of her own and I trust you don’t want to toil with me and mine.” Alaria said with all the bravado she could muster. Then grabbing a handful of fine pink sand from one of the pouches at her waist she threw it in the direction of the group and shouted “Contro es amberall buul.” <spell: Sleep>

Bollux, thought Braddok.

A wind swept up around the R’Hathi wizardess as she spoke, blowing her hair and rustling her robe. With the end of the exclamation, two of the gang’s number dropped where they stood. They were breathing evenly but unconscious...asleep.

The others, looked at their comrades in disbelief. The one closest to the leader panicked, “Goos! She’s one o’ them wizards, Goos!”

Goos, was a fairly intelligent thief and not as easily shaken as his fellows. Goos thought quickly. He, in fact, did not want to start trouble with the mages’ guild. But figured he was in the right, since they started it and were interfering in his guild business. Besides, she might not be a guild wizard at all. He thinks she’s bluffing. “Man up, Sticks. There’s still only three of ‘em.” Goos whistled a loud but short pitch.

From the alley across from the Ruby Scabbard, two more figures who’d been shrouded in the late night darkness emerged. Braddok turned to face these men and noted from the corner of his eye that another two had emerged at the end of the block and were moving silently up along the edge of the street behind them.

Goos smiled and shrugged at the trio, “Had yer chance. Get ‘em!”

Goos and the other three thugs charged the fighter, halfling and magess. The trio formed up in a defensive position. Braddok wasn’t about to let anything happen to his potential meal ticket.

Haelan, in front of Alaria, took a nasty clobber to his shoulder and neck, but stayed on his feet. He deflected another blow with his round wooden shield. “See,” he mentioned casually to Alaria, “Braddok was right. Not safe.”

Goos took a swing at the large warrior with his club but Braddok evaded it. The fighter could not evade, however the follow up swing from the other thief with Goos, the one that had been called “Sticks”. His attack caught the warrior on his thigh. Fortunately, the lanky unkempt youth didn’t possess the strength to deal any serious damage, but Braddok knew there’d be a nasty bruise there tomorrow.

Alaria noticed the two thieves from the alley had blades drawn and were closing to fight alongside Goos. Looking at the two coming up on their rear, one had a club and one a long sword. She steadied her mind, utilizing her training to fight through the haze of the elf wine to recall another spell. She looked back at the door to the inn, surely someone would be noticing the commotion. Why weren’t the bouncers helping? The realization came to the wizardess that they must have been somehow incapacitated by the thieves. But why here?

Braddok returned Goos’ hard swing with one of his own but the thief easily dodged. He pivoted to face the approaching thieves from the alley. Braddok wondered how he would take on all four.

At that thought one of the alley thieves stopped dead in his tracks with a lurch and gurgle, an arrow sticking from the center of his chest. He dropped but his partner continued to advance. Braddok and Goos both swung around to see Erevan on the Ruby Scabbard’s roof. The elf gave the fighter a smirk and a wink as he nocked another arrow into his bow and turned to aim at the figures moving up the block.

Goos pointed and Sticks took off for the inn’s wall.

Haelan swung with a righteous might at of his attackers and connected with a knee-shattering crash with his mace. The thief cried out and fell to the ground. “Bad thief! Stay down. Evil doesn’t pay.” Haelan chastised.

Alaria took a hard swing over Haelan’s head with her iron and silver shod staff and succeeded in land a glancing blow against their second assailant. The rough looking thief in dark grey leathers simply sneered at her.

Goos drew a nasty looking dagger with a curved blade from the folds of his dark cloak and lunged at Braddok. The big warrior twisted to avoid a blade in the ribs but was caught across the large meaty bicep of his swordarm. The second thief from the alley also lunged with his dagger but was parried by the fighter’s sword.

The rough looking thief jabbed Alaria in the stomach with the blunt end of his club. The wind was knocked from her body and pain shot up through her body. She staggered back doubling over trying to put distance between her and the rogue.

The halfing answered with a swing that would have smashed the man’s face clear off, had he been able to reach it and had he actually landed his hit.

Alaria, gathering her resources and summoning her power, gulped to refill her lungs with air and forced herself to stand erect despite the pain still rippling through her innards. She held a hand up, palm to the rogue with fingers outstretched, her face like a stormcloud. The palpable tingle began to stir about her as she felt the magic energy rise.

The thief hesitated then lunged to disrupt her casting but before he could raise his club, Alaria spoke a single syllable that to the thief seemed to boom through his head like an explosion.

Yex.” (spell: Daze)

A bright white light flared from Alaria’s hand and dissipated almost immediately. The thief called out, reeled and staggered around, hands gripping the sides of his head. Alaria smiled, inwardly satisfied with what she was considering her newfound combat prowess.

Braddok swung again at Goos, who again evaded the blow. “Damn nimble, orcass.” The fighter thought. He heard a man cry out behind him followed by a cry of pain to his left. A quick glance showed one of the thieves, had an arrow sticking from his leg. But the thief kept his feet and would be upon Alaria in a moment.

“Alaria, behind you!” was all the fighter could do while parrying another duet of slashing daggers.

The wizardess barely had time to whirl around to see one of the “down the block” thieves was, actually, right behind her and ready to pummel her with his club when she heard a whizzing sound, very near her ear. As if by magic, the man shuddered and appeared to have a short end of an arrow sticking from his eye socket. Blood spurting from his eye and out of his mouth pelted Alaria’s gown as the man made a small sound, like “urk”, and fell stiffly to the ground dead.

Alaria suppressed her nausea at the sight of the blood splattering dead man and whirled back around to see the dwarf limping in their direction. His face was badly bruised, one eye almost swollen shut. A cut on his forehead still bled. He was clutching himself across the ribs with one arm and lowering his other which gripped a spent handheld crossbow.

Goos took an assessment of his people. Two dead, two wounded, one seemed to be hexed by the witch but looked unharmed otherwise, one unharmed, Sticks presumably dealing with the elf, and himself. Plus the two who were caught in the initial sleep spell who should be waking any minute. Then he saw the blood pooling beneath one of them. The other seemed to be bound in rope and was groggily shaking his head. The dwarf was up and coming at him with a ferocious look on his face. Goos made the call.

“That’s enough boys. They want the traitor so bad, they can have him.” He leapt back from Braddok’s final swing.

Almost immediately the able-bodied thieves retreated into the nearest shadows they could find and disappeared. The one who had been dazed was just coming too his senses and saw Goos heading up the street. He gave Alaria a snarling scowl and took off after him. Even the one with the broken knee had somehow slinked into the shadows and was gone.

The dwarf and Goos locked each other in a death-filled glare as the gang leader jogged passed him. From up the block he called back, “We find you in the city tomorrow an’ Giles’ll have you’re meat. Gottit, ‘Stumpy’? You an’ yer friends, better watch yerselves.” An arrow clattered harmlessly against the stone road near him. Goos just smiled then ducked around the corner, into the night.

Alaria, out of spells, was truthfully thankful for an end to the fight. She followed Haelan who immediately raced for the dwarf. Braddok, sheathed his sword and joined them, looking somewhat the worse for ware. “So, mid-morning tomorrow, then?” he managed to grin.

As Haelan led the battered dwarf into the inn they checked the bouncers. They were alive, breathing, seemed ok but unconscious. “Drugged.” says the dwarf. “They’ll be alright inna hour or so. It’s somethin’ the Dusk uses all th’ time.”

The party members make their guesses how the dwarf would know that.

Bobrik is not happy to see injured persons coming into his place of business, especially so close to closing time. “What happened?!?” the innkeeper exclaimed.

While Braddock explains the past few minutes, Haelan makes introductions and asks the dwarf, whose name is Duor, if he would permit the halfling to heal him.

“Knock yourself out.” says Duor.

Haelan calls upon Faerantha’s merciful blessing and with the soothing warm golden light flowing from his hands. After his healing spell is cast a second time, Duor is left with little more than a fat lip and slight bruise near his left eye.

Alaria tells Duor about their mission and plan to leave the city the following day. In exchange for his very nearly saving her life (or at least her health), she proposes to hire Duor for her escort. She also pays for a room at the inn for the dwarf to stay the night. This sounds ideal to Duor who is obviously touched by the offer. He readily accepts Alaria's proposal.

Erevan comes down the stairs with the same flowing casual grace which he had the first time Alaria saw him. He found a seat near to where the group had clustered and put his feet up on the closest table. “So, Alaria Staver of Ablidon, how are you finding Hawkview?”

Alaria looked at the elf, whose demeanor was more of someone to have just woken from a refreshing nap, in disbelief.

“I think Haelan’s right. Life with you will be interesting.” The elf stated matter-of-factly.

Shortly thereafter, the city guard barges in to demand to know about the disturbance that was reported and why there are dead bodies and a bound man out in the street.

Braddok and Alaria recount the events for the sergeant who takes down everything, furrowing his brow at the mention of the Dusk. On Bobrik’s word to their upstanding character, the guards leave the group alone. Problems with the Dusk are usually bad news, the sergeant remarks. They take statements from Duor and everyone involved in the fight, gather up the bodies (to which Erevan directs them to the roof for “one more”) and are on their way. The sergeant arranges for a couple of his men to escort Alaria back to the guild tower.

She thanks Bobrik for his help and hospitality and takes her leave of the Ruby Scabbard.

“Gods willing,” she says to her newfound company, “we will be leaving Hawkview behind before noon. Good night, gentlefolk.”

The males all nod a good night. “Sweet dreams!” Haelan adds sincerely with an energetic wave. They don't stay up much passed Alaria's exit.

As Braddok retires, he notices the dwarf staring absently at the bar. He says his good nights, adding a curt "welcome to the company" to Duor and heads up to his room.
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Steeliest of the dragons
The following morning, Alaria rose early and set one of the tower’s servants to procuring supplies for five people for a week’s trek. According to Broddick, there would be a fishing village about a week north where he is sure they could resupply.

The servant looks at Alaria confused. “Mistress, the Magister had me collect travel gear for you for three weeks and two people yesterday.”

“Did he? Splendid!” says Alaria. “Then just get supplies for three more then. One week each.” She figured the dwarf and the halfling could be counted as one person. She gave the servant boy 10 gold pieces. The boy’s eyes bulged at the sight of so much currency. “Be careful with it and don’t waste it. If you do well, I’ll let you keep some.”

“Yes, Mistress. Of course, Mistress. I’ll do just like I did for Magister Kurklani.”

Alaria washed and readied herself looking forward to putting the ugliness of last night’s altercation behind her. She dressed in her “traveling robe”, which was the same cut and style as her robe from the night before except it was dark golden color of thin woven wool instead of purple velvet. She ran the ivory comb, a parting gift from her mother, through her long dark brown hair. Her ears were adorned with dangling pendant earrings with small spheres of tiger’s eye set in the bottom. She donned her thigh-high boots and pulled up a pair of leather riding gloves that extended to the middle of her upper arm. They were dyed to match her boots. Thoroughly satisfied with her appearance, Alaria was ready to take on the day.

She was summoned to Magister Kurklani’s office and was shocked to find him in conference with a heavily armored man. He had long blond hair and green eyes. He was broadly muscled, though not as tall as Broddik, hardly taller than herself. The chain mail, shoulder plates and shin guards of his armor were polished to a gleam. The man turned as Alaria entered. His handsome face was clean shaven and blemish free. He did not smile nor frown nor betray an emotion of any kind. She also noted the immaculate crimson tabard lined in gold that flowed almost to his feet. The tabard was belted, the buckle of which also sporting a polished shine, and had the insignia of the Redstar Knights, a gold triangular shield emblazoned with a nine-pointed red star and flanked by to golden spears pointing upwards.

“Ah, good. Here you are. Alaria Staver of Ablidon may I present, Goldshield Coerraine of the Redstar Knights, your escort.” Kurklani said.

Alaria was slightly flabbergasted. “I, uh, thank you, magister. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Sir Goldshield. I, uh, I am honored to have one of Celradorn’s chosen guardians in my entourage.”

“Entourage?” questioned Kurklani.

Stricken with the lovliness of his charge, the Redstar Knight ignored the magister. “The pleasure is mine, Mistress Staver. I am honored to serve the Golden Defender and be called to your aid.” He bowed deeply.

Alaria returned the bow. “Thank you Sir Goldshield. I look forward to getting under way as soon as possible.”

“I am ready to go now. Your kind magister has seen to our supply needs. We may leave at your command.” The knight cracked a small smile, “And you may call me, Coerraine. Goldshield is my title and rank, you needn’t call me ‘sir’. I am a Redstar Knight of my lord and god, Celradorn, not a knight of any mortal realm.

“I see. My apologies, I meant no disrespect.”

“Not at all, Mistress.” said Coerraine.

“And you may call me, Alaria. I am no man’s ‘mistress’…yet.” Alaria smirked a naughty grin that she was hoping would make the young knight blush. She was not disappointed.

“Ehem.” interjected Kurklani. “Perhaps now, Alaria, you would be so kind as to explain this ‘entourage.’”

Alaria then went in to account the events of the night before. Kurklani was appalled and Coerraine seemed incensed at the idea of someone attacking a fine young lady, not to mention a cleric of the kindly folk of Faerantha. When she was done, Kurklani spoke.

“I see. Goldshield Coerraine would you be so kind as to excuse us. There are, I believe some fruits in the common area if you would care to wait there.” He said. He removed his spectacles and wiped the lenses with a bright blue silken scarf that had flown out of one of his billowing robe sleeves.

“Certainly, Magister.” The knight bowed at them both and closed the door behind him.

Having finished with his lenses, the silk scarf flew back into his sleeve. “Well, Alaria. I admire your determination to accomplish your mission and your initiative. I suspected you would find yourself a swordsman to travel with you, not four adventurers. So, I called in a favor with my friend Highshield Woton at the Temple of Celradorn and he sent Coerraine. Woton assures me that he is good with his weapons and as devout as any Redstar he’s seen in his thirty years with the temple. I also took the liberty, since you seemed to be in a rush, of acquiring you a horse for yourself, pack mule, tent, food and supplies for a three week journey. Naturally, the guild expects the use of the horse and mule back when you return. The guild is not prepared to shell out equipment for four more people!”

“It is done, Magister.” Alaria said as innocently as she could. “No cost to the guild at all. It is all taken care of. These men are experienced travelers and adventurers. They know how whata they’re doing.”

Alaria cringed slightly when she heard Haelan’s voice echoing through the outer hall of the tower. “Alaaariaaaa. We’re heeeere. Alaaaaaariaaaaaa.”

“Your ‘entourage’?” quipped the magister.

Alaria could only smile.

A short time later after the servant boy returned with more gear (and got to keep a whole gold and five silver pieces for his trouble), many introductions and a brief goodbye and well-wishing, the company was on the move.

Alaria rode astride the light grey dappled riding horse, ironically named “Lady” with her personal equipment in her saddlebags. This left Broddik, Duor, Halen, Erevan and Coerraine on foot.

The gear was carried by the men in backpacks or piled onto the poor mule who didn’t have a name. This, Haelan decided, must make the mule very sad. So after some consideration and many vetoes from his companions Haelan dubbed the mule “Lillypants.” When this brought gales of laughter, Haelan insisted. “It’s a good honest daelvar name of a good hardworking daelvar family back home.” Erevan decided, if Haelan named him, then Haelan could lead Lillypants while he went on ahead.

The group left by the northgate and followed the winding dirt road through the low hills and fields that surrounding Hawkview on three sides. Though not always visible, the occasional breeze smelling of sea air or lone gull reminded the party the ocean was only a hill or two away.

Conversation was light and included mostly talk of family and where they were from and what those lands were like.

Haelan, of course was the most forthcoming, being from the Free Hollows, a few days journey west from Hawkview. He’d visited the city several times in his years as an acolyte. But he had arrived in Hawkview only three days prior to Alaria. It was his first time since taking his vows as a fully initiated Hilltender that he had gone in search of adventure.

This surprised Alaria. “I presumed you and Braddok were old friends.”

“Nah.” Haelan responded between chewing large bites of an apple that he was sharing with Lillypants. “We met the first night I was in town, at the Ruby Scabbard.” Haelan did not notice the look of shock on the R’Hathi mage’s face.

“And Erevan?” Alaria asked.

“Same.” Haelan replied out of hand. “I introduced them, ya know?” the halfling munched away.

“No…I didn’t.” answered Alaria as her shock turned to horror as the realization sank in. This ‘company’ of accomplished adventurers whom she had hired to escort her and protect her life was actually all of two days old! Her face darkened and she began thinking of ways to repay Braddok.

Coerraine, it turned out, was originally from the southern kingdom of Mostrial. This Haelan found fascinating and bothered the young knight with endless questions based on the myths and rumors he knew of the southern realm. It seemed the aspiring devotee of Celradorn began his training in Talas Isthian, traveled with a retinue of a knight higher up in the Redstar hierarchy through most of the Freelands to Andril. En route they fell prey to a large band of bugbears. In that battle Coerraine earned his place as a true Redknight and upon their arrival to Andril was given his tabard and shield. From there, the new young paladin was sent to report to the temple in Hawkview under Highshield Woton. He’d been stationed there for about three months on the usual rotation for temple guard duty. He was thoroughly pleased to be getting out of the temple and city on a “real” assignment.

Braddok’s inquiries to Duor regarding his involvement with the Dusk and what they’d witnessed were met with taciturn responses. When Braddock asked who Giles was he received a bit more explanation.

“Gile’s is the head for the Dusk for that section of the city. He heard me sayin’ some things about being able to do his job. He took that to mean I wanted it n’ sent his goons after me.” Duor said.

“So you are a member of the Dusk?” Braddok said still not sure of the whole thing…or whether he could believe anything coming out of the dwarf’s mouth for that matter.

“No no! But won’t lie, I would have been. Last night was supposed to be my initiation. But then Giles decided he didn’t want me in, apparently.” Duor seemed lost in thought for a moment. He continued. “Which is fine by me! He can have his orcass stinkin’ city. I’m lucky you all came along. Show’d me the way, so to speak. Coupla world traveler adventure types like us, we’ll find enough treasure to live like kings n’ if I ever go back to Hawkview, I’ll just buy Giles’ gang right out from under him and make him kiss my bearded dwarven arse.” The dwarf nudged Braddok in the ribs.

Braddok shuddered at that last image. As much as the fighter liked the thought of finding treasure he felt the need to point out that they were currently acting as well-armed couriers.

“Bah. Details.” grumbled Duor. “Gotta start somewhere, eh?”

By the time they stopped for the night, the party had cleared the farmlands that comprised Hawkview’s immediate vicinity. It was a warm evening in late summer and the group enjoyed a meal of dried meat, cheese and the hearty dark bread common to the region. After establishing a watch (which did not include Alaria) they hunkered down for the night. All of them except Coerraine were still spent from their late night run in at he Ruby Scabbard.

The days and nights began to pass by. The dirt road dwindled down to little more than a path through the fields and wilderness. Erevan took various amounts of time each day scouting far enough ahead that he was often lost to the sight of the party. One afternoon, the path rose up a large hill and wound to the edge of a sharp cliff that look out over the Whitegull Bay. Alaria thought she could make out the shoreline of R’Hath along the other side. She pointed it out to Haelan, who had proven endlessly fascinated with Aralia’s magic-rich homeland. The halfling was disappointed he couldn’t see it. After three days of cleared skies they endured an afternoon and evening of thunderstorm. By the fifth day, the sun was again clear and bright in the late summer sky.

On the sixth day, the party neared the village Braddok had said they could resupply. But before they reached it, there was a bit of a problem.


Steeliest of the dragons
Mid-morning on the group’s sixth day, they found and began to follow a path that obviously received some regular use. Erevan, as usual, had sprinted ahead to scout. The group assumed what had become their standard marching order. Braddok in the lead, followed by Coerraine who kept himself ahead of the mounted Alaria, Haelan leading the mule, Lillypants brought up the rear with Duor generally floating among them. The dwarf sometimes went unnoticed altogether for a time but as soon as someone mentioned his whereabouts, he would pop up from the rear or some nearby brush.

Braddok surmised the fishing village he had been told about should be reached by midday. Alaria was irritated to hear that the warrior had not actually been to this village before, himself. She needed to stop taking things the charismatic fighter said as fact. Her ire mellowed when he explained it was Bobrik, the innkeeper of the Ruby Scabbard, who had told him about it. At least she believed she could trust him, Alaria thought.

A sharp warbling whistle sounded through the air and Braddok, at the lead, raised his arm to halt the party. Alaria was snapped from her thoughts at the sound of Erevan’s signal. She found herself with an odd shiver of worry at what might be before them.

A moment later, Erevan came racing from the path ahead.

“Goblins.” The elf stated simply in a hushed tone. “Lots of them.”

“Define ‘lots’, please.” Offered Duor.

“Seems like a war party. Two score at least. All armed. Some mounted on zarx. Carts of supplies. Banners and shields seem to be flying something that looks like a bloody talon. Probably a tribe called the ‘Red Claw’ or some such.”

“Bollux.” said Braddok. After a week’s time on the road, the warrior was spoiling for a fight but he had no intention of ending up with his head on a goblin pike.

“Look like any treasure?” Duor again inquired. This gleaned him a few disapproving looks, Alaria included. “Whuh? Spoils of war? So we know if they are on their way to a battle and not coming from one.” Duor explained.

This allayed the disapproving looks and Alaria conceded that the question made sense. Erevan confirmed that he could not say for sure but did not believe so. The carts he saw seemed piled up with supplies, not swag.

“Milady,” injected Coerraine, “is it not our duty to waylay these villains to their undoubtedly sinister purpose?”

“We should stop them.” chimed in Haelan. For which he received a glare of disapproval from Braddok. “But, my good Goldshield, we are a company of six. A handsome and feisty six, if I do say so. But six, nonetheless. What can we do to a whole army?”

“Our duty, Master Hairfoot, does not allow for such questions. Our faith and honor will feed our cause and fuel our strength to see justice done for the good of the realms.” The paladin retorted, half responding to Haelan and half arguing his position to Alaria who ultimately had the final call, the Redstar knight realized.

“Our duty, Goldshield Coerraine, is to see my errand to Welford fulfilled which will be mightily difficult to complete if we are dead.” Alaria said with a chill in her tone. “And your specific duty, at the moment, is to see that I arrive to Welford alive.” Seeing the golden haired paladin’s obvious disappointment, she continued more gently “I agree, Coerraine. Please understand that. I would see this evil stopped, but we have other business to complete. Also, Haelan is correct.” The halfling perked up at this mention. “We are no match for such a large force.”

“There are…subtle ways, Alaria, to harry a superior force.” Duor offered. The wizardess shot the dwarf a scowl.

Alaria ignored the dwarf’s suggestion. “Erevan, how far ahead are they? Do you think we can avoid them long enough to make it to our destination? We can alert the authorities and they can, perhaps, handle the vermin. At least they will be on alert should they be a potential target.”

Erevan nodded. “They are a fair bit ahead of us, but do move more slowly. They seemed to be tracking off to the northwest. If we move a bit east I don’t think we should have any problem.”

“Very well.” Alaria said flatly. “Erevan and Duor, you may continue to track the goblins another mile or so and then head east and find us at the village. The rest of us will continue there directly.” and shied Lady off the path they’d only followed a short way. “And Duor, no ‘subtle ways.’ I don’t want any attention drawn in our direction.” With that, Alaria began heading northeast.

Braddok turned and gave Erevan a shrug as he trudged off after the horse and mule. The elf looked at the dwarf. The dwarf looked at the elf.

Duor broke the slightly uncomfortable silence. “Well, let’s go to it, point-ear.” He stepped aside and bowed slightly with an exaggerated flourish. “Lead on.”


Steeliest of the dragons
the ambush

The group had been separated for about a half an hour. Braddok was on point. He led Coerraine, Alaria atop Lady and Haelan leading the over-encumbered pack mule, Lillypants. Erevan and Duor had been sent to reconnoiter the large goblin warband which (thank the gods, thought Alaria) was moving away from their location.

Alaria breathed in fresh salty sea air that blew her hair, even lifting Lady’s mane slightly. They had found a small tributary heading east that obviously was flowing straight to the ocean. From there, they surmised, it would be a simple thing to follow the coast north to their hoped for destination (a fishing village where they intend to resupply for the remaining journey into the Lakelans.) The sun was quickly approaching its zenith. She was about to ask Braddok how much further he believed they had to travel when everything turned to a blur.

Two goblins leapt out from some underbrush shaking spears and hooping and shrieking in their savage tongue. They were behind Braddok and Coerraine, immediately in front of Alaria’s mount. The generally calm mare reared high in shock and surprise, flaring nostrils and flailing hooves. Alaria, equally surprised, was unable to maintain the reigns and tumbled (ass-over-backwards) from the rearing horse hitting the ground hard.

Coerraine turned at the commotion in time to receive an arrow in his shoulder blade from another assailant. Turning again, he noted an archer atop a hillock a few yards ahead. A second bowman was also reaching for an arrow to reload. Coerraine noticed an arrow embedded in the ground near Braddok.

“Ambush!” announced Braddok, his blade singing from its sheathe.

“Archers there.” shouted Coerraine as he pointed with his spear (and quickly winced at the pain shooting through his shoulder). The spear’s polished steel and crimson eight-pointed star of Celradorn at the base of the blade shown brilliantly in the almost-midday sun.

Braddok began to move forward. His large muscled legs quickly removed the distance between himself and the bowmen. Before he could reach the hill, however, a large goblin with a chipped hand axe, wooden shield and decidedly nervous look on its face burst from a bush into his path.

Unable to engage the ranged attackers, not to mention concern for his charge, Coerraine intercepted one of the spear-wielding goblins behind him. “Haelan, get to Alaria!” the young Redstar Knight commanded.

The other goblin who had spooked Lady deftly avoided the horse’s hooves and circled around to where Alaria lay on the ground. It smacked Lady’s hindquarters with its shoddy wooden plank shield.

The horse gave another shrieking neigh and took off down the path ahead of the party. A few barking goblin shouts later (sounding distinctly of disapproval) and another unseen assailant broke from the undergrowth to chase the fleeing horse.

Haelan dropped the mule’s reigns and rushed forward to protect the fallen mage, their fallen employer. As he did so, he narrowly avoided a swing from a wicked looking axe as another goblin burst from the bushes along the stream very near him.

Not taking a moment to size up his opponent, Haelan continued to where the young wizardess lay on the ground. “Are you hurt?” the halfling said. His voice was full of sincere concern.

“No, I’m alright. Just shaken.” Alaria responded. Rubbing her head with her hand as she shakily began to stand.

Haelan turned to stand between Alaria, the goblin with the spear and, now, another with an axe. After a brief glare of fury at the two enemies, he closed his eyes. The anger and scowl melted from his face and a look a complete tranquility caressed the rounded halfling features. Setting the pinecone-shaped head of his mace on the ground, both hands calmly resting upon the butt of the weapon, a quiet prayer began to hum from his lips.

Deisa Faerantha, ep localis sanctum a spiritaii.” <spell: Sanctuary. Clerical magic in Orea is cast in the language of Old Selurian: “Holy Faerantha, let this place be a sanctuary to your devoted follower.”>

At the completion of his entreaty, a momentary circle appeared on the ground surrounding the priest and wizardess in a band of silvery white light. It flared into view and was gone in an instant.

Taking the advantage to the halfling’s lowered weapon, both goblins rush to the attack only to be halted with a sudden shock of silvery light.

“Nice spell.” Alaria conceded. The beaming almost ever-present smile of Haelan Spurthistle, Hilltender of Faerantha, returned to the halfling cleric’s face.

The goblins gave each other a confused look. The one took another swing with his axe, the weapon halted in mid-swing with silvery sparks accompanied by the sound as if scraping across metal. With a shrug, the two moved away to go engage the warrior and paladin.

Coerraine had easily dispatched the goblin with a spear. He thought he caught a glimpse of silvery light out of the corner of his eye and turned to see the other spear-wielder and another goblin with an axe moving from where the halfling and Rhathi mage stood.

Braddok traded blows with the large axe-wielding goblin who had blocked his charge to the archers. The grayish-green creature looked much less nervous since getting in a solid strike against the much larger warrior. It ran its tongue across the mouthful of sharply jagged teeth. Braddok, ignoring the pain in his side where the axe had bitten him, swung again at the goblin. The confident creature realized it should have kept up his guard as Braddok’s long sword deftly swung around the wood planks of its shield and sunk deep into its torso. The thick goblin blood, so dark as to appear almost black, poured from the wound and the axe and goblin dropped to the ground.

Alaria went to move to aid her companions but Haelan stopped her. He explained that his protective field was stationary. If either of them moved beyond it or attacked from within, the divine blessing would cease.

“But they’re taking our supplies.” Alaria remarked with despair. She pointed back at the pack mule who was in a tugging match with another goblin who had grabbed its reigns and was trying to drag the reluctant mule back into the underbrush. The now struggling and cursing goblin had gotten her a few steps away from the melee but entering the undergrowth was proving a bit more difficult.

“Lillypants!” Haelan cried in horror. The halfling hefted his mace with the pinecone-shaped head and dashed towards the mule. A momentary flash of silvery white light caught the attention of the priest and wizardess. Haelan stopped in his tracks, turned sheepishly to Alaria and muttered, “Oops.”

Alaria simply rolled her eyes and turned back to the fighters. “Help your girlfriend.” She said casually. “I’m going to see about ending this.” Haelan resumed his charge at Lillypants’ attempted kidnapper.

Coerraine ran threw the other spearman and caught a solid blow on his shield (also emblazoned with the red eight-pointed star of the god of battle and guardians) from the axe-wielding goblin. Whirling his spear over his head, the young paladin invoked Celradorn to smite this evil foe before him.

With all of his might, the budding Redstar Knight brought the spear down, shattered the edge of the goblin’s wood shield and effectively skewered the creature where it stood. The weapon entered through its neck and jutted from its lower back with the spear tip dug into the ground behind it. Coerraine jerked the weapon free with a prayer of thanks to his god.

Haelan charged the goblin attempting to steal the pack mule with a throaty battlecry. At this, the goblin dropped the reigns and with a sneer drew a serrated short sword. Without a chance to even bring it to bare, the sword fell from the goblin’s dead hand, a pinecone shaped concavity in its skull. He reached for the mule’s reigns and stroked its neck calmly.

“I’m sorry you had to see that.” the halfling apologized. Lillypants just turned to look at the scene of carnage along the path they had been following and brayed.

Braddok was mounting the small hill from which the archers had been trying to pelt him with arrows. Whether it was the high bright sun, the substandard quality of goblin bows and arrows or just poor shots, the dark-haired warrior didn’t take a hit.

Seeing the rest of their companions felled and the angry looking human with a large bloody sword nearing their position, they let fly two last shafts (one each) and turned to flee.

Some quick healing for Coerraine and Braddok and the group headed off with some haste, hoping to catch up with Alaria’s mount. A short time later, they saw Lady calmly sipping from the stream. The goblin who had chased her was nowhere to be found and the group remained alert but doubted the foolishness of the goblin to try to assault them by itself.

“Unfortunately,” worried Alaria, “those that escaped will return to their band. We may be facing those overwhelming numbers yet. Not to mention imperiled the village we are heading towards.”

“I doubt it.” Braddok replied. “That was a foraging party, I bet. Their leader won’t double-back with all of his forces to deal with a small group who obviously routed them badly. The ones that got away will probably be punished for their failure and the war party will continue on their way.”

Alaria said nothing. She hoped she could trust his assessment.

An hour or so away, two figures moved north and west through the hills and finally into some thicker woods before slowing to a normal pace.

“At least,” one of the goblins said to his fellow, “maybe Karg got the horse for meat.” <translated from goblin> Alas, when the archer next saw Karg, he was empty handed.

The Master would not be pleased.


Steeliest of the dragons
The group wound their way through dunes, some rising higher than Alaria could see from atop her mount. After their earlier ambush from the goblins, the four travelers were on edge until they broke though the dunes to the wide flat beach and glittering sea before.

A short distance up the beach from them a long pier struck out into the dazzling aquamarine water. A few small fishing vessels bobbed and swayed with the low calm waves that found their way to the shore. Beyond the pier was a collection of wooden structures of all built upon pilings above the sand and seemingly connected by raised walkways. Near the water’s edge, a collection of children were splashing and playing in the afternoon surf. Once noticing the party, they all stopped and stared for a few moments before heading off at top speed toward the raised village.

The afternoon sun glinted off the crystalline water as another breeze of salty air washed over the travel and battle weary adventurers. Alaria couldn’t help smiling to herself at the natural beauty of the place. She noted, from her raised vantage point, that a bit out into the ocean, beyond the edge of the pier, a long sandbar seemed to run parallel to the coast quite a ways. She also saw a large rocky outcropping that rose up north of the village. A structure of some kind sat atop the precipice of the outcropping overlooking the water.

The party continued on past the pier and made their way among the raised wooden buildings and walkways. An older man, mostly bald but still possessing a laurel-wreath of wispy white hairs, came from one of the larger structures and hurried along the walkways to meet them. He was plump and very tan with a scruffy beard of white whiskers cradling his rounded chins. He wore a fine billowy-sleeved shirt of pale blue with clamdigger-style breeches of a natural hue. A large medallion around his neck glinted in the afternoon sun.

Two other men, one middle-aged and bearded and one younger, both tanned with sun-bleached hair came behind him carrying harpoon-like spears.

“Hail to you, noble travelers. Well met and welcome to the village of Shoal. I am Elder Bundo.” the plump older man said with a broad bright smile.

Haelan, smiling just as brightly, decided immediately that he liked this place.

Braddok stepped forward, “Hail to thee Bundo of Shoal. I am Braddok Kar Barforth. My companions and I are on errand to the hamlet of Welford and seek accommodations and supplies to further our journey.”

Alaria looked about and noticed glances from behind corners and shaded windows. The people she did see about the walkways and moving between buildings stared at them quite obviously…Alaria also noted that other than the men they spoke with, she saw mostly women and children. Not to mention the entire village simply sat within this dune-surrounded beach. No walls. No obvious defenses. “So much for relying on the local authorities.” She thought to herself.

Turning toward the ocean she noticed the sandbar, just barely visible beneath the ebbing tide, seemed to run the whole length of the beach from the pier, creating a very calm and brilliantly turquoise-colored lagoon before the whole village. She also caught the end of another pier extending out nearly to the sandbar, partially concealed behind a jetty of rock at the northern edge of the buildings.

Bundo was also surveying as Braddok made his introductions. A Redstar of Celradorn, a hairfoot and the lovely lady was obviously someone of importance, her dress and accoutrements were obviously R’Hathi making her almost certainly a mage. They were a strange congregation indeed.

“Welford? That’s quite a ways distance yet…much further inland.” the Elder gave the armed strangers a sidelong look.

“Bobrik of Hawkview told us how to find your fine village and that we might find some solace here.” Braddok offered.

“Bobrik, eh?” said Bundo with a twinkle in his eye. “Heh heh. That rascal. I suppose you’ll be wanting to talk to Elder Kama, then?”

“Um…” began Braddok.

“Who’s Elder Kama?” Haelan asked with his glowing smiling and boundless innocence.

“Who’s…? Ah. Well, nevermind that then. You are all welcome to Shoal. As you can see, we are a village of meager means, but what services and supplies we have I am sure we can do business.” Elder Bundo concluded. “You may tie up your animals back there, behind the public lodge.” Bundo pointed to the largest structure among the village buildings, sitting furthest from the waterline. While it too sat on pilings it was only about three feet off the ground with wide steps that led to the sand. “I’m sure Penny can help you out with acquiring other things you might need. He runs the general store n’ tackle shop down by the pier. I’ll send someone to find you when I’ve arranged your lodging.”

Coerraine, somewhat aggravated by Braddok’s omission, now chimed in, “We also have some harrowing news.”

Elder Bundo raised a bushy white eyebrow.

Coerraine continued, “On our way to your village, our scout observed a rather large band of goblins moving to the north and we, ourselves, were set upon and defeated a troupe of their scouts not far from here.”

“Goblins, eh?” Bundo rubbed his whiskered chin. “Well, we have no worries there.”
Coerraine looked confused. Alaria, confessed to herself, she was as well.

“The Shoal Spirit will protect us.” Elder Bundo said matter-of-factly. “Still, I should probably bring it up with the other Elders.” He turned to return to the lodge from which he’d arrived and turned back. “You can tell your tale to Elder Kama for me.” he said half-asking and waved a hand dismissively towards the large rock outcropping and the structure there. “He’ll be at the temple, no doubt.”

With that Elder Bundo returned about his afternoon business.

The party looked at each other, puzzled. “Shoal Spirit?” Haelan said aloud. “You don’t suppose they have an actual restless spirit of the dead roaming this lovely place, do you?” the stalwart cleric seemed a bit nervous.

Alaria shrugged, “I suppose we can ask Elder Kama.” Though it was only about a week since leaving R’Hath and, technically, she was still on errand for her former master Alaria did not take kindly to being given what she perceived as orders...especially from strangers.

They found a group of pens and raised structures serving as stables and barns, as Bundo had said, behind the large public meeting house along the dunes. They found a youth who was, apparently, working there to unload and watch their belongings and give them details directions on how to get to the temple up on the jagged rocks.

The boy informed them that if they wanted to find Elder Kama this time of day, they’d be better off just going to “the north beach” (the beach north of the village, beneath the temple). “Elder Kama,” the boy asserted, “always takes his afternoons communing with the sea and the Shoal Spirit.”

With a few silver pieces for his trouble, the group began the trek to the north beach. Following the raised wooden walkways was easy enough but when they got to the edge of the village, not all of the building were connected and so they had to trek in the sand. Coerraine, especially, in his metal armor and shin guards was particularly warm and uncomfortable with same grinding between his armor and boots and eventually noticing sand in his boots.

Haelan, as one might expect, thought it was just wonderful to be trapsing barefooted through the warm white sands. “Isn’t this place great…I mean unless there’s a spirit. Well, unless it’s a good spirit, I suppose. But I’m not sure if that’s ok with Faerantha. Seems to me a restless spirit would need to be put to rest…” this one-sided conversation want on for some time. The rest of the party had come to just let Haelan talk until he was done. It was just easier that way.

Coming over the raised dunes that gave ay to the rocky jetty, the group looked out over another picturesque stretch of beach. At the northern edge of this beach was the outcropping atop which sat the “temple.” It was more easily seen now and was ornately crafted with carvings around the edge of the roof and pillars and walls painted in blue, green and white. At the based of the outcropping was the beginning of the long pier Alaria had noticed before that stretched out, almost impossibly far into the sea to end in a large open aired pavilion nearly even with the sandbar, though the sandbar ended before the north beach, about even with the jetty. Without the sandbar’s protection, the north beach had tall cresting waves that came to the shore in a crash of churning white foam.

About halfway to the outcropping stood two figures on the shore, just beyond the reach of the water before it pulled itself back into the churning sea. As they neared, both figures’ heads turned sharply to observe the approaching individuals. They were both shirtless and quite tan with tightly toned bodies. Tangled mops of sun-bleached hair, only barely still blond that hung to their shoulders. Their lower halves were covered in wraps of pale blue-green fabric with white trim and they held some similarly colored cloth bundled in their arms. Without a word, their heads turned back out to look at the waves.


Steeliest of the dragons
Elder Kama

Braddok, having decided he was the party spokesman, approached the two identically tall youths from behind. “Hello. Can you tell us where we can find Elder Kama?”

“You are the strangers.” said one of the boys in a tone belaying no surprise.

“The Tidemaster said you would arrive today.” said the other. His voice was also even, almost hypnotic.

“The rest are here now, as well.” said the first boy.

Neither youth turned to face the party as they spoke.

“Ho there!” came a shout behind Alaria. She and the others turned to see Erevan and Duor making their way down the beach to join them. The elf moving with his usual cat-like grace barely seemed to disturb the sand as he stepped. He raised a hand in “hello” and smiled slightly. The dwarf, on the other hand, seemed to have a bit of difficulty managing the shifting earth beneath his booted feet and stumbled more than once as Alaria watched.

Haelan waved at their returning companions enthusiastically and then scampered off to the water’s edge. He stood with his feet in the last laps of the crashing waves. The halfling looked out over ocean and smiled to himself enjoying the cool but not cold water playing over his sandy toes.

“Who is the Tidemaster and how did he know we were coming?” questioned Coerraine. Something about these teens made the Goldshield uncomfortable.

At this, the boys heads turned just enough to view Coerraine out of the corners of their eyes. “Tidemaster Kama, of course.” said the one who had spoken first before. Their heads turned back to the waves in unison.

As a wave swelled Haelan gasped and pointed. “Look there!” exclaimed Haelan. A figure floated in the ocean and rose up with the wave.

The party watched as the wave rose higher and higher, a crest of white foam forming and balancing precariously at its top. It was as if the man were dead. His eyes were closed. He floated on his back, a mane of long hair seemed to surround his head in a great halo of white and a long beard bobbed and floated in all directions from his chin nearly to his waist. His body, like everyone else they’d seen in Shoal, was a deep golden tan. He was wiry thin with long lanky limbs struck out from beneath the cloud of floating white hair.

The wave moved closer and closer to the shore, rising higher than any the group had noticed since they arrived. The wave began to crest and the figure of the old man simply floated along the edge, bending with it.

“He’s gonna get pulverized.” said Duor under his breath. Braddok nodded his agreement.

The wave crashed down, a torrent of white and green seafoam churning and roiling up to the shore. The water came to an end at the boys’ feet and with the soft fizzing sound of millions of foam bubbles breaking the water slid back into the ocean. There was no sign of the old man. The youths did not so much as flinch.

“There!” shouted Haelan, pointing again, just as Braddok was thinking about rushing into the sea.

Out, practically where the wave had begun, floating effortlessly along the top of the water was a small lumpy cloud of white.

“Is it..Should we..” Braddok said frantically, looking to his companions. He felt sure they needed to do something but wasn’t sure what.

Then the old man’s head popped up and looked at the shore. He waved and then rose, in an even smooth movement, to stand on the water! His thin tan form, under long sopping strands of white hair and beard, stood straight as a swell of ocean rose and seemed to carry him towards the shore.

Even Alaria’s eyebrows rose in surprise. The whole party, including Erevan, watched in awe.

As he neared the water’s edge, he called out, “Ah, you’re here. Hail and well met! You’re right on time.”

He strode as easily from the water to the sand and walked up to the two youths, at which they parted. Alaria could see their faces for the first time and realized they were twins, young but handsome, looking to be in their mid-teens. Around their necks, each wore a choker of puka shells with a large round flat gleaming-white shell dangling from it like an amulet. On closer inspection, she noticed the shell was etched with the image of cresting waves, the symbol of the goddess Tyris.

One boy held out a robe that began in a pale green that darkened in hue as it moved down to a very dark green. At about mid-thigh, the green was broken with arcing white lines in a cresting wave pattern and below that a rich blue.

The other bore one of the wraps like the ones the youths wore themselves which would be used to cover the Tidemaster’s lower half beneath the robe.

With a nonchalant motion of his hand and arm, water began to flow off the dripping old man, from his body, his beard, his hair, water trailed off of him and coalesced into a growing sphere hovering above the old man’s open palm. When he was completely dry, the Tidemaster tossed the sphere of water back into the sea.

“Thank you, Dihm” he said simply, taking the pale green waist wrap and, Alaria thanked the gods, covering his gaunt lower half which had been barely concealed beneath a simple loin-covering. “Will you go inform Dartha we will be having guests for supper.”

The sun-bleached mop of hair nodded slightly and the youth took off effortlessly jogging down the beach to the outcropping and temple.

Donning his robe and allowing the boy to tie the similarly wave patterned belt-sash, the old man from the sea addressed the party again.

“Again, welcome. I am Kama, Tidemaster of Tyris and one of the Elder’s on the village council. Now tell me, who are you and what brings you to Shoal? You certainly are a diverse group, aren’t you?” he smiled at Haelan who returned it, naturally.

This led to another round of puzzled looks. Braddok again took the reigns, “Forgive me, um, Tidemaster, but your attendants seemed to indicate that you were expecting us?”

Kama chuckled, “Well, yes. You see, the goddess, blessed be Her depths, gifted my meditations with a vision of a group of strangers who would be arriving in Shoal. She did not, however, provide names or specifics. The depths of the currents are often unfathomable.” Kama smiled kindly.

“Come, come. We may talk as we walk.” and he began to walk towards the large rock outcropping. The other twin fell in behind him to the right and Braddok strode to his left and began to tell the elder priest everyone’s names. Kama turned to view and nod a bow of greeting to each member as they were introduced.

Braddok then went on to inform Tidemaster Kama of their conversation with Elder Bundo and their news of the goblin warparty. Kama seemed to scowl at the news but listened to Braddok’s accounting of their battle with the scouting party in which he was the primary hero.

They climbed the rocky protrusion in the extending evening shadows via a path that, to the outside observer, was concealed behind a “railing” of jagged natural rock. It wound lazily up the rocks until it let out upon the surprisingly flat top.

Up close, the temple was quite a sight. Carvings of hippocampi and dolphins and merfolk surrounded the swooping blue-and-white-tiled roof.

The group moved around a large fountain centered before the temple’s main doors. A quartet of dolphins spurted water into the air from their bottle-nosed mouths that fell into large clam shells being held by mermaids before spilling from these dishes into the circular basin. Various groupings of shells and smooth multi-colored stones sat about the fountain’s edge.

Beside the main doors were two large statues of dark green stone carved with fierce visages of half-lion half-fish creatures. Beneath one paw of each was a large sphere the size of a man’s head. They shimmered like pearls.

At first, Duor’s eyes nearly flew from his head until he collected himself reasoning that there is absolutely no way they could be real actual pearls. Still, he thought, might want to check with some of the clergy hereabouts to make sure. His eyes lingered but he kept up with the group as they entered the temple.

Through the gates, a long rectangular wading pool filled most of the central courtyard. Lily pads and koi fish were visible in the serene glass-like pool. The party saw a couple of acolytes, dressed in the waist wraps and adorned with the shell necklace holy symbols like the twin boys. The women covered their chests in a wrap of similar material, some pale green some pale blue. They gave the group passing glances and continued about their work and meditations.

Around the walls and pillars were painted frescos of cresting waves about 5 feet off the ground. Below the waves, images of fish and crabs and squid, all manner of sea-creatures adorned the building. Haelan fell behind several times studying the images and made mental notes to ask Elder Kama what some of the creatures were. The rest of the party also marveled at the beauty of the sanctuary to the sea goddess.

Duor, however, began feeling somewhat sick. The wave motif that surrounded the walls, inside and out, gave the dwarf the illusion of being actually under the water’s surface. He concentrated on the solidness of the blue and white-tiled floor beneath his feet and his stomach seemed to calm.

“Your temple is quite beautiful, Tidemaster.” Haelan offered. “Very soothing. The power of the Sea Mistress is indeed present with you and your followers.”

“Thank you, Haelan. It is, isn’t it? Blessed be Her depths.” Kama replied. They were then rejoined by the acolyte, Dihm, who had apparently completed his errand.

Kama led them into a good sized room which appeared to be his office. Three large windows looked out over the sea and the village. From this vantage, the sandbar was easily visible and the tide had gone out far enough that the very center of it had broken the water’s surface in a jagged thin line along its center.

Alaria also noted from their elevated view that a few small fields and rice patties stretched behind the dunes in the limited space before the trees of the forest became thick. Given the hour, workers from those fields were returning through the dunes to the village as she watched. But there were not many and Alaria could not tell at her distance whether they were men or not.

Tidemaster Kama dismissed the twins and sat behind his desk. The party looked at him expectantly. He seemed lost in thought for a moment then addressed the party.

“Now, this news of a band of goblins is mildly disconcerting. But you say they were moving away from the village?” Kama asked.

The group looked to Erevan and Duor to confirm. Erevan spoke, “Yes, Tidemaster. When last we saw, they continued to the north and west.” Duor nodded.

“It is, of course, little matter if they did come here as the grace of Tyris and the Shoal Spirit would protect us.” The cleric stroked his white beard that cascaded like waves themselves nearly to his waist. He gazed out the window to the pinks and oranges of evening filled the sky. Then his eyes went to the sandbar.

“Is there really a spirit in the village?” inquired Haelan. The thought of undead in the vicinity thoroughly worried the halfling priest.

Kama chuckled. “It has been some years, master daelvar, since I have had the pleasure of your people’s company.” Haelan grinned at the Hilltender. “Not a spirit in the village,” he explained, “The spirit of the shoal.” He pointed out to the sandbar.

At this point, Alaria’s curiosity was piqued. “You believe there is a spirit connected with the…shoal? Like an elemental of some kind?”

Kama shook his head. “Not ‘believe’, my dear. Belief is something you need for those things unseen. Several villagers and I, myself, have seen the Shoal Spirit with our own eyes. She usually appears at the greater moon’s fullness. She is lovely to behold and whether elemental or not, her command of the sea is not to be taken lightly. She is most certainly an avatar of the goddess and has been sent to see to the village and temple’s protection. I have even spoken with her in my communions in the sea. She had been here in the distant past and returned to the shoal after my companions and I freed this temple from the evil that had long encased it.”

Alaria was intrigued that this obviously adept priest confessed to seeing a spirit and trusting in its protection. But it was not her concern. Alaria simply wanted to know why the priest had had a vision of their arrival and hoped they would not be lingering in this village with so much farther still to go before they would reach Welford.

This was not the most reassuring news to Haelan, but he breathed easier knowing there was no spirit in the village and that Kama obviously believed it to be friendly. “Is that how you know Bobrik?” Haelan asked, putting two and two together.

Kama smiled broadly again. “Why yes! He was one of the fellows with whom I traveled in my youth. You know Bobrik?”

“We do. Great fellow. He’s the one who told us about your village here.” Braddok interjected. Haelan would sit here and make tea time small talk all day, the warrior realized. His patience was wearing thin and he still needed answers. “Now, why exactly did the goddess of the sea and her spirit avatar thing tell you we were coming?” he asked. Thinking quickly, he added, “Blessed be her depths…and all.”

Tidemaster Kama’s eyebrows, like two white bushy caterpillars, furrowed. “Well, you see warrior, that is a rather lengthy tale…”

The door to Kama’s office opened to reveal one of the twins. “Supper is served, Tidemaster.”

“Excellent.” Kama proclaimed. “Thank you, Suhm.”

Alaria wondered at the different name. How could the Tidemaster tell the boys apart?

“We shall continue this over our meal. Dartha is an excellent cook but woe betide if you let here dishes get cold. Come, come…” and the elder cleric stood and gestured the still confused and somewhat frustrated party to follow the acolyte.


Steeliest of the dragons
Tidemaster Kama had not exaggerated in his praise about the temple’s cook, Dartha. While not seasoned quite as spicy as Alaria was used to in R’Hath, the dishes were flavorful. The party dined on shrimp dumplings with a sweet plum sauce, flakey whitefish baked and stuffed with herbs and butter, fresh loaves of golden bread, salty cheeses and succulent fruits.

Oddly enough, Alaria thought, her favorite part of the meal was the beverage. It was water, but more than water somehow. It was crisp and clear and an enjoyable taste that somehow still was no taste. Alaria felt a tingling of her mind and body with each sip, a clarity and warmth, even though the water itself was ice cold. Even Erevan commented on the wonderful elixir.

“Ah yes. It is our Pure Water, naturally.” Kama replied after chewing a large mouthful of dumpling. “Drawn from the spring upon which this temple was built.

“It reinvigorates and refreshes.” he continued before taking a sip from his own cup. “Purified and sanctified by Tyris, herself, blessed be her depths.”

All of the companions enjoyed the meal thoroughly as they listened to Kama, finally, get around to this business involving them.

Some twenty years prior Kama (“…a mere Waverider at the time…”), Bobrik of Hawkview and some other companions, followed legends of treasure and Kama’s goddess-granted visions to this secluded cove and village. The temple had been thoroughly corrupted by mad cultists worshiping a demon-crab being. The village was enslaved and human sacrifices to the cult’s demonic idol were commonplace. The temple housed the cultists and was guarded by horrifying crab-like men with great thick-shelled hides and snapping claws for hands.

Kama and his group defeated the leader of the cultists and their clawed overseers. What creatures survived their reclaiming of the temple fled into the sea. Unfortunately, in their retreat, the defilers escaped with one of the temple’s sacred relics, a giant black pearl, “…like the ones at the gate, but black. Very rare. Very precious, enchanted and highly sacred to Tyris, blessed be her depths.”

Duor’s mind started reeling with calculations of the worth of the pearls he saw at the front gates and then...possibilities.

Kama realized that tending this temple and village was his goddess-given destiny and stayed in Shoal when Bobrik and his other friends left. Kama set to re-consecrating the temple and cleared it of all evil taints. Shortly thereafter, “the avatar of the Tyris, blessed be her depths, that we simply call the Shoal Spirit...” began being seen and making her presence known around the shoal. For nearly two decades, the temple and waters around the village of Shoal have been a pristine reflection of the glory of the goddess of water and the seas and bountiful fishing lanes which the villagers (mostly fishermen) use for their own benefit and take to trade in Hawkview.

About a week ago, during one of his usual communions with the sea, the Shoal Spirit informed Kama that an evil presence was making its way into the currents. Casting divinations, including some conversations with the sea life, Kama was told that the clawed crab-creatures had been observed in the waters to the north, around an island not far from shore. Further spells confirmed his suspicion that the island to the north was none other than Dragonbone Isle, only about a half day’s sail from Shoal with a favorable wind.

In his swimming communion three days ago, he meditated on what he considered an obvious threat to his people and his goddess. The vision granted to him showed a group of strangers, "heroes", who would arrive to aid his cause and “return the sacred vessel, long denied us.”

“And, indeed, here you are.” Kama concluded.

All eyes of the party turned to Alaria. The young wizardess calmly sipped on her Pure Water. This wasn’t what she needed, Alaria thought to herself, another distraction from her goal of delivering her message. Her gaze fell on Braddok who looked at her with a pleading question in his deep blue eyes. Coerraine’s eyes had the same look. Haelan’s eyes were questioning but completely unbiased, his grin exuding innocence. He looks like a simpleton, sometimes, Alaria thought. Duor seemed preoccupied with thoughts of his own and Erevan sipped his cup.

Alaria put down her cup, dabbed her lips with the cloth napkin lovingly embroidered with waves and fish around the trim and replied, “If you’ll allow, Tidemaster Kama, we have been on the road for a long time and have a long way yet to travel to reach our intended destination in Welford. Might we have the night to discuss this matter of obvious pressing importance?”

“Of course, my dear. I understand it is quite a lot to ask, especially of those not devoted to the goddess. The danger is quite real. But Tyris saw fit to see your band here and I have no doubt Tyris will provide and protect you in her cause.” Kama answered. He thought for a moment. “As to the ‘provide’ part, if it is Welford you seek, travel by boat would greatly shorten your journey.”

"Really?" This interested Alaria very much.

“Right up the coast, beyond Dragonbone Isle, to the mouth of the river D’Evand. You’d have to row your way upriver, at least as far ats the falls. But, I'd say, you should still easily cut a week off your trip."

"Really?" Alaria responded again, barely able to contain her excitment.

"In exchange for investigating the island and dealing with any threat of the claw-men and, if possible, returning our sacred relic to us, I would be more than happy to provide you with a boat. You would, of course, be welcome to keep any other valuables you find along the way…so long as they are not Tyrisian artifacts.”

“We’ll do it.” Alaria said without another thought.

Shortly thereafter, an undercleric came to inform the party that one of the villagers had arrived to escort them back to their accommodations in the village. They were led to a medium-sized hut that, while certainly not luxurious, had plenty of room to house the men. Alaria was led to a separate, smaller hut. Whether it was the full stomachs or a property of the Pure Water, the whole party slept soundly that night. Some dreamt of treasures, some of adventure, Alaria dreamt of completing her errand for Vertior and beginning her life in earnest.


Steeliest of the dragons

In appreciation of the holiday, we’re taking a slight diversion from the storyline for a little seasonal tale of Halloweeny goodness with Alaria, Braddok and the gang in…

Orean Tales: On Darkveil Night.

The company made their way with some haste along the road through the wooded hills in the eastern Freelands. Most of the leaves of the trees had changed to their autumnal hues, vibrant reds and yellows. The leaves of the silverleaf trees had given up their soft sage green for the deep violet that signaled the onset of the season. A crisp breeze blew through the hills, rustling the brittle fallen leaves on the forest path and those which still clung to their limbs.

The sun was dipping quickly in the west and the gray-violet of twilight sky was quickly giving way to the blue-black of night. Arinane, the greater moon, was beginning to rise, her silver light replacing the golden orange glow of the setting sun. They were only a hill or two away from the small town of Dalenrock and none of the company wished to be far from a fire on this night.

For you see, it was Darkveil Night. The night of the Orean year when the Veil between the worlds was at it’s thinnest. Tales of the spirits of the deceased, malicious fairy folk and dark magic were all said to abound on the night of Darkveil. It was a holiday of the goddess Desri, goddess of judgement and death, and her daughter Wyslia, goddess of winter and strife. The holiday involved, among other traditions, a feast of the harvest bounty offered to the goddesses and the souls of the departed in hopes of appeasing them for favors and an easy winter to come.

Haelan was eager to arrive in the town for a warming meal, fire and the security of being within the town’s stockade secured, so he convinced himself, from the wandering spirits and evils of the wild woods on this sinister night. The halfling shivered, his eyes darting to the sides of the path at every rustle and creak.

Alaria smirked to herself watching the hairfooted priest. The wizardess considered most of the stories of Darkveil to be amusing. In R’Hath the holiday is much celebrated with sweet treats for children and grand masquerade parties for the adults. Still, with her knowledge of the arcane and the kinds of evils she’d encountered in her recent travels, Alaria’s mind wandered. She pulled her cloak tighter about her as a chilly gust rushed through the wood. She shook the accompanying shiver of being watched from her mind.

Erevan and Duor were having a debate, as usual. The dwarf scoffed at the foolishness of the human holiday and the very idea of “the Veil.” Erevan admitted that though he couldn’t speak to the nature of the goddesses of Men, the tales of the Veil, the land of Faerie and spirits of the dead were quite real.

Braddok listened to the debate with amusement while he too kept a wary eye in the surrounding woods. There was no doubt in the seasoned warrior’s mind that Darkveil Night was no time to be out on the road. He relaxed to see the soft glow of the fires of Dalenrock coming from beyond the next hill. One of the Darkveil traditions involved the lighting of bonfires to scare the spirits and faeries away from the all night feasting.

Coerraine simply kept to himself, bringing up the rear in his usual stoic attentiveness. The young paladin’s spear was the first weapon to be leveled when a peasant came crashing through the woods onto the path not far ahead of the group. The man’s shirt was ripped and his face had a large bruise and a small trail of dried blood ran down the side of his face from a wound in his hairline.

He rushed up to Braddok, panting and frantic, “Please! You must help me! We’ve been attacked! Please help me! I can’t get the children. Hurry, that way!”

Braddok tried to calm the man, “What about the children? What attacked you?”

“They came out of nowhere.” The man, obviously not hearing the swordsman. “Hurry! Straight over the hill. That way! It’s the Tillman farm. The children hid, the way they were taught. But I couldn’t get to them. Hurry! I’ll go to town and get the constable!” without waiting for an argument, the man took off down the road toward the orange glow of the town and passed out of view.

Coerraine, not needing to hear anything other than “Help me!” and “children”, was already dashing straight into the woods in the direction the man indicated, Erevan and Alaria on his heels.

Haelan hesitated for a moment, looked longingly at the light from the town, and darted into the dark undergrowth. The halfling heard Braddok and the dwarf rushing noisily after him while the clanking of Coerraine’s armor was an easy beacon to follow in the deepening dark of the fading twilight.

Whatever it was they were going to face, Haelan thought, they sure as heck were going to hear them coming.

Haelan stopped short, coming to the clearing, where Coerraine, Erevan and Alaria stood. Braddok and Duor came up behind him and the six looked out over a small farmstead.

To the right a field of corn, dried and browned stalks stood in mini-pyramids, a scarecrow sat atop a tall stake, its yellow broad-brimmed hat sitting upon a straw-stuffed body. The cottage of a farm house beckoned behind the fence…a leafless tree sat in the front yard, behind the gate. Nothing looked amiss with the house, a soft yellow glow came from behind the shudders of the first floor and the front door. A small porch was at the top of three steps that led to the door.

The company made their way through the gate and wandered up to the porch, weapons and spells ready, eyes shifting in every direction…nothing looked amiss from what they could tell in the silver light of the greater moon.

As Coerraine stepped on the front step, Haelan saw a raven or maybe a rook landed on a branch of the leafless tree.

Then Braddok, in the rear, noticed a slab of wood hanging from one of the more sturdy limbs by two ropes. As he watched, the swing began to creak back and forth…a trick of the wind, no doubt.

Haelan looked at it too. He shivered inwardly. Then his eyes went to the five rooks that perched within the tree. No, thought the halfling, six. No, seven.

As Coerraine neared the front door, Erevan noticed the number of ravens in the leafless tree now counted in the…well, he couldn’t count them. Every limb was full of the beady-eyed black birds.

Coerraine, not noticing the birds, kicked in the front door, his spear and shield at the ready. At that moment, the rooks in the tree took to the air in a cacophony of caws and flapping wings.

Haelan jumped and turned. The mass of black birds flew like a black cloud into the sky. They stretched and congealed, as one. Flying away from the house and then dipping and soaring above the harvested corn field. The mass turned and started coming towards the cottage.

“GET INSIDE!” shouted Braddok.

The band ran up the steps and into the cottage. Braddok slammed the front door. Turning at the last moment to view out a window, Duor saw the black mass of feathers swoop towards the porch and then streak skyward up over the small farmhouse. The flapping and cawing trailed off into the distance.

The group stood motionless…silent…waiting for any sound. All they heard was a momentary flapping and cawing before there was no sound at all.

The party looked about a small room. A fire burned in the hearth. A small pot hung above the fire, bubbling.

In the room was a table set for a meal with simple crockery, two benches along either side, a chair at the table’s head. A step-ladder led into the eaves and another door went, obviously, out the back of the building.

A brief search found the secret door before the hearth. As Erevan opened the trapdoor, two figures leapt up at him. They were small and dressed in simple off-white sleeping gowns. One latched onto his neck and the other onto his leg. Both bit ferociously.

The elf cried out in pain.

The Redstar knight, believing these the children they sought grabbed one with long blond hair and pulled it off of the bleeding elf.

“It’s ok! We’re here to help!” Coerraine shouted as he wrenched the child from Erevan’s neck. Only when the small figure turned towards him did he notice the child’s eyes were fully black and its mouth seemed a maw of pointed teeth. It lunched at the young paladin.

“Manat’s star!” exclaimed Alaria raising her staff to block the lunge of the boy child who’d released Erevan’s thigh to fly toward the young wizardess.

A short crossbow bolt soon stuck from the child’s shoulder as Duor tumbled through the room making his way to the back door.

Braddok bashed the youth, who looked to be all of 11 years old, with his shield throwing him back into the fire. In a flash of flames and embers, he disappeared.

Haelan, holding his pinecone-headed mace up in front of his wooden shield prayed feverishly to Faerantha to deliver him from this nightmare. The words came to his mouth, unbidden,

Deisa Faerantha, deferitas a spiritaia y diabollo.” <cleric spell: Protection from Evil: “Holy Faerantha, defend your devoted followers from this evil.”>

Suddenly, the room went dark. The commotion of battle ceased. Then the silver moonlight of Arinane filtered in through the dusty windows and all was quiet.

The party stood, battle ready, in the stillness. The children were gone. In the hearth, a pile of ash and long blackened logs sat cold and unused. Erevan, Braddok and Alaria turned to look at Haelan. The halfling shrugged.

The voice of the dwarf broke the unnatural stillness.

“Ummmm. I think you lot want to see this.” said Duor staring out the wide open back door.

The companions came the back door and looked over the dwarf. Leading down from the stairs of the house a field stretched out under the silver moonlight for a hundred feet in every direction. The field was full of twisting vines of large leaves and pumpkins.

Haelan, reeling from the oddity of the house looked out the front window. He saw the leafless tree with the simple swing wavering in some unfelt breeze, the neatly piled corn stalks…and …and a large stake sitting in the midst of the cornfield. He didn’t remember that.

“Help! Help us!” came the cry of children’s voices that caught all of the company’s attention. It sounded like it was far off. Those looking out the back of the house noticed two silhouettes in the midst of the pumpkin patch, outlined in the moonlight. They were gesturing wildly.

Braddok turned to Alaria and said, “What’s going on here? Can you detect anything?”

Alaria looked at the warrior with concentrated understanding. The R’Hathi wizardess uttered a simple verse, shrieked, clasped a hand over her eyes and fell backwards. Erevan caught her limp body.

Moments later, the young magess explained through haggard breath that the entirety of the pumpkin patch was magical. She had never seen such a blatant overpowering aura.

Again, the cries of the children came wafting over the vine laden field.

Sharing a determined look, Coaerraine and Braddok began to move down the steps into the field of pumpkins.

Duor took a position near the back door, Erevan on the other side of the door, his longbow nocked and ready. Alaria, recovered, stood next to the elf as the halfling priest moved to stand on the back steps, ahead of the dwarf, elf, and magess, with an eye on the two fighters.

Coerraine and Braddok had not moved more than thirty feet from the cottage when both were assaulted by vines in the pumpkin patch. The men swung weapons in hopes of releasing themselves but both found themselves prone, their legs and arms and torsos being wrapped with thick green vines.

Duor and Erevan both let off their bolts. The arrows sank into the foliage that was quickly mummifying their friends. Yellow ichor dripped from the puncture wounds.

Braddok hacked with his sword and regained his footing. He quickly began to hack madly at the vines entrapping Coerraine.

Then the sound came again…the fluttering of dozens…no hundreds…of wings and a concert of caws that made Erevan and Haelan clutch their ears.

The black-feathered cloud descended over them and spread out over the pumpkin field…dissipating as the company watched only to reintegrate into a cloud of black high in the moonlit sky.

Another few swings from Braddok and the young Redstar Knight was freed.

The silhouettes of the children still cried out from the center of the field. Braddok looked back at the farm house which he’d taken not ten steps from. It seemed as far away as the shadowed children. This was most assuredly witchery of the Darkveil Night, Braddok thought to himself.

Alaria, having come to the same assumption, closed her eyes and concentrated.

Erevan and Duor continued to fire missiles into the green tendrils now rising and lashing for the fighters.

“Help us! It’s got us!” came the childish voices across the living pumpkin patch.

Coerraine slipped his Redstar spear into its holder on his back and drew his longsword. With a nod to Braddok, the two warriors began slashing their way through the disagreeable pumpkin patch. Green vines and yellow ichor flew in all directions as the two muscled warriors, one taller, dark and trim and one shorter, blond and wide, hacked their way toward the pleading children.

Three globes of shimmering white light appeared around Alaria’s head. <spell: Dancing Lights> With a thought, she sent the globes shooting out over the pumpkin patch. The orbs streaked past Braddok and Coerraine to where the children’s shadows stood and circled them.

When they arrived at the children’s position and lit up the area, the shapes and cries of the children faded…from ear and from view. Braddok turned to look to Coerraine, panic plain on his face. The paladin didn’t even notice, still staring in disbelief at the three globes of light where the children had been, he was sure, moments ago.

A wind blew across the wide field, rustling up dead leaves and vines and the stench of decay. Haelan shivered, despite himself.

Coerraine woke from his musing to see a form rising from the vines and pumpkins before them. It had long thin limbs and seemed to be dressed in the tattered trappings of a farmer. Upon the impossibly thin shoulders sat a large round, brilliantly orange pumpkin with triangular holes where eyes and a nose should be and a jagged, uneven smile stretching across the entire front of its face. The holes glowed with a sickly green and unnatural light. Upon the top of the pumpkin-head sat a yellow floppy brimmed hat.

Braddok felt a wave of fear overtake him and turn swiftly back toward the house, slashing at the vines that rose and whipped at him.

Coerraine, convinced this was the evil that was holding the children, charged the eight foot tall abomination. The cries of Haelan from the back steps echoed unintelligibly in his mind.

As the paladin neared the pumpkin-headed creature, a long bark-laden “arm” reached up from the patch with three long clawed finger-branches and swatted the Redstar Knight, ripping through his armor and tossing him aside like a ragdoll. The mouth on the creature, which heretofore had not moved from its toothy grin opened wide and roared a horrid noise of ferocity and malice, green-yellow flames spewing forth from the orifice.

Everx zaar” Erevan cried. <spell: Magic Missile>

Violet and blue shards of energy struck the creature soundly in the gourd of its head. Alaria turned, shocked, to see the elf with his hand, fingers outstretched.

“You have a dozen more of those?” Duor questioned, also looking surprised.

A branch-arm stretched toward the back porch of the farmhouse and a dozen vines rose towards the party. They snapped forward like cobras. Haelan, Alaria and Duor avoided the bulk of them, but Erevan was knocked to the floor, blood streaking from slashing wounds in his face and side. Another vine wrapped around his leg and jerked the elf up and out over the pumpkin field.

In his frenzy to return to the perceived security of the porch, Braddok did notice Erevan being pulled into the air. A quick hack with his longsword dropped the elf to the ground. He gathered up his friend and the two headed, with all haste back to the house.

Coaerraine, Goldshield of the Redstar Knights and Guardian of the temple of Celradorn the Golden Defender, blocked a raking slash of barked claws with his shield and called upon his deity to smite the evil that he faced. His spear pierced the scraggly straw-stuffed body and a golden light seemed to shine from his weapon.

The creature shrieked again, this time in pain as much as malice, green-yellow flames bursting from its wound.

Coerraine turned, his face burned from the cold of the unnatural fire.

“Coerraine!” shouted Alaria, “Get back here!”

The paladin turned briefly to see the rest of the party back at the small back porch of the cottage. He turned once more to see the pumpkin-headed abomination before him which seemed twice as tall at before. He went to run and felt his legs jerked by thick vines. Suddenly, his head was full of the sound of ravens’ caws.

Yaix ar Yomarus, benfica Faerantha urmu” <cleric spell: Light, “Light in darkness, by your blessing, Faerantha.”

A brilliant white light flared above the retreating paladin. There was a momentary rise in the ravens’ noise, a shrieking roar of defiance rose from the pumpkin-headed creature and then nothing. Coerraine slashed at the vines around his legs and without looking back, made his way back to the rest of his party.

Another roar brought Coerraine’s attention back to the scarecrow-creature in the pumpkin field. He turned, shield raised, spear at the ready. An arrow flew past his ear to sink into the creature’s stuffed torso. Behind him, he heard Alaria’s voice rising in confidence and power.

Everx imberil rex!” <mage spell: Burning Hands>

Waves of red and blue flames shot over Coerraine’s head and arced down into the pumpkin patch at the creature’s feet.

Flames flared up and spread through the vines and dried leaves like…well, like wild fire and the creature was soon engulfed, shrieking, in flame. The fire spread with a seemingly unnatural speed and soon the entire field of pumpkins was roasting.

The party moved back through the cottage and out into the front yard as the house caught fire. A single raven perched in the leafless tree with the swing.

“What about the children?” shouted Coerraine in protest as the group moved swiftly out the front gate.

“There were no children.” Braddok said plainly.

Any further explanation was interrupted by a final shriek of agony from the creature, far behind in the inferno.

Hours later, when the party entered Dalenrock, they found the constable and relayed their unwanted adventure. They believed the threat had been neutralized but were pained to tell they knew not what had happened to the Tillman children.

The constable stared at them a moment. The color seemed to drain from his face. He stumbled and sputtered in his response.

“You…You don’t unnerstand. Th…there ain’t no…no T…T…Tillman children. Ain’t…ain’t no Tillman farm. Burned to the ground, it did…round ten years ago…foul things they was inta. Unspeakable things. The townsfolk wouldn’t help ‘em if they wers the last family in the Freelands.”

The members of the party looked at each other in disbelief.

“Y..Yer in time for the f…feastin’ tho.” continued the constable. He smiled a toothy smile. As the party looked on, those teeth became sharp and jagged. The canines extended. The man’s hands seemed to snap and stretch, a darkness spreading across his skin and thick black claws extending from his fingers.

Haelan jumped as a howl sounded some distance away. Then several others, much louder, much closer. Turning, he saw the extending snouts and dark gray fur sprouting from all of the town’s festival-goers around the nearest bonfire.

“Aw :):):):).” said the halfling.

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