Starvale Advenutres: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 4

Following the directions the Weaver gave them, they make their way to an abandoned barn on the northern outskirts of Starvale. It is a nervous twenty minute walk to the meeting place.  In an attempt to defuse the tension, Vellk looks at his friends with a grin as he strolls down the cobblestones, apparently the very image of calm.

He looks at the others with a heartfelt smile, feeling almost at home with these souls. Thankfully his one true friend from the army just happened to be there in the inn. Could it be fate? “Does anybody have any preparations before we arrive?”

His calm demeanor spreads to the rest of the group, and by the time they reach the rendezvous point they are all feeling strong and confident.  The sellers are already waiting at the abandoned barn, a simple, large structure with old rusty farming implements leaning against the wall.  A ladder at the end of the barn opposite the open doorway leads to a hay loft ten feet above the barn floor.

As they enter the barn, a voice calls out to them, “Halt!  That’s close enough!”

A sinewy elf in gray clothes smiles at three humans behind her. “I told you they would come. A dragon egg is much too valuable to pass up.” The elf turns back to the party, “Now, let’s do this quickly. Here is what you asked for.” She holds a very large hide backpack toward them. “You throw the payment over to me, and we will leave the egg here. We will exit the barn, and then you can leave after five minutes have passed. No fuss, no muss.”

She pauses and looks at them more closely. “Hold on… Something is not right here… I was told the merchant was a man of girth, not muscled and fit. And I thought there would be less of you. Explain yourselves” she says, instinctively putting the hide backpack, bulging with its hidden cargo, behind her back and looking around warily.

Hajima’s sharp eyes see that the figures standing opposite you are lightly armed and armored.  Tuskor’s eyes can easily pierce the darkness and he catches a glimpse of the contents of the elf’s hide pack, and he can see a large dark red and earthen brown egg, nearly hidden within the bag.

Tuskor studies the elf and her team’s behavior, wondering if his party’s ruse has been discovered so quickly or if there’s still time to salvage it. He decides that they aren’t immediate threatening and subtly motions for the others to stand back and allow the flame haired Bard to talk their way out of the pickle.

“Now, now, let’s not be hasty”, Rowan says, hands held out, clearly showing that she’s unarmed. “Tyrnan was unable to come tonight, so he sent us in his stead. With all the troubles about lately, we were nervous carrying such precious diamonds without a large party of bodyguards. I apologize if we’ve disturbed you.”

She nods at Hajima and Tuskor, gesturing for them to back away. “We’ll just send a few of them off and carry on our transaction, shall we? I know that Tyrnan will be very disappointed in me if I don’t complete our business for him.”

The buyers visibly relax, taking hands off weapon hilts and the elf leans forward, greed shining in her eyes.  “The payment? Let’s see it.” she demands.

Sebastian will scan the guards to see who would be the easiest to hide the harper pin on.  His sharp eyes spot one of the guards who seems to be more interested in ogling the female elf’s curves than in keeping watch.  His magical servant slips up behind the guard and waits for the opportune moment to strike.

“Now,” says the sly, female elf. “Throw the payment over to us, and we drop the egg. Then we all leave and go to our beds. No fuss, no muss.”

Hajima stayed back at first to calm the wary elf. At this point he moves slowly forward to stand next to Rowan and Sebastian. He reaches into his coat and pulls out the pouch of diamonds. The pouch clinks slightly with the distinct sound of gemstones. “Worry not, master elf. Your payment is here.”

He tosses the diamond pouch to the elf, but it intentionally falls short and lands a step or two in front of him. The elf snickers and eyes the pouch with obvious greed. When she bounds forward and bends down to pick up the fake diamonds, the distraction provides the Sebastian with the perfect opportunity to direct the unseen servant in the placement of the tracking pin.

Rowan watches as the elven woman leans over and picks up the sack of ‘diamonds.’ She stays calm and lets her voice sound as confident and persuasive as she can … “And now the egg, and we shall be on our way.”

Sebastian stifles a smile as senses his servant place the magical pin on the guards’ dark grey cloak. She places the hide bag containing the egg on the ground and cautiously steps back.  She and her guards swiftly retreat from the barn.

Rowan walks over to the egg, and says, looking nervously around. “We’d better go.” She lowers her voice to a whisper. “I wouldn’t want to still be here when they find out the diamonds are … you know.” Sebastian quickly checks the egg, then nods and helps Rowan carefully pack it in her knapsack.

“Let’s go….quickly!” Sebastian makes sure everyone else moves and he helps cover the rear with shield spell ready and mage armor cast.

Hajima helps Sebastian cover their retreat, scanning the surroundings for any sign of ambush or pursuit.  His keen vision, or perhaps his paranoia, reveals three roguish figures, stealthily hidden in the loft and a fourth figure, hidden behind a wagon wheel with a burlap sack draped across it.  As he goes to point this out to the group a voice interrupts him, and a tough-looking half-orc male brandishing a mace appears in the doorway of the barn.

“The toll for passage out of this barn is the egg. I’m sure you will hand it over peacefully so I don’t have to take your lives instead.”  He is flanked by two men, equally thuggish.  One of them has a missing left ear.

Hajima takes a step back to make a little more space between him and the speaker. He sets his long wooden case on the ground and kicks a button with his boot. The case opens and a metallic sound can be heard from within. Suddenly a massive heavy crossbow springs into the air. Hajima catches it with practiced ease. He presses another button on the crossbow itself and the arms lock into position, cocked and already loaded with a deadly bolt. Hajima then glares at the half-orc and responds grimly, “The fate of this egg is no concern of yours. Stand aside, or you will lose more than an ear this night.”

“And what say the rest of you? Do you wish to die like this fool?” The half orc spits menacingly, drool dripping from his jaws.

Tuskor pulls his long staff from the sheath on his back and they all can now see it is carved from a mammoth tusk.  The Dwarf takes a step toward the thug and snarls. “Stand aside or pay the price.”  The thugs take a faltering step backward, however the half-orc simply grins, his jutting tusks making the expression gruesome.

Vellk mutters something derisive about orcs and their heritage with disgust in his eyes and frees the snap on his battle axe.  “Shall we redden the floor with this filth?”

Sebastian readies a spell and an aura of cold surrounded his right fist, glowing with a harsh white light. He moves to ensure he is providing cover for Rowan to stay hidden.  His face is set in the flat, emotionless glare of a combat veteran.

The half orc thug stand menacingly at the doorway brandishing a mace. He is flanked by two thugs, one wielding a mace and sporting a buckler, another hoisting a heavy crossbow.  “Give us the egg and we won’t have to paint the walls with your blood.” He says in a guttural growl.

Hajima yells out, “There are three in the roof above!” His eyes trained along the sight on his crossbow, pointed at the head of the leader.

The swirling globe of white light concentrates around Sebastian’s hand, icy blue-white crystals spinning rapidly inside as the ray of icy energy leaps forth, striking the half orc thug.  He grunts in pain and then curses Sebastian as a thick layer of frost partially restricts his movement.  As though this was a signal, two nets fly out from the loft above as the hidden bandits above trying to ensnare the party below.

A creak on the floorboards above alerts Tuskor at the last moment. Thrusting his staff into the ground he pushes himself backward and out of the way of the net, turning a neat shoulder roll and coming back up to his feet, staff at the ready.

Vellk bloodies the half orc, shearing through his slowed parry and cutting him deeply. The half orc howls in pain as chaos erupts. Another net is thrown from the loft above towards Vellk, all three bandits above now visible.  The big warrior steps casually to one side and the net falls harmlessly to the ground.

Tuskor stares up at the half-orc and begins to mutter in an ancient tongue. He jolts forward closing the gap between them in an instant. As he charges the spell he is whispering takes effect. The mammoth tusk quarterstaff begins to splinter and twist.  Fang-like protrusions pierce through its surface and pulsing veins crawl from the cracks and wrap around it, morphing the once smooth tusk into a brutal looking spiked weapon.

By the time Tuskor is in the half-orc’s area the transformation is complete and the Dwarf swings the staff up over his head and brings it crashing down onto the top of his foes’ skull.  The half orc sways on his feet, cracking his left eye socket and making him sway on his feet.  Blood drips from the ruined eye

“There’s still time to walk away from this my friend” Tuskor says solemnly as he sees the damage he has inflicted.

“The half orc is not walking away, unless you have a very good reason my friend.” Vellk snarls, his hatred of the orc race is almost unreasonable, as if something in his past affects him every time he sees one.

A thug hefts his crossbow and, at a grunted order of pained panic from his half-orc leader, fires a bolt point blank at Vellk. The bolt bites deep through his armor and into his side. The other thug spits in the Dwarf’s eye as he runs at Tuskor wildly swinging his mace at his head twice.   Tuskor manages to turn the first with his magically enhanced ivory club but the second swing takes him in the side of the head, leaving his ears ringing.  

The half-orc swings wildly, once each at Tuskor and Vellk, missing both as blood runs into his ruined eye socket. He darts to the side, tucking and rolling to avoid any riposte dropping his mace and un-slinging the crossbow from across his back once he is out of range of their weapons.

Rowan plays a haunting melody on her flute and the orc bruiser drops his crossbow, holding his head in agony as her magic worms its way into his mind.  He turns and begins to flee as her tune changes, becoming jaunty and proud.  Sebastian’s spine straightens with resolve as he readies his next attack.

Hajima pulls the trigger and fires his massive crossbow with a harsh metallic clang of braided cable striking the steel firing plate.  The bolt buries itself in the base of the fleeing half orc’s skull, dropping him into a limp form bleeding on the ground. He doesn’t take kindly to being called a fool, especially not by the likes of these cretins. He then expertly reloads another bolt and prepares to fire on the shooters in the loft.

Knowing Vellk is a hardy fighter who often rallies with when others think he is out of commission, Sebastian moves towards Tuskor using his action to utilize his military healing training to wrap a bandage with a pre-applied unguent around the wound on the Dwarf’s head.

A lithe, figure leaps from the shadows behind a wagon and moves up the ladder without seeming to even use his hands.  As he clears the last rung, he shouts, “That’s quite enough from you three!”  He piles into one of the attackers, driving him against the wall and they go down in a tangle of limbs.

Hajima sees the figure begin to attempt to grapple with one of the assailants in the loft. He adjusts his aim and fires another bolt, but he can’t get a clear shot while they struggle back and forth. The bolt flies wide to land in the rafters with a dull thunk. Hajima quickly loads another bolt and takes aim at the second thug in the loft that is currently not engaged. “You take care of him and I’ll handle the other one.”

As the struggle in the loft continues, their new ally twists suddenly, dodging one attack, but stepping directly into another. The other bandit strikes, slashing deeply into Lanaver’s back.  A wide gash opens and blood sprays across the straw.

The thug, at the front of the barn drops his heavy crossbow, instead drawing a mace and advances on Tuskor.  While the Dwarf is still dazed from the blow to the head, and the thug strikes him once across the left shoulder and once on the right, barely missing a blow that would have crushed his spine.

Rowan plays a haunting melody once again, this time focusing on the enemy who is just drawing his mace back to strike Tuskor down.  Blood begins to run out of his nose and he runs, screaming in terror as she will draws her rapier with a steely rustle and prepares to enter the melee.

Sebastian fires another blast of chill energy at the thug fleeing from Rowan’s magic and it freezes his left arm solid.  He cries out, falling to the ground in shock, the frozen limb shattering on contact.  Another closes in on Sebastian and the sorely wounded Tuskor, murder in his eyes.

Their mysterious ally tosses his opponent over the side of the loft with a smooth shoulder throw.  The man lands badly and struggles to rise.   Before the bandit can rise, his attacker salutes the other two enemies jauntily.

“Enough heroics for tonight lads!” With that, he leaps from the loft aiming to soften his landing with the man he just threw.  The bandit’s breath goes out in a whoosh and he loses consciousness to the tune of several shattering ribs.

Rowan dexterously slips to the side of the man trying to kill her friend Sebastian, and skewers him with her rapier. He cries in pain as her blade stabs him in the calf.

The two bandits in the loft change tactics, pulling light crossbows from where they hang on loops beneath their cloaks and firing into the melee below.  Vellk grunts in pain as a bolt strikes his right bicep, passing all the way through the muscle.  The second missile passes close enough to Sebastian that he can hear the sharp *fsssk* sound of its passing.

The hearty thug below swings at Sebastian and Vellk, smashing the warrior on the arm wounded by the crossbow bolt with a meaty smack, eliciting a grunt of pain from the big man.  Sebastian threw up an arm to block the blow, discovering that it was a bad idea when the mace fractured his forearm.

Rowan stabs the wounded thug through the chest with her rapier, running him clean through.  He clasps the grievous wound but stands his ground somehow, her sword blade missing his vital organs.

Vellk attempts to go and deal with the two crossbow wielding thugs in the hayloft and gets a mace in the back as he turns away from the enemy he was facing.  He cries out, spinning back to bury his axe in the man’s neck with a horrifying crunch.  The big warrior takes a deep breath exerting a supernatural effort of will that seems to close his wounds and stop his bleeding.  He turns to the remaining two bandits with a sinister gleam in his eye, blood dripping from the end of his axe.

The two bandits leap down from the loft, brandishing maces.  One lands next to the body of their comrade, swinging at the man who had come to their aid in such a flamboyant fashion.  The other man ducks the forward and backward strikes before sweeping the legs out from under the thug and stabbing him in the throat with his rapier.

“Stay down cutter!” He shouts in savage satisfaction, diving for cover as Vellk engages the last fighter. “You’ve got this! I believe in you!”

The thug strikes Vellk in the head twice with his mace, knocking him unconscious.  Glancing at his fallen comrades, he seems to suddenly realize how outnumbered he is.  He turns to flee but as he runs, Rowan springs from the darkness.  Using his own momentum against him, she hacks halfway through the bandit’s neck dropping him in a spray of arterial blood.

Sebastian bends over Vellk, cursing silently under his breath as he tended to the warrior’s wounds.  “He’ll make it, but this was too close for comfort.”

Rowan, rapier still in hand, keeps a wary eye out, to make sure another ambush wasn’t lurking in the darkness. Heart pounding from excitement and anticipation, she realizes that she fought well and after a careful inspection of herself, that she wasn’t even hit.  Most importantly, her friends and the egg seem to be ok.  

As Sebastian completes his healing tasks, she whispers, “We’d better go, in case there are reinforcements. Perhaps if we close the doors, the Weavers will have someone who can clean up this mess. For now, I think we must make sure the egg is safely delivered.”

The man who joined the fray late walks from the shadows, a hand pressed to his side.  “Anyone know how to plug this hole in me? I’d be ever so thankful.” he grinned through the pain.

Sebastian comes over and slaps a quick bandage on the large slash on the man’s side. “Rowan is right, we need to get back to town quickly, take what loot you feel we can while I do the quick patch job on all these wounds of ours.”

Rowan wipes her sword with straw to get most of the blood off, and sheaths it.  “Let’s head to the inn, and quickly!”

Their new ally shakes his head, “We can’t go back to the inn they’ll follow and ambush us later. I know a safe house not far from here, we can at least rest there for the time being.”  He holds his bandages tightly and nods, “Thank you. My name is Lanaver, I’ve been tasked by our mutual employer to make sure we all make it home alive. Quickly now, they won’t wait long when they discover they’ve been duped and we killed some of their men.”

As Lanaver leads the way towards his safe house, a group of Starshield Guards approaches at what approximates a marching pace for the notoriously lazy Guardsmen.  After a few turns down side streets to make sure they weren’t being followed, the group makes their way back to the Boiling Kettle.

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Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 3

Madame Freia finds Rowan after her performance and happily tells her that she is welcome to play at the tavern when she is able.  In addition, she informs Rowan that her room tomorrow evening, should she wish to stay again, will be free. The night wears on as everyone becomes acquainted with each other over pints and drinks.  Eventually, the other patrons slowly peel off to their rooms or the streets.

The newly acquainted adventurers are preparing to bunk down for the evening in their shared room when one of Freia’s daughters peeks inside. She enters, looking nervous or excited when Sebastian opens the door wide.

“Pardon my interruption,” says the Halfling, a girl named Reece, just shy of adulthood. “A chap just came into the common room downstairs and asked me to fetch you. Something about some coin needing to change hands for an easy job.”

She plays with her curly red hair nervously. “Mother said to fetch you lot, who’ve just put your name down on the board. Best get yourselves dressed for work if you want to earn some coin.” She eagerly waits to see what the answer will be.

Rowan sits on her bunk, brushing her long hair as Reece delivers her message. Thinking to herself that if she’d had a sister, perhaps she’d have been like Reece, she smiles up at the slightly younger woman. “Oh, thank you! We’ll be right down!” She leaps to her feet and puts her comb away in her bag. She dons her leather armor, straps her rapier to her hip, and looks through her bag to see what else she might need.

She sits lacing up her boots while the others gather their things. She grins mischievously at Sebastian, “Let the adventure begin!” She knows she shouldn’t be so excited, because an urgent mission most often meant that someone was in dire trouble. But she can’t help herself. She wants so badly to help people, and was so eager to see her new friends in action. She begins humming a melody as she finishes lacing her boots, and attaches her flute and a few other things to her belt.

Sebastian wastes no time in gathering his adventuring gear and his prized spell book, wrapped in wax sealed leather. His arcane focus, a clear Crystal orb with circling mist inside as well as his healing kits. He looks to the others. “We better bring some torches, I for one can’t see a lick in the dark. Also if you don’t mind I would like to perform a benediction, asking for blessings from Aesis, Geaos and any other gods you worship for this our first quest as an adventuring company. Do we need a name? Like “The Shields of Starvale” or anything else for that matter. “

“Yes, Rowan bring your pipes, we may need them, or those we find may.” He gives her a knowing wink. “Yes, let the adventure begin!”

“The Shields of Starvale,” Rowan muses, as she adds her healing kit to her sack. Or perhaps ‘The Guardians of Starvale’ or, since we might adventure in other places, perhaps something more generic.” She suddenly smiles at Sebastian, “I love that you want us to have a name. It makes us sound almost like family!”

She comes nearer to Sebastian and says, “I would welcome any blessing you care to impart. As for torches, I agree. I cannot see in the dark either, although, if our torches run out, I can help with that.” She gives him a saucy wink, whistles a few notes, and four bright motes of light surround them, each about the size and brightness of torchlight. She sends them to the four corners of the room, and watches them with pleasure. Rowan still finds the thrill of magic new and exciting, and almost can’t believe that she can bend the forces of nature to her will. She lets the lights flicker, and grins at the men. “Shall we?” and she gestures flamboyantly at the door.

“We shall” Vellk stands grabs his dark stained deer skin rucksack that he acquired while ransacking an orcish encampment a while back. A well-made pack is a life saver at times. Finally, he checks his battle axe, settling the well balanced weapon at his hip.

“I knew there was a reason I liked you so much” he leans down and gives Rowan a small kiss on her cheek and whispers “Those lights are beautiful.” Standing back up to his full height, he motions to Vellk then gives the proper salute. He asks everyone to gather hands and bow heads in respect.

“Aesis, goddess of magic, hear our petitions. Know we come to you to seek your blessings. This world is yours and we would be lost without your very essence, please tell Geaos he still has worshipers as well. Please give our spells potency to overcome our foes and bring fame to your name. Lend strength to our weapons and magic to our days. Thank you for all you have done and continue to do.”

After respectfully bowing his head to receive the blessing, Hajima turns his mind to more practical matters. He sets aside his backpack but still leaves the shoulder pouch on. He takes out a pair of hip quivers and straps them to his belt. He then removes a third set of crossbow bolts and puts them loosely into his pouch, along with a smaller kit that clinks metallically. Throwing back his long leather coat, he loosens a military issue rapier in a sheath behind his back. Putting on his wide-brimmed hat again, he picks up the long wooden case with a soft grunt and nods at the group with an eager grin.

“Well, folks, it looks like it’s finally time for a bit of action. Let’s see what this night has in store for us!”

As they move to the common room, they see a hooded figure alone at a large table. The figure motions to them as they descend the stairs. The figure keeps its face obscured by his hood and speaks in a low voice, obviously disguising it. He greets them, throwing back the hood to reveal himself as an older half-elf with greying brown, shoulder length hair. He refuses to provide a name, but identifies himself as a member of the Weavers, an organization dedicated to fighting evil wherever it hides. He wears a brooch that confirms his ties to the Weavers, a tiny silver loom strung with golden wire.

“Greetings, adventurers. I have a task that I believe could be well suited to you, however it must be done tonight.” He stuffs and lights a wooden pipe. “The Weavers have captured a merchant that was going to illegally purchase a red dragon egg. We want your group to pose as the merchant and his hirelings.  If you accept the mission, you must go to the buy site, make the transaction, and place a magical pin on one of the sellers so that Weavers can track them back to their lair.”

“The captured merchant that the sellers has a scarred face, an older human male. We believe that the sellers have not seen the man and could therefore be duped by an imposter. The rest of you could act the roles of bodyguards, assistants, porters, and so forth.” The Weaver produces a small sack of fake diamonds that should be used to buy the egg. “These fake gems are basically worthless, but good enough to pass a cursory inspection.  We don’t expect that these buyers are overly intelligent.”

“At some point during the exchange, one of you must place a small silver pin infused with magic on the seller or one of the crew. Once that is done, we can more easily scry on the sellers and learn more about their operation.” Seeing their interest piqued he takes draws upon his pipe and blows a lazy smoke ring.

He continues outlining the plan. “No real names are used in these types of transactions, so the two parties should refer to each other as buyer’ and ‘seller’ which will make things much easier for you.”

Seeing that several of the adventurers have questions, he holds up his hand, announcing he will not hear questions until he outlines the job completely.  “Wait until you have heard me out entirely before asking questions.  There is more to come and I abhor repeating myself.”

“Once the transaction is complete you are to bring the egg back to the stables behind the Boiling Kettle, where will meet you and take possession of it.  Under no circumstances should you fight the sellers or harm the egg. The point is to track the sellers, so killing or capturing them is counterproductive.  For completing the task successfully and as instructed I will pay two hundred gold pieces.”

He leans forward, exhaling smoke out his nostrils and as he does so, a log snaps with a loud crack in the fire, settling suddenly and sending a shower of sparks up the chimney.  “So, are you up to it? Time is of the essence as the meeting is scheduled to take place at midnight, which as you all know is not far away.”

Hajima listens patiently and attentively while the Weaver outlines the mission details. Once the briefing is concluded, he nods and says “I’m in. I think myself and my new friends here are more than capable of handling this task. I’m not the handsomest or prettiest face in the bunch, nor the quickest of wit, if’n you catch my meaning. My skills lie elsewhere. So I’m probably best suited as the bodyguard or porter. However, I do have some quick hands when the need arises, and I may be able to plant that pin for you.” Hajima then looks to the others to see if they also accept the mission and what roles they feel best suit them for completing the objective.

Rowan looks thoughtful. “Well, if the merchant is expected to be a man, I certainly cannot play that role, but I will help in any way that I can.” Looking up at all the tall men around her, she laughs and winks at her friends, both new and old. “I don’t suppose I look much like a bodyguard either! Perhaps I could be the merchant’s assistant.”

“Perhaps Vellk’s battle wounds are sufficient to convince these nefarious scoundrels that he is this buyer.” mutters Tuskor, with a slow glance to Vellk. “I would perhaps be best suited as a protector of such a man, however, it might be wise to speak with the captive first. Just so as we’re clear as to what our ruse must entail.”

The agent speaks at this, “The merchant has been spoken to by Weaver agents and I have relayed their findings. There is no time to go to the merchant’s current whereabouts and if we did he’d most likely have been moved on. Such is our cautious way.”

Rowan’s brow furrows, “Sir, having never seen one before, just exactly how large is a dragon’s egg? And can we carry one without raising suspicions on our return? We might need a container for it, and, well …” She pauses while she thinks a moment. “How fragile is it? Is it anything like a chicken’s egg? Because carrying something like that …” Again she pauses, obviously concerned. “I wouldn’t want it to break.”

Hajima speaks up while Tuskor ponders the nature of dragon eggs. “Very well. I will play the role of porter and attendant then. Who among us shall plant the pin on this scoundrel once we make contact?” Hajima looks at Sebastian. “Perhaps our spellcasting friend here has the nimblest fingers for such a delicate task?”

“I wouldn’t worry little one, imagine how tough a chicken egg would be if a chicken grew to the size a dragon”. Tuskor turns to the others “Very well, are we all prepared? Vellk will pose as this human buyer, whilst Rowan is his assistant and Hajima in possession of these diamonds”.

Tuskor glances over to Sebastian “We shall hang back as bodyguards, perhaps we could simply attach the pin to the bag of diamonds if the risk of being caught is too great?”

Vellk looks up, his brow furrowed and faces the Weaver. “Sir are there any identifying marks so we are not duped in much the same way we are doing to them. Does the egg even matter since the pin seems to be the focus?”  He grins, striking a theatrical pose. “Friends, I have often thought about acting out a grand performance.  I shall take on the challenge, there was this play once in my youth where I played a grand oak…”

Sebastian smiles, “I am light on my feet and nimble of finger; I would be happy to plant the pin my friends.”  He pauses for a moment in thought, “However Malachi may be able to be our best bet in getting the pin planted or slipped into a bag.” He motions to where his invisible friend is. “Malachi is very helpful I would be glad to assist.”

Tuskor nods at this suggestion and then looks around cautiously; wondering if the conjuration is nearby. “How long does this sorcery of your last?”

“Until I see this ‘invisible friend ‘ I will question your sanity sir.” Vellk says, smiling mischievously.

“It lasts for an hour each time I draw him from the ethereal plane. I can summon him with a ritual which doesn’t deplete my reserve, or I can summon him in an instant if the need arises. “

Vellk abandons his levity, becoming serious.  “He sounds like he might be of some use. Can he hold a torch when we don’t need him to be so sneaky?”

“Just imagine. A real dragon egg. I do think it must be important not to let a red dragon get into evil’s hands. Perhaps we should do this. Whoever gets the egg, quickly put it in my knapsack if it will fit. Then, if things go sideways, I can get it away while the rest of you cause a distraction. I am very small, and am easily overlooked when there are big people around.” While saying this, Rowan takes her very flamboyant, curly, red hair; twists it into a rope, and quickly pins it on top of her head in a loose bun with a couple of sticks.

“That way we can ensure that both parts of our mission have the best chance of success.” She looks earnestly up at the others, for once looking quite serious. Amazingly, she actually looks different without her flamboyant motions and expressions and hair, and the others can see that she might be able to slip into the night unnoticed.

“It seems as though we have a strategy, and if that fails I’m sure we are capable enough to thwart these sellers”. Tuskor turns back to their task-giver “Where is this meeting place again? We shall leave at once.”

“Our plan is sound. The instructions were to avoid a confrontation, if possible, else the Weaver’s hand will be tipped. If there is a problem, we must make it look natural and not at all staged. Perhaps a distraction, so that Rowan and Sebastian can complete their critical roles.” Hajima ponders a moment. “A clumsy attendant such as myself, or an overly sensitive bodyguard could do the trick and divert cautious eyes.”

Hajima looks at each member of the group and sees the resolve in their eyes. “I believe we are all set then. Gods – or goddesses – willing, we shall succeed and earn ourselves some easy coin and a new tale to tell.” He then looks back to Tuskor. “And if our contact here dares to play us false, well… Let’s just say that we will have ourselves a proper reckoning later.” Hajima pats the wooden case at his side suggestively and peers intently at the Weaver. “We will find him. And he will sincerely regret crossing us. This I can guarantee.”

“I do not think that will be necessary Hajima.”  Tuskor says, meeting the mysterious Weaver’s eye.

Hajima then blinks and smiles at the group once more. “Shall we be off then? Midnight is fast approaching.”

“I am ready, if we have all the information we need then let’s get moving.  Time is of the essence.” Sebastian moves to the door opens it and holds it for his companions.

Rowan winks at Sebastian as he holds the door, and says quietly, “At the right moment, perhaps you, with your invisible servant, will be inspired to a wee bit o’ extra stealth.” She smiles brightly, and then schools her face into a more neutral expression as she leaves the inn.

Tuskor nods at the half-elf and walks out the door.

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 2

Rowan watches her friend talking with the other veteran and smiles widely at them. She cannot believe her luck! Two vets, two heroes, TWICE the excitement! She sees the food that Sebastian and Vellk ordered still sitting at the bar so she slips out of her chair and winds through the crowd. Rowan stands on tippy toes to reach the two bread bowls and the joint of roast mutton, balancing them effortlessly with her drink as she walks over to join Sebastian.

“Hungry, my friends? You’ve forgotten something!” Giggling, she looks to Vellk and smiles widely. “Hello! I’m Rowan, well I know Sebastian already introduced me but I like to do it myself because I think it’s friendlier that way.  Sebastian is my friend and any friend of Sebastian’s is a friend of mine!” She juggles the bread bowls and her drink, trying to proffer her hand for a shake, and laughing, gives up. Setting down the food and drink, Rowan perches on the chair and asks. “So, what is this game? I like games!”

Tuskor nods awkwardly and glances between the faces of the others before returning to where he stood earlier. The others may notice that he hasn’t once sat down. He watches the game of dice from a distance, baffled as to its purpose.

Sebastian and Vellk take turns showing the diminutive Halfling the rules to the common soldier’s dicing game of Twenty Bones.  With much laughter and explanation of the different terms for the different sets, some of which were quite off color this being a soldier’s dicing game, they manage to play a few rounds.

Sebastian starts to put the pieces together about the wild looking dwarf. He obviously hasn’t spent much time around other people. Probably especially around humans. Sebastian asks the barkeep what he is drinking or eating and buy him another round.

“Who him?”  The maid asks, indicating the fur clad Dwarf with a jerk of her head, “Oh, he’s drinking milk.  Hot milk.  He’s a strange one, even for a dwarf.  Even for a dwarf in this town.”

Sebastian wanders over from the bar with another cup of hot milk and offers it to Tuskor.  “Aren’t you going to join us?  There’s room for another at our table easily.”

“No need.  I like standing.  Don’t have food to set down.  No reason to sit.”  The Dwarf responds, his mouth moving behind the curtain of his beard.

Sebastian is slightly taken aback by the gruff dwarf’s statement, but continues nonetheless. “I do think my companions and I are looking to get ourselves into some adventuring work. Each for our own reasons, but all for the reason of good companionship and good coin. With that massive staff I am assuming you know how to handle yourself. By the markings you wear I would have to guess you are either an outrider or a hermit, though no offense meant if I am wrong. I do know we fought alongside a lot of Dwarves during the demon scourge.” Sebastian gets a noticeable chill up his spine, and takes another long drink off of his ale.

“The Thundermane clan” Tuskor repeats, his accent thick with the sounds of the northern mountains known as Teeth of the World. “Bearers of the earth shield and guardians of the moors of Vassa”.

“Those were dark times, but many of your clans showed they are able to be counted on. From which clan do you hail if you do not mind me asking?” While waiting for a reply Sebastian quickly casts a minor spell, summoning an invisible servant he affectionately refers to as ‘Malaki’ to help the nice lady at the bar clean up after all of these wonderful guests. The unseen form of Malaki begins cleaning up spilled ale, sweeping up the mud tracked into the tavern and otherwise making itself useful.

“I’m sure the Dwarves you have known are honorable but I doubt they are of my people, we have kept to our own small corner for some time.” Tuskor’s eyes follow the tumble of the dice. “I need no more coin than a meal and a roof require, and the upkeep of my gear” he continues. “But if a quest involves putting right an unnatural force then you have my interest”.

“Let’s hope that is the case Tuskor, I would like to get to know you better as well as protecting people from the unnatural forces of this world.”

Tuskor nods, seeming to have dried up his supply of words for the time being.

After licking the last bits of grease of his hands and swallowing the dregs of his mug Vellk orders another round of ale for the house. “Did you guys find anything of interest on that board? I’d love to sit and eat and drink for hours but I think my meager funds would soon run out.” He then places a gold coin in the barmaids hand to cover the cost of the round. “Let me know hun if I owe you more.”

As the dice game continues, the door to the tavern suddenly opens. Striding in with a gust of humid coastal air, comes a figure dressed in thick layers of hide leathers and wearing a wide-brimmed leather hat. He looks weathered, in his mid-thirties, and well-traveled. Dust and old mud are still spattered on his boots. He stops at the entrance and lets the door close softly behind him. Surveying the crowd, he visibly tenses his jaw at seeing so many occupied tables. His gaze comes to rest on the dice game in progress. Seeing the signature posture and bearing of soldiers, he strides purposefully over to the table.

He tips his hat respectfully at Rowan with a small smile and nods amicably at Sebastian, Tuskor, and Vellk. “Greetings gentlemen – and lady – pardon my intrusion into your recreational pursuits, but there seems to be a severe lack of tables in this establishment tonight. I have marked you gentlemen as fellow military men and was wondering if you wouldn’t mind if I joined you for a bit.” He waits patiently as everyone shares a look between the group.

Sebastian shrugs and says, “Please have a seat we would be glad to have you. Any chance I could offer you some hospitality buy you another drink or a warm bed to sleep in?”

At the same time, Rowan smiles invitingly and says, “Of course!  We have plenty of room here!”

The man sits and says, “You have my thanks and well met, but I have no need of charity. My name is Hajima Jom. Once a Sergeant, but now employing my skills as somewhat of a freelancer.”

“I’m Sebastian, and this is Vellk.  We’re recently from the Third Legion Scouts ourselves.”  Sebastian says.

“Oh wow, another soldier!”  Rowan says with a wide smile, “Oh are you a hero too?  Do you have stories?  Will you tell them to me?  I’m working on a song…”

Rowan’s rush of questions is interrupted when Freia stops by the table with a similar greeting to Hajima and he orders a generous helping of beef stew and baked bread, along with a pint of ale. “Please, carry on with your game and don’t mind me. Been on the road for a good long time, I have, and I’m just looking forward to a bite of this mighty fine stew. I always make a point to stop here when I’m in town.”

“Are you just passing through or are you looking for work like the rest of us?”  Sebastian asks, returning to the dice game.

Rowan squirms in her seat, barely able to pay attention to the game. A whole table full of heroes! What incredible luck for her future. She eats her food more quickly than usual, barely tasting the delicious stew, washed down with the sweet mead. Her eyes sparkle with excitement at being surrounded by such experienced soldiers. Her head swims with ideas for songs and tales, imagining what they must have been through to live so long during war, and to give them the scars that mar their beautiful, experienced visages. As she finishes her meal, she looks around at the crowd, and wonders if she should offer to play tonight, or sit with these wonderful new friends.

Hajima’s bread and ale arrive first and he tears into the loaf like a starving wolf.  The soldiers recognize the focused eating of one long at the trail, far from a meal that wasn’t trail rations.  In spite of the attention he gives the meal, his eyes continue to dart around the room, constantly assessing and re-assessing the patrons.

The stew arrives, and one hand continues to heap spoons of steaming stew into his mouth, while the other hand never drifts far from the long, heavy case that rests on the floor beside him.  He almost seems to forget the others at the table.  When he pushes the bowl back after wiping the bottom clean with the heel of bread, Sebastian tries again.

“This wonderfully diverse crew you see here are all looking for some adventure in work are you looking for the same?”  He glances at his companions, “I haven’t found anything interesting on the board yet, although I am hoping to soon. Did any of you see anything that piqued your interest?”

“Well I noticed something from a cheese merchant with a rat problem.”  Rowan said brightly, “The pay is five gold pieces and a selection of fine cheeses.  Oh I do love a good cheese…” She is distracted by the sounds of storytelling and wanders off to listen.

“I am all good for cleaning out those giant rats the money’s not bad for a short amount of work and I would be interested in trying these new cheeses.” Sebastian says with a chuckle, “What do the rest of you think? Maybe we can take this quest until something better comes along. This could prove that we should be given a better job next time.”

An old man sits upon a wooden stool by the hearth. He is telling the tale of Starvale’s History. In between lines of history he gestures with wild, sweeping motions and punctuates his accounts of the land with fanciful flute playing. When he finishes he proclaims, “Thank you kind folk, for your coppers, and your ears! If you wish to know more of the History of Starvale and her peoples’ stories – I have books and scrolls of my tales for sale. A few patrons clap or at least acknowledge the old man before he makes his way to the bar.

Rowan claps enthusiastically and tosses a copper to the old man as he passes which he nimbly plucks from the air.  One of Madame Freia’s daughters tugs on Rowan’s sleeve.

“Pardon miss, just wanted to let you know your beast is settled right proper.  I even groomed the ass and scratched behind its long ears as he seemed a friendly cob.” She smiles and bobs a slight curtsey before hurrying off to her other chores.

“Thank you!” Rowan shouts after the daughter as she leaves. She takes a final sip of her mead nods decisively to herself, making her way towards Madame Freia.  “I think what this tavern needs is a little musical cheer.”

Tuskor approaches the old storyteller at the bar. “Greetings story-weaver. I am Tuskor of the Thundermane clan”. He begins to pick out some small pieces of bark and shrubbery from his beard as he continues to speak. “Your knowledge of these lands seems abundant, and though you mention tomes and scrolls, the truth is plainer in your words. Tell me, do you know of any threats to this place, any strange occurrences perhaps that hint at darker tidings?” Tuskor finds what appears to be some kind of nut amongst his fur covered face, after a quick sniff he pops it into his mouth and crunches down on it.

The old storyteller turns to Tuskor and says, “It is a pleasure to meet you, I am known here as old John the storyteller.” He shakes your hand. “Aye there are threats a many, and dark times have fallen on Starvale. I could sell you a copy of my manuscript “The Past and Present History of Starvale” to give you better insight into our ‘fair’ city.” He accents the word fair with a twist of disdain. “As for current threats, I’m afraid I have heard disturbing rumors of the Cult of the dragon coming to Starvale. And there is always ‘The Welcomers’, Starvale’s resident thieves guild. Dark times indeed sir, best to watch person and purse!” He smiles, almost in a forlorn manner.

“A cult to dragons you say? A likely affront to nature of ever I heard one”. Tuskor ruffles in his pocket and pulls out a gold piece, pausing to wonder if it is a fair trade. “Will this cover the cost of the manuscript?”

“Certainly, good dwarf!” He exclaims, happy to have made a sale. He rummages around in his belongings and exchanges Sebastian’s gold coin for a copy of ‘The Past and Present History of Starvale.’

Rowan finally finds Madame Freia in the throng.  “Pardon Mistress, but I happen to be a player of songs, it would be my pleasure to brighten your establishment with a jaunty tune or so if it pleases you?”

The other Halfling woman eyes her traveling garb with a slight quirk of an eyebrow, “Well, if you play well enough I’d be happy to hire you on as official songster.  You can play for room and board if the crowd likes your tunes.”

Clapping with glee, Rowan almost hugs the Mistress, but instead shakes her hand a tad too thoroughly.  “I’ll be back in just a few minutes.  I need to change into my performance costume.”  She slips up the stairs, changing out of her leathers and into the burgundy loose linen pants, olive green tunic with fancy trim, golden sash. She quickly shakes out her braid so that her hair tumbles down her back in a fall of red curls. Leaving her war pipes safely with the rest of her gear, she takes out her flute and returns to the main room.

She pulls over a stool and leaps onto it so that more can see her. She smiles widely at the crowd and pitches her voice so that it can be heard all through the room. “Ladies, Gentlemen, and Everyone Else …” she waits for the few laughs to die down. Let free your cares for the evening and let me ENTERTAIN YOU!” The last few words are said in a loud, excited tone, and she immediately puts flute to lips and begins a cheerful jig. Once she sees her audience is into it, she leaps off the stool and dances through the crowd, playing her cheerful tunes, smiling around her flute at all.

Vellk is tapping his foot to the beat and starting to think it’s time to throw his lot in with these fine people. These might be the small group that can help him accomplish his monetary goals for his family’s farm and the retirement of his loving mother.  He strolls up to the board and adds his name in large print next to the others.

Sebastian takes in the crowd, takes in their happiness, the mirth the good times and commits them to memory. For he knows darker days are ahead and he is going to need bright, happy things to fall back on.  Such a happy memory to give him the strength to pull through when all else is lost. He will never forget this tune and the smiles Rowan put on everyone’s face.

This is right and good, this is why he dreams becoming the most powerful wizard in the realms. To protect hearth and home, king and country, for the righteous good and just. Letting down his guard, Sebastian allows his liquid courage to embolden him to sing and clap along.

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 1

It is a quiet night in the busy city of Starvale.  Several drinking establishments have their slates out and sounds of raucous laughter issues from some and rowdy music from others.  One of the more reserved establishments has slates at the door advertising food, drink and rooms.  The slot for a fourth slate indicating entertainment is blank.  The sign above the door reads Boiling Kettle.

It’s well known that Madame Freia runs a clean place with inexpensive rooms, as long as you don’t mind sharing rooms with others.  Overall it’s one of the better places to stay and since a Halfling was the proprietor, one of the better places for commoners to eat in the harbor town on the Drakenmore Sea.

Starvale, with its many dangers and corrupted cabals is a far cry now from its former glory and its stink fills the nostrils of a pair of travel worn folk as they make their way through the dockside streets. With the rumors abounding of Dragon-Cultists, not to mention the thieves and thugs of the city, it’s best to find a safe place after dark.

They make a slightly unlikely pair, the man of medium height and build, his brown hair cropped short in a recently outgrown military cut.  Belts of pouches are strapped over his serviceable clothes and he walks with a long staff in his hand.  The woman is short, even for a Halfling and her fire red hair exploding in a tangled tumble in spite of a number of combs attempting to hold it in place.  A short sword was belted to her waist and a mischievous twinkle lurked in her green eyes.

Following them on docile hooves was a donkey with an assortment of baggage strapped carefully to his back.  Tents and bedrolls shared space with a strange looking bundle of plaid and polished wooden tubes.  From the look of the donkey he would welcome a warm stable and fresh fodder.

Sebastian pauses outside the Boiling Kettle’s door, giving Rowan a serious look. His icy blue eyes peer through the window, scanning the room for danger or at least a nice seat at the bar. He utters a word of caution to Rowan before they enter the bar. “Remember my dear evil can take many forms, be wary but also be yourself.”

Rowan smiles gently at Sebastian, “Yes, Sebastian. Always myself.” She sits next to him, wondering at the pain behind his eyes. She knows he’s seen much of life, even more than Ian had. By comparison, she feels brand new. Naive, green … everything so very different than her life on the farm. And so EXCITING! It’s hard to understand what life must look like through the pain-filled eyes of her friend.

A stout and officious Halfling looks up as they enter the door, “Greetings, travelers, I’m Mistress Freia and this is my place.” She begins, gesturing them to the common room as a boy came to take their donkey. “What can I get for you? We’ve shared rooms to let, meals for the hungry, stout ale and sweet cider for the thirst.  Or if you’ve a mind, now and again we’ve work for the honest and brave.”

Sebastian turns his gaze to the hostess, the intensity of his eyes causing her to take an involuntary step back.  “Pardon good mistress, yes we will need a room and a strong drink.  If you can provide both you have our business.”

“Oh for certain, I’ve got an ale that’ll sprout hairs on an Elf’s chest or else there’s harder.”  Madame Freia gestures to the row of dusty bottles behind the bar.  “Hard enough for a Dwarf who ain’t been underground for a year!”

Rowan breaks into a peal of laughter.  Even with the bandit fights this past winter, and helping with Ian’s wounds, it seemed not to touch her. As if she flies above such things with the wings of a phoenix, finding joy in giving relief to those in pain. Finding joy in teasing a smile out of Sebastian with a silly tale.

Most especially she had found sheer, fabulous ecstasy in the sound of her beloved pipes. So filled with memories, both hers and Ian’s. So full of love and pain and song and story. She will never know all of Ian’s tales, though she hopes to see him again, but the pipes clearly hold the memories dearly in the softness of the wooden pipes, in the beautiful tartan of the bag. Such a truly precious gift he gave her.

She owed it all to Ian and those darned bandits. That she escaped the life of a farmer and now dances down the road of life, eager for adventure, and spreading joy as best she can. She gives a start realizing that she was being asked for the second time what she’d like to drink.

Rowan beams delightedly up at Freia, “I would love a honey mead if you have it.”

“Oh a lass after my own heart!”  The plump Halfling says with smile, jerking Rowan out of her reverie. “I have a wonderful raspberry honey mead just now.  I suppose your man here wants sommat stronger?”

“Please, I’ll take a glass of whatever fits a new beginning.”  Sebastian says, leaning with his back to the wall and surveying the bar with a jaded eye.  He tries once again to put the thoughts of the war out of his mind trying to remember the good that he has done and will continue to do. The life of an adventurer has got to be better.

She begins expertly pouring drinks and quickly returns bearing a tankard of mead and a small glass of amber brandy. “Seven coppers for the drinks and four silver pieces for a shared room with several other travelers, if it please you.” she smiles up at you both.

“Wonderful, thank you!” Rowan says, paying her share of the fee. She takes a sip of the mead and closes her eyes briefly, as she enjoys the warmth of it sliding down her throat. “Ah! This is very sweet …” she sips again. “This is perfect after a long day on the road!” She smiles dazzlingly at the woman, and then turns her smile on Sebastian. “I like this place. This mead tastes almost like the brew that my neighbors make. Very full and sweet. Just lovely.”

“Well thank you ma’am, ’tis fermented by one of my daughters, the arts of brewing flourish amongst our kind.” She gives Rowan a wink then continues, “You’ll be sharing a room with ‘ol Tuskor, he’s friendly enough.” She gives you directions to your shared room then enquires, “Will that be all for now?”

Tuskor, who stood a ways across the room, raises an eyebrow at the “friendly enough” comment. He’d said little more than 3 words to the barkeep since he arrived the day before last. Tuskor, though a dwarf standing at 4′ 6″, is still an impressive sight to behold.

Clad from head to toe in hide armor and fur, all interlocked through a number of teeth, claws and bones. His wild silver-grey beard reaching down past his belly, but his hair even wilder down his back, almost touching the floor. His light grey eyes flicker from the human to the Halfling, and then back down to his mug of steaming milk which he sips slowly.

“Ah a drink and a bed sound great ma’am. If you have a bite to eat that would be great too. I don’t mind a shared room either, I grew up in a small house we shared rooms, food, and drink all the time.” Sebastian says, “Is there somewhere I can take my things miss? And will they be safe?” All the while lightly touching his scar and scanning the room for possible trouble.

“Well of course your things will be safe young wizard.”  She says, giving him a shrewd look.  “Naught happens in my place but I know about it.  If you wish to have your things put in your room I can send a boy to bring them for you.  Or you can bring them yourself as you choose.”

A tall, dark haired man pushes the door open and walks in with a swagger that speaks of confidence.  Throwing back his cloak he reveals sturdy chainmaile armor and a heavy broadsword on his hip.  A shield is strapped to his back and all his gear looks as though it has seen a bit of wear, although it’s well cared for.

Most everyone looks around at the sound of the door being opened with gusto, but only Sebastian recognizes Vellk, Hero of the Battle of Bone Valley.

“Vellk, you old dog you, what brings you to this little piece of heaven?”  Sebastian all but bellows, gripping the other man’s forearm in a firm grip.  Before you answer, tell me what you are having, it’s on me.”

Madame Freia offers Vellk the shared room with Tuskor, Rowan and Sebastian and hands over a frothy headed ale, black as burnt bacon and a welcome swallow against the chill that follows sundown.

“Four silver for the room if it please you, sir. We’ve also work for those who hire themselves as adventurers or mercenaries.” She says, eyeing Vellk’s armor and pointing over to a cork noticeboard amidst the throng of patrons, taking him for a veteran.

As Vellk and Sebastian catch up Freia brings a joint of roast mutton and a hunk of barley bread and places them before Vellk taking the three copper the war hero left her on the table with a smile and a nod.

Tuskor finishes his mug and walks up to the noticeboard. Previously he had been eyeing a job to clear a local cellar of some giant rats, which he hoped he could relocate. However, with so many seemingly capable adventurers in the tavern perhaps he could consider a more worthwhile task should they decide to unite.

Tuskor, not one easily missed with his hide and bone armor, is joined by Sebastian at the bulletin board. “See anything that piques your interest good sir?” He offers his hand “I’m Sebastian, and that lass over there’s Rowan, and that fine gentleman at the bar is Vellk the hero of the Battle of Bone Valley.”

Tuskor stares at the hand briefly before taking it, and slowly moving it up and down. Customs of these folk seem strange. “Tuskor of the Thundermane Clan.”

“Perhaps there are tasks here more suited to a larger group” Tuskor grunts through his beard with no easily visible movement from beneath it. “If you choose to take up a cause worthy enough, I could put my abilities to good use.”

“If you’d like you can join us.”  Sebastian says, “I know Vellk is a good man to have at your back in a tussle and I know my way around a spell or two.”

Noticing Sebastian’s eyes on him, Vellk joins them, tankard in hand. “Thanks for the ale my good man. It’s excellent to see you again. How has time been treating you? I hope well.”

“Time has been treating me alright, I don’t do well in civilian life so I figured maybe the adventuring life would be the place for me.” Sebastian said, “Let’s grab that table and talk it over.” Taking a sip from his glass of liquor, he slides into a seat, closely followed by the big warrior.

On his way, Sebastian catches the sleeve of Freia as she is hurrying by with a tray of empty mugs.  “Madame, would it be all right if I get a game of Twenty Bones going with my friends?”

Freia raises an eyebrow at him for a moment, but then nods.  “Any disputes that come to blows and you’re no longer welcome to stay.”  She says giving him a stern look.  “I don’t need any rough stuff in my place.  There’s plenty of gambling dens and low dives where you can go and get that kind of entertainment.”

Vellk sits on the sturdy wooden chair, hanging his shield over the back and kicking his sword scabbard out of the way as he settles himself with a motion that speaks of years of practice.  Rowan hops up onto a chair, nimble as a cat and then beams with surprise and childlike joy when she sees one of the other chairs at the table is made for Halflings.  Without coming remotely close to spilling her mead, she leaps from the chair she’s in and lands in a sitting position, level with the others at the table.

Sebastian pulls out his set of dice and winks at Vellk.  “The young lady there is Rowan. To be honest I thought it was going to be a pain and a chore to be looking after her but she lifts my spirits and gives me something to look forward to each day, a bright young face still innocent from the perils of this world. I know I will not be able to shield her from the harsh realities but I do know that I will be here to protect her Azuth and Mystra willing that is.”

Rowan gives them a cheery smile, completely ignoring the dig about her being a potential pain and takes another swig of mead.  “Sounds fun to me!  Dicing, drinks and new friends. What could go wrong?”

Machine Girl: A Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing – Epilogue

Epilogue

“I knew it, I just knew the subroutines and protocols we’d put in place were still alive and well.”  General Hallbeck was pacing his office, smiling a dangerous and crooked smile in spite of being in the presence of those who didn’t need to see him gloating.

“Sir?”  Sargent Daceiron asked, arching an eyebrow.

“You’ve seen the unit’s capabilities, its strengths and weaknesses Sargent, I want a full report breaking down what needs to be modified to make it more combat ready on my desk tomorrow at 0600.”  Hallbeck said, still pacing.

“Sir, permission to speak freely sir?”  Dace said, her voice coming out crisp and tight with controlled emotion.

“Yes, sure, why not.  I’m in a good mood.”  The General moved to a cabinet and poured himself a scotch, neat, swirling the amber liquor in the glass and enjoying the smoky peaty aroma.

“First this isn’t a thing, she isn’t a product and she isn’t she isn’t a ‘unit’.  Second, she is terrifying in nearly every way, from her ability to squeeze more power ounce per ounce out of her tiny frame that should be possible to her somehow being able to draw precise to scale blueprints on a legal pad in the back of a Scimitar class aircraft getting ready to launch.  Third, if the kind of thing we fought against becomes more of a possibility I think it’d be in our best interest to kill her, destroy that tech and bury anyone she has come into contact with.  Sir.”

“Ahh yes… the metal monster.”  Hallbeck had a faraway look on his face as he sipped his scotch.  “It really is a pity that ship went down, losing all hands… too bad you couldn’t have captured at least some of it.”

He shook himself slightly and gave her a grim smile, “I will take your objections into account Sargent.”  He “Dismissed.”

Dmitri pace in his office, chain smoking and drinking Sibirskaya vodka from the bottle.  In spite of the less than perfect outcome of Victoria’s little trip, he was in an excellent mood.

“Did you see her Ivanov?  Did you SEE her?”  He exulted, gesturing with the bottle.

“Young master?”  Ivanov asked, exhaling smoke from one of his long, thin cigars in twin streams from his nostrils.

“Bah, of course you did not see her, but you SHOULD have.  It was perfect.”  Dmitri laughed, a deep, dark sound.  “Oh, it was so… educational Ivanov.  The eventual endgame is always the same for the others.  They all play it safe until they get themselves and everyone around them killed… but she… Victoria knew when safe meant dead and she did not hesitate.”

“So you say young master.  So you have said.”  Ivanov frowned slightly and took a deep drag on his cigar.  “I am not so certain it was … the girl who made that decision.”

“Of course it was her Ivanov.”  Dmitri said, lighting another cigarette, “You do not believe that slander from those idiots protesting do you?”

Ivanov kept his expression carefully neutral.  “Of course not young master.”

David read the email for the tenth time and picked up his phone, punching Yuen-Ja’s number on the speed dial.  She picked up on the first ring.

“David, a little busy right now, may I call you back?”  She said, polite but firm.

“YJ I just got an email from… I think it’s from Victoria’s … um … from A.D.A.M.”  The line was quiet for a few moments.

“What?”  She said, her tone dropping into dangerous registers.

“I don’t even know how… it’s not like I even gave Victoria my email address or anything.”  He said quickly, “Is everything OK?  I mean with Eugene and stuff?”

“No.  Things are not OK.”  Yuen-Ja said sharply, and then took a deep breath and continued more normally.  “Eugene is fine, however Adam has been bad and Victoria is unhappy with him.”  He noticed she didn’t spell out the AI’s acronym, but treated it like a name instead.

“Uh he’s, A.D.A.M. I mean, he’s asking me to help him build some robotic parts.”  David said, starting to sweat, “They’re … he wants me to make legs.  He wants Dr. Arlington to help.  What happened to Victoria?”

“Do you have Eugene’s number?”  Yuen-Ja asked.

“Yeah.  Victoria gave it to me the other day.”

“Good.  Call him.”  She replied, and hung up.

David stared at the phone for a few minutes, trying to wrap his head around what had just happened.  Then he pumped his fists into the air in excitement, “YES!!! Yes yes yessss!  I’m IN!”