The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 15

“What do you mean she wasn’t seen leaving?”  Cronos said, his voice dark and dangerous.

The hotel attendant leaned back in her seat, “Sir please, I am only telling you what I know.  She didn’t pass through here this afternoon sir.  I have been on duty since the noon bell.”

“Cronos, we did not see her leave our rooms either.”  Vilhylm said, putting a placating hand on the younger man’s shoulder.  “Thank you for your assistance miss.”

“She knows something I know she does!”  Cronos snarled, “Where’s the maid?  What about the drugged wine I found in her cup?”

“Drugged wine?”  The attendant squeaked, her eyes going wide in shock.

“Come on Cronos, we should find Tryst.”  Vilhylm’s hand tightened and he pulled Cronos away.  “He will know what to do, he knows this city.”

“Hell with that, I’m going back to the room.  Just in case we missed something.”  Cronos said, running a hand through his hair.  His voice became subdued, “Or if she comes back.”

Vilhylm looked at him for a moment before turning back to the nervous attendant.  “Pardon me miss, but you wouldn’t know where I could the chapter house of Gode is would you?  I need to find my companion and brother in arms Tryst Te’Chern.”

“I think it’s about thirty miles from here.”  A familiar voice came from the door, swiftly followed by Tryst himself.  The man was sweaty, but had a smile on his face as he entered, still wearing his armor.  “Oh it was good to be among those men and women again.  Their strength, their confidence …” His voice trailed off as he took in their faces.

“What’s wrong?”  He asked, brows knitting in concern.

“Callindra was taken.  From her bath.”  Cronos said in a flat tone.

“Cronos, not here.”  Vilhylm said, glancing around at the growing number of curious bystanders.

“Nobody saw anything.”  Cronos continued, “Or so they say.  The maid is gone too.”

Tryst’s eyes narrowed.  “Vilhylm is right Cronos, we need to discuss this in private.”

The priest led his brothers back to their room, a grim look making his chiseled features harsh.  Once they were inside with the door closed and locked, he turned to them and crossed his arms over his armored chest.

“What is this about our sister being taken?  How did you let it happen?”  He shook his head, “No I didn’t mean that, I’m sorry.  Tell me everything.”

“We don’t KNOW anything.”  Cronos said, “She was just gone.  I mean after an hour we started to worry when nobody came out, we went in and there wasn’t a sign of Callindra or the maid.”

“Nothing suspicious at all?”  Tryst asked.

“There was something in her wine.”  Said Vilhylm, “A drug of some sort.”

A slight noise made them all spin to confront a frightened looking girl who had apparently just climbed through their third story window.  Although dressed in skirts and a loosely tied bodice, the prettily plump Tallie had managed the feat without apparent difficulty.  Cronos snarled and reached for his sword but the maid put up her hands.

“Hey, peace!  I seen where th bastards took er ye ken?”  Her eyes were wide with sincerity, “Oi, I only did it ‘cause I owed sommat a turn and th shite said they ain’t gonna hurt er.  How’s I supposed ta know she’s on th lam?”

“You believe their lies about her?”  Cronos spat, half drawing his sword before Tryst could get a hand on it and push it back into the scabbard.

“You have some explaining to do young lady.”  Said Vilhylm, his voice deadly serious.  “Surviving the next few minutes relies quite heavily on your ability to do that explaining swiftly and accurately.”

“Now brothers, she would hardly have come back if she was guilty would she?”  Tryst said, “Why exactly did you come back miss…”

“Me rats call me Tallie.  Name’s Tallisk.”  She sighed, “I dinne spect folk wi family ta get me.  I ain’t had shite but wha I took an tha’s next ta naught.  Jest tryin ta keep body an spirit on th prime.  Vex said ta do a lil job, drug a flagon a wine an play nice an there’d be a fat purse in it fer me an me rats.”

“Uh…”  Cronos looked at her as though she’d been speaking Goblin or Orcish.

“She has been living on the streets.  She has much younger friends, possibly family but not likely, and she steals things for a living.”  Tryst said, “This was a job that offered lucrative payment for whoever passes for the rotten piece of dung that runs her part of the city, apparently a person named Vex.”

Vilhylm and Cronos both looked at the priest, Cronos with his mouth agape and Vilhylm with a raised eyebrow.  Tryst ignored them both and focused on the nervous girl.  “Go on.  Where did they take my sister?”

“She ain’t yer blood.”  Tallisk said, “Nae more’n they’s yer blood.”

“Where.  Is.  Callindra.”  Vilhylm seemed to get larger as he spoke, his aspect more threatening, becoming hunchbacked and barrel chested.  Arms the size of tree trunks nearly split the loose sleeves of his robe and when he looked at Tallisk his face was covered by a carved wooden mask.

“Ahhhh shite!”  The girl backed up until she smacked against the wall.  Cronos looked grimly at her as Tryst took his hand from his brother’s arm, allowing the younger man to draw his sword.  “Th Guild!  Th Hammer fightin hall grounds in th merc district!  I saw ‘em take th girl inna carriage, there’s a panel in th bath what goes down ta th stables!”

“Show us.”  Tryst said, his voice cold.

“I cn show ya th panel but it’s good’s me own death if they see me wi ya in th streets.  Vex ain’t stupid an I ain’t riskin me rats.”  She was still scared but crossed her arms resolutely.  “Them kids ain’t earned what they got.  I ain’t gonna get ‘em killed so do yer worst.”

Cronos noticed that the girl had positioned herself next to the window while appearing to back away from Vilhylm in fear.  His warning cry came too late, Tallisk executed a smooth backward shoulder roll over the window sill and vanished from sight.  They rushed to the window but when they looked out the girl was nowhere to be seen.

The Callindra Chronicles Book 2: The Rise of Evil – Chapter 12

The gates of Denoria towered above them and Callindra couldn’t keep herself from gawking.  The walls were fully fifty feet high and the gates were open a full forty feet wide.  It was so thick that there were five separate gates that could be lowered if an invading force tried to break through.

Tryst was handling their entrance into the city as his credentials as a priest of Gode to pass the stringent requirements at the gate.  There was a chapter house of his faith here and he had been able to send messages ahead to them with a well-placed bit of coin.

“There’s a good place to stay called the Golden Mantle, it is a trusted establishment according to the guards at the gate.  You will be expected there, I sent a runner ahead to reserve you some rooms.”  Tryst said.  “Go and make yourselves at home.  I wish to go straight to the Chapter House and meet with the members of my order.”

“I need a bath and I need it now.”  Callindra said, trying to run her fingers through her hair and shuddering when she found it impossible.    “You can go and pray as long as you want if I get to go and get clean.”

“Since when were you so concerned about being all pretty and clean?”  Cronos asked, punching her in the shoulder.

“You could stand to get the stink of a few days without bathing on top the smell from a gods damned forest fire yourself brother mine.”  She said, giving him a punch that was noticeably stronger that the one he had given her.

“Hey!”  He said laughing, but rubbing his arm, “I don’t smell bad…”

“Right.”  Vilhylm said, “Keep telling yourself that.  We could all use a bath and a good meal.  Tryst, come and join us once you check in with your people.”

It was a short walk to the Inn, and as they drew closer Callindra began to have her doubts.  “I don’t think we belong here.  I mean look at these buildings.”  She said, pointing to the five story structures surrounding them.  All of them were immaculately painted and well cared for.  No doxies leaned out of second story windows, there wasn’t even any dung in the streets let alone garbage.

“Don’t worry little sister, Tryst is picking up the tab.”  Vilhylm said with a wry grin, “Just as long as his runner actually made it and we don’t get thrown out.”

The Golden Mantle was massive, taking up half a block and rising six stories.  The rambling structure seemed to have grown, multiple roof lines meeting and diverging but somehow looking grand and opulent in spite of the appearance that could have otherwise looked tacky.  At the entrance, a pair of guards wearing matching armor gave them matching skeptical looks.

“Gentlemen, I think perhaps you are looking for a different establishment.”  One of them says, stepping in front of the door and putting his hand on the hilt of the rather large sword at his side.  “We cater to a very specific clientele, there are plenty of places that serve travelers and adventurers closer to the gate.”

“Excuse me?”  Callindra said, her doubts momentarily overcome by ire at being called male. “You think that just because someone carries a sword and wears armor they’re automatically a man?”

“Uhhh…”  The guard looked at her and then glanced at his cohort, a slight blush coloring his cheeks.  “You were standing behind your companions miss, I didn’t see you.”

“THIS girl could cut your arms off before you were halfway through reaching for your sword.”  She said, “Especially if you don’t let her inside to take a bath.  We’ve been on the road for a week and I haven’t seen hot water for twice that.”

“Trust me man.”  Cronos said, “You don’t want to get between Callindra and her bath.”

“Callindra?”  The other guard asked, “You mean you’re the group that they sent a runner from the gate about?”  She scratched her chin and Callindra realized with belated chagrin that she was a woman.

“Yeah.”  Callindra said, “Tryst Te’Chern sent him.  This is Vilhylm and Cronos.”

“He didn’t mention anything about you being so … travel worn.”  The female guard said, “No matter, your suite is ready.  Please sign in at the front desk inside.”

“I am sorry, we’ve had a difficult week.”  Vilhylm said with an apologetic smile, “Her maybe more than the rest of us.”

Callindra mumbled something that might have been an apology and might have been a curse word and strode through the door, followed closely by her brothers.  Her soft leather shoes were quiet on the floor, but the man behind the desk looked up with a smile that might have been tattooed on.

“Ah, the exalted friends of the Church!  Welcome!”  He rang a small gold bell and a youth in a uniform seemed to appear by the desk.  “Alex, please take their bags to the suite and give them the tour.”

“Right this way miss, gents.”  The youth said, taking Callindra’s pack from her and leading the way up the stairs at a trot as though she wasn’t a filthy, armor wearing girl whose long hair had living flowers growing in it.

Too tired and dirty to argue, she followed him to a set of rooms that eclipsed anything she had ever imagined.  The floors had plush carpets, the beds had silk and they had their own private bathing chamber.

“There is hot water in the cistern enough for three baths.”  Alex said crisply, “I will have an attendant come up as soon as you are ready.”

“I don’t need help.”  She said, walking toward the bathing chamber like a moth to a candle flame.

“I’ll send one of the maids up to help.  Tallie I think is her name.”  Alex said, turning and moving swiftly from the room.

“Wow would you look at this place?”  Callindra said, spinning in a circle and laughing.  “I don’t believe it!  Gods and demons I have no idea how Tryst thinks he’s going to pay for all this, but I’m going to live it up before they try and collect.”

She walked into the bathroom and found a pleasantly plump maid in a gown that would have been modest if it hadn’t been unlaced halfway to her navel standing next to a steaming tub.  A flagon of wine with condensation beading invitingly on its sides was set next to the tub and the scent of fragrant herbal soap filled the air.

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 26

Ylivia looks sternly down upon you, Rowan, her face becoming more serious now. “By what God or Gods would you make such a sacred oath, bard?” She looks you up and down. “I see no sign, no trinket or band which would denote your faith, your magic comes from yon lyre upon thine back,” she points an elegant finger toward Rowan’s prized possession. “Your ilk and kin oft find no love in a God’s work, they find the prayer a chore and yearn for the open road.” Her eyes focus upon Rowan’s. “Would you forswear your life as you know it?”

Rowan squares her shoulders and looks back at the stern faced elf. “You are right, that my magic comes to me through my music, but my music is also the pulse of the land. The pulse of the world, the pulse of the sky and water. Music is the voice of all the gods, and is universal in its power.

“I do not swear to any single god. I honor all gods who value good in the world. All gods who would add to the joy and freedom and safety of the beings here. I honor all beings who have a good heart, who seek to protect the innocent, and who fight evil in all its forms. If I can help you, and this is good enough, then I will be honored to join you. If it is not. If I must choose a single god, or a single path, then perhaps you are right.”

She looks Ylivia clearly in the eyes. “All I know is that if you will have me, my heart and soul will be with the Order, and I will use all the strength of my music and my power to aid its cause against evil, wherever, and however, it should do harm.”

Ylivia holds your gaze and says, “Faith is the greatest weapon against evil; faith in one’s god, one’s friends, and one’s self.  Battling evil is an extraordinary task that requires extraordinary strength and bravery. Punishing an evil act is just. Punishing an evil thought is not. If you would swear by these tenants then go, find Zern Xerkstil, the Hammer of Impiltur, He will induct you into our order, by my recommendation.”

As the other two speak, Sebastian, Lanaver and Tallisk look around the room, attempting to garner any additional information they can before departing.  They realize the cavern and ancient halls are fragile and worn, the obelisks are probably all that holds this structure from collapse. and even those are frail and old. However, Sebastian did disable their magic, for now.

“Thank you.” Rowan says calmly. “With the magic disabled, if we tie ropes to the obelisks, perhaps with our combined strength we can pull them down from outside?”

Tallisk uses the mental and physical conditioning that has been beaten into her for so many years and forces her breathing to return to normal.  As always, she is finding it difficult to return to the normal world after the thrill of combat. The intoxicating effects of the adrenaline wore off and the horror of blood and death returned. She had done it. Again.

The feelings, the urges to fight and kill never seemed to go away. In spite of her best intentions, what her Master had told her was coming true. She was a killer, and nothing she could do would change it now.  The darkness would eventually swallow her just as Kizarvexius had predicted, but at least she had found some decent folk to accompany until her fall should occur.

“Cn we get otta here?” She asks, her voice sounding pleading and hoarse. She took a deep drag on her cigar and exhales twin streams of smoke from her nostrils. “I need a drink ye ken?”

Between them, Rowan and Sebastian loop ropes around one of the obelisks, letting out enough slack that they have a short way to go to get out of the the cavern.  Meanwhile, Lanaver and Hajima gather up weapons and armor from their fallen enemies, rolling it into a couple of bundles for easy transportation.  Tallisk seems to be uncomfortable with the looting of the dead, but doesn’t make an issue of it, instead following Ylivia and Villonah as they make their way to the exit.

When they reach the end of the rope, they all line up as though they were kids playing tug of war and with a few hard pulls tear down the obelisk.  With a rumble of falling rock, the cavern begins to collapse.

“I didn’t think it’d work quite that well!”  Lanaver yells with a madcap grin as they all run for the exit.

“The magic of the Obelisks must have been supporting the cavern.”  Sebastian says, as they make it out just ahead of a plume of dust and spattering of gravel.  “Job well done!”

“I thank you for my life.”  Villonah says, “We will be in touch Rowan Wildpiper, after you have met with Zern.  Fare thee well.”

“May yer cup be ever full.”  Tallisk says, gripping each of the other women firmly by the forearm.  “An stop by th Kettle ta leave us a note if ya need us.  I dinne take kindly ta them what tortures younguns.”

Rowan sighs in relief and says, “Let us go home, my friends. It’s been a long night.”

They cautiously make their way back into the city and quickly go to Madame Freia’s. Rillo was pacing about the hearth, wringing his hands in worry.  A bowl of stew and a flagon of mead sit untouched on the mantelpiece.

Rowan rushes to his side. “She is safe.”

He jumps, not noticing her until she spoke, “How? Where is she? What of her?”

“It’s a very long story, sir, and your daughter is far more than she seems.” Rowan smiles gently at him. You can be proud of her, sir.”

Rillo’s brow furrows, “How do I know she lives?”

Rowan smiles, “Do the words ‘When windfalls way has wound the woods and willows weep their weary wails, I’ll whisk away your worries’ woe with Western winds to fill your sails.’ hold meaning for you sir?”

“Of course!” He says as tears fill his eyes. “Oh thank you!  Please, I would hear the story.”

“Buy me a drink and I’ll spin ya a tale what’ll turn yer hair as red as mine sure an I will.”  Tallisk says with an easy smile.

Rillo hands over the promised gold and buys everyone a round of drinks.  Tallisk regales him with a dramatized retelling of Villonah’s rescue, glossing over the near deaths of Tuskor and Hajima.  With surprising skill she spins it into a grand adventure instead of the bitter fight to the death in a dank, dimly lit cellar smelling of torture and death.

Rowan picks up on her story and begins playing a counterpoint to Tallisk’s telling on her cittern.  By the end, a small group of patrons has gathered around and is listening.  Most of them applaud and a few even toss coins on the table.

Rillo smiles as he turns to go. “Tis great to have goodly folk like yourselves to help the commoners with their plights. Thank ye, once more.” He says, and contentedly strolls out of Madame Freia’s and off to home, whistling a merry tune.

“That was a goodly telling.”  Rowan says, giving Tallisk the full beam of her brilliant smile.  “I had no idea you had such a gift.”

“Eh?  Well…”  Tallisk sighs, “I used ta tell me rats tales ye ken?  Back in th day.”

“Rats?”  Rowan looks confused, but the other woman is already wandering off towards the bar.

Tallisk feels lost at sea with the talk of factions and gods. Her life was more simple, focusing only on the immediate needs and desires if the moment. To think that she has been caught up in something like this is daunting, but how can she escape it? Did she want to escape it?

The excitement, the companionship, the feeling of making a difference, albeit a small one. These things are gradually becoming her need and desire. Sipping at the thick ale and nibbling at a bit of bread, she tries to come to terms with the way the winds of life are taking her.

“You canne dip yer foot in th same stream twice.” She mutters. Only now do those words her Master used to say reveal their true meaning to her.

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 25

Rowan levels her hand crossbow, taking a careful bead on the Grick’s head.  As it raises itself from biting at the comatose form of Tuskor, she squeezes the trigger and the bolt flashes out to catch the monster in the throat.  It falls, choking on its own black blood to thrash weakly on the floor.

Lanaver moves in with bravado, blades moving in tandem.  “Give up already, would ya?  We got you cornered and there’s no escape.”

“Take me if you can you bastard!”  Is his defiant reply.

Lanaver leaps to the attack with a flurry of stabs and feints, leading with his dagger before stabbing his rapier beneath the sergeant’s buckler, wounding him in the thigh.

Sebastian bends over Tuskor, applying a field medical kit to staunch the considerable bleeding and disinfect the disease ridden bites from the still twitching Grick. Sebastian looks up from his bloody work to meet the sergeant’s eye. “Vengeance has come upon your head, surrender or die!”

“To the Nine Hells with you, whoreson!” Spits the sergeant, hefting his shield once more and advancing on Sebastian. He makes a series of slashing cuts with his heavy broadsword and Sebastian’s arcane shield appears, deflecting the first but exploding into a shower of arcane sparks as the second slams through it and slashes him across the chest. “If I’m for the nine hells, I’m taking you peons with me!”

Tallisk strikes out at the sergeant with a wild blow from the side but he deflects the staff with his shield, smashing her weapon away hard enough that she stumbles backward, falling to catch herself awkwardly.  Even as she falls, her skirt flies in a fan shape as her slipper clad foot strikes out, narrowly missing the man’s chin.

Tuskor places his fingers on the earth, seeming to draw strength from it before rising to his feet. He pulls his tusk staff from his back whilst muttering his ancient words. As his staff begins to crack and splinter and become entwined with red veins so too does his face begin to become covered in red pulsating markings. He charges past Sebastian at the sergeant bringing the staff crashing towards the side of the man’s head with a mighty roar.

Tuskor’s mammoth staff crushes the sergeant’s nose knocking him down. His head splits open on the floor of the guard house and blood spills out into the dirty stone grooves. Rowan quickly moves to Villonah and frees her from the cage trying to calm her down. Once the Gnome girl realizes she’s safe, she swoons, her terror having been the only thing keeping her conscious.

A noise causes them to stop and look back where they came from.  An Elf stands before the door into the tunnel. She has an arrow drawn back to her ear, and trained on Rowan.

“Put the gnome down and leave. You will not take her anywhere and torture her more. There may be more of you, but some of you will not survive the fight if you try to take her.”

“Have ya no eyes in yer head fair Elf lass?” Tallisk says in a deceptively light tone, “We been doin a bit of rescuin sure an we have, an yer a bit late ta th party, though you’re much more welcome than this scum thenow.”

Rowan looks up in surprise. “We’ve just saved her from certain death, and are taking her back to her father. Join us if you will, but there will be no harm to her this night.”

Tallisk takes a pair of cigars from her belt pouch, lights then with a flick of flint and steel and passes one to Hajima. Blowing a perfect smoke ring, she grins at the elf. “If ya don’t believe us, just ask the gnome lass. If she is still… together enough to answer I’m certain she’ll tell ya of our good deeds.”

Lanaver looks at the Elf and speaks in the native tongue the Elves.  “Sister, I can promise you two things; we are leaving this forsaken place, my comrades and I, and the girl is coming with us. You can lower your weapon and leave too but if you keep pointing that thing at us I can’t guarantee your safety.  Just now we find ourselves a bit unwilling to trust strangers who threaten us.”

“Very well, I am satisfied.” she says, lowering her bow and loosening the string. “Let me take a look at her then we must be away. If only there was some way to destroy this fell place.” she spits.

“Oh… Well you should have said so in the first place,” Lanaver grins sheepishly.

“Forgive me, I did not think to find goodly folk here in this evil place.”  The Elf says, “My name is Ylivia, I’m a member of the Order of the Gauntlet and we’ve been fighting against the tyranny of the Starshield Guard.  We have been battling them for nearly a year now.”

“The reason they took me isn’t because I broke any laws.”  Villonah says weakly, “I stole a map purported to lead to the lair of a White Dragon in the mountains of the North.  I gave them a fake map, keeping the original in my boot.  We will use this to bring down the corrupt Guards and restore order to Starvale.”

Ylivia looks at them, offering a pouch of gold with a serious look of gratitude. “You have done a great service to the order and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for courageously rescuing my friend, Villonah.”

Sebastian’s brow furrows, “Would it be possible for us to have a copy of that map?”  He asks, “It could prove a vital asset in our own investigations of the Cult of the Dragon.  I would have a care as well, it seems that many folks are hunting for artifacts that are draconic in nature, The Silencers among them.  Simply possessing that map could lead to further trouble, especially if corrupt members of the Starshield Guard know that you have it.”

“I would willingly make a copy of the map for any member of the Order of the Gauntlet.”  Ylivia says, “However I cannot give such to an outsider without first consulting the people in my organization.  For now, I must see that it reaches my superior’s hands, I cannot transcribe it here and I would flee with Villonah,”

Lanaver purses his lips thoughtfully, “Villonah, your father is very worried about you. If you’ll not come back home with us, can you give us something to prove that you live and are away from these vile filth?”

The gnome pulls back her linen shift, showing a tattoo of a safflower on her upper right thigh and sings, “When windfalls way has wound the woods and willows weep their weary wails, I’ll whisk away your worries’ woe with Western winds to fill your sails.” Her smile is one of grief, but a small shimmer of a smile shines through. “He will know,” she says, staring out the tunnel.

Rowan steps forward, at first speaking hesitantly, but her voice strengthening as she finds her resolve. “I have studied the various factions and had not, until this moment, chosen one. I find myself approving of your methods.” She says, “Villonah’s capture and treatment made me pity her at first, but I find her courage and resolve to be a true inspiration. I will join your Order, and vow to aid in all ways that I can, if you will have me. Then, you may give me a copy of the map so that I and my friends may aid if needed.”

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 24

Thanks to its stone camouflage, the Grick that was hiding in the southeast corner of the room has made its way around the rubble strewn about the dark room and, hanging from a stone wall, lashes out at Lanaver, who is attempting to free its dinner.

As Rowan stumbles away from the hideous creature the two nearest obelisks begin to glow and faintly hum before a pulse of magic energy is emitted into the room. Meanwhile, Hajima and Tallisk simultaneously hear the issuing forth of low wolf growl from within the southern room followed by excited barking and slavering.

The Grick surprises Rowan and Lanaver and writhes toward them. It attacks Lanaver, tentacles lashing out to strike him with terrible force, dragging him close as its beak snaps at the air in front of his face.

Rowan lets out a yelp and cringes away from the monster, diving behind a pile of rubble in a desperate attempt to put something between her and the tentacled horror.  She weaves magic and song together even as she rolls to a stop, unleashing a spell at the Grick, but feels the monster resist the effect.

Lanaver draws his rapier and stabs at the Grick’s snapping beak, the tip of his blade skittering off the hard bone with its serrated edges before biting deep into the soft flesh next to where the tentacles connect to its face.

Tuskor shouts a spell and the now familiar worms writhe up from the floor, wrapping tightly around the Grick and holding it in place.

Sebastian enters, casting a spell to ward Rowan from harm. “We have company from the other room and it sounds like they have a wolf!”

The Grick thrashes against its bonds, partially breaking free as it snaps and bites at Rowan, but the monster is unable to get close enough for its beak or tentacles to find purchase on her flesh.

Four guards bust out of the guard room yelling, “What’s going on in here? Which of you bastards wants a day in the funhouse?!”  They see Hajima standing there with a loaded crossbow. “Well well well, what have we got here? Get out here you lazy bastards we got a break in!”

The first of them levels a heavy crossbow at Hajima and curses as his bowstring snaps and the weapon misfires. A guard wielding a halberd moves around to flank Hajima and strikes him while his attention is on the man with the crossbow. The third guard is wielding a spear and shield, he moves out near the prisoners and hurls his spear at Tallisk.

Tallisk sways sideways at the last second as though drunk, the spear misses her narrowly burying into the wooden door frame she is standing near. The guard with the booming voice who is obviously their leader swings a broadsword at Hajima which misses. He then moves back into the room and unleashes the wolf.

Tallisk moves languidly to one side and back, almost falling but catching herself on the spear with her right, using it to pull herself back up to her feet. She stumbles a few steps forward, leaning heavily on her staff and seems to trip, flinging her left hand forward and causing her staff to glance off the guard’s shield.

He stumbles backward and she reels drunkenly forward, bringing her right foot down hard on the man’s instep. “Oh! Shorry.” She slurs, “I jusht wandered in from the shtreet…”

The scurrying of clawed feet on stone heralds the arrival of the trained wolf as it round the corner out of the guard room. It bares its teeth at Tallisk as she harries its master and attempts to bite her leg but she stumbles to one side and its teeth snap closed on the open air.

“Nish doggy, good puppy.”  Tallisk says, her voice warbling a drunken croon.

Hajima shifts about and strikes out at the guard with the halberd, taking him in the chest with his rapier. The guard spits a curse, “You’ll pay dearly for that, scum.”

Rowan ducks her head out from behind the stones she is hiding behind and hisses a sibilant and angry song towards the Grick. The monster reels in mental agony from the bard’s spell, and Rowan ducks back behind the stones, noting that her magic has more of an effect on the Grick than her allies’ non-magical weapons do.

Rowan shouts at the top of her lungs, “Use magic if you have it!!!”

“Why’d we give that tooth back!?”  Lanaver growls, leaving the cage and drawing a dagger into his off hand. He dashes behind Rowan and past Tuskor, building momentum as he nears Tallisk. He engages the wolf harassing the monk with both blades driving toward what he hopes are vital organs.  The wolf yelps and slumps down to the stone floor.

Sebastian hurls a ray of frost at the Grick. Screams erupt from its beak as its reptilian form is blasted with ice. Sebastian stands tall next to Rowan, knowing that should his blade ward fail his healing art should keep his Halfling companion alive.

Tuskor grimaces at the death of the wolf, hating to see any woodland creature brought low thus. As the last breath leaves the dying wolf Tuskor places his tusk staff onto his back. His eyes roll up into his head leaving them pupil-less and a transformation begins. The staff begins to melt into Tuskor’s back and the end lingers like a tail.

Suddenly with a crunch Tuskor’s knees snap backwards and he falls to his hands, or rather the paws that sit where he hands should be. His already massive grey man grows longer, encompassing his entire body and with a scream of rage his face thrusts outwards becoming lupine in shape. The scream turns into a howl and left where Tuskor once stood is a mighty grey wolf.

Racing to the still entangled Grick, Tuskor snarls and lunges, trying to sink his new teeth into the monster. In spite of its restraints, the thing’s hide resists the wolf’s attempt to savage it.

The Grick busts free of its entanglement with a strong effort. It moves up to menace Sebastian, tentacles writhing and mouth snapping with hunger.

The guard sergeant emerges and swings his bastard sword at Hajima. He roars in anger when the other deftly blocks the blow on a leather bracer and prompts his companions to fight harder.  “Come on you worthless cowards, kill these bastards!”

The guard with the halberd swings it at Hajima, taking advantage of the opening his leader had made.  The blow strikes deep his side, sliding beneath the arm that is still raised, blocking the bastard sword blow.

Another guard fires his crossbow at Tallisk.  The girl twitches her head sideways and the bolt grazes her ear, slicing a few locks of her bright red hair as it flashes past.

“HEY!”  Tallisk shouts, “Watch th hair ya shithead!”  She spins and smashes the halberd wielding guard in the gut with her staff and then brings her knee up into his nose with a sickening crunch when he doubles over in pain.  The man falls, twitching to the ground and she prods him with a toe.

“Ah… are ya OK laddie?”  She asks, but she’s not putting much of an effort into her usual deception.  The satisfied smile on her lips doesn’t help matters.

Hajima holds his side, gasping in pain “Medic!”  He throws a grateful look at Tallisk whose attack has allowed him to retreat from the thick of the battle.

Sebastian calls out “By Clangedins’ beard this things breath smells like the nine hells! I’m coming Hajima, hold on!”  Sebastian hears the cry for help from Hajima, but the Grick blocks his way.

Rowan plays a rill on her flute and lights begin to flash in front of the monster’s face, but although it shies away from the dancing lights it is too hungry to stop be distracted from its intended meal.  As it continues to attack Sebastian and Tuskor, Rowan finds some rubble to hide behind.

Lanaver backs away from the guards, blood flowing liberally from his wounds and shouts to Sebastian, “Doc, ya better patch me up quick!  Seems like there’s more a this red stuff outside me than in!”

Tuskor, still in wolf form, savages the Grick with his jaws, growling in defiance and rage.  Sebastian tosses Lanaver a healing potion then proceeds to blast the Grick with another burst of frosty magic and it screeches loudly in anguish. Even as it thrashes in its death throes, it rears up and tentacle attacks Tuskor, ripping into the Druid’s wolf hide.

The guard sergeant swings his broadsword at Hajima who desperately parries the attack with his rapier.  The crossbowman drops his crossbow and advances on Hajima, drawing an axe and swinging it at him in a series of wide strikes. Somehow Hajima parries and dodges the attacks, backing up until he runs into the wall; safe from injury for now but surrounded by enemies.

His breath comes in short gasps, and he uses his martial discipline to force his body to stop bleeding through sheer force of will.  “You can’t kill me that easily you bastards.”  He grates between clenched teeth.

Rowan pulls out her hand crossbow, seeking to put an end to the wounded Grick, but her shot goes wide, clattering against the stone wall.

Lanaver moves toward the axe man with renewed vigor, flanking him. He circles around toward Hajima, vying for an advantage and supporting his comrade.  There! He spies an opening in the man’s defenses and leaps to the attack.

“Die you bastard!”  Lanaver cries, leaping forward and stabbing his dagger deep into axe man’s back.  The guard falls to his knees, dropping his gore splattered axe. Lanaver grasps the man by the throat and with a single efficient movement, slashes the man’s throat from ear to ear.

Sebastian draws Hajima back from the attacking enemies, using the hole in the action that Lanaver’s brutal slaying of the axe wielding guard created.  He quickly slaps field bandages on his wounds.  “Damn damn damn!”  He curses, unable to contain his worry for his friend and for their situation.

Tuskor relentlessly pursues the Grick, his claws scraping against the cold stone floor as he attempts once again to bring the foul creature down. The wolf whines in consternation as the Grick eludes his lupine form, weakly sliding away from his snapping jaws.

The monster turns on him and manages to latch onto him with a tentacle, dragging him forward and sinking its beak into his flank.  The effort causes it to shudder, leaking foul smelling ichor but in a show of terrible, unnatural stamina it continues to fight.  With a yelp Tuskor is knocked out of his wolf form and lies unmoving face down on the ground.

The sergeant moves in on Hajima as Sebastian is attempting to patch him up. He grins an evil grin, stabbing the prone man in the gut.  He twists his blade as he removes it, leaving Hajima gasping in pain and bleeding profusely.

Spurred on by his leader’s brutal attack, the other guard swings his axe, cutting into Lanaver’s side.  The crunch of splintering ribs and Lanaver’s cry of pain are overshadowed by the guard’s shout of triumph.

Tallisk watches in horror as her new friends endure grievous wounds in defense of her and their young charge. Summoning the inner strength and power her Master had drilled into her over long hours of practice, she springs into action. Her quarterstaff becomes a humming blur of motion, the iron bands on either end causing it to whistle as it tears through the air to strike the axe man on the back of the head with the rebound, she brings an elbow into his face.

The man falls and Tallisk appears to stumble over him, treading heavily on his neck in the process.  “Ohmygosh, are ya ok?”  She asks, her voice dripping with false sincerity.  She stumbles toward the Sergeant, at the last minute swinging a shin in a low arc that connects with considerable force on the back of his knees.

Sebastian stares in amazement, they had seen Tallisk fight before, but never like this.  That sudden, deadly explosion of attacks banished any doubts he had about her abilities.  No matter her soft and plump appearance, she had obviously made the dealing physical violence one of her life’s greatest passions.

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 23

This room contains eight cells, five currently occupied by prisoners who start begging to be released as they enter. A door to the east is barred from this side, and there is also a door on the south wall. A stone chair is bolted to the floor in the room’s center, and interrogation instruments hang from the walls.

“Shhh” Rowan says, while using her hands in a pushing motion to try to get them to be quiet. She looks around for keys to the cells.

Sebastian also implores them to be quiet.  “If you alert the guards we can’t help any of you.  Hold your tongues and we’ll get you out as quickly as we can.

“Ohhh akushla, my heart bleeds fer ya.” Tallisk murmurs, looking at the nearest, “Are there guards? Do they come often? By the Hag’s teeth I ain’t leavin here without all of ya.”

Rowan is calmly and quietly continuing to reassure the prisoners, she also asks quietly, “Villonah, are you here?” While peering into the cells and trying to open the doors.

The prisoners quiet down for the moment, their cries stifled to sobs and whimpers.  After a brief inspection, they see that female gnome is not among them. Of the five prisoners here, four are in terrible condition from starvation and dehydration. They can walk on their own, but they are in no condition to fight.  Two only have one ear.  The last prisoner appears mad, having been driven insane by his long confinement and exposure.

Rowan continues trying to open the doors while saying quietly. “Where is the gnome girl? Where did they take her?”

“Promise to free us and I will tell you.” One of the prisoners with a missing ear says.

Rowan’s face is full of pity and fear as she notices the madness in the eyes of the murderous soul in the fifth cell. She turns to her friends. “I think the honest guards must deal with this one. Freeing him would be a mistake.” She turns her still sad face too, “What have you done that you are here? None deserve this hidden place, but …” and she trails off, not quite sure how to proceed.

“We’ll find her with or without you,” Lanaver sneers, recognizing the missing ears as a sign of membership in The Silencers.  “But no one is leaving until we do, and I’m going nowhere with that barmy sod,” He points at the homicidal prisoner.

Tallisk is shocked at the expression of disdain from Lanaver. How could he not feel compassion for these poor lost souls? Remembering their mission, she concentrates in the task at hand with effort.  Seeing that Rowan has the discussions in hand and unable to continue to stare at prisoners she is unable to free, Tallisk turns to look at the other doors. Since Lanaver is at one, she heads to the other, listening.

Sebastian is sure the madman is truly unbalanced and likely dangerous, loosing him on the city would put innocent blood on their hands.  “Free all but the one that is mad. We will come back for him.”

Lanaver hears the sound of murmured human speech and the rolling of bone dice.  He tries to find a place to peek through the door to the other side, but the door fits the frame well and there is no keyhole on this side.

The two men call out, thanking Sebastian, calling him a hero. The two Silencers are tight lipped. They take your help and leave immediately. After pointing to the eastern door saying, “She’s in the funhouse”. The mad man slams himself against the bars like a caged animal but is not overly loud for now.

At the man’s proclamation that the girl is behind her door, Tallisk struggles to lift the bar.

“Should have let those Silencers rot Sebastian… Remember they and theirs tried to kill us for that fake egg…”

Lanaver watches Tallisk at the eastern door.  “He’s probably lying you know…”

“Well, hopefully they will spread word that we are the heroes to all. Even Silencers don’t deserve torture. ”

Wondering what a Silencer is, Tallisk lifts the bar with straining muscles and leans it in the rack beside the door, grunting in a most unladylike fashion.  The chamber was once grand but is now in shambles. The walls have collapsed in and given way to earth. An obelisk stands in the middle of the room, covered in sigils. A cage has been erected in the middle of the room surrounded by a number of peculiar obelisks made of black stone. Within the cage, a young gnome woman dressed in a simple gray tunic sits on the floor with her back to the obelisk.

She rocks back and forth with her head in her hands, saying the same thing over and over in a mad whisper, “Can’t run away. Can’t run away.”

Tallisk looks at Rowan with a clear question on her face. This looks like magic. This looks out of her league.  “Villonah?” She says, trying to keep her voice steady. “Yer da asked us ta help ya out lass.  We’re here ta get ya otta this place.”

Rowan looks on with deep pity in her eyes. “Lanaver, is it safe?”  She begins to quietly sing a song of courage and strength. Her words and melody are tuned to encourage Villonah, and reassure her that she’ll be ok.

In spite of her magic and her songs reaching out, Villonah doesn’t seem to hear Rowan’s words, but instead continues rocking back and forth.  The same phrase coming out between her lips as though it’s a charm that could save her from death.

“It’s some kind of magic for sure but I’ll check for anything physical,” Lanaver says to Rowan in a hushed tone.

Sebastian can tell that the pillars contain some old enchantment magic.  This is an undercroft of the of Lyceum of The Black Lord though, so chances are the obelisk will not be pleasant. It is so old and worn it is hard to discern what it does.

“It’s OK, lass yer safe now.” Tallisk says, then glances at Rowan and mutters under her breath, “Ahh… it is safe innit?”

Hajima stands near the door to the guards. “Pending any warning of sinister magic from Rowan or Sebastian, maybe Lanaver can sneak in there, pick the lock on her cage, and bring her out. I’ll cover this door with Tallisk in case we have unwelcome visitors.” He then opens his wooden case and removes his massive crossbow, locking the arms into position and loading a deadly bolt.

“Good thinking you two.”  Lanaver says, “And I’ll happily unlock the girl’s cage just as soon as I know it’s okay for me to step past those obelisks.”

“Them things’r th problem?” Tallisk gestures at one of the obelisks, “Maybe I break em? Would that help? Ain’t no way we cn let th girl be subjected ta this fer another moment!  She’s just a girl…” Her voice to trails off, and she turns away for a moment.  “I ain’t gonna allow it.” The steel is back now, harder than before, but more brittle. “Get ‘er out or I will.”

“Lanaver, Tallisk is right. We must get her out of here.”  Rowan says, “Can you tell if there are pitfalls for us in this room? Can you tell if it’s safe?”

“Can’t run away, can’t run away.”  Villonah’s voice continues, hopeless and terror stricken.

Hajima looks back over from his position at the door to the guard room. “If we don’t have any clear reason to avoid that room, then we’re going to have to risk it. One of these guards is going to come out here any minute. We can’t delay much longer. Either Lanaver sneaks in, or Tallisk breaks in. Which is it?”

“Tyche bless me, I’ll do it!”  Lanaver says, slinking into the room.

Hajima nods at Lanaver, respecting him for his bravery. “Good luck, my friend. We’ll watch your back and be ready to jump in if there’s any sign of trouble.”

Rowan touches Lanaver’s arm as he passes and says, “I am right behind you my brother.” Her magic flows from her hand, giving him confidence and skill.  She lets him get a few steps in and then follows, looking around for danger.

Hajima keeps his ear close to the door to the guards, listening for any sign of approach, while also keeping an eye on the progress of Lanaver and Rowan into the obelisk chamber. “Sebastian, be ready to help them with your spells if they should fall prey to foul magic. Tallisk, be ready to help me with these guards if any kind of alarm goes off when they reach the cage.”

The wood elf takes a deep breath to steady himself before approaching the cage, muttering to himself under his breath.  “It’s just a lock… A lock on a cage… A cage surrounded by creepy pillars… Under the temple of an evil god… Who you hope is dead… It’s just a lock.”

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 22

“The boy said this prison was located beneath the ruins of the Black Lord’s Lyceum.  It was, as you probably know, burned down years ago by that angry mob and since then has been rebuilt as, of all things, a shelter for the homeless.”  Rillo says, “The rumor is they’ve found some sort of secret chambers beneath it.  If my calculations of the subterranean caverns about are correct, I believe there’s an entrance just on the outskirts of town near the Stojanow river.

“I can’t rescue her myself, but, I can pay you!  I have some gold and I will throw in some trade goods also.  I am a skilled craftsman, even if I am not a warrior.”  He dissolves into tears again, “Or apparently much of a father.”

Rowan looks around at her friends, still recovering from her shock at Tallisk’s outburst and her emotional response to Rillo’s story.  “It sounds like your daughter is in way over her head. We will do our best for you.”

Sebastian looks curious at this proposition. He has a love of the law and aiding a law breaker goes against the grain of his moral fiber.  The brazen abuse of women and children, however, is a far worse offense to his sensibilities.  Showing no outward response to either Tallisk’s anger or Rowan’s concern, he merely nods in agreement to the red haired Halfling’s offer of assistance.

Rowan seems extremely troubled, and her usually sunny expression is now one of furrowed brows and downturned lips. “If this place truly exists, this goes far beyond the life of one troubled girl. This corruption is a blight on all of Starvale, when under disguise of law, a rogue group of guards can torture and kill without any to stop, or even know of them.” She looks at her friends, a look of determination on her face. “I will get my things.”

Hajima nods as Rowan leaves and also shares a look with Sebastian, his new faction-brother. “I agree with both of you in this matter. Although helping a troubled girl get out of jail who rightly put herself there in the first place is not as heroic as our previous missions, Rowan is right too. This is bigger than one girl. This is corruption at its worst and an abuse of power that cannot go unpunished. Our primary objective should be to shut this place down, especially since the authority of the Starshield Guard has now come into question. If we can retrieve the girl too, then we shall do so.”

Hajima turns to Lanaver. “Your idea is also sound. Doing some background checks on this situation through our new resources, before rushing in blindly, is necessary for formulating our strategy. I will go immediately to the Lords Alliance to see what we can learn from them.” With that, he goes upstairs to grab his things. As always, his long coat conceals his rapier, and the long wooden case is always at his side. He puts on his wide-brimmed hat with a parting nod and heads out the door.

“Honestly I could probably spring our little jail bird myself, but if I’m caught, well… You all always come through in a pinch.” Lanaver grins.

Tuskor has been listening intently from his table where he sits alone; staring at the small vase which holds a single wilting flower in the center of the table. Between trying to fathom why these town folk appear to enjoy displaying death on their dining areas and overhearing the gnome’s plight he finally has heard enough. He rises from his stool.

“The crimes of your daughter may warrant punishment, but not at the hands of such despicable sounding ne’er do wells”. He turns to Sebastian, “I have not been in the place, but have passed by that way on my crossings of the river. Though it does indeed lay in ruin; the remnants of the evil done there has left its mark on the land…and maybe the evil is still being done. We should leave immediately”

She goes upstairs and changes out of her performance clothing, donning her leather armor and strapping on her weapons and other things. She takes a deep breath and returns downstairs to the others, nimbly braiding her hair up and away from her face in a complicated braid.

Sebastian catches himself staring at Rowan as she returns downstairs. The passion in her eyes, the way the leather armor fits snug to her form or maybe it’s the red in her braids or the sweet melody of her voice. Whatever it is, Sebastian is distracted and purposefully redirects his mind to the task at hand.

Brother Keefe tells Hajima he does not know anything about this but says those within the Starshield Guard who are members of the Lord’s alliance would be thankful for the uncovering and destruction of this unlawful cohort.

“I agree, sir. The more we delay the more harm may come to her. Hopefully between Tuskor’s knowledge, and what this good gnome has told us, we can find the entrance and see what is going on.” She looks kindly at the gnome. “Hopefully we can bring her back to you, and perhaps this terrible experience will help her get back on the right track. If not, I will speak with her myself and see if I can’t help her understand that she is walking a dark road.” She softly pats him on the arm. “Try not to worry. My friends are very strong and courageous. We will do our best for you.”

He offers Hajima a bullseye lantern saying, the halls underneath the lyceum of the black lord are dark indeed, may this light guide you to life if it is your destiny or death, if it is your time.

“I dinne care what she done.” Tallisk takes a deep breath, steadying herself with visible effort. “Ain’t any child should be subjected ta th no so tender attention a th slenderman. Jest point me at ‘em it’ll be a pleasure dealin with ‘em sure.” She flexes her fingers, knuckles popping in a manner that doesn’t fit with her soft curves and plump physique at all.

“Slender man?”  Rowan asks, looking at her with innocent curiosity.  “What’s a slender man?”

Tallisk shudders, unconsciously touching her upper arms. “Never ya mind lil lass.  Some things ain’t comforting ta know an yer a mite tender fer this.”

“Oh I’m not as thin skinned as you might think.”  Rowan says softly, crossing her arms.

“Slenderman’s one what cuts answers otta anyone fer money.”  Tallisk says, her voice losing some of its charming lilt.  “Ain’t gotta be a man but usually is.  I’ve had a run in or two with ‘em.  Ended badly.”

Rowan’s face pales in horror and then her brow creases in sympathy.  “Oh Tallisk, I’m so sorry, I had no idea…”

“Ain’t nothin.”  Tallisk says, reflexively touching her biceps again.  She hefts her sturdy ash wood quarterstaff.  “Let’s go an get th girl.”

Face grim with determination, Rowan heads out into the night. “So, on to the caves to the secret entrance, then? Do you think we can find the entrance in the dark? I have no experience with secret doors.” She smiles briefly at her friends. “Between us all, though, I bet we can figure it out!”

“Remember friend, I can see in the dark and secret doors are a specialty of mine,” Lanaver says with a jaunty grin.

Rowan smiles widely at her friend and adopted brother. “Excellent!” Her stride takes on a perkier aspect as she fantasizes about rushing to the rescue of a young person in distress. “This will likely make an excellent song,” She whispers and quite unconsciously, she begins to softly hum to herself.

Hajima taps the wrapped package he now carries. “Once our silent friend moves on ahead to scout his way in the darkness, I will light this lantern. It will reveal only a small beam of light which should help us stay as hidden as we can.”

Sebastian who is quite dexterous attempts to move quickly yet quietly along with his friends.

Either unaware of the need for stealth or too angry to try, Tallisk strides purposefully out the door and down the street, her staff thumping on the cobblestones.

Lanaver glares at Tallisk and places his finger on his lips.  “Shhh!”

Tallisk glances around and seems to notice what she’s doing. Shaking her head in chagrin, she slips into a shadow and almost seems to meld with it.

Rillo leads them to the secret entrance, which is simply a stout door in the cliff face where the river emerges from under Starvale.  Beyond that door are the tunnels that lead to the secret chambers beneath the ruined Lyceum.

“I must leave you here.”  Rillo says, “I would only slow you down I fear.” The stonework around the door is well crafted, unlike the rudimentary tunnel.

Tallisk leans forward, trying the door and then carefully listening at the keyhole.  After a moment, she backs away and speaks in a low voice to her companions “Th door’s locked but I cn hear sommat inside. If ya canne pick th lock we’ll have ta force it.”

Rowan whistles softly to herself, summoning a magic light in the form of a wispy humanoid shape and have it drift near the lock so that others can examine it for traps and employ lock picks.

Tallisk jumps at the sudden appearance of a glowing ghost and only barely manages to keep a squeak of alarm from escaping her lips. Seeing Rowan’s look of concentration, she calms her thundering pulse, understanding that this is more of that mysterious arcana at work.

Sebastian suppresses a smirk when Tallisk jumps. He is confident of Lanaver and his way with locks. He will ready himself in case combat begins.

Rowan glances at Tallisk when she jumps and silently mouths ‘Sorry’ and shrugs her shoulders sheepishly. She’s gotten used to her friend’s easy acceptance of magical power, and realizes she’d best be more aware of the new woman. It wouldn’t do to startle her into giving us away. She gestures at the ghostly light, and then she smiles widely and directs the dancing light form in such a way that it makes a slow and graceful bow to Tallisk. She bows in concert with the form, attempting to make it clear that she controls the form. She smiles with delight at her little gesture, hoping her new acquaintance will enjoy, or at least relax around her magical power.

Hajima turns to Lanaver. “Can you open this lock without making any noise?”

Lanaver nods and reaches into his pack and produces his thieves’ tools.  “Give me just a tick.”  He whispers, coaxing the lock to open with a few deft movements.

With a grave expression on her face, Tallisk performs an elaborate courtly curtsy to the ghost, wondering at the powers she has become entwined with. Is this some spirit of light? A Prince long dead? A captured soul? Remembering that there are the lives and virtue of children at stake, she steels herself, hoping that they can sneak and out before anyone notices and then call the guards.

 

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 21

A few days later as the sun finally sets in the west, everyone is settling down for one last beverage. Whittlee, one of Freia’s daughters, sees to the late-night crowd. Her startlingly white hair is pulled back in a tight braid. She expertly serves pots of tea, tankards of ale, flagons of wine, and other assorted mugs and cups to Rowan’s raucous playing.

The door to the Boiling Kettle opens, revealing a worried-looking gnome. He wears patchwork clothes and wrings a floppy hat nervously in his calloused hands. He peers around the room pensively, until his eyes focus on the table where Sebastian, Tallisk, Hajima and Tuskor are sitting. He quickly walks toward them, ignoring the stares and whispered jibes from some of the other patrons.

“Are you adventurers? My little girl is in terrible trouble. Will you hear my story? I can pay!”

Tallisk’s ears prick up at the magic word ‘pay’ and she turns from where she was trying to teach Blaizette how to make twin circles with juggling balls, an easy smile on her freckled face. “Come now fella me lad, pull up a chair an tell us a yer woes. Mayhap we can be a some small assistance.

“Whittlee cn you get this young gentleman a drink? One last one fer me also of ya’d be so kind.” Tallisk says with a wave and a grin.

“That’ll be on your tab I assume?” The Halfling maid asks with a raised eyebrow.

“Nay, tonight I can pay!” She says extravagantly, handing over a handful of copper coins from tips she got while juggling during Rowan’s performance, far more than the price of a couple of drinks but not nearly enough to cover her extensive tab.

Mollified, the white haired halfing maid makes her way to fetch the libations and Tallisk turns toward the gnome, lighting a cigar.  “Now then, boyo why don’t ya tell us what we cn do fer ya?”

It’s been a particularly long set, and Rowan begins to think that it’s time to wind things down. She sees the worried little gnome enter the tavern. Strange to see such a one arrive so late, and when she sees him look around and head to join her friends, a thrill of excitement and concern goes through her. She strums a few more bars and ends her song, gently putting her cittern away. Scattered groans of disappointment mingle with claps of appreciation.

Rowan bows extravagantly, “Thank you all, for an excellent night! For now, I need a little food and a little drink.” Smiles to herself at the friendly banter with the crowd. She truly does feel at home here. Still smiling, she grabs a seat at her friend’s table. “Greetings, gentle sir. You look like you can use our help.”

Sebastian is nursing his clay mug of hard liquor. He is seen writing down his impressions of the blue Dragon dagger.  He has also been working with a coil of knotted silk rope, practicing some kind of magic with it. It will uncoil itself and rise into the air. Once the length of is perpendicular to the floor it stops moving. However, when Sebastian tests how well it is anchored to its invisible tether it seems to continually pull free.  Instead of seeming to be frustrated it appears Sebastian is methodical in his approach and each time he tries he seems to take copious detail oriented notes.

Sebastian obviously missed the beginning of the Gnomes story speaks up. “Rowan, who’s this guy? A friend of yours? Can I buy you a drink my good sir. It appears you may need it.”

“Hi Sebastian,” Rowan smiles up at her friend. “Apparently this good gentle needs help for his daughter, but that’s all I know.” She turns back to the gnome, “How can we help you, then?”

Hajima sits back in his chair, enjoying the fine cigar and a pint of cool Dwarven ale. A week of guard duty and extra hours in the sparring ring and the shooting range with his fellow Lords Alliance brothers have left him stiff and sore. He feels good though. Better than he has in a long time.

He belongs somewhere again. He has friends that he can depend on when things get tough. And they depend on him. His life has meaning. His skills have a purpose. He smiles to himself and takes a long drag on the cigar again. He reminds himself find out where Tallisk gets these things.

His mind sharpens, fighting away the mildly narcotic fog of the cigar as he leans forward to address the gnome. “We will certainly help you. Just tell us what happened and where she is now. We’ll handle the rest.”

“I am Rillo.  Rillo Leadstopper.  It’s my daughter you see… Villonah.”  He wipes a tear from the corner of his eye with a rag that leaves a dark smear behind, “Her mother died last year and my little Villonah went wild with grief.  She ran off with that worthless Rak and has been running from the Starshield Guard ever since.

“Most of her crimes were just minor offenses.”  Rillo continues, “I paid her fines and she had to spend some time in jail, but last night she was taken!  The Starshield guard came to our home, clapped her in manacles and led her off without even bothering to charge her with a crime!

“I went to the castle to attempt to pay her fines and secure her release but they told me she wasn’t there.  I went to the lower street jail and they didn’t have a record of her either.”  He says, his voice rising as he recounts his tale.  “I called in every favor I had bribing guards and talking to cutpurses in seedy parts of town but nobody knew anything.”

He pauses, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.  “At my wits end, I was sitting on a curb in a not so good part of town when I was approached by a street urchin who told me he might have some information if I had some silver.  I gave him gold and he told me that there was a … secret prison.  A place where a small group of the Starshield Guards take prisoners for unsavory things.  Torture.  Rape.  Murder.  Things they don’t want their superiors to know about.”

Rillo’s voice breaks, “He told me that my daughter had stolen from them and had been taken there.  Please, I’ll give you everything I have just to get my little Villonah back.”

Tallisk leans forward, slapping a fist down hard on the table, her relaxed cheer evaporating like morning most. “Give me the location, if you have it or else the names of those who have provided you with this information.”

Suddenly realizing that she has broken character, she tosses her flaming hair back over her shoulder and pretends not to notice the dainty fist shaped dent in the table. She quickly slides a platter holding salt and spices over it, but not before it is obvious to anyone watching.

“Ah that is th more information ya give us th more likely it’ll be tha we cn help yer girl.  Ye ken?”  She says, her former rage only present in the flat jade of her eyes.  Taking a deep drag on her cigar, she visibly relaxes, or forces herself to seem more relaxed at any rate.

Looking guiltily around, she blushes, a slave to her complexion. “I dinne take th harmin’ a children light like.” She mumbles, looking down. Her hair tumbles over her face, but her green eyes still flash with anger behind the auburn curtain.

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 20

Rowan sighs an enormous sigh of relief. She bends down to the villagers who were in the circle, to see if anyone is harmed enough to need healing magic.

Since she doesn’t have any healing skills, Tallisk instead scans the crowd for anyone who isn’t acting like the others. She finds it hard to believe that two people would have been able to cause this much chaos. She can’t help but escape the feeling that someone else must be involved. Her fingers twitch nervously and she pulls out one of the short, stubby cigars she keeps in her belt pouch, lighting it with an efficient spark of flint and steel.  In spite of her scrutiny, if there were any other accomplices they have fled the scene.

Rowan heals the first man to be struck by the lightning, and he wakes… “Where am I? What happened?” He mumbles, until, slowly memory comes back. The half orc comes over, interested in what the man has to say.

Sebastian also, as a trained combat medic, performs first aid and then tells everyone to get moving before the guards show. “The guards here are often corrupted and may blame us for what they feel is an inconvenience at best or an attack upon the city at worst.”  He mutters darkly, helping to get folk back on their feet.

Rowan helps to get everyone back into the relative safety of the inn. She goes over to the table where this all began, and looks at where the dragon’s tooth first dropped. Finding glass shards with traces of Safflower oil on them, she whistles a short tune and the tiny bits of glass whirl around in a tiny dance resolving themselves into a jar just large enough for the tooth to have fit inside.  A brief search reveals a cork and she hands the repaired vial over to Sebastian with a grin.

Tallisk goes a bit wide eyed at the brazen display of magic, not being used to seeing such, but quickly masks her shock and busies herself picking up and ‘rescuing’ some ‘orphan’ mugs of ale.  Anyone showing that much magical power on the streets where she had grown up would have been snatched up by one criminal organization or another.  She shudders, the dark deeds that sent her running from Denoria surfacing briefly before she can drown them with a few swallows of ale.

“Please, leave the broken furniture.”  Rowan is saying to Madame Freia, “I should be able to repair them for you with magic, but for now, I must see what we can learn about what happened so that it does not happen again.”

Rowan, noticing Tallisk surreptitiously watching her, smiles widely and holds out her hand. “Oh, hello! My name is Rowan. I saw how you rushed to help. Well done! Please join us if you wish. We intend to unravel this mystery, and you seem a talented person to have around. Perhaps you can help us figure it out, and continue to keep these fine folk safe.”

“Ah, well, thank ya quite kindly.  M name’s Tallisk an I confess tha kinda action were a bit… Out a th ordinary fer me. I’d as soon sit, listening ta songs a daring do then dare ta do em myself.” Tallisk blushes slightly and looks down, her hair falling over her face for a moment.  She covers her embarrassment by swilling the last of the ale in her mug.

Rowan looks reflective a moment. “Honestly, though I’ve only been here a few weeks, I’ve come to consider this tavern a home away from home. These are kind people, and,” her face briefly takes on a fiercely protective look, “I find myself quite angry that anyone would threaten them!”

Her fierce look fades into a soft smile as she looks affectionately over at her friends who’ve started to gather at the table. And anyone watching the two might note the oddity of two fiery red-haired, green-eyed, freckled women who could not be more different in spite of some of their physical likeness.

Rowan’s naturally bubbly nature is hard to stifle, and she quickly smiles again. “Ah, but they are safe for the moment, and that is what matters today.” She smiles broadly, and goes to get her cittern, looking back at Tallisk to follow. When the woman hesitates, Rowan gestures with her head, “C’mon then, we may need your help again if this rascally tooth decides to awaken again.” She winks at her new acquaintance and settles in to quickly tune her instrument and begin to softly play.

“How’d ya know about this artifact in th first place? Knowledge a tha nature be dangerous and rare indeed.” The cigar in Tallisk’s dainty looking hand smells of clove and myrrh.  She leans back to blow a series of perfect smoke rings at the ceiling.

Tallisk notices Hajima watching her smoke with undisguised envy. “Would ya like one … ah…”  She trails off, realizing she doesn’t know his name.

“I am Hajima Jom.”  He says in his low, steady voice.  She glances beneath the wide brim of his hat and the intensity of his eyes causes her to look away quickly.  “Sure, a bit a smoke after a tussle’s always good.”

Hajima takes the cigar, smelling the pungent aroma of poppy resin mixed with the tobacco and spices. Tallisk returns his questioning look with a level one, as if to dare him to comment.  Lighting it with a practiced flourish, he takes a few puffs to get it started and leans back with a contented sigh. “My thanks lady Tallisk. It’s been a mighty long time since I last had one of these. Almost back to my soldiering days.”

Tallisk seems to relax, favoring him with an easy smile. “I ain’t no Lady, an I ain’t no hero sure an I ain’t.”

“I think it’s time we had another chat with our half-orc friend and then I’d like to visit that iron guild in the morning.”  Hajima says, “Maybe someone there will remember the man connected to this dragon tooth. Anyone wish to join me? If that turns out to be a dead lead, then mayhap we’ll have to take a trip out to the Quivering Forest where this thing supposedly came from.”

“Yer daft or mad!”  Tallisk says, still sounding relaxed but with a note of incredulity creeping into her voice.  “By th hellteeth, why’d we go off into a place what has things that could do… Well…” She gestures vaguely at the destroyed tavern room.  “Me … ma always warned me not ta mess with dragons… Gods n demons look what one tooth accomplished!  Ain’t them… Starshield fellas supposed to handle this kinda shite?”

A laconic calm spreads slowly through Hajima, the effect of the subtle poppy resin mixed with the tobacco and herbs smoothing out the rough edges of his unease.  Not so much that he didn’t notice a few inconsistencies in her speech patterns that suggested she wasn’t telling the whole truth.  Whoever she was, there was a lot more to this plump, rather harmless looking woman than met the eye.

“The Starshield are pretty worthless unless they’re harassing anyone that makes their job bothersome.” Lanaver interjects.

Tallisk’s eyes widen in exaggerated shock. “Official soldiers worthless?  God’s balls, what’s th world comin to?” The smile dissipates as she thinks of the effect the tooth had on the general populace and she bits her lip, a charming gesture. “We need ta find sommat what knows about magic a this caliber… Unless any a you cn speak to it?”

Finally, the man who had brought the tooth to The Boiling Kettle in the first place recovers enough to speak.  “My name is Trett good folk.  I’m merely a merchant, I don’t know where the tooth came from originally as I bought it from a traveling band on my way through the Quivering Forest.”  He pauses, accepting a mug of ale from Tallisk who seems to have a number of them within arm’s reach.

“They showed me how it could be used to heat a forge in place of a fire.  It heated metal much faster and easier you see, and without the danger of it running out of fuel.”  He takes a drink of the bitter ale, “I didn’t know anything else about its other power or curse, I swear!”

“What did you plan to do with it then?”  Hajima asks, his eyes narrowing.

“I was just going to sell it to the Ironworker’s Guild.  I wanted to meet somewhere public because it was worth a lot of gold and there have been rumors about the Silencers getting less and less worried about the Starshield Guard.”  He swallows hard and takes another drink of ale to moisten his tongue.  “I swear, I had no idea it would do something like this.  I’ve been carrying it for days.”

Buhrell Caah speaks for the first time, “You fool.  Even if you didn’t know it could do what it did, you should at least have known that it was dangerous.  Well, you’ll forfeit this little toy at any rate.  That should be punishment enough, I have no wish to get the Guard involved or else I would turn you in.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on the Guilds in Starvale and I would recommend you do so as well.”  He says, crossing his arms.  “I would appreciate it if you turned that tooth over to my organization for safekeeping.  It is dangerous and has too much destructive potential to be on the streets, as we have seen tonight.”

Sebastian looks to his friends, having not yet relinquished the dagger. “What do you all think?”

“I’m dinne know any of ya really, nor if I have a say in what ya do… But it seems ta me that savin th lives a dozens a citizens an stoppin a dangerous, lethal outbreak should be worth far more’n a hand fulla gold. We should have some kinda recognition, so that our deeds dinne go unnoticed. Not only that, but it‘d be a boon ta have some kinda dispensation for our actions seein as it seems not all local guardsmen can be trusted?” She draws deeply on her cigar, exhaling through her nose and trying to look confident. “Who’s this Emerald Enclave and are they capable of handlin somethin like this?”

“Fair enough.” grumbles Buhrell as he sets a tourmaline gem on the table. “The Enclave works together with with other factions who are united against the cult of the dragon. I smell them in this, their foul stink is all about this intrigue. The Enclave alone cannot handle this, but united, perhaps we can.  If I find anything more, you have my word that I will seek you out and keep you informed, but for now, we must analyze that dagger in order to understand how to neutralize similar attempts.”

Rowan places her hand on Sebastian’s arm and says, “I think they are better qualified than we are to deal with this dragon’s tooth. Perhaps someday we will have the knowledge, but I fear we are not there yet. I think it is safer with them.”

“So… Buhrell… What’s th deal with this Emerald Enclave business?” Tallisk asks, “Does it pay well or are there…” Her eyes twinkle with mischief, “Other benefits?”

“To those who seek balance and the preservation of nature, the Enclave is very welcoming. However, those who seek coin should look elsewhere.”

“Not all what’s got value cn be spent.” She says, “Balance’s all well n good, but if’n nature had her way I’d be nothin but dry bones, th marrow gnawed out by rats. Opposin dark forces’s be all well an good, but sure an I gotta keep body an soul together.” She trails off, thinking about the struggle to survive and the lengths she has already had to go to in order to accomplish that seemingly simple feat.

Shaking off her reverie, she focuses and smiles at him, a dazzling display of teeth between pale rose lips. “But us penniless wanderers’r used ta them wealthy enough what they dinne have ta worry bout where their next meal’s comin from passin dispersions on us. No offense taken good Sir, as I’m certain none was intended.”

Murna and her boy find Vellk the next morning and he decides to once more hang up his axe a while and enjoy the simple life. His cut of the last few jobs should see him and Murna, the baby and their farm, safely through the coming months.

Starvale Adventures: A Prelude to Darkness – Chapter 19

Hajima looks outside as the chaos erupts. Seeing that his friends have the situation inside the Boiling Kettle contained, he runs up to his room to grab his long wooden case. He latches two hip quivers to his belt and kicks the button on the case. It springs open and the massive crossbow flies into the air. Hajima snatches it as the arms automatically spring open and lock into position. He runs back downstairs and out into the street to help Tallisk.

At the sound of splintering glass, Tallisk glances over her shoulder and sees the lightning strike the small figure on the street.  “Is this what ya want?” She shouts, “Turn an look ya coward!” Her fists lash out with deadly accuracy in spite of her professing an aversion to violence.

Seeing that the Dwarven woman is resisting Tallisk, and knowing that she is the only person who knows what is really happening here or who devised this sinister plan, he feels that capturing her is of vital importance. He kneels down and carefully aims his crossbow. He holds his breath and fires a single shot directly into the leg of the Dwarven woman.

The crossbow bolt slams into the dwarf woman’s leg and at the same time Tallisk’s fist strikes her in the shoulder with focused precision. The blow spins her around even as the crossbow bolt makes her stumble.  Tallisk forces the woman to look at the dwarf maid convulsing on the ground. “What in th name a th Gods’v ya brought here an how cn we stop it?”

Hajima stands up and approaches Tallisk. “That was some good teamwork, stranger. Can we continue to count on your aid during the remainder of this crisis? You showed some fast thinking and even faster moves back there. You could definitely be an asset to our team, if you’re so inclined.”

“Look, we cn help ya.” Tallisk says gently, helping to support the weight of the dwarf. “But ya gotta help us also ye ken? This needs to be stopped afore it spreads.”

Glancing at Hajima, Tallisk nods in approval. “Nice shootin there.” She tries not to think what would have happened if he had missed.

Hajima reads the unspoken thought in her eyes and grins. “Don’t worry, I never miss.” They bring the Dwarven woman back to the Boiling Kettle and check on the situation with their friends inside.

“M name’s Tallisk, an… an I ain’t really th… hero type.” She says, “Though if ya gotta steady income, I’d appreciate th promise a regular meals sure an I would.” Tallisk makes a strange sign over her chest, roughly translating to ‘never say never ever’

“I’m glad yer aim was true sure.” She sizes him up, knowing he is too experienced to be a mark, but not certain about him yet. “Who’s th ‘we’ yer referrin to?”

Meanwhile, the people who have been struck stand hand in hand forming a circle. They crackle with lightning and the people in the thoroughfare give them a wide berth.  Lanaver looks them over, noting the Safflower necklace, the bow from the Quivering Wood and recalling Rowan’s mention of Safflower oil in the food the half elf Schuyler had been eating.

“I’ve an idea, it’s crazy but, I think it’s the Safflowers!” Lanaver bolts for the kitchen with Rowan hot on his heels.  They begin looking for safflower oil and after a brief search, Lanaver finds a large earthenware jug of it and heads back towards Sebastian at a dead run.  Rowan follows after finding a smaller flask of it next to the cook stove.

Tallisk ducks into the tavern room and shortly emerges with a staff of seasoned ash in one hand and a pack in the other. With a determined grimace, she approaches the circle of folk. “If’n I cn jest find a way ta ground em out.” She mutters, but then quickly dismisses the idea, after all their feet are touching the ground. This is real magic and beyond her experience. All she can do now is keep any others from being infected.

Looking at the half comatose dwarf still in Hajima’s arms, she demands “How do we stop it then? Tell me or by th hellteeth I swear I’ll toss ya in there ta suffer th same fate!”  Her emerald eyes flash with rage that comes as a bit of a shock to Hajima; she looks more like someone’s plump little sister than anything capable of that kind of threat of violence.

“I don’t know.”  The Dwarf says, her face white with pain from the crossbow bolt through her thigh.  “I’m Yanna Hammerbound, a high-level representative of Starvale’s Ironworkers’ Guild.  I was here to purchase the blue dragon tooth from that bastard.”  She points a trembling finger at her former table companion, the first one to succumb to the arcane electrical curse.

As Lanaver runs from the kitchens the lightning finishes with the Dwarven girl. After it leaves her, it strikes the elven man who works at a stall outside the Boiling Kettle where flowers, including the safflowers likely worn by the Dwarven girl, are sold.  The Dwarven girl rises and moves to join the hand in hand circle. A nearby man tries to help her and is jolted and thrown unconscious into the mud.

“Rowan! Sebastian! Follow me!” Lanaver shouts, “If all of us hold on we might share the load and it not kill all of us… We’re basically a living lightning rod and hopefully we can trap the lightning back into the tooth.”

Rowan runs toward the circle, bottle of safflower oil in one hand. She grabs hold of one of her brother’s hands with her other. As she takes his hand, she sings a song of encouragement and their resolve is strengthened by her bardic magic.

The lightning finishes with the flower peddler and arc loudly towards the three friends. The lightning swirls about Sebastian before finally returning safely, for now, within the dagger. The circle of those who were struck ends as they all fall prone. The sound of crackling lightning is no more, only the sounds of panic can be heard as the crowd rushes to help those who were hurt, seeing danger is now abated.

Tallisk stands in shock, speechless for the first time in many moons. These people were crazy! Who in their right mind would put themselves in harm’s way, and in the way of magic, UNKNOWN magic at that? Then she shudders, realizing that she had been prepared to do the same, of only she’d known what to do. Where had THAT inclination come from? Helping others was all well and good, but she had been considering near suicide… But the warm glow she felt when she saw the people who were still alive because of their actions was admittedly nice.

Taking a deep breath, she turns to the group of adventurers. “Tha. Was… well tha was somethin.  What a rush! I… Gods and Demons I need a drink sure an I do.”