Just Rewards
One Week Later...

A week after the Carnival of Tears, as the town of Shrikewall tries to get back on its feet, Baron Brinian summons you all to a public ceremony in the castle courtyard to remember the fallen and acknowledge your efforts. A crowd has gathered in the cold, muddy square in anticipation of the ceremony, yet a cloud of mourning hangs heavily over them.

You stand in a line atop a wooden platform as the frigid winter wind cuts through your cloaks and claws at the banners atop the walls, the golden dragon of Narland fluttering on a field of crimson. Jhod and Sheriff Deldrin stand beside you, while the baron, Thuldrin Kreed, Thalnoros, and Domenic Ghirlandaio, the Knight of Gold, stand at one end of the stage. Namdrin Quinn is conspicuously absent. A memorial sits at the foot of the stage, a commemoration for the victims of the massacre, and you spot several familiar faces out in the crowd—Akiros, Cilia, and Kimi, among others. Young Brinian Vasseri steps forward, his eyes tired yet his jaw set with grim determination. Speaking somberly and without pretense, he addresses the crowd.

“People of Narland, I stand before you as a man who feels your sorrow. I look out among you and I see many missing faces of friends and family members who are now lost to us. Know that every name of the one-hundred and thirty-seven men, women, and children who lost their lives will be forever etched upon my heart.”

The baron’s voice grows colder and his fists clench.

“People of Narland, I feel your fury. My heart burns with rage at the memory of what was taken from us, at the cruel creatures who would slaughter innocent folk without hesitance. Know that we will enact vengeance on behalf of the one-hundred and thirty-seven men, women, and children that were stolen by the fey.”

The crowd has gained some life at his words, and several voices call, “Kill the faeries!” and “Burn the damned forest to the ground!” Brinian holds up his hands until they are quiet again.

“People of Narland, let us not forget that none of us would be standing here were it not for the brave heroics of a select few.” The baron motions to all of you. “These nine heroes defended us when we could not defend ourselves. Their spells and blades saved countless lives, and they risked everything they had with no promise of reward.” He turns to look directly at you. “We—I owe them everything.”

Turning back to the crowd, he motions for the Knight of Gold to come forward. The Swordlord Domenic carries a polished mahogany box, two hands wide by one hand deep and only a few inches tall. He stands beside the baron and opens the box ceremoniously. Inside are nine deep-red cloth badges embroidered with gold lettering.

“In honor of these nine and those that fell, I present to you the Badge of the Crimson Tear. From this day forward, those that shed their blood for Narland will be honored with this decoration.” Brinian begins taking the badges from the box one-at-a-time and pinning them to your chests. He thanks each of you personally as he goes down the line [Comment if you are interested in what he said to you individually and want to reply]. Looking at the embroidered lettering, it reads in Draconic, “Iejir ihk Iejir.”

“Blood for Blood,” Deldrin mutters to himself as he looks down at his own badge.

After all of the badges have been awarded, Baron Brinian turns back to the crowd, fire in his eyes. “People of Narland, I know we have been beaten down, but we are strong. These nine showed the dark creatures of this land that we will not surrender. Join me, join these heroes, and together we will prove to every nation, to every troll and damned fey, that we are not leaving, that these Stolen Lands now belong to their rightful owners! When Gozreh releases his hold on the north, we will march south and drive out every enemy from these lands, from our lands!” Brianian draws out his blade in one smooth motion, the single edge of the curved steel glinting. He holds it aloft as he shouts, “People of Narland, gather your honor and your bravery, for when spring comes, we go to war!”

The Mourning of Shrikewall

Many died at the Carnival of Tears—as the locals now refer to it—but thanks to your efforts, the murder toll was not more extensive. Baron Brinian touts you as brave heroes who averted complete disaster with your selfless act of valor, yet the horrifying incident is not soon forgotten. Shrikewall falls under a pall of mourning, and some leave Narland, abandoning it as a cursed place. After the attack, Thuldrin Kreed harnesses the rage the citizens feel and directs it at Syntira and her fey. Public outcry calls for the extermination of the forest folk—no mercy or quarter given.

Having broken the Cold Rider’s grasp on the area, the supernatural cold relents for a few weeks, but it is not long before Gozreh, god of the storm and sky, brings a terrible winter storm to the Stolen Lands. Local druids divine that this winter will be particularly long and grueling, and farmers whisper among themselves in hushed, worried tones, fearful that what crops they were able to harvest before the early winter will not be enough.

You have a month to sort your affairs and answer any questions you may have. How fares Syntira the dryad queen, and perhaps more importantly, your fey friends who were corrupted by the Cold Rider? How have the citizens you have befriended been affected by the slaughter at the Carnival of Tears? Will the kingdom of Narland have enough food to survive the winter? Use your time wisely.

Out of the Frying Pan
...and Into the Freezer

Rigg Gargadilly sped through the quickly (ha!) deteriorating party to his bedchamber. Running up the circular chamber’s walls in three quick laps, he vaulted onto the rafter where he kept his secret stash of valuables. Looking into a ceramic pot, he quickly made sure all of his gems—his most precious possessions—were accounted for.

“One…two…twelve. Perfect,” he said smiling, holding up a sapphire as wide as his thumb.

His smile evaporated when he felt the portal open. “Home…” he thought wistfully, feeling the pull of the First World from atop the tower, its beckoning reminding him of the much better world he had left behind.

He shook the memories away. “No, not anymore. Besides, humans are much more fun to torture,” he smiled wickedly.

And then came the otherworldly scream.

“Time to go!”

Wrapping his arms around the ceramic pot, he raced from the chamber and out the front door, zooming by the two kobolds and Reginald the Maestro. “You don’t have to be the fastest faerie,” he thought to himself. “But it sure helps!”

Running through the dark woods, Rigg slid under low-hanging branches and bounded over bushes, the ruined observatory quickly fading behind him. There was no root nor rut that would catch Rigg Gargadilly, even in the dark of night. No sir, not the fastest quickling in the—

Before he knew what was happening, Rigg was spinning head over heels, his grasp on the ceramic pot lost and all of its contents bouncing through the underbrush.

“What in the names of the Eldests?” he scowled, coming to his feet quickly.

He scoured the dark woods through glaring eyes, trying to find the cause of his tumble when he came upon a most curious sight. Kneeling before him was a damned brownie, one of the meekest and, in Rigg’s eyes, most worthless of the faeries. What stopped Rigg from ripping the mewling fey apart then and there was the dark ice that enveloped the creature. Its eyes, frozen in terror, stared past Rigg, and its hands reached out futilely for mercy.

Rigg admired the fine sculpture before returning to business. Catching sight of his favorite sapphire at the foot of the frozen brownie, he reached down to retrieve it.

A hoof came down right next to his hand, the crunching of autumn leaves quickly replaced by the sound of ice cracking. Rigg looked at the hoof without moving, mesmerized by the ice quickly forming beneath it. The fell beast snorted, and Rigg felt the icy chill of the winter wind upon his neck. His breath fogged in the darkness.

He looked up slowly and caught his eyes. “Oh great,” he sighed in resignation.

Three Weeks a Slave
Memoirs of a Rothé

Drip. “Six-hundred ninety-six.”

He could feel the blood caked between his wrists and the shackles, a remnant of earlier rebellion. The delicate elven chains had proven sturdier than they looked.

Drip. “Six-hundred ninety-seven.”

He could taste the blood dripping freely from his lips, the area where his right tusk had been now empty and pulsing with pain; it was the latest “gift” bestowed by the dark elf known as Kardrogas.

Drip. “Six-hundred ninety-eight.”

He could smell the blood in the air, some fresh, some not. It was sweet, sickly…familiar, like the damp stone and the wails of Phe’lyx; like the weight of Ruel’s lifeless body leaned up against him, and the gleam of the silver dagger just out of reach, sheathed in the boy’s chest. All so familiar.

Drip. “Six-hundred ninety-nine.”

He could see the blood trail leading from Phe’lyx’s shackles to the room beyond—Kardrogas’ “workshop.” The wizard didn’t scream as much anymore, not since the dark elf drove a spike through his tongue. He could remember…

The plan had been simple. When the dark elves left the trio alone, Phe’lyx would use his magic to escape his bindings. He would then release Zorag and Ruel, and they would sneak out of the city under the cover of night, a little beaten and cut up from a day of abuse at Kardrogas’ hands, but nothing Ashen couldn’t fix upon their return.

The dark elves’ hubris made it too easy. They must have figured their prisoners already beaten and without hope and thus had left them unguarded, the keys to their shackles hanging beside the door. Before long, the three were creeping towards the forest, Phe’lyx scouting ahead invisibly and leaving marks for Zorag and Ruel to follow. It was as if the dark elves had completely abandoned the area, for the group encountered no resistance.

“We might just pull this off,” Zorag thought optimistically.

And then he heard the scream.

Without hesitation, Zorag and Ruel broke off toward the sound. Entering a clearing in the trees, they immediately saw two babau demons with their arms raised up towards each other, violet flame flickering in the space between them. After a moment, Zorag realized that the flame was outlining a transparent figure—Phe’lyx! The demons were holding him aloft by the ankles. The elf screamed as the demons’ acidic flesh corroded his skin.

" Huela t’puuli, Arkaxis," said a voice behind Zorag and Ruel. The two quickly turned to see Kardrogas and another dark elf walking behind them. The unknown dark elf—Arkaxis?—scowled and handed the torturer a handful of silver coins as more drow approached out of the darkness—far too many to fight. The duo walked right by Zorag and Ruel as if they weren’t even there.

“Too early is your hand shown, iblith," Kardrogas sneered as he walked up to the flailing Phe’lyx. “Your spell, release it.”

The transparent Phe’lyx continued to struggle against his captors, but their might was too much. “Or what?” he dared ask.

“What happens next, it will make far easier for you.”

The two elves stared at each other for a moment before Phe’lyx finally released the spell of invisibility. Kardrogas nodded to the demons, who promptly released the elf unceremoniously to the ground. Dusting himself off, Phe’lyx rose to his feet, trying to maintain a small measure of defiance in his stare.

Kardrogas smiled. “Chosen well, you have.”

Suddenly Phe’lyx’s body went rigid at the word of a female dark elf in the congregation. Moving quickly, Kardrogas unrolled a bundle of terrifying implements—pliers, scalpels, sharp needles of all sizes—and removed a small steel needle of roughly two inches in length. Prying open the elf’s mouth, he reached in and grabbed Phe’lyx’s tongue.

With a roar, Ruel charged at Kardrogas, tusks beginning to elongate from his jaw, fur covering his muscular arms.

“Ruel, no!” shouted Zorag, but too late.

And with no warning, Ruel’s charge ended. A silver dagger protruded from his chest, held there by the dark elf Arkaxis, who had appeared unnoticed in Ruel’s path. The young warrior looked into the red eyes of the elf and tried to struggle, but the blade struck true. Wordlessly, Ruel’s animalistic features receded, and he was but a man again, falling, the dagger still in his chest.

“Ruel…” Zorag whispered, holding his hands up instinctively. He knew that to charge across the clearing was to invite death, for many drow were at his back.

Smiling wickedly at the interruption, Kardrogas turned again to Phe’lyx. "Now, iblith, taste true pain."

And then the needle tore through Phe’lyx’s tongue, and the elf could not scream.

“When you seek your end,” Zorag remembered Kardrogas saying to Phe’lyx, “you may find it if you speak true. Until then, pain you will know, and pain you will love, for that path is bliss.”

In the three weeks since, Zorag had only caught a glimpse of Phe’lyx’s torture. The needle was stuck upright in the elf’s mouth, his tongue pinned half-way up the needles length. The points of either side were wedged against the roof and bottom of his mouth, forcing him to keep agape at all times. Zorag could only imagine the excruciating pain.

“Seven hun—”

The drip hadn’t come.

Zorag looked to the ceiling of the dark room where the rainwater seeped in. He saw the leak, but no drips came. The water sat there, hanging from the ceiling, taunting him.

“Seven hun—” he whispered.

He looked to the hilt of the dagger sticking from Ruel’s decaying corpse. If only he could reach it, he could end this existence, free from the tyranny of the leaking roof.

“Seven hu—” he stammered frantically.

He thrashed against his bindings, opening week-old wounds. Blood ran down his forearms.

“Seven!” he screamed.

He looked up.


The water hit him in the eye.

His body relaxed, and his struggles ceased.

“Seven hundred,” he whispered.

The Darkest Hour

The sickly stench of sulfur assaulted Ruel’s sensitive nose, nearly knocking him out of the room. Not that he needed much help, as the gigantic vulture creature split the air with an otherworldly scream, tearing the young man’s head apart from the inside. He saw Master Cantori and Baron Revnica fall to their knees, holding their ears in pain. Ruel ran to the half-orc’s side and put his arm under the Baron, urging him to escape.

Zorag slumped in his arms, completely limp. Normally, Ruel could lift a man easily enough, even one the size of the Baron, but he found that his muscles would not comply. As the large half-orc fell into him, he saw several darts protruding from the Baron’s back. “Baron Zorag!,” the young man cried.

Looking over at the elf, Master Cantori had completely fallen to the floor, similar darts poking out of him. “Some kind of pressure trap…” Ruel thought, trying to lift the half-orc futilely. “If I can just get him out of here…” He found his mind was cloudy, his muscles unresponsive.

He turned to the door, desperately trying to find an escape from the creature and its devilish traps. Before him, however, knelt a line of elves, dark in complexion, their skin like charcoal and their hair a stark white. Simultaneously loading darts into miniature crossbows, they stared at Ruel with chilling red eyes. Confused, the young man reached behind him to feel his back. With shock, he pulled a dart out from his exposed skin and suddenly felt many more like it.

“Baron… please… wake—”

The elves lifted their crossbows as one, and Ruel saw another volley of darts converging on him.

And then he saw nothing.

L’rothe ul’kas ukta ‘baron.’”

The quiet voices split Phe’lyx’s head like a morning after drinking with Akiros. Night had fallen—“How many hours have I been out?” he thought groggily.

His arms were shackled above his head. A cursory examination revealed that his spellbook and spell component pouch were missing. He pulled on the chains, expecting them to give slightly, when he noticed that his magical bracers were also missing. “Ashen will never let me hear the end of it,” he lamented silently.

The two creatures before him roused him from his pondering. They were elves, but unlike any he had ever seen, with jet black skin and striking white hair. The one who had spoken wore long blue robes with arcane runes embroidered on the sleeves. On his belt hung an array of arcane implements—scroll tubes, component pouches, an iron-bound book with a skull-shaped lock—and on his shoulder perched a winged imp holding another tome. “My spellbook!” Phe’lyx realized.

The other elf terrified the wizard. He wore blood-red, bladed armor that left his chest exposed, though Phe’lyx wished it did not. Sticking through the dark elf’s skin were steel needles at least two hands long. He had others, too—two sets through his forearms, and one embedded in the knuckles of his left hand. Phe’lyx wondered what sort of creature would put another through such torture; or worse, what sort of creature would do that to themselves?

“‘Baron?’ Vel’bol ‘udtila ol hass’l?” asked the frightening figure.

Phe’lyx could almost understand their speech—it definitely had elvish roots—but it was fouled up with a very alien dialect and diction. Something about the meaning of “baron.”

The blue-robed dark elf turned to Phe’lyx suddenly, noticing that he had awakened. With a smile that did not touch his eyes, he motioned towards the chained and unconscious form of Zorag. In rough Taldane, he said, “It means, Kardrogas, that a very important visitor we have. Don’t kill the orc. Need him we may.”

“And the iblith?” Kardrogas asked lustfully.

The mage turned to walk from the room. “Enjoy him.”

Kardrogas bowed deeply. “A’dos quarth, Nolveniss!” The imp on the mage’s shoulder cackled with glee as the door shut resoundingly behind them.

Kardrogas turned toward Phe’lyx and pulled a wickedly curved knife from his belt. Kneeling down, the dark elf rubbed the cold steel against Phe’lyx’s cheek and whispered, “Afraid, don’t be. Learn to love the pain, you will, as I have.”

And such was the first cut of many.

Wrath of the Kobold King
And Meeting an Old 'Friend'

Phe’lyx wiped the soot from his brow, only to find that his sleeve had been burned away to the elbow by the dying breath of Merlokrep, the Kobold King. “Bloody kobolds and their ‘blood of dragons,’” thought Phe’lyx angrily. He made a mental note to discern how Merlokrep had actually managed to breathe fire as he approached the line of kobolds blocking the passage that Ashen had—foolishly—run down.

“You fought as kings,” the new kobold leader—Kapmek?—was saying to Zorag as Phe’lyx approached. “They fight as shamans. The strongest will walk away.”

Sighing with agitation, Phe’lyx knew the fool human was surely in over his head and needed assistance. There was no time for the superstitions and archaic rituals of these pathetic lizards.

The elven wizard stepped directly up to Kapmek. “Fortunately,” he said with dripping sarcasm, “I also fight as a shaman.” He took a step forward, and with a quick word found himself twenty feet down the corridor and past the line of kobolds. The confused yaps of the creatures told him that his little trick had worked perfectly.

A golden light shone from the cavern ahead, and as Phe’lyx entered the area, he found Ashen rolling on the ground, scimitars slicing at unseen foes as two red-scaled kobolds looked on with amusement. Quickly surveying the room, the source of the golden light immediately became clear. The Tanner boy, encircled by a column of light, was huddled behind a crude stone altar that was stained with the fresh blood of elf. The unknown figure’s chest was ripped open and his body adorned with many small cuts. Attempting to pry through the column with his claws was the familiar kobold, Tartuk.

The purple-scaled kobold looked up as Phe’lyx entered the room. “You, too?” he said in exasperation. The other kobolds looked to him for leadership. “Kill the elf! Quickly!”

One kobold dodged past the slashing form of Ashen and stabbed at Phe’lyx with his spear. Parrying the strike neatly, the wizard pushed the creature off balance and dropped his quarterstaff. Spinning aside with elven grace, he quickly drew his bow and put an arrow right between the creature’s eyes before erecting a magical shield and deflecting the thrown javelin of the other kobold.

In a contest of speed, the kobold stood no chance, and before it could draw another javelin, it found an arrow embedded in its chest.

Dropping the bow, Phe’lyx muttered an incantation, and three bolts of magical energy flew from his outstretched hand and flew unerringly for Tartuk, but the purple kobold had his own magical tricks, and a transparent shield rose up and sparked brilliantly as the missiles crashed into it.

Phe’lyx mentally recounted his available spells today, and realized that he was running out of options. “Alright, Ashen, it’s time to wake up,” he muttered sardonically as the priest flailed on the ground…

The Stag Lord Falls
Where are the elves?

​Today, we battle the famed Stag Lord. The plan, apparently, is to subdue those of us that the bandits would perceive as too much of a threat, chiefly me. It is no matter. I could probably slay the entire company without aid, but I know that it is good to fight together. I do not want to end up like Markas.
​For myself, I feel like this subtlety is unnecessary. I prefer a straight fight. But I suppose I will go along with it for the sake of the noisy mage and the skinny human.
​We march up to the door of the fortress and Martin uses his silver tongue to gain access while Phe’lyx and Valyn sneak around the back. I do not believe that I have ever seen Phe’lyx engage in a fair fight….
​The first thing that I notice inside the door is the corpse of that sniveling bandit, Pyfrin. He had no pride in life, and it seems they will not allow him dignity in death either. He hangs suspended above us on the wall, mutilated as if in some misguided warning. Surely they know by now that one such as I will not be scared away by a bit of blood.
​Almost as soon as we enter the camp, that villain Dovan steps out from the back of the fortress and blows our cover. But that is unimportant. I came here ready for a fight. I tear off my manacles, grab my weapons from the ground, and prepare for glory.
​And, to add to my pleasure, that brute who killed my mule chooses that moment to join the fight. I am going to enjoy killing him. Add that chance of revenge to the glory of slaying a dragon, and I know that this is going to be a good day. I say a silent prayer to Angradd for strength.
​And then that blasted silver dragon breathes a mist over us and I slump to the ground with a clatter. My last conscious thought is one of shame to be felled so early in battle. I have failed the memory of my grandfather.
​I come to in the midst of a battle. I stand and survey my surroundings, where I’m faced with a choice. I can destroy the beast of a man who insulted me previously, or I can attack the overgrown reptile that shamed me. I notice that Martin, also, has gone down, but the rest of the party is fighting furiously.
​I remember that the druid requested that we don’t attack the wyrm, but it became fair game when it attacked me. That was its first mistake….
​Across the room I can see the bandit that my companions captured and released has joined the fight…on our side. That’s a relief. I had thought that releasing him was a terrible idea, but perhaps I was mistaken. He appears to be a valuable ally.
​In front of me, the sun-worshipper drops, seemingly unprovoked. I heighten my guard, certain that something is happening here that I do not understand.
​Out of the corner of my eye I see the dragon tear out the throat of one of the bandits. Maybe I would be better to attack the hulking human before slaughtering the lizard….
​I thought that those elves would be here by now to back us up, I think to myself. I’m not surprised by the weak one’s absence – he’s good for very little in the heat of battle, but I had thought Valyn to be less frivolous than others of his kind.
​Shaking my head to clear the distractions, I glance over at the ox and feel my blood begin to boil with the familiar rage of battle. With all the speed with which I am capable, I rush to him and bury my grandfather’s axe between his eyes, deep in his skull. I watch as the life leaves those lives, wrench my weapon from his corpse, and continue through the fray toward the lizard.
​Today, I think to myself, will be the day that I slay my first dragon.
​Through the daydreams of glory, I feel a nagging at the back of my head, like there is something else that I’m supposed to be doing, but I cannot complete the thought. All I can see is silver and red, and I know what I need to do.
​Out of nowhere, an arrow slams into my shoulder, puncturing through my armor and embedding itself in my flesh. I whip my head in the direction from whence it came, but see no one. As the blood soaks my front, I forget the dragon to my right and instead concentrate all of my senses on trying to locate the source of the arrow. The reptile can wait; no one shoots me and survives to boast to their friends.
​Where the FUCK are those elves? I think to myself.
​Next to me, the orc says something, and I think I can make out the word “dragon,” but I pay him no mind. His words hold no importance to me. Does he honestly think that I would heed instruction from the likes of him?
​I set off in the direction that I determine the arrow came from. Let the orc deal with the lizard—maybe they will kill each other and save me the trouble. I have bigger foes to face. If I can only locate him….
​There! For a few seconds I think I see a horned figure with a bow, but he disappears before I can attack. The Stag Lord. He is the one who attacked me. He is the one that I will need to kill.
​Out of the corner of my eye, I notice the dragon fly out through the door. I feel a stab of regret knowing that I will have to wait for another day to join the ranks of dragon-slayers. But I am sure that day will come with time.
​While I consider this, I feel myself coming out of the fog of battle. I remember why we are here. I rush toward the place where we had heard a woman’s screams, hoping that it is the damsel and not that noisy elf….
​I find her in what is obviously the Stag Lord’s bedroom, bloody and beaten and tied to the bed.
​“Elisa,” I say. “We have come to rescue you.” And I walk into the room.
​I untie and ungag the woman, advise her to hide herself, and go back down the corridor to guard the room until reinforcements can arrive (not that I need them!).
​We have the Stag Lord immobilized, I can hear the exclamations from here. The sun-lover did it. I race toward the sounds of my comrades. I see the bandit break free of his bonds and make it out onto a rickety bridge with the orc. I watch as that druid summons a moonbeam with an incredible amount of destructive force. He destroys the bridge and both creatures on it plummet to the ground.
​I race toward the action, but I am too late. Martin, the weakest of us, manages to end the Stag Lord’s life before I can reach him. Throughout this battle I have only managed to kill one man—a giant, but still just one man. But I will do better next time. I grin in anticipation.

Stolen Land
Just Another Hole in the Ground

Zorag’s armor buckled with the force of the giant centipede’s bite. “Damn bug,” he growled between gritted teeth as he smashed his dagger into one of its eyes. The beast finally let go, but Zorag found himself on the ground, his legs unresponsive. The world spun as the strength of the blow and the beast’s poison finally caught up to the half-orc warrior, but he managed to raise his shield just enough to deflect another volley of darts those damned mites kept throwing past their overgrown pet.

The body of Mikmek the kobold lay nearby, a dart clear through his neck. “Brave little bastard,” Zorag thought. “…for a kobold. Focus!” The creature’s poison was dulling his mind. The strength in his sword arm had faded, and he could only lift his shield in desperate attempts to deflect the creature’s crushing bite. He saw Ashen lash out with his scimitars over him, but the beast struck like a viper, nearly severing the priest’s ear before dropping him to the ground with the whips it called a tail.

With the priest dropped to the ground, the giant centipede once more focused its attention on Zorag. Even with a half dozen bolts and arrows sticking from its hide, it showed no signs of stopping. The half-orc knew his strength had failed him, that he could not hope to block the next strike. “This is it, then,” he thought to himself, accepting his fate. The beast snapped its mandibles twice, then darted forward.

Three blue bolts, smoke trailing behind, punched through the beast’s carapace, halting it a foot from Zorag’s face. Suddenly a fist took it beside the head, and Zorag felt a body roll over him quickly—Alek the monk. He grunted as the weight of the huge Ulfen pressed against his wounds. The monk managed to grab both mandibles as they struck out at him, reaching for his flesh. With a roar and a quick twist, Alek had the beast’s head turned completely around. It’s countless legs spasmed for a moment before the creature hit the packed earth with a thud.

The mites in the back, seeing their pet drop, went into a rage. Zorag grunted again as the Ulfen rolled across him before taking a defensive stance. “Fucking monks…” he muttered.

A Matter of Dates

The elf’s voice hung on the air, his song stinging and cold like the late winter breeze. Phe’lyx knew this old Sylvan tune. It was one of pain, and regret, one that spoke of old lives and sorrowful memories. What the young wizard did not know was what Valyn sang about. He had been working with the ranger for several years now but had never found an easy opportunity to ask why the elf sang on these cold days. 

The weather had finally relinquished enough to move the caravan down the road.  The two elves and their companions, a dwarf and a human, were tasked with escorting a load of weapons heading to a Swordlord in Restov. The journey had been quiet, and it had been cold; the road was well traveled with nothing but hushed rumors of troubles. The mercenaries were amateur but not inexperienced,  and perfect for the task at hand. Valyn, the elven ranger,  kept a strict lookout, strafing the party, zig-zagging the road attempting to spot an ambush, his elvish eyes darting back and forth…at least he had been doing that. The road had gotten the best of the elf and had dulled his brain with tedium and monotony.

The bridge essentially appeared from nowhere, or the elf had been simply been lost in his song. Before he was found again, the bandits were upon them. The man stepped from around the pillar with a large weapon in his hands. He spoke some words about serving the Stag Lord. Gertrude, the dwarf was leading the party on this particular day, her horse being urgent to be off the road, and the barbarian, uninterested in controlling the animal, simply barreled forward. She did not change her approach when the man appeared in the road. 

“Hail and well met, travelers! I don’t want no trouble; simply to collect for the Stag Lord,” yelled the man looking at the Dwarf. The Dwarf narrowed here eyes and spoke one word in response.

“Move.” The man laughed, gripped his weapon more tightly and smirked,

“I was hopin’ ya’d say that…BOYS!” 

Valyn was off of his horse as the first man came up over the wall, more due to the fact that the horse spooked than his own speed. The grace of his people kept him on his feet despite the hints of winter’s kiss still on the bridge. The men moved in sync; this was not the first time these bandits had played this particular scenario, and the elf needed to think quickly if he was to regain any advantage. His thoughts immediately went to Martin, the lone human in their ragtag group. The lad had become somewhat of a friend in the recent months. He was decent enough with his hand crossbow when he fought, but the winter had not been kind to his fragile state, and he was seemingly always on the mend. “Direct combat does not favor the boy,” worried the elf. “Neither he nor Phe’lyx will be evenly matched in this…this street brawl.” As if on cue Valyn heard a familiar yelp from the horse a cart’s length in front of him.

Phe’lyx saw the men leap atop the wall, almost as quickly as his elvish friend had, but his robes had always made it difficult to dismount a horse quickly or gracefully. Neither quickness nor grace were much of a concern to the wizard at that moment—simply safety. As the man appeared on the small stone wall guard rail, the wizard let escape a yelp and fell from his horse immediately, crawling beneath the wagon in front of him. Phe’lyx, thinking himself secure, immediately began searching around for his companion and friend…his coin purse. Having found it, he returned to his relative comfort, cursing Valyn for talking him into leaving the camp for such as this. Lost in his frustration, he was not quite aware of the curse that he heard and didnt realize it’s origin until coming face-to-face with the very bandit who had scared the wizard from atop his mount. “How peculiar,” thought the elf right before the man charged him, awkwardly brandishing a sword.

The leader was not inexperienced with a blade; he was calculated, he was tactical. Unfortunately for him, his opponent was not. The dwarf would tell that she fell head first into a roll directly from the horses back and immediately into combat with the leader. No one argued with Gertrude “the Gutbuster.” So from the horses back, the dwarf barbarian, with the rage of her ancestors pumping her blood through her arms, fell face down into a roll, screaming and screeching her battle song. The man, who had introduced himself as Toruk, had no time to strike, had no time to blink. It was only by the grace of whatever god he chose in the flash of steel that he got his sword up in time to deflect the axe of the monster he had enraged. This would be no easy quarry, thought the man, as he felt the familiar sting of a blade. He had not dodged as expertly as he had believed. The dwarf’s weapon had taken a bite, not substantial, but enough.

The man’s blood began to pool at his left leg. The weapon had made it past his defense, had found its place just above his hip. “Weeeee” squealed the dwarf in her head. “I will make quick work of this one, and we will see those elvish faces when I am wearing this fool’s as a mask!” She moved to strike again, reversed her grip and wound her axe for the killing blow. Toruk raised his sword hastily to block the well advertised attack. He had seen her hands on the axe, had thought it a mistake. It was not however; the dwarf meant for Toruk to perform this block, had hoped it would come. In one motion, the barbarian planted her left foot firmly in the ground and brought the axe around to her right. With all of her weight behind that one blow, she would rend him into two very bloody pieces. Toruk, realizing the ruse, seeing the reason for the reverse grip, seemed to live every significant moment of his life again in the flash of light reflected off the dwarf’s blade. This was it—she would separate him at the waist and he would know no more. He, as any would, closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.

Just as Gertrude spun, Ryn let loose his arrow. He was not a particularly adept shot, but today he felt a string of luck. The bow was not so difficult to pull back, the arrow did not fall out on the first try, as it usually did for Ryn,. Today, it was if the goddess herself put that arrow into her petite hands and guided it directly into the center of the spinning dwarf. The satisfying “thunk” as the shot found its target was enough to give Ryn the confidence to charge the dwarf. The lady was on his side today…nothing could stop him.

Martin had not been in the company long, nor did he think that he was going to be. He had showed up, and, from all accounts, the only thing keeping the young man’s bones from falling all over the road was the skin he was wrapped in. Leaning slightly on a cane and clearing his throat to speak, Martin Ghostcaller had come looking for adventure. No one heard what he had said to the captain, and no one could believe what the captain had said to Martin—“Welcome on, lad. Someone get the boy some Mead, put some meat on his bones!” The words were music to Martin’s ears, and he knew one or two things about music, so it pained him to hear the whistle and thud of the arrow into his lute. It did not pain him as much as the arrow into his hip had, however, and the young rogue leaped from his horse in hopes to divide his opponent’s attention. It did not work—the large highwayman took aim, and it seemed that everywhere Martin attempted to avert the man’s eyes, an arrow point followed.

“This fool has me dead to rights,” thought the wounded hero. And with his typical droll attitude, Martin, held still, lifted his hands, smirked at the man and awaited his death. The man, a large oaf named Picknair—his friends called him “Pecker” for short—leveled his bow for the kill. “I’ll take this one in the face,” thought the man. “He is far too pretty."

Suddenly, as if struck by dragon’s claw, Martin remembered his own weapon, and with the timely distraction of his elvish friend, he was able to draw his small crossbow and fire at “Pecker.” Unfortunately for the man, the elf, with a much larger bow and far nastier temper, also fired. Pecker was dead before he had finished the note. “I rather liked the song, I should say,” Martin said with a morbidly glib shrug of the shoulders.

A flash of sparks, and a purposeful grunt—that is all the man saw and heard. He had sworn that the little elf in the bathrobe was dead, his sword flying effortlessly towards his pinched face; but something had stopped it. Surely, it had not been what he thought it was. He could have sworn that the boy had simply caught the blade and turned it away, with his bare hand. This did not set well with the man—Jihanny, “The Reaper” to his friends and a nightmare to his enemies. “This is no small boy,” Jihanni suddenly knew. “This is a wizard. I must end him now!” At that realization, the man came on with a flurry, at least he tried to. For in his momentary contemplations, Jihanny failed to realize that the mage had picked up a handful of sand from the road, spoke to it and blew it across his face…

Jihanny had grown up among a field of wild flowers, but today they smelled extra fragrant and today the pretty lass who lived on the farm next to his was in the meadow with him. She was singing, and feeding him the biggest grapes that he had ever seen. Jihanny was in paradise, and Jihanny was asleep.

The dwarf spun, grinning wickedly and hungrily, tongue hanging from her mouth, ready to end this fight, longing for a warm meal and hot mead and then pain. Searing, burning, metallic pain in her shoulder. The arrow had hit a critical spot in the dwarf’s muscle and caused her to lose her momentum and her swing. The axe head thudded to the ground, and as quickly as she had thought to end Toruk’s time as one man, she was suddenly surrounded by two. The man who had shot her had charged to finish off his kill. For in the River Kingdoms, “You have what you hold.” He meant to hold this Dwarf’s head.

Gertrude, wounded, surrounded, and quickly becoming outnumbered, was never one to keep her head about her. This time was no different. Spewing blood from both the wound, and her mouth from her dismount off of the horse, Gertrude screamed in the face of Toruk.

“Come on LAD! STICK IT UP IN ME RIBS! THINK YOU CAN HIT THE BACK WALL!?” She finished her taunt with the lewdest wink that Toruk had ever seen from man or woman, dwarf or human, and he tightened his knuckles to oblige. The man who had shot the dwarf felt his luck and his energy surge through him. This would vault him to the rank of lieutenant; this would make him noticed by the Stag Lord himself, a killing blow on an enemy combatant that had wounded the great Toruk! He could hear the accolades now, the hushed whispers and the roar of the…sudden blood in his ears. There was no way a creature that squat could move as quickly as she had. The scrawny man—“Meece” to his friends—had not ever seen one like Gertrude Firebeard.

The man had approached standing too high. Gertrude, awaiting the strike from Toruk, had expected the man to charge. When he did, she lowered her head, complete with a mane of fiery red hair, and planted the top of her skull directly into the chin of the stupid and horribly outgunned Meece. Down he went, and she used her momentum to move through the air, right where Meece had been standing to avoid Toruk’s stab for her gut. Although she took a hit to do so, the danger had passed, and she came up ready to swing.

Strangely, though, the man in front of her had suddenly fallen as if he were asleep. She heard a snicker, and shuffle under the wagon. She knew Phe’lyx had “waggled his derned fingers” to make these men sleep. For once, she was moderately happy to have the elfkin around. That left just her and Toruk, warrior on warrior, no one to distract them any more.

On came the dwarf, no sense in waiting; he was bleeding and she was bleeding, maybe more. It was time to end this one way or another. As she arrived, Toruk answered her ferocity, the two trading blow after blow with their two handed weapons, no one giving ground. The man was slowing however; the first wound had taken its toll, and with each block and subsequent counter-attack, he was fading. The time was almost right, then she had her opportunity.

Another bandit back on the bridge had made it past the haze of the mage’s sleep spell and had made it to one of the drivers to put a blade at his throat. He threatened to kill the man if the young mercenaries did not surrender. Both Valyn and Martin did not have a shot, Phe’lyx did not care to make himself known for a second time—especially with a man who shook off his spell so easily—and Gertrude was in stride and in battle with this bandit’s leader. The bandit yelled, “Surrender, or the driver dies!! Toruk, I have a driver, tell that nasty beast to throw down her axe or else…”

The rest of the threat faded away, as Toruk stepped back to avoid being gutted, and swung high. The dwarf knowing the counter well, blocked it accordingly. It was part of her plan, and in one swift motion, her boot was in Toruk’s chest, a thud and a gasp of air pushed the man back five feet. Gertrude used the momentum to rock backwards and then forward violently. As she finished the step, she left fly her two handed axe, a gift from her grandfather. Toruk saw nothing but hot white light, and it was done.

Upon hearing the crunch of metal on bone, and catching a glimpse of his leader falling to the dwarf, the young man quickly realized that the bandits’ advantage was lost. Their surprise wasted, his brothers, bleeding, dying, or fast asleep, Jeery had no choice but to do what he did next. He first called for his brother, Jihanny, and he did not answer; he next called for his friend, Horati, and caught a glimpse of the man with his blade at the rear driver’s throat. “This was bargaining power,” Jeery thought, “yes, perhaps there is a way out of this yet.” As the last candle lit abruptly extinguishes itself, so did Jeery’s hopes of ending the conflict without anymore bloodshed. As he was speaking to him, Jeery saw Horati double over as if something had bitten him, or some invisbile hand had folded him like paper. Spying more, Jeery saw the culprit, an elf under the wagon had shot Horati, point blank with a longbow. “That would cripple many men,” thought the bandit. “It is time for me to go, I am truly sorry,” he said as he cut the driver’s throat to cover his escape and leapt over the wall of the bridge.

Jeery knew that this type of life was not to yield much more than pain and death. But, in these lands, there was little else to do to feed hungry mouths. If you did not work for the Stag Lord, you simply did not work. Jeery would run, he would tell the lieutenants of these four and they would have their vengeance. “Toruk the fool had given himself away too soon, did not have the advantage before pressing the attack; all of these things led to his death,” thought that man. Suddenly, he heard the whisper of death sing past his ear, and at his feet, an elven arrow, the bowman who loosed it quickly following behind.

“Stay where you are, and I will not kill you. Move and I will,” said the stern Ranger. Jeery knew that the chill in this one was not a bluff, and he lifted his hands in surrender…

As they pulled away from the scene, the bodies lined along the river bank, his own brother with them, Jeery thought of his wife and child. His wife, Johanna was not particularly ravishing or fair as the tales of women of old, but she was his, and he hers. The tough mask that Jeery put on was for his brother, Jihanny, The Reaper, and for his Captain Torik. These men had given Jeery something to strive for, had made him believe a better life was available for Johanna and his little Isabella. But, all of that meant nothing now. His brother was dead, his captain slain, and he would hang before the week is out… “Mercenaries, bandits…” Jeery spat, and stared blankly at the sky. “it is simply a matter of dates.”


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