Mysteries of the Amberwoad Vale

A New Circle
“I need you to look after Lord Amakiir for me,” Ariana Stormborn had said without preamble upon entering Ellyn’s small cell at the Temple of Ishkur. “Failed poisoning, he’ll be fine in a day, more scared than anything. Shouldn’t give you any trouble.”

“What happened? I thought you were supposed to be there for a week,” Ellyn had replied, staring pointedly at the packed bag her friend was carrying.

“Something,” at this point Ariana had hefted her pack higher on her shoulder, “has come up. I need to leave for a while. Can you finish out the week for me?”
Ellyn had only continued staring.

Ariana sighed. “I have a new assignment. From Ishkur. I don’t really know what or who is involved yet. Or how long I’ll be gone. Just that I have to go. Please cover for me?”

“Fine. Just take care of yourself; I’ll worry about the noble.”

She still remembered Ariana’s grin. The half-elf had always loved the prospect of adventure.

“Don’t I always?” responded Ariana. “I’ll see you when I get back.”

If only Ellyn had known that that would be the last time she would see her.


Ellyn wondered, for a while, if Ishkur truly had spoken to Ariana, or if this was merely another of her flights of fancy like her trips to that bard’s tavern – what was it? The Left Hook. She trusted her friend, of course, but she’d never heard of Ishkur speaking directly to anyone but the elders. Not to mention the rumors that even they hadn’t gotten a clear message from the god in years.

Then there were the riots in the lower wards, the disappearing nobles, not to mention whatever that was up at Aesterwall’s tower, and Ellyn began to wonder a bit less. And by the time the dust settled from the quake and feral elves were running rampant through the streets, Ellyn was thoroughly convinced that Ariana had been swept up into something big.

She drew her rapier and joined the fray, moving from group to group, sometimes fighting back-to-back with a patrol of beleagured guardsmen, other times ducking into a corner to offer a quick healing hand, only to then take up with a roving band of Tyr’s paladins on their quest for justice. She prayed to Ishkur a lot that night – for herself, for the citizens, for Ariana, wherever she was. The presence of Ishkur filled her, stronger than she has ever felt it in her life. But she could tell he was distracted – focused on her plane, certainly, though not precisely on her.

Then the ground shook, and a great void ripped through her. The ground must have shaken; Ellyn was suddenly aware that she lying on the street, as were the elves…yet over there was a small knot of guardsmen, standing with weapons drawn but looking confused. One guard decided to take advantage of the elves’ distraction, and he and his companions had finished them off by the time she was able to lever herself back up off the ground. Any remaining elves that they encountered simply fled before them, not displaying any of the powers or ferociousness they’d had before.

Walking through the city back to the temple was surreal. A heavy silence blanketed Two Rivers; the occasional sound would echo strangely. The silence was inside her, too. She stopped to help a woman who had been wounded by an elven sword while defending her shop. Ellyn murmured the prayer for healing to Ishkur, but nothing happened. She felt nothing.

One by one, the clerics of Ishkur returned home. One by one, each shared the same feeling of emptiness they experienced. And concern for what had actually happened that night grew.


As the weeks passed, the silence from Ishkur lengthened. Many came to the Circle for aid, but the elders raised the donation required. “After the losses we sustained during the attack, we can only help so many,” they said, but they did not mention that those losses included any sign from their god. Those few who were sent out said the prayers and performed the rituals, but the only healing they performed was mundane. The elders worked hard to maintain the illusion of normality to those outside the temple. Inside the temple, however, they could do nothing to quell the worry. The fields to the southwest of Two Rivers turned dry and brittle while the region to the east was rocked by violent storms. Pleas both for and against rain went unanswered. Slowly, the Circle of Ishkur began to drift apart as its members lost faith.

It was a few months after the attack that Ellyn herself finally resolved to leave. While she agreed that it was important to maintain the faith and hope of the people, she could no longer abide the facade that the elders put up or the lies they told to visitors in exchange for gifts. She couldn’t do any good at all just sitting in the temple. She sighed; now she was starting to sound like Ariana. Though considering Ariana had been personally chosen by Ishkur, maybe that was a good thing.

Ellyn shouldered her pack. Maybe she could find Ariana’s old bard friend and get in touch with him…Ariana had used to help people with him, she knew.

She checked her room one last time for any belongings she might have missed. As she opened the door to leave, a glow caught the corner of her eye. There in the hall, a small blob of blue light bobbed outside her room as if waiting for her. A wisp?

“What are you here for?” she asked the thing. In answer, maybe, it began to drift down the hall. Curious, Ellyn followed a few steps behind. It flitted through corridors and around corners, finally stopping just outside the doorway to one of the prayer rooms. She peeked in. The room was empty save for a dark-haired woman of about average height who kneeled down before an altar and lit a candle. The woman murmured something too low to hear, then cleared her throat and said, louder, “Ariana Stormborn, it’s your humble servant, Aurelia Leigh.”

Ellyn dropped her pack with an audible thud, and the woman spun around. There was no mistaking it; this was the newest council member. And she knew Ariana? Though Ishkur only knew why the woman was addressing her here. Ellyn glanced down at the wisp, but it was gone. She looked back towards the councilwoman, who was watching her with a curious but somewhat embarrassed expression. She’d never encountered a wisp before, but surely this must be a sign. It was no coincidence that the wisp had been lurking outside her door, just as she was about to abandon the temple, only to run into a woman who spoke the name of Ariana with reverence.

Ellyn Windrivver, almost-former cleric, stepped forward. “Ariana was my friend. Do you know what happened to her?” Her pack remained by the door.

In a far corner of the room, a small blue wisp bobbed up and down, then faded away, satisfied.

View
A Step Behind

The first impact only bowed the ancient wood, though the blow was thunderous. The second strike was emphatic and the wooden barrier collapsed, and allowed light into the cave beyond for the first time in centuries. An orc in ornate armor stood in the resultant dust cloud, framed in the jagged, splintered edges of the boards he’d sundered. He hefted a tremendous maul, and peered into the dark.

Nothing rushed forward to meet him and the echoes of his labor slowly faded and left only silence, save for the too-loud sound of water dripping on stone. The leak could have been ten feet ahead, or a mile underground. The ears could not tell.

Or at least, orc ears could not. Rauk considered testing one of the elves, but thought better of it at the last second. “We go in,” he said instead. “It must be the way.”

“How can you know?” Wolf asked. His voice was neutral but the imperious disdain was, as with all elves, naturally implied. “It could be a spent mineshaft, disconnected from the tunnels we seek.”

“No,” Rauk said as he began removing his packs and supplies, always with one eye on the cave entrance. “Those boards were reinforced and hidden with vines. It was old elf work, meant for hiding something. There’s no reason to hide a mine with nothing left in it, and no reason to abandon it if ore remains. No markings on the walls, no elf signs. This is a way into the mountain.”

Wolf grunted. “I have less experience defiling my ancestors’ sacred spaces,” he said. “I guess I’ll have to defer to your judgment.”

“As always,” Rauk agreed, turning to the rest of the party. They were already slipping packs off their shoulders, armoring themselves, and preparing weapons.

“The spaces are narrow, and it doesn’t look like they’ve been carved out,” Rauk told Thargald.

Thar nodded, but continued stringing his bow all the same. “There’s a good shot into the cave though,” he said. “I will watch the entrance, in case they try to run.”

Ulla called Rauk’s name, and he half-turned from Thar without ending their conversation. She pulled a large, leather-and-fur pack off of her back one-handed and gave him a questioning look – are you ready? When he nodded, she tossed the pack to him overhand. He grunted as he caught it. “You are getting heavy,” he told his infant daughter, but she did not stir from her sleep.

Orcs are not given names until they earn one by surviving infancy, but Rauk already knew what his daughter’s name would be. Skogari, in honor of both the Khan and a fallen friend. He had slipped once and called her by her secret name out loud, and Ulla heard. To his relief, she had approved, though they both worried that the Khan would not be pleased to share her name with another. And a dead skraeling, to boot.

A worry for another day.

Rauk handed the bundle to Thar, who met Rauk’s eyes and nodded once before delicately shouldering the pack. Sometimes Rauk thought that the girl was more precious to Thar than she was even to her own parents.

“I don’t know how deep the caves go,” Rauk said.

Thar shrugged, looking at the assembled packs and supplies. He did the math in an instant. “Enough here that I can wait a week and a half, maybe two. Between what is left after that and what I can carry, I can make it back to the Moon Bears within a month if you don’t come back.”

Thar eyed the elves, who did their preparations some ways away. Still, he lowered his voice in fear of their superior hearing, “If you don’t come back, make sure they don’t either.”

Rauk nodded, and pressed his helmet on. “If they come back and I do not, shoot the tall one first.”

*

Rauk hadn’t been wrong. The cave passage narrowed and twisted, closing in on the party almost unbearably before it would widen again. His armor scraped and sparked on stone as he shoved himself through a narrow gap now, a small part of him always worried he would become hopelessly lodged in place. He was no stranger to armor, but those chosen to champion the Khan directly wore special pieces: heavier, denser, more fearsome. In battle he felt untouchable, but otherwise he feared he’d never be free of the armor’s weighty embrace. Here the discomfort was compounded upon, the weight of the earth itself added.

He had a special distaste for caves and underground spaces. He hadn’t admitted it to anyone, but he suspected Ulla knew. He felt her glancing at him, her concern concealed but obvious to him. He kept his eyes forward though, watchful for spider-sign or the tell-tale, ethereal glow of a ghost. He had hard-won experience the others lacked.

The passage widened enough for the party to spread out with weapons at the ready, each exploring a dark corner.

“Light?” Wolf whispered.

Rauk nodded once. Whatever lived down there was even more accustomed to the dark than they, and would have heard Rauk shattering the barrier. Wolf raised his staff overhead, and the end began to emit an ever-brightening glow. Rauk’s vision shifted from ill-defined grays to the sharper colors and details afforded by light.

“This was not a mine,” Serara murmured. “Ore here, but no tool marks near it.”

“And none of the old signs marking passages or dead ends,” Wolf agreed. “No paint, no wall-scratches. Just the blocked entrance to show it was visited at all.”

“Not visited by elves,” Varamen said, “but not empty.”

The hunter stopped Rauk from passing, and nodded down at the orc’s armored feet. He crouched down and examined the dirt, nodding slightly. Tracks, going out toward the entrance they found, and back again. “They’re fresh?”

Varamen nodded. “Within the month. The earth is fine and the air still reaches down here.”
“What made them?”

The elf shook his head. “Nothing I’ve met. Big, and clawed. Smaller than bear, bigger than dog. Sometimes it walks on four, sometimes two.” He shouldered his short bow and drew a hand crossbow instead, loading it with a stunted quarrel. Better for the tight confines of the cave.

“Do you smell that?” Ulla said, coming in closer.

Rauk turned his head in the direction she was facing and took in a breath. “Wet fur and blood,” he said at last.

Ulla nodded. “And burnt meat.”

“A camp,” Wolf offered.

Ulla shook her head. “Burnt,” she said emphatically. “And there was a lot of it. The soot is on the walls.”

The orcs considered each possible passageway with their noses, and agreed upon one. Ulla unslung her shield and started down before Rauk, but he pulled her back with a growl. She growled back, but let him pass nonetheless. The elves, now accustomed to these shows, almost refrained from rolling their eyes at one another. Almost.

Rauk strode into the passageway first with purpose, his eyes gleaming red in the cavernous gloom. Next came Serara with her short swords drawn, then Wolf with his staff, then Varamen. Ulla brought up the rear, her body turned sideways in anticipation of an ambush.

The passage was a long one, but rather than narrow it grew more expansive as it went. By the time it terminated in a small cave, perhaps one hundred feet across, the party had spread to its sides in a rough semicircle, their weapons at the ready.

The sound of claws scraped stone in the dark, and guttural mutterings echoed from places unseen. The elves, with their sharp eyes, caught glimpses of motion across side passages and in shadowed nooks, but they remained steady. Still, when the attack came it was so sudden as to be incongruous. There was a moment of tension no different than the one before it, and then in the next the party was set upon by hulking shadows with flashing eyes and bared teeth.

The first one leapt clear across a space of twenty feet from some hidden place, its limbs spread wide to fall upon Serara the moment she stepped a pace out of position from Rauk. The attacker let out a terrified yelp when it was intercepted in midair, Rauk’s armored shoulder meeting its midsection with an impact so brutal that bones in its back snapped.

Serara was the smallest, and so made the best bait.

She fell upon the fallen beast almost the moment it bounced off Rauk’s shoulder, stabbing and slashing, and the orc turned to face the next attacker with his hammer at the ready.

They came out of the shadows, leaping and snarling, some circling while others dived in snapping. Varamen hadn’t been much off his prediction: they were rangy things with long fur, at an unholy crossroads between bear, wolf, and man. Their movements were preternaturally fast, but they were pack animals through-and-through, and so there was nothing unfamiliar about their tactics.

One beset Ulla just as she raised her shield, and it bit down on the upper portion. She swung her axe underhanded, and beat the backside of her weapon to the bottom of the shield. Thus, the upper part was forced up into the beast’s mouth with such force that its jaw was immediately broken. The pain and shock hardly registered in its eyes before she dropped her shield and brought her axe down to split the thing’s skull.

Serara was in a frenzy, slashing and stabbing. Another beast tried to leap on her, but Wolf summoned up a cry and a spitting mass of flame, which he directed over his companion’s shoulder and into her attacker’s face. It screamed as it ignited, and yet almost had the flames put out before Serara was on its back with a chilling shriek, her blades suddenly wet with its steaming blood.

Varamen was his sister’s opposite, his face impassive and his motions utterly calculated. He fired his hand crossbow with a twist of his wrist, and his quarrel sank into a charging beast’s eye. Its momentum yet carried it forward as it clutched at its bestial face, and Varamen rolled across its back and used his knife to open its throat all at once. He looked almost bored as he landed lightly on his feet again, reloading his crossbow without looking at it.
Rauk’s maul had become an unnatural thing since his adventures beneath Two Rivers, a deadly and eerie thing. It glowed as he swung it, leaving soul-chilling trails of light in its path of destruction, tracing arcs where he swept a beast off of its legs before crushing its ribs. The armor made him slow, but their teeth and claws could not find him within it, and he was too strong to be dragged down off of his feet. They leapt on him in pairs, desperately biting and clawing, but one by one he caught them, threw them to the ground, and hammered their bones to mush.

Soon only one remained, and Rauk had to drag Serara kicking and screaming off of it. Its blood already rolled off of her in rivulets, and when Rauk pointed at the fallen monster he spoke with urgency. “Heal it,” he said. “We need one alive.”

Ulla and Wolf hurried forward while Rauk held Serara’s arms to her sides and her feet up off the ground, and there he suspended her for a full minute until her spitting, kicking, and snarling stopped. Even then, he held her aloft for a half-minute longer until her head drooped forward, and only when he was absolutely sure did he gently hand her over to Varamen’s waiting arms. He cradled her like a child, and chuckled wryly as he wiped blood from her tattooed face.

“If only we’d had you around when she was small,” he told Rauk.

“If you had, you would have tried to kill me.”

The elf grinned. “True enough.”


Varamen and Rauk entered the next caravan cautiously, but lowered their weapons almost immediately upon entering. The tension never did fade, however.

The space was larger than the cavern in which they’d been attacked, and sunlight filtered in from somewhere above in thin shafts. Varamen covered his nose, and could not guess how Rauk kept himself from gagging.

The floor was littered with mangled bodies in various states of destruction, all badly burnt. The walls were black with soot, and the ground crunched where they set their boots down. Rauk nudged one of the blackened corpses with the butt of his maul, and it crumbled into so much black dust.

“Too late again,” Varamen whispered. He did not fear being heard, but to speak aloud in a charnel house felt wrong.

Rauk looked to the elf, and he nodded pointedly across the chamber. There, someone had built a wooden platform in times long-past, and filled it with sand from some ludicrously distant shore. The orc recognized its like. He’d seen plenty of others, by now. It was a nest.

He crossed the chamber carefully, avoiding corpses where he could and brushing the crumbling remains aside where he couldn’t. When he arrived at the nest he first saw only sand, but after a moment of careful digging he found the first one.

It was a heavy shard, fist-sized, golden in color with black markings. He dug a little more and found a much larger shard, taking great care with its jagged edges as he hoisted it up and rested it on the wooden edge of the nest. Now he could make out the black marks a little better.

“Familiar,” Varamen said thoughtfully. “Almost like…”

“Cogs,” Rauk agreed. “Clockwork.”

Varamen tilted his head and nodded his agreement. The marks looked like crudely painted gears, cogs, and clockwork.


By the time the pair returned to the others, the preparations were complete.

Ulla butted her forehead to Rauk’s chest as he came to her, and he rested his chin briefly against the top of her head. He met Serara’s eyes, and she nodded her thanks to him.

“Are you prepared, Serara?” Wolf said. “I can only hold this creature for so long.”

The elder elf was standing off to the side with his staff held forward, his brow furrowed in concentration. Before him, the recently healed beast lay breathing but paralyzed, staring balefully up at its magical captor.

“I think so,” Serara answered, and she crossed the space and knelt down beside the beast-man. It shifted its hatred to her face, but its gaze took on a bit of fear when she reached for it.

With the creature’s head in her hands, Serara peered into its eyes and began to sway. The others stepped in nearer, save Wolf, who did not move from his rigidly-held position. After a long moment, Serara began to mutter to herself, louder and louder, until she began softly announcing all that she saw.

And what she saw was what it had seen.

“They were men once,” she said, “but their line was cursed to lose their humanity once they passed the curse on to sons or daughters. Generation after generation, men and women having children and then becoming monsters, murdering everyone they knew saved their cursed infants. The monster would flee to find his or her ancestors, to join the pack. The child would remain, never knowing the curse they bore until they repeated their parent’s sins. On and on.”

Rauk glanced at Ulla, whose brow furrowed ever-so-slightly.

“They are animals, mostly,” Serara continued. “Immortal, hungry, simple. But they can think as men, in some ways. They have spirits, still, and holy men. Not long ago the holy men had visions of a great enemy to their kind. A great threat, looming, promising its coming in their dreams. The holy men told the alphas, told the packs. Everyone became angry, and the packs came together as never before. They were going to kill their enemy before it could be born.”

Serara’s face went slack, and her eyelids fluttered. “This one saw it, the enemy. They packs came together here, in this cave. Flooded into it in a tide of fur and teeth, raging. But when they entered, they found it had already been born. It was waiting for them. Its skin is black metal, its teeth squared and notched as if from a mechanical gear. It breathes steam, and burns from inside like a furnace or a smelter. Its tail is like a sword blade, its back lined with razors. It was born incomplete, one claw malformed, held to its chest. It didn’t breathe fire it breathed…light. Burning, searing light. It burned the packs away, crushed their bodies between its jaws…like…like limbs caught in the gears and chains of the lifts in Two Rivers. Unfeeling, never slowing, unrelenting. It hated them, wanted them all to die.”

Serara shuddered. “It thought it killed them all, but this one hid with some others. They watched it leave, fly away, maybe to find more of their kind to kill, maybe to join with its siblings. This one didn’t know. None of them knew. They stayed here to hide, thinking it would never come back to its birthplace.”

“How long ago?” Rauk whispered.

Serara tilted her head, wondering. “Weeks. No more.”

“How old was it? How big? Did it say anything?”

Serara shook her head slowly. “Never spoke. Big. Bigger than any of the beast men. Already born and strong before they came, but they never saw the egg. Never knew.”

“Are there any other monsters left here? Any that got away from us?”

Serara shook her head. “He is the last of his kind, for all he knows. No pack, alone. So afraid to live alone.”

And before any of them could stop her, she drew one of her blood-caked blades and drew it hard across the beast’s throat. Ulla surged forward to save it, but Rauk caught her by the shoulder and shook his head.

They watched Serara, but she watched the beast.


When the party emerged from the caves, Rauk thankfully had the foresight to step into sight first. Thar stood at the mouth of the cave with an arrow nocked and drawn, an infant orc peering curiously over his shoulder. He lowered the bow, and frowned openly when Wolf emerged from the cave after Rauk.

Once the entire party was revealed, they blocked the entrance to the cave with heavy stones and made camp. Only then, as the sun began to set, did Thar dare ask.

“We were too late, again,” Rauk told him. “Only by weeks this time, but it didn’t seem to matter. There was a nest, just like before. But there’s something else.”

The orc ranger grunted questioningly around the jerky he chewed.

“It…how to explain? It had a presence before it was born, an awareness. It called out to its enemies, made its own birth into a trap. It was born with a hatred already fully formed.”

Thar frowned, and his chewing slowed. He swallowed. “What does that mean?”

Rauk stared into the fire, and when he shook his head it was almost imperceptible.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I feel like the more we learn, the less we know. Now more than ever.”

Thar glanced over at Ulla, who was fussing over the infant laid across her lap. “Perhaps it is time to return to Bloody Oaks,” he said thoughtfully. “To tell the Khan what little we do know. To warn her. Three of these creatures, Rauk these…dragons.”

“You remember the inscription,” Rauk said, shaking his head. “There will be more. We aren’t finished.”

“That isn’t my point,” Thar said after a moment, nodding to Ulla. “Rauk…we are always too late, always a step behind. What happens if we aren’t? What if the next dragon is waiting for us instead of beast men or cultists? What if it’s our charred corpses someone else is finding, weeks after.”

Rauk nodded solemnly, but said nothing.


View
After

Between the endless meetings and meet-and-greets, Lee had been all but completely living within the confines of the council hall in the weeks since her induction ceremony. In her spare time, such that it was, she’d taken to roaming the halls under the guise of acquainting herself with the building and the books it contained – the history of the city, the lineages of the old families, the trade agreements and lawbooks. It wasn’t entirely a lie; to properly play her role as the city’s newest councilwoman, there was a lot she needed to learn. But the things she really needed to know to be able to do the job well she couldn’t learn from any book. It had taken two weeks to locate all the listening devices in the building, to map the radius of their awareness, to discover who had eyes and ears where, to quietly supplement them with her own, to find the holes.

It took her the better part of a month to find a sufficiently large gap: the one spot that no one else knew about, in the wing of the sprawling building where no one ever went, in a remote corner that the guard patrol passed over. It was hardly a crevice in the dilapidated north tower, a space beneath the stairs that ran from the top floor up to the roof. It took three nights of discreet trips to make the little hollow space habitable. She’d cleaned out the cobwebs in the middle of the night; laid out dried lavender to chase away the dank, musty smell of the closed space; smuggled in the stub of a candle, a small pillow, and a thin blanket. But it was worth the effort to have just a moment of solitude. She stripped out of her opulent, courtly dress up on the parapet and stuffed it into in an old barrel, then made her way back down the stairs in her undergarments, a small book clutched to her chest. The third step from the top was already loose, and she pried it off and dropped down into the small stone room, then quickly pulled the wood plank back into place above her head.

She lit the candle with a wave of her hand and pulled the blanket around her shoulders. She’d been reading all day – a stack of books requisitioned from the warlock’s knowledge-emporium-turned-paladin-enclave – sifting through pages trying to reconstruct the city’s forgotten history now that its demise was no longer looming and imminent. The book she’d brought with her tonight, though, was her own: a small, handwritten leather tome of songs and poetry. She unwound the thong that bound the book shut, humming softly under her breath and tracing her fingertip along the cover, unraveling the spell that hid the words inside.

“I’ve been looking for that.”

Her body moved before her mind could react, dropping the book and slipping the dagger out of her bodice as she lunged toward the voice – an invisible spot wedged into the opposite corner of the small stone hideaway, beneath the slanted wall of the stairs. She kicked the candle over in her haste, snuffing it out, but she knew she wouldn’t have been able to see him anyway, even if it weren’t for the sudden darkness; it wasn’t like there was anywhere to hide in this little hole. Her aim was true, though, and she slammed into something solid, could feel the heat of his chest beneath her hand, the bite of her knife pressing into his throat, the slow rumble of a chuckle vibrating through him. If he laughed any harder, it would open an artery.

“God damnit, Rowan.” She didn’t move the blade. She was breathing hard and trembling with adrenaline. The one place. The one place she had to be alone, and he’d fucking found her.

He hummed softly, just a few notes but with a lazy, familiar melody, and the space around them filled with globes of softly glowing light. As soon as the spell was cast, he rematerialized in front of her, perfectly still so as not to provoke, but with a smug smile on his lips that made her want to jam her dagger the rest of the way into his neck. She wiped the blood off her blade on the fabric of his shirt and sat back on her heels, still tense even though there wasn’t really anywhere she could flee. “How did you find me?”

“I didn’t,” he said, and she gave him a flat look. He reached out and she drew back. He looked up at her, that same quiet amusement on his lips, and reached out again. This time she let him take her hand, his callused fingertips trailing down along her palm, brushing the undersides of her fingers, then catching the tip of her ring finger and wiggling it playfully, “I found your ring.”

She sighed and pulled her hand back, hugging it self-consciously to her chest and spinning the little twist of copper wire around on her finger. It was too small, too non-descript, too plain and ordinary for anyone but Rowan to be able to use it to track her by, and only him because he was the one who had made it – because he was the one who wore its twin.

“It’s a bit undignified for a councilwoman, don’t you think?” He asked, holding his hand up to one of the floating orbs of light, making his own smooth copper band glint and shine, “To still be wearing a little scrap of metal some runaway kid stole from a smith’s rubbish heap?” He closed his hand as the globe of light blinked out, then flashed her a smile, his voice whispering through her head: and don’t pretend you still need it to cast the spell.

“Why are you here, Rowan?” She asked aloud, too tired to start playing his games, too.

His expression softened, and he reached into the corner behind him and produced a bottle of wine, holding it up to show her, then out to her in an offering. “Thought you could use some company.”

“Did you drug it?” She asked, taking the bottle from him and habitually checking it for magic, then inspecting the cork and seal for signs of tampering.

“What do you take me for?” He said, playing up his offense. She arched an eyebrow. It had hardly been a month since he’d drugged her and snuck behind her back, reporting on her when she’d come to him for help. Good as his intentions might have been, it had only showed how casual and easy it had become for him to deceive her. When her lips failed to even quirk with amusement, Rowan at least had the good sense to look abashed. “It’s not drugged,” he said, waving for her to hand the bottle back. He pulled a corkscrew seemingly out of thin air and opened the bottle, then took one big swig and then another, demonstratively, before passing it back to her.

“If you’re lying to me again-”

“I’m not.”

She sniffed the bottle and looked up at him skeptically. He hadn’t passed out yet, and while it was entirely possible he’d shown up having already ingested the antidote, or cured himself as soon as he’d tasted the alcohol… well, they had to start trusting each other again somewhere. She took a swallow of the wine. It was sour, the cheap swill they peddled at the Left Hook, but after weeks of sipping sweet, heady southron vintages at banquet tables and in ballrooms, it had the sharp, familiar taste of home. She took another sip before setting the bottle down in front of her, “So this is strictly a social visit?”

“I brought you a present,” he said, pulling a sheaf of paper out from under him and tossing it onto the floor between them. “But it was mostly an excuse to come see you.”

She picked up the stack of paper and started flipping through it. It was a grab bag of notes and transcriptions – snippets of overheard conversations, reports on the movements of her fellow council members, an excerpt from a rare book her mother thought might be relevant to her research, an update from the temple of Ishkar, a page or two about the status of the other members of her group, which had dissolved as quickly and haphazardly as it had formed. She sighed and let the papers drop back to the stone floor with a slap, then rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, “I think my eyes are going to shrivel up and fall out of my head.”

“I take it the new job is treating you well,” he said wryly, taking another swig of wine.

“I fucking hate it here,” she said, physically exhausted and emotionally drained enough to forget, for a moment, that she was supposed to be cautious around him. That her lifelong friend was also a liar, that he had kept dangerous, hurtful secrets from her. But she was sick of affecting poise and refinement every minute of every day, of having to be perpetually keener and sharper and more alert than everyone around her, always playing the game. Rowan didn’t have room to judge her for being less than court proper, but she wondered whether or not he derided her for letting her guard down around him.

“You didn’t have to say yes,” he said, passing her the wine bottle.

“Yes I did. Someone was going to get this council seat, and if it wasn’t me, it was going to be some fuckass we’d have to spend the next ten years trying to undermine, and then the next asshole after him. Or another fucking dragon.”

Rowan let out a dry laugh, “Pretty sure you already did your part for this city.”

“Might’ve been better if I’d let it burn. Or freeze,” she said, taking a deep swig of the wine. She passed a hand through her hair, brushing the long, dark strands out of her eyes, “I’m out of practice with this bullshit.” She hugged her knees to her chest, setting the bottle aside and rubbing at her eyes again, “I’m not like you, or mom. I don’t… I can’t fake it like you do.” She put her forehead on her knees, hiding her face, because fuck, she wasn’t supposed to trust him, but there wasn’t anyone else left. Ari was gone. Robin would never speak to her again. Rauk had exchanged a few letters with her in the interest of mutual scholarship, but that was all. And Lilli was still in the city, technically second in command of the guard, but drifting further away every day. Lee was alone in a den of wolves, and her only friend was the one with the sharpest teeth. “I just want to go home,” she said, her voice thick and choked.

A moment later, she heard the noise of the Left Hook whispering through her mind, the din of drunken voices and clattering glasses, the roar of the fire and laughter and music. “Stop,” she said, and when it didn’t immediately go away, she sat up and said, “Don’t. I don’t want you in my head.”

The sound faded as though through the distance of a door closing, then disappeared, taking a hint of firelight and warmth with it when it left. There was only one globe of light left floating in the small room, and it cast Rowan’s face in shadow. “Do you want me to leave?”

She should have wanted him to, but couldn’t quite bring herself to tell that particular lie. Because what she really wanted was for things to be like they had been – or rather, to be like she used to think they’d been: no secrets or lies between them, in perfect accord, fighting the good fight. Just the two of them against the world, together. But that thing she’d believed in, the thing she wanted so desperately to have again, had never existed at all.

She’d confronted her mother about the secrets, spent three days in a locked room learning as much as she had clearance, now, to know. Catching up on a decade of miscommunication and misunderstanding, reconciling and preparing herself for the task ahead. But she’d hardly spoken to Rowan at all since that night in the sewers, when Ari’s wisp had intervened and given Lee one last taste of just how little Rowan trusted her. And that was it. Trust. “I want to be able to trust you again,” she blurted out. Rowan went still, alert and catlike, and Lee wiped angrily at her eyes, “I’m sick of you lying to me and keeping things from me. If you’re going to throw me in this pit of fucking snakes, the least you can do is be honest with me. You aren’t protecting me by keeping me out of the loop. You never were.”

“No more secrets,” Rowan said quietly. “Not anymore. I promise.”

“And I don’t believe you,” she said levelly. “I have absolutely no reason to.”

“Aurelia,” he said, his voice soft and intimate and weighty with seriousness, making her name sound like music. He only called her that when it was important.

She gave a quick shake of her head. Didn’t want to hear it, whatever it was.

He moved, leaning forward on his knees and cupping her face gently with his hand. She froze beneath his touch, because he’d never…

The words of a pale goddess whispered through her head, the brush of a dark feather against the back of her mind: A boy who was saved from shame and death has always looked on… afraid to touch. But even confronted with proof of the divine – with solid evidence that the dream had been prophetic and true – that part, at least, she’d still resolutely rejected, because Rowan had never, ever…

…and then he kissed her. His lips were chapped and his mouth tasted faintly of cheap wine and tobacco. He was warm and coarse and yielding, and for a moment, Lee felt herself starting, maybe, to believe. The last of the magical lights winked out, and Rowan tipped his head to one side, breathing a sigh against her mouth and slowly parting his lips against hers. When his hand found her hip and he started to draw her toward him, Lee’s senses came back to her in a rush, because she knew too well this thing that he did. She kicked him in the kneecap, hard. He let out a grunt of pain and pitched forward, knocking her backwards as his leg went out from under him. She recovered before he did, flipping him onto his back and putting her dagger to the nick she’d already sliced in his throat, “I’m not one of your fucking patsies, Rowan. You can’t fix this by making me fawn over you.”

He let out a humorless laugh, his voice tight with pain, “I can’t imagine you fawning over anyone, Aurelia.”

She frowned. “What the fuck, Rowan? Why are you doing this? Why would you-?”

“Because I’m in love with you.”

Her blood froze and her face went hot. She suddenly wished she’d bothered to learn his stupid light spell, just so she could see his face, though it wasn’t like she’d ever been able to catch a lie in his expression before. She pressed the knife more firmly against his neck, “I’ll fucking put you back on the most wanted list. I’ll go to the captain of the guard myself and tell him about your favorite bolt ho-”

He pulled her down and kissed her again.

This time, when she pulled out of his grasp, she was crying, her dagger fallen somewhere on the floor and forgotten. “You’ve been lying to me since we were kids,” she wheezed. “Why. Why are you doing this?”

“Goddamnit, Lee.” He made a gruff, angry sound and shifted beneath her. A moment later, her candle flickered to life, still on its side on the floor, and Rowan pressed something into her hand. “I taught you the spell, so fucking use it already.”

She looked down and found a single copper coin resting on the center of her palm. For a moment, she was bewildered; when she realized what he was getting at, she drew back in alarm. The night before her induction into the council, he’d stayed up with her for hours in a quiet corner of the Left Hook, teaching her to use her magic to dip down into the thoughts of the people around her, to push deeper and read the minds of anyone in a room, using the coin as a focus. She’d never even considered turning the spell back on him, and the realization made her burn. Even at her most cautious, even knowing better, she still didn’t have it in her to distrust him completely. Out loud, she said, “If you know I’m doing it, you can still lie with your thoughts.”

He sighed, running a hand back through his hair and looking up at her from the floor, “Then get up and I’ll leave, and I won’t make any more social calls.”

It didn’t sound like a threat – more like a vow, or maybe a concession. She closed her hand around the coin and looked down at him. He just met her eyes, resigned, and she gave him a small nod, then called up her magic and pushed. There was always resistance when her mind pierced into someone else’s thoughts, like the slow weight of a dull blade breaching flesh. With Rowan, though, there was almost none, his mind so familiar from years of telepathic communication that it was like sliding into warm bathwater, easy and inviting. On the surface, there was a shimmer of hopefulness that was reflected in the way he was looking up at her, a whisper of worry because he’d felt how easy it had been for her, too, and a soft murmuring mantra: beautiful so beautiful gonna kill me don’t care worth it worth her lips so soft so

She pushed deeper, driving past the thoughts at the forefront of his consciousness, and he didn’t even try to resist her, just closed his eyes and sucked in a breath and let her in, and the next level down she found the fluttering anxiousness replaced with…

…dread. Cold, aching, petrifying fear. She tilted her head, not comprehending, and pushed, listening. lose her gonna lose her you fucked up and you’re gonna lose her she’s already gone you’re a coward fucking chicken shit liar so beautiful won’t trust you won’t listen shouldn’t listen chicken shit should have told her so angry just didn’t want her angry now it’s your fault alone gonna be alone she was all that ever mattered and you fucked up fucked her up she’s alone hates you won’t trust you gone gonna lose her so unhappy so scared all your fault if you’d just told her should have told her should have

They both gasped, gulping in air as the spell ended, and Lee dropped the coin.

For a long moment, they just stared at each other. Then Rowan asked, his voice tight and strained, “You still think I’m lying?”

“No,” she said, “now I just think you’re an idiot.”

“Great,” he said. “Thanks.”

“No more lies,” she said.

Rowan gave a small nod.

“And no more secrets.”

“You wanna read my mind again?” he said irritably.

She patted around on the floor until she found the coin, then held it up, “I’m fucking keeping this.”

“If you’re hurting for money-”

She slapped his chest, making him grunt. “I’m going to hang it around my neck, so you remember. If you lie to me, I’ll know.”

“I’m not going to lie to you anymore, Aurelia.”

This time, the way he said it – weary and remorseful – made it feel true.

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Say it again.”

He sighed, “I’m not going to-”

“My name.”

He paused, suddenly looking less brow-beaten and more bewildered, “What?”

“Say my name again.”

The crease in his brow relaxed, his so-blue eyes roaming over her face, and when he said it, his voice was music, “Aurelia.”

She leaned down and kissed him, soft and tentative, just a gentle press of lips, but the lingering melody of her name made his mouth taste sweeter. He put his arms around her, hesitant and cautious, his touch so light it was barely there, like he was afraid spikes might erupt from her skin at any moment, or that his fingertips might find the point of a hidden dagger.

She closed her eyes and rested her forehead against his, murmuring quietly, “I missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too,” he said, coiling his arms a little more surely around her shoulders.

When he started carding his fingertips gently through her hair, she shifted against him, laying down on top of him and resting her head on his chest, ear pressed to his heart, the top of her head tucked beneath his chin. After a moment, she curled her hands in his shirt and asked quietly, “Will you sing for me?”

“Anything in particular?” he asked quietly, smoothing a hand slowly down along her back. She shook her head. “…something from the book?” She hesitated, then gave a small nod. “Might be a little rusty,” he said, and she could hear the hint of a smile on his lips, “since you stole my notes, and all.” She elbowed him in the gut, but it was halfhearted, his little oof too exaggerated to be genuine.

He drew in a breath, but before he could start singing, Lee said, “If you cast a sleeping spell on me – any spell on me – I’ll hunt you down and flush you out myself.”

Rowan let out a low, rumbling chuckle, “At least you can be sure I’m not charming you, since you keep hitting me.” She elbowed him again, gently, and he reached up and pressed a hand to her ear, holding her head against his chest. Instead of singing, he started to hum, a low, soothing vibration in his chest punctuated by the steady beating of his heart. Then his voice started whispering through her mind, harmonizing with the melody, singing an old, old lullaby, from before his music had gained the touch of magic, when it really was still just the two of them.

And there was nothing mystical about the drowsiness that settled over her, just the slow, familiar pull of his voice and the comforting warmth of his body.
~
When she woke, it was dark again, and they were curled together uncomfortably on the hard floor, which wasn’t quite wide or long enough for them to lie side by side. Rowan was curled up against her and snoring softly, face pressed into her side and arms wrapped around her thighs. She ran her fingers through his hair, brushing it away from his face and gazing idly up at the underside of the stairs. There was a faint light coming through the small cracks in the wood, and for a moment she thought they must have slept through the night. Then the light grew brighter, and she realized it was… blue?

A little luminous puff popped into existence in the air above her head. A wisp. She found herself marveling at it. There was no way to know for sure if it was Ari’s – they all looked more or less the same – but for it to be here, now… She reached up and held her finger out to it, whispered softly into its consciousness is she okay?

She got back impressions. Friendship. Contentment. Understanding.

Lee found herself blinking back tears. I’m so sorry.

Friendship. Acceptance. Joy.

Where is she?

A pause. Busy. Important. Another pause. Lonely.

Lee chewed her lip. Will she hear me if I go to the temple?

Friendship. Excitement. Friendship.

The wisp bounced and turned like it was being called. Before it could leave, Lee said out loud, “Tell her I miss her.” And then, poof, it was gone. A blue light beyond the stairs, then nothing.

“Tell her what?” Rowan mumbled sleepily.

“Nothing,” she said quietly. “Go back to sleep.”
~
The next time they woke, it was well past dawn, and they both cast invisibility on themselves before pushing up the loose stair. Rowan climbed out first, and when Lee heard him heft himself up onto the next higher step, she reached up out of habit. Even without being able to see each other, their hands connected easily, and Rowan gripped Lee’s forearm and lifted her easily up and out of the small hidey hole. They set the step back carefully and made their way quietly up to the roof. Lee retrieved her dress from the barrel and donned it, then whispered to where she could feel Rowan looming at her back, Want to follow me out?

I should find my own exit. Wouldn’t want to cause a scandal if you’re caught sneaking me out first thing in the morning.

Lee stifled a laugh. I doubt anyone would be surprised. It took some doing to get the price taken off your head.

Still. The new councilwoman shouldn’t be starting her first term with a kept man.

Is that what you are now?

That depends. She could hear the grin in his voice, even if she couldn’t see it. Are you planning on keeping me?

She turned around and hit him in the ribs with the side of her hand, a perfectly-aimed chop that was rewarded with a little wheezing huff of air.

How do you DO that? You can’t even see me!

You think too loud. Rowan breathed out a wry laugh, and Lee took a step forward and pressed her hand to his chest, leaning lightly into him. You know, Lucian Archibald is already making noises about a political marriage, and Jean Sadanas has been encouraging me to meet his youngest son.

Generally council seats are passed on to family members. Rowan’s voice was flat and neutral, even in her head. You’re an imbalance in the system. I’m sure there are plenty of people anxious to use you to boost their status or solidify their power base.

If you could convince people that you’re respectable enough to court me, I wouldn’t have to worry about it. When Rowan didn’t immediately respond, Lee tapped him gently on the chest with the flat of her hand. I’m hosting a fundraiser next week to raise money to help rebuild the lower ward. Might be a good place for a person to start fixing their public image.

When he still didn’t say anything, she gave him another gentle pat, then turned to start heading down the stairs. Before she got far, Rowan reached out and grabbed her wrist (he missed, barely catching her by the fingertips) to stop her. Are you asking me to marry you?

I’m telling you I’m not sure how long I’m going to be able to stay unwed, and wondering how you feel about that. She slid her hand into his, hooking their fingers together. It would be easier, and maybe more beneficial to the cause for me to marry someone else, but I’d much rather have you at my side than a snake in my bed. You’re better at this than I am, and I wouldn’t have to sleep with one eye open. When that failed to elicit a response, she added, Besides, we already have the matching rings.

They’re just scrap metal.

No, they’re not. She said it as firmly and resolutely as she could, punctuating it by squeezing Rowan’s hand. They’re a promise we made to each other.

To protect the city.

To protect each other. When he didn’t respond, she lifted his hand to her lips and pressed a kiss to his knuckles. Just think about it. She let his hand slip out of hers, then headed silently back down the deserted staircase, navigating around the servants moving through the halls, then back into the room where she was supposed to have spent the night. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it, dropping her veil and letting out a sigh.
~
That afternoon, when she’d finished her morning paperwork, she took a trip to the temple of Ishkar. Many of the regular patrons of the temple had abandoned it when their god had fallen silent, so the vast building was mostly empty when Lee arrived and knelt down in front of one of the altars, silently lighting one of the candles and bowing her head. “If I’m wrong about this,” she whispered, “I’m going to be really embarrassed. But Ari-” She stopped, cleared her throat, “Ariana Stormborn, it’s your humble servant, Aurelia Leigh.”
~
On the way home, she stopped by a jeweler’s shop. It was simple enough to enchant the plain copper coin to look old and valuable, though the tale she told about its history and significance meant it wound up mounted in a delicate filigree rather than simply punctured and attached to a chain. As soon as the necklace was finished, she put it on; the decorated one cent piece sat perfectly in the hollow of her throat.
~
That evening, there was mail waiting for her in her office – a pile of RSVPs for the fundraiser for the lower ward. At the top of the stack was one signed flamboyantly in gilded ink: Rowan Strider.

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Ariana's Journal (pt 2)
The Siege

This is bad. We managed to hold back the elves, barely, but I fear I’ll look back and find it was actually the calm before the real storm. Getting hit by that fireball was more painful than anything I could have ever imagined. And while it saved my life, I don’t think the orb Ishkur asked me to guard all those moons ago was doing me any favors. If I had to hazard a guess, I think it may have…absorbed? consumed? the energy of the spell. Something awoke within it, and the runes that were once dull are now glowing blue. And at least one of the elf mages seemed to know exactly what I possessed. I only wish I knew. Whatever it is, it can’t be good.

I can’t tell if it’s my just my imagination, or if the runes are glowing brighter than they were before I healed my friends. Trying to channel Ishkur’s power with the orb so close to me was difficult; I even noticed the fort’s resident mage struggling to use her magic when I was near. I’ve hidden myself away in a tower, but it’s only a matter of time before my friends come to find me. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but at the same time I can’t leave the orb unguarded. There is nowhere I would trust it to remain hidden, and no one else I can entrust it to. I’ve sent my little wisp friend back to Lillian with a plea for help, but for the moment, I’m left twisting in the wind.

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Ariana's Journal
Under Siege

It is a long cold night of waiting. I have done what I can for the soldiers who have fallen ill, but their malady is magical in nature and I can only temporarily alleviate the symptoms; Robin and his faith in Tyr will be the one to win this battle. Lee and a ranger we met, Lilli, have been hard at work with the commander readying the fort for siege. Rauk is somewhere to the north, hopefully hurrying his way back with aid.

The elves have given us a two-hour ultimatum before they attack. You might think it kind of them to give us time to finalize our plans, but I fear all they’ve done is given the commander and his guards two hours to brood and doubt their ability to hold Peak’s Cleft. It doesn’t help that we can see just how massive their force is by the campfires burning in the forest, nor that their taunting voices are carried on the stormwinds conjured up by our druid friends to hinder their efforts.

So build the wall and build it strong
‘Cause we’ll be there before too long

I’ll admit, the effect is rather terrifying. And I don’t know if we can survive this. I just know that we must. The ancient evil that slumbers under Two Rivers cannot be awakened. This is why we were called by Ishkur, by Tyr, and even by the Triple Goddess, whether we want to admit the gods’ involvement in our lives or not. I pray to Ishkur that he lend me the strength to help these people last the night, and that I use what power is granted me wisely. Fair winds to Rauk to speed him on his way. And may we heed the words of my old swordmaster, Giliam Lishang:

We must be swift as the coursing river
With all the force of a great typhoon
With all the strength of a raging fire
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon

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A Letter to the Khan
When the Walls Came Tumbling Down

To the Khan,

I have sent this missive to you with an orc named Thargald. He has proven himself a worthy ranger, and is to be honored. Without his efforts, the south would be lost in chaos already. I have trusted him with what I have learned of the situation in Two Rivers, to be recounted to you. I do not feel that those facts are safe for writing.

What I have done since will soon be common knowledge. I write this so you know the why before your enemies.

There is an alliance of elves working with remnants of the Sky’s Fang Clan. I have confirmed that they live. I do not yet know where they have been hiding, but I will find out. Their army overwhelmed the eastern human outpost and has passed beyond the mountains into the south. They are now mustering somewhere, and will soon strike the castle at Peak’s Cleft from the weaker side. If Thargald has reached you alive, you will now know why my need is urgent. If he has not, I hope you can guess.

I could not turn to Bloody Oaks for aid. You are too far, and if our enemies take Peak’s Cleft the only satisfying answer will be a March. As you have told me, a March aimed south will be the end of our way and the start of something new. I do what I do to preserve the Khanslaw.

I sent skraelings to Peak’s Cleft to warn the defenders there. They are allies I have made in Two Rivers. I trust them to defend their city. However, I do not believe the standing forces at Peak’s Cleft will be enough. I have turned to the most useful Middle Clans to build my own army.

First I went to the Moon Bears, for I will need raw strength. The Bears have this, which they proved by putting a champion against me in their glory pit. It was a splendid fight, I regret that you did not see it. They are worthy of the honor I have given them, and they will be my siege-breakers. Their chief is Gaz’ul, to whom much glory must be given whether the elves die soon or when you come to finish them.

Second I went to the Whiterock Clan, for I will need defenders and engineers to hold the castle walls. I did not know the Whiterock before now, but I think you do. Their chief is Orrig, and he is old and clever. He rightfully holds his clan in high esteem and, I think, would have liked to fight our enemies on his own terms. I convinced him by promising him a place of prominence at Peak’s Cleft and a fair share of any tribute there. If he lives, he has merit as a rival for you. I will enjoy your victories over him, and I am sorry for any diminishment of the tribute in the meantime. The insult is not mine.

Third I went to the sugar-teeth at the Elk Hollow Clan, for I saw soft spots in the force I assembled. I could go no farther north, and the Elks do have some uses. Their shamans are masterful healers. They have strong minds for numbers and clever trades, and strong backs for moving supplies. Mannar will expect a place of minor favor in the Hall, and if his honor is true he will have earned it. He has sent his daughter Ulla with me. She seems capable. I have promised her a place near your ear and a season to prove her clan worthy of more. You well know that the Elks are too clever with gold, it is my thinking that Ulla and the Elks will lessen Orrig’s impact on the tributes.

These three chiefs have made oaths, and I vouch for their honor if they stay true to me. I have exempted their clans from the call of the Gory March, if we kill the elves and the Sky’s Fang. Our standing is intertwined, and their failures will be mine.

If we are killed, it will be the end of our way and the start of something new.

Rauk

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Robin's Diary (pt 3)
Over the Mountains!

Dear Diary,

Early the next day, Lee sought out someone to take care of Finn and we split ways with the caravan. I’ll miss the friends I made among the guards, but maybe we’ll meet again someday. Rauk suggested and insisted on taking the stealthier route, and Thargald assured us that he could lead us through the trail, but that it would be dangerous. We were sure we could handle anything.

Lee was excited at first, never having been this far north or away from the city this long. She and Thargald scouted ahead, returned to us with a smug look on her face as she told us she noticed signs that a small group had been this way, that the group was probably an elvish scouting group or raiding party. At this news, Rauk demanded that we go after them. The girls agreed as long as we proceeded with caution.

As the hours dragged on, Lee and Ari became more and more distressed by the cold and the hard pace Rauk had set. When the orc began throwing strained looks and exasperated sighs over his shoulder at the two, I fell back to provide them with light banter and humorous stories of my youth to distract them from the cold. It seemed to work, and the two, though nearly frozen, pressed on.

An hour later, Thargald called for a halt, warning us of an impending storm and suggested we find shelter. Rauk, well aware of how dangerous storms in the mountains could be, especially for a group unaccustomed to the northern climate, quickly set out to find a cave in which we could hide from the storm. As he searched, heavy flakes of snow began to descend around us, obscuring our vision. Turning to check on Ari and Lee, I noticed the half-elf whispering softly to herself, and soon after, the snow lessened. I can’t be sure, but I think she might have been praying to her god. Around us, the snow fell lighter, but no one else seemed to notice. Rauk managed to find us a cave, and Lee hurried to make us a fire. As soon as we were safely inside and warming up, the snow began to fall heavily outside.

We were just settling in, discussing sleeping rotations, when Lee suddenly perked up and silenced us.

“Something’s outside,” she said as she drew her bow. We all tensed, hands hovering over our weapons, when we saw a pack of wolves pacing outside the cave.

“Building a bigger fire should keep them out,” Ari said. We threw what kindling we had onto the bonfire, building it up and hoping that it would last us through the storm. With more light, Lee looked around the cave and confirmed that it must belong to the wolves. In the back of the cave, Lee found a satchel containing foodstuffs and a journal, but none of us could read the swirling, nearly elvish text. Lee pocketed the book for later. The night dragged on, none of us sleeping well.

In the morning, the wolves had dispersed, leaving only their paw prints behind. I ducked out of the cave to look around, and as I did, I felt the familiar warmth of Tyr fluttering at the edges of my mind, and I knew that the storm had lessened, but that the snowfall would remain consistent. I conveyed this to the others, and with a slight shake of his head, Rauk told us we should keep moving.

“It’s going to be even more dangerous now,” Ari said. “With the snow piling up. Maybe we should head back.”

Rauk didn’t even argue, he only trudged out into the snow, Lisette scurrying to catch up. Lee placed a hand on Ari’s shoulder.

“He’s not going back, not now. We should stick with him.”

Ari didn’t seem convinced. “Are you sure?”

Lee shrugged. “Have you met this asshole?”

Hours into our difficult hike, Lee started showing signs of exhaustion and was shivering violently. She had her cloak tightly wrapped around her, her head ducked low, and her pace was slowing noticeably. This time, nothing I said seemed to help her forget her frozen limbs and aching muscles. I expected Rauk to scold, to insist on leaving her behind, but instead, he patiently took the shield that Lisette always carries and dropped it on the snowy ground.

“Climb on,” he said. Lee settled onto the shield-made-sled, pulled her cloak tighter around her, and was delighted when Lisette climbed onto it with her. The two pressed close together for warmth, giggling with glee when Rauk had secured the shield with a rope and pulled the two along. I couldn’t help but be jealous. It looked like so much fun.

The good cheer afforded by the makeshift sled didn’t last. Ari was now feeling the cold as well, her pace slowing. Rauk and I had our minds elsewhere, bored with trudging through the snow in heavy armor, and him dragging a shield with two people on it. Suddenly the wind picked up, and we braced ourselves along the cliff-face. The wind felt unnatural, and we noticed that it was localized. Over the sound of its roar, I heard Rauk yelling something about elves. Down the slope, we could pick out a group of elves surrounding someone wearing a thick cloak. It looked as if this stranger in the middle was conjuring the wind. As we watched, a bolt of lightening struck the tip of a mountain nearby, and Ari yelled at us to seek lower ground. Lee shoved Lisette off the shield and lunged down the slope on her makeshift sled, Rauk cursing and charging after her. Ari and I traded glances before following, Thargald staying behind to watch the battle.

Running downhill, I could see Lee farther down dodging arrows as the elves shot at her. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw one graze her arm. Still, she continued down at break-neck speed. I couldn’t help but stop to watch as Lee drew her bow and took a shot at one of the elves while still sliding down on the shield. The elf staggered, but the others notched their bows and readied to shoot. With quick thinking, Lee managed to pull the shield up, turning it from a sled into convenient cover. I reached her in time to duck behind the shield with her, informing her of the approach of what looked like elven barbarians. Ari caught up to us, and Rauk charged by, towards the stranger, who I could now see was wielding a staff and calling up a gust of wind. I quickly blessed the stranger and my friends, and rushed to join the battle.

The barbarian elves had pet wolves with vicious teeth and strong jaws. Rauk, Ari, and I battled with them while Lee took quick shots at the archers and the stranger, much to our surprise, called lightning down to strike at our enemies. After trying battle, it seemed we would win the fight against the elven scouting party. The remaining elves scurried away from us, and Rauk seemed to be of a mind to let them go. Lee, however, thought to take one hostage. She dashed after a fleeing archer, managed to disarm him, and as they grappled with each other, one of the remaining barbarians rushed to aid his friend. I hurried to Lee, shield up and ready to defend her. The barbarian and I scuffled for a while, but at a word from his friend, he disengaged from our fight and fled with the rest of his comrades. As Lee went to grab at the elf she had caught, we watched in horror as the captured elf slid a knife through his own throat, and fell over dead. Lee cursed and kicked at the corpse, and I pulled her away with a scolding glare.

Tired and bleeding, our group gathered around the stranger. Ari approached him and spoke to him in elven, but he cut her off before she could say much. She seemed offended by whatever it was he had said, and continued to talk to him. After her speech in elven, he cursed. In the common language, he bid us to follow him.

As the strange druid led us along a path we didn’t notice before, Ari explained to him in common (for our benefit) about the dark power underneath Two Rivers. The druid nodded, as if he was already aware.

“The elves are after it as well,” the druid told us. Before we could ask why, he added, “It’s one of their gods, after all.”

The path led us to three stone statues, partially concealed by the falling snow. Here, the druid explained to us that his people, the other druids, don’t worship any gods. They are the watchers and protectors of the north. He told us a story, of how long ago, during the Godswar, one of the gods managed to escape and flee south. Back then, the empire had covered the map, and Two Rivers was merely a garrison. The members of the garrison, the druids, and the southern gods worked together to bind the escaped god of the north. The druid explained how it had taken a lot of power to do this, and that a lot of that power has been lost over the years, mostly due to meddling forces.

“Can’t we bind the god again?” Lee asked the druid.

No, the druid told us. Too much of the spell has been forgotten, and the southern gods are not what they used to be.

“Couldn’t the gods help us?” Lee insisted, seemed skeptical of her own idea. Ari threw her a glare.

“The gods have been doing what they can,” the druid told us, looking pointedly at Ari and me. “But something, someone, is chipping away at the binding.”

We grew quiet as we contemplated this knowledge.

After a time, the druid spoke up, “The elves will be laying siege on the castle shortly. I was…expecting others to bring me news of the elves movement. I was not expecting you.”

“We’re the best bet to get a warning to the castle,” Lee said, “if you can guide us there, that’d be great.”

The druid agreed to lead us, but expressed doubt that the castle can stand alone. “Two Rivers has been neglecting its outposts. They haven’t been getting the supplies or support they need.”

“We can seek help from the orcs,” Ari said. “And see if we can reinforce the castle. We can call storms down, reduce visibility.”

“How big is this army?” Lee asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

“I predict an army of a few hundred,” the druid told us.

Rauk shook his head. “We have to be careful in convincing the orcs to help us. If we call a Bloody March, the orcs will just raze the castle to the ground. I suggest we negotiate with a few of the closest tribes, convince them that there’s honor in killing these elves and oathbreakers.”

“Is there anyway to get word to Two Rivers? Get them to send some support?” Lee asked.

“I’m not sure we have enough time,” Ari said. “Let’s first get to the castle, see what the situation is, and go from there.”

As we mulled over our plan, we each looked up at the three giant statues the druid had brought us to. The storm had lesson, and finally, we could see what they were.
Maid, Mother, and Crone.

“Miss Haberdash,” I breathed.

“Could she help us?” Lee asked aloud, to no one in particular.

The druid sighed wistfully. “She can only point people in the direction they need to go. She does not involve herself. She won’t help you.”

“But,” he continued after a slight pause, “if she sent you here, you four must be our best bet.”

None of us seemed to be instilled with confidence at his words.

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Robin's Diary (pt 2)
To the North! (Pt 1)

Dear Diary,

We rose early in the morning and, while breaking our fast, discussed how we planned to get to the Untamed Lands. After long debate, we decided to hitch on with a caravan. There were three groups heading out that morning: a large convoy carrying tribute to the orcs far north; a trading caravan; and a small expedition into the unknown wilds. Lee chose for us, declaring her desire to get paid for our services. As ambassador and himself an orc, Rauk and no problems convincing the trading caravan to hire us.

It was a rocky start, to say the least. We were nervous and distrustful of the other members of the caravan, seeing potential betrayal in every set of eyes, and our closeness made the other guards suspicious of us as well. Rauk especially was paranoid, which put him in the mood to snap at the poor squire girl and hurl insults my way. Ari, lulled by the rocking of the wagon, seemed largely nonchalant by the journey. To settle Rauk and to avoid upsetting the other members, Lee and I volunteered to switch shifts with some of the others, so that a member of our personal group was always awake and watchful (Unfortunately, I must have said the wrong or right thing. I somehow ended up working three shifts). Luckily for me, working so much allowed me to spend more time with our cohorts, and I made some fast friends among the other guards.

Friendships aside, we were not able to befriend one group of guards. They continued to dislike and distrust us, despite my charm and wonderful stories.

Some time into our journey, the caravan was halted. Thargald, an orc scout traveling with us, had pointed out an overturned wagon in the middle of the road. Our group quickly volunteered to scout it out, taking Thargald with us (It was kind of amazing to see Rauk order him, and the orc to simply obey. How much power does Rauk really have over the orcs in the north, anyways? There’s much I still don’t know about him). Ari and Thargald took to the forest on the left side of the road to search for enemies, while Lee stealthed to the right. As Rauk and I cautiously made our way to the wagon, we were startled by the sound of a sudden scream, coming in Lee’s direction. Rauk threw an incredulous look my way, then glared in the direction of the scream. I couldn’t help but scoff into my fist, trying to cover it into a cough when turned that angry gaze at me.

The overturned caravan was covered in blood. The only supplies left we found were of the camping variety. Rauk grimaced at the two corpses we found, bending low to check them over while I kept watch for attackers. Soon, Ari and Thargald met up with us.

“Tracks,” Ari said, “leading off into the wilds.”

“They were dragging something behind them,” Thargald added.

Rauk pointed to the wounds on one of the corpses, and Thargald took a closer look. His features twisted into a look of pure disgust.

“Elves,” Rauk growled.

We returned to the caravan leader to inform him of our finds. With mild persuasion, Rauk convinced the leader to take the caravan with us. Ari and I insisted on bringing the bodies, for proper burial once we reached the fort. Rauk wanted to follow the trail, and it was clear that Thargald supported this decision.

“We can’t abandon these people,” Lee insisted. “We promised to protect them.”

Rauk’s shoulders tensed and he seemed like he was going to say something biting, something about falling into a river, but he eventually nodded, said nothing, and stormed off.

The squire stuck to my side that night.

The next day was largely uneventful. Everyone remained on edge, throwing each other dirty looks and small squabbles repeatedly broke out over insignificant things. Each group stuck to their own, and not even my new friends were in the mood for my company. Thargald, however, had stuck himself to Rauk’s side whenever he wasn’t scouting the way ahead, as if awaiting orders. Rauk muttered to us that night why the orcs were so disquiet: “It is rare for elves to attack this far south. All of you, be on guard.”

Once in sight of Fort Wyrvenskill, it was Lee who pointed out that something was wrong.
“Halt the caravan,” she called, rushing to the caravan leader. “There should be guards! There are no guards!”

Terrified, the leader called a halt. “What do we do?” he seemed to be asking us. Again, we volunteered to scout.

“I’ll go, with Thargald,” Lee said with a decisive nod of her head. “We know how to keep to the shadows. Send us one more in case of fighting. The others will stay here and guard the caravan.” The leader called to a man named Wyatt, who seemed hesitant, but in the end agreed to go.

The three of them noticed first that the gate had been barred from the inside, and all of the signal fires had burned out. They took to the roof and dropped into the courtyard. There, they found stables, and hastily abandoned tools, but nothing to clue them in on what had happened. Finding the fort quiet, Lee signaled us to move the caravan inside.

“I don’t think there are any elves here now,” Lee told us once we had regrouped, “but we should check out the rest of the fort just in case.”

“I’m going with you, this time,” Rauk declared. When my shuffling produced a loud metal-on-metal scraping sound, due to my armor, all sets of eyes alighted on me.

“You stay behind, little bird,” Lee said, giving me an affectionate smile. I shrugged and agreed that that was probably best. Ari decided to stay behind as well.

So we split our group into three. Ari and I stayed with the caravan, ever alert for attackers; Thargald and Wyatt took a passage on the right; and Rauk and Lee began to search the corridor on our left. About a half hour later, Ari and I received a Message from Lee demanding us. We rushed along the path the scout and rogue had taken, and it was not long before we found Lee kneeling with Wyatt.

“Rauk moved on, but this guy needs healing,” Lee told us. Ari knelt with him and did what she could, while Lee and I ran to help Rauk. As we neared, we could hear the sounds of fighting ahead. We met up with Rauk, and rushed into the room to find Thargald locked in combat with a youth. Lee and I stopped and stared in horror—the kid couldn’t have been more than sixteen years, wielding a wicked looking blade and swinging it madly at the orc.

“Put your weapons down!” Rauk snarled, and the two combatants paused in fear. Seeing an opportunity, Lee quickly used Sleep on the boy. As Lee busied herself with disarming the boy and tying him up, Rauk turned to me and Thargald.

“We found the bodies of the guards. They were shoved into a room meant for food storage. The corpses are frozen, and a good deal of them seem to have had their necks broken.”

“But the elves are gone?” I figured I’d double check.

Rauk nodded once. “If they were still lurking, we would have been attacked by now. My thought is that the elves largely used stealth to kill the people here, likely while they slept. And, to make matters worse, I discovered this.”

The orc handed me a logbook, which contained a detailed report on the increase in elven activity. The leader of the fort had been about to send for reinforcements. I frowned in distaste and handed the book back to Rauk.

“I’ll go report back to the caravan.”

Rauk nodded. “Keep any fires burning small, and be on your guard.”

While returning to camp, I passed Ari, on her way to check on the kid.

Later, Lee would recount to me what had happened.

As Ari began to heal the boy’s frostbite, he awoke and attempted to bite her. She leapt away in time, to the sound of the kid cursing and yelling. Lee emerged and tried to calm him down as Ari shuffled quickly out of the room. From the kid’s constant stream of expletives, Lee picked up that most of his anger was towards orcs.

“What’s your name?” she had asked him gently. “Who are you?”

Finn, he told her, squire to the commander of the fort. He told Lee the story of how, one night, elves wearing face paint sneaked into the fort and began murdering everyone, about five days prior. He then told of how orcs had come through the gate after. He had hid himself in the stable for two days, listening to the marching of orcs and elves. He described the facial tattoos that the orcs had. This didn’t mean much to Lee, so she went to Rauk, who was standing guard outside.

When Lee told me this part of the story, her face went dark.

“I’d never seen Rauk look like that before,” she told me. “He was seconds away from killing someone. Probably the poor kid.”

Rauk managed to control himself, breathed deep, and told Lee that these orcs the kid had described were from a clan that should have been wiped out ages ago—a clan that still worshiped gods.

We regrouped, and the news spread of the elves and orcs marching south. As we sat around our fire with the caravan leader and Thargald, Rauk looked disturbed.

“I must bring this news to Skogul Khan,” he said, barely above a whisper.

“How would we even get there?” Lee snapped. “If we head south again, we might run into this army.”

“They’re probably headed to the castle next,” Ari supplied. “We need to go warn them, if it’s not too late already.”

“Heading south again will take too much time,” Rauk growled.

“We’re definitely not goin’ to the castle now,” The caravan leader told us, his voice shaking.

“Headin’ east. Safer that way. Sure would be nice to have you folks along.”

“I can’t afford to leave now,” Rauk said, cutting his hand through the air. “Skogul Khan must be told of this.”

“There are trails west of here that’ll take us through the mountains and to the castle,” Thargald said. “I can lead us. We are sure to face dangers, though.”

“We head west at daybreak,” Rauk said, allowing no argument.

Lee appeared to dislike this plan, worrying at her lip with her teeth. Ari stood and left us to pray. I decided now was as good a time as any to write down the events so far, in case this is the last chance I’ll get to write.

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Robin's Diary
The Not-Wizard's Tower

Dear Diary,

After the events of last night, while we scattered around the tavern, hurriedly packing our things for the trip up north, Strider pulled me aside and gave me this journal.

“Keep notes about everything that happens up there,” he’d said. I vowed to do just that. I won’t let you down! Lee suggests my first entry should be about what happened last night, and why we have to now make our way up north for a while.

It started when we discovered a group of cultists that were attempting some sort of ritual, which demanded the deaths of young, sinful nobles. After a gruesome battle, we managed to defeat the cultists and we recovered a journal which mentioned a plot to summon a great evil. Involved in this plot is a noble named Ebenezer Aesterwall. Ari and I brought the journal to the captain of the guard, but it wasn’t enough evidence to issue a warrant of arrest. The good captain hinted that we would need more incriminating evidence, but also warned us not to get caught doing anything illegal (as if that would happen…again).

Aesterwall, it turns out, lives in a grand tower in the upper wards. Lee scouted the tower for days and discovered that our mark was a reclusive sort with only a few servants coming and going. Rumor around the city had it that Aesterwall was a difficult man to get in touch with, and that he’s where one goes to acquire information on various topics. Since Aesterwall is on the city council, Rauk suggested paying him a visit in the guise of a diplomatic meeting. Rauk returned to the tavern grim-faced, informed us that he wasn’t permitted to explore the tower, but confirmed that Aesterwall didn’t have any guards.

So we made a plan to infiltrate the tower.

In the dead of night, Ari and Lee scaled the garden wall while Rauk and I waited in a late-night cafe across the street. On the other side of the wall, Ari and Lee met several wisps that blinked out the moment a figure emerged from the tower, nearly catching sight of Ari. Later, Lee would recount to me the moment she learned she could talk to the wisps, mind-to-mind (“But they don’t seem too bright,” she said with a wink, earning protesting groans from Rauk and Ari at the pun). The wisps insisted that Ari and Lee followed them, which they did, but not before Lee marked the figure exiting the tower grounds. After receiving Lee’s Message about the marked target, Rauk left the cafe to pursue him, but returned some time later unsuccessful.

The wisps led Ari and Lee to the home of Miss Haberdash, who warned them away from the tower. They were told of Aesterwall’s evil intentions, but insisted on completing their mission. The sorceress then gave them four potions to help them out, and gave Ari a parting gift. The girls returned to the tower, Messaging Rauk and me about their impromptu visit. Once back at the tower, the two scaled the wall to the second floor and emerged into a library containing a collection of suits of armor. Lee began to feel something was off, but couldn’t pinpoint the source. When they didn’t find what we needed in the library, they proceeded to climb to the third floor, which also didn’t yield any promising results.

Ari stayed behind on the third floor while Lee climbed the stairs to the fourth, but not before chugging a potion of False-Life and a potion of invisibility. There, she discovered Aesterwall’s laboratory and the man himself working. From her hiding place, Lee successfully casted Sleep on Aesterwall. It was only then that she noticed the giant suit of armor. It came to life with a horrible scream, and began searching the lab for the unknown assailant.

Meanwhile, on the third floor, the scream awoke a suit of armor which then grabbed Ari before she could rush to Lee’s aid. The suit began to drag her down to the second floor. When no help was forthcoming from the cleric, Lee sent a Message to Rauk and me to come help. Rauk sprinted to and vaulted over the garden wall while I took the time to don my armor.

Unable to find Lee due to her False-Life potion, the giant suit of armor descended to the third floor to search for the culprit of his master’s condition. Lee hurriedly slammed and locked the door to the lab and began to investigate for the evidence we needed. As the suit of armor pounded on the door, attempting to break through, Lee found a journal containing a list of names, a coded book, amber dust, and reports of mining under the city. She shoved the list of names into Aesterwall’s robes, forced a Featherfall potion down his throat, and sent him out the window. By that time, the suit of armor had broken through the door, and she had no other choice than to dash to the roof. There, she discovered an airship, but had no time to look around as the giant suit of armor sprinted at her. Seeing no alternative, she dove off the roof.

Rauk climbed the tower wall in time to find Ari on the second floor being dragged by a suit of armor. As I struggled to climb up to help, he tackled the suit into the bookcases in the library. I scrambled through the window in time to see several other suits of armor come to life. After an arduous battle with the suits of armor, we turned in time to see Lee climb through the window, wild eyed. We had no time to ask what had happened when we saw the giant suit of armor that had been pursuing her fall past the window. Cursing, Lee removed her shortbow.

“That miserable piece of shit!” Lee called. Ari dashed to the window while Lee took aim and shot Aesterwall.

“There are more coming,” Rauk shouted. Together, we barricaded the second floor, then rushed to the window as Lee took aim once more. Before we could do anything, the world suddenly went black. The only things I could perceive were horrid sounds, disgusting things slithering against my armor, and biting cold.

“Void fucker,” was the last thing I heard out of Lee. Had I been able to see at the time, I would have known that she had grabbed the rope and jumped from the window. The next thing I knew, Ari had grasped my hand and led me to the rope, and the three of us leapt from the window as the sound of the suit of armor clambering up the side of the tower. The moment we hit the ground, we scrambled to our feet and sprinted off the grounds and to safety.

We gave the coded book to Miss Haberdash and took a moment to catch our breath and heal our wounds. The sorceress demanded payment for her help in the form of us taking a journey north. When we returned to Strider, he told us it would be a good idea for us to get out of town for a while, and we hurried to pack our things. Lee seems worried to leave the city and Strider behind. Rauk at some times seems eager to return home, but is also uneasy. I’ve caught him snapping at his squire several times as he waits for us to set out. If Ari feels one way or the other about leaving, she doesn’t show it, though she seems deep in thought (or maybe prayer?).

In any case, it’s off to the north we go. I’ve never been, and I’m a little excited. I wonder what things we’ll find?

—Robin Garrett, Paladin of Tyr.

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A sprig of broomstick, a splash of the future, and an ounce of courage

Sabin,

It looks like you’ve managed to poke the hornet’s nest around here. It seems that word has somehow gotten back to your father that you are alive and attempting to foil his plans. As you can imagine, “not pleased” is a bit of understatement. A reward has been offered for your head, and I’m not sure if he cares about the “alive” part or not.

In better news, Lillian unlocked the book for us. She seemed extremely pleased with the lot of you, so you must have done something to tickle her fancy. The first set of translations have been send back to the Tavern for us to review. I took a quick look at it, but wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Something about an expansion of the cliff wards. It looks like the city guards have also been replaced with some sort of mercenaries. Might be worth looking into.

~Rowan

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