A Hunter's Quarry
One woodsman bent close to the ground, examining faint prints in the earth, while the other stood guard, bow raised, watching right and left. Unusual early light made its way into the otherwise dark forest, peeking through the trees.
Just beyond their position, a line of trees formed an impenetrable wall of green and dark gray. The kneeling man signaled that their quarry was ahead in the brush, but the other ignored him; already taking aim.
In an instant, the thicket shuttered, and his arrow was quickly loosed. A metallic clang resounded as it was deflected away from its target. Then a great centaur emerged from the trees, a look of stern disappointment etched across his features.
The great half-man’s horse body was huge, looking stronger than a destrier. He raised his bow—itself as tall as a man—with two menacing arrows nocked. He crossed the distance between them in precise movements, leaving the ground mostly undisturbed by his passage. “You think yourselves hunters, but you are not. You fools! You are close to Klik’s domain. Do you know what that means? The goblins are on the move. They’re setting fires. Do you see that glow? It’s not the rising sun. They are lighting up bushes, trees, behind you. You will soon have only burning ground to read, and your escape will be cut off. They will be here soon. Go.”
He paused shortly, carefully measuring his tone, controlling his frustration: “And next time woodsman: you ought to know your quarry before you take shot. Know your target first. Then and only then will it not escape.”
An Oracle's Reading
The breeze was just strong enough to stir the feathers hanging from the oracle’s windcatcher. If it was day, one couldn’t tell. The ancient mangroves formed a dense canopy, blotting out the sky in a hundred layers of broad, dark leaf. So too, their roots plunged into this cold marsh, creating a woven lattice that overran the forest floor.
The feathers danced gently and urged a large spider into hurried movement nearby. Normally the bog was alive with sound, but not now, not while she was working. Now, rather, it was the clatter of bone upon bone and her slow erratic wheeze. She lifted the turtle shell and dumped its contents into the murky water. The lizardman was thin and ancient, yet her movements bespoke subtle agility, a kind of youth unexpected in such a form. Her eyes were white and pearlescent, and it was evident that she was blind. Yet she moved as if she was not, plucking a squat frog from the water with ease.
With neither guilt nor wickedness, she tore the legs from it and placed them into the turtle-shell bowl. She worked for several moments, adding strands of moss, and fishbone. She worked in relative silence and stopped only to perceive a nearby elemental, slowly moving through the marsh.
She waited, almost reverently, observing it in her own way as it passed. When it had she looked back down into the bowl and slid a long-nailed finger into the contents. By now the light had been stolen away from the marsh completely, the darkness settling in as if it were a thick blanket cast over the land.
And in the darkness, she whispered in a voice strangely familiar: “It has been foretold ... they have need of me.”
A narrow line of gold light peeked through the gap. It was dark in this room, but the door to the gnome’s workshop was slightly ajar. The furnace was loaded to capacity this evening, for the air was heavy with smoke. A multitude of sounds spilled from within just as the light did, a constant presence fluctuating only in its intensity and tone. The sound of metal being pounded in place was followed by a staccato series of chinks and finally ended in a slow putter of miniature gears as they began to spin... Bezzelquark was hard at work and had been for hours.
Another sound occurred then, something like a strange giggle mixed with a hiccup. It was abruptly answered by a thunderous boom. The vibration rocked the door frame and sent a large volume of smoke through, forcing it open as if it needed to escape the little man’s madness.
His guardsman had been on watch all night in the adjacent sitting room. He peered through the open door, relieved to see that his charge was unharmed. “Mr. Bezzelquark, everything alright? You said you wanted to move out this morning, you going to be ready? Need anything?”
“Yes, yes!” the small old man chirped with glee. His face and clothing were now blackened from the smoke. “Just one moment more... I’m on to something!”
Bezzelquark held a polished gold coin up to his magnifying goggle, and his one eye widened in awe. Meanwhile, his guardsman waited, vexed at the delay. Very slowly and without taking his eyes off the coin, the old gnome lifted it up into the contraption he’d been working on. His mouth twisted, making him look both eager and perplexed. The guard thought he had seen this sort of thing before. Cautiously, he backed away.
Bezzelquark jerked a handle, and his machine made a horrid, scratchy, grinding sound. Its small case shivered and bobbled, and spat out not one, but two identical coins. The little gnome turned to his guard, smiling so much that the tips of his mustache touched his ears. “Hazram! Bezzelquark’s is open for business!”
Those born with the rarest of gifts may find them a blessing or a curse. Roen learned to use his gift. He learned the hard way that he could be exploited. This young shifter was orphaned at the age of six and saved from the gutter by Baron Lasswell’s shady lieutenants. Roen could instantaneously change form, a superb quality for a spy, and the Baron took full advantage of Roen’s talent.
Dragon’s Port is the city you go to get mugged, or if you’re lucky, you’ll only attract unwanted attention. What better place to train and corrupt a young mind? While spying for the Baron, Roen learned as much as seasoned thugs and wicked traders could teach, from their idle, overheard, conversations. The criminal’s tales of ill-dealing and thievery inspired the boy. By the age of sixteen, he knew there was easy gold out there. He could snatch it easily, it seemed, and then change form to avoid capture. Roen rarely heard of the thieves who were caught in the act and died, nor of the thugs rotting in jail for their crimes. Eavesdropping, he learned what was lucrative, not how dangerous their trade was.
One evening, spying on a pair of thugs, with the moon providing just enough light for criminal activity, Roen watched from a rooftop, following his targets below. “Load the goods, quickly. We’ll take the wagon straight to the Prince.” The big guy was barking orders. Interesting, Roen thought. Lasswell will not be happy to know such dealings are happening here without his approval.
The thugs scanned the alley one last time, oblivious to the shifter lurking above them. They loaded their gold and valuables into their bags. They were not looking up. If they did, they might spot the fox with its reflective, yellow eyes, but they would not think to fear it. From his perch on the tavern’s roof, Roen saw and heard all. That’s how he knew that these men reported to the Bandit Prince.
Roen thought he was alone. Not thinking to look up, he was unaware of the raven flapping its wings, until it opened its beak and cawed, its eyes on the fox. Before hitting the tiles, its eyes glowed a brilliant blue. And then it shifted into a fox with slightly darker fur, settling right next to the stunned Roen. After a second of staring at the youngling, it shifted again, assuming the form of a man with a heavy coat and a bag over one shoulder.
“Are you going to introduce yourself, or are you going to keep acting like a common criminal?”
The fox’s eyes glowed blue and in a moment its body shifted into a young man with a feathered hat on his head. “My name is Roen, and I am not a criminal... and be quiet!”
The man stepped back, motioning Roen to follow him where they were unlikely to be heard. “If you’re not a criminal, why are you hiding in the shadows? Are you following these low lives?” With one bony finger, the man pointed to the group of bandits hastily loading their wagon.
“The Baron has honored me with an important role. I help him keep the peace at Dragon’s Port. I’ll be spymaster one day.”
The grown shifter snorted with humorless laughter, “Shifters are not meant to hole up in one little place their whole lives. We can explore and travel, see the world.” The corners of his eyes wrinkled with humor, “Haven’t you ever wondered what it’s like on that mountain over there?”
Roen followed his eyes to the mountains in the distant southwest, a familiar and yet enigmatic landmark. “Maybe.”
The older shifter lowered the bag from his shoulder, opened it and produced a rolled-up parchment that did not capture Roen’s interest. Inside the bag, he spotted some interesting gadgets, and that’s what he wanted to see.
“It’s up to you kid: what you want to do with your life. Lasswell is no better than those morons there, and the Bandit Prince is even worse.” He pointed with his chin toward the thugs. “See you around, Roen.” He shouldered his bag again, eyes glowing brilliantly, and shifted back into a raven, flying off into the night.
The man had left his parchment behind. It was a map. Roen opened it and was amazed. In one corner was a tiny city, Dragon’s Port. The far corner of the map showed the southwest, with its tall and jagged mountains. A clear road connected the two, passing through rivers, plains, and forests. One spot nestled in the mountains and marked with a black “x” was labeled “old ruins, possibly treasure.”
Roen turned back into a fox. He crept forward to watch the Bandits as they moved down the alley, getting farther away. In a few minutes he would lose sight of them and wouldn’t be able to tell the Baron where they were going. He watched them depart, then peered back at the “x” on the map. He looked at the distant mountains with a new sense of thrill. Those mountains...in the far distance.
Roen’s eyes blazed blue, then he shifted into a raven as dark as the night sky.
"Some would say that dwarves are the most stubborn of all races, but any who met a stonemar would claim they are even moreso."
Blinding rays reflect off the freshly fallen snow, turning the crystallized water into a million sparkling dots. Umber glances outside his window at the sight. The mountain is beautiful this time of year.
The small village rests on the east side of Skycrown peak, its position on the mountain shielding it from most of the brutal wind. Not far from his quaint home, the dwarves are starting their day, rising with the sun to tend to their duties. Some are preparing to head off to the mine and others to their various workstations. Umber watches them for a few moments, wondering about their routines, glad for his own.
Everyone has a craft and everyone must master it. That is the philosophy of this small clan, and they have held on to their ancestral beliefs throughout the centuries.
Five winters ago today, Umber came to this clan in search of enlightenment, but he found only struggle. Many say the stonemar are not meant for science, to Umber, however, it was his life’s work, no matter the difficulty. Some would say that dwarves are the most stubborn of all races, but any who met a stonemar would claim they are even more so. Their resolve is as rock-solid as the mineral in their skin, and it fuels their will to succeed.
Umber punches the wall in frustration and glares at his table of vials, ewers, and cruets. How hard can it be to craft this elixir? All he has to do is combine the right ingredients with the precise amount for each, at the exact temperature required. How hard can it be?
The answer is at least five winters. Alchemy is incredibly dangerous. Accidents are more common than successes, some resulting in a burned building, scorched texts, or overflowing acids that scar everything. Evidence of each of these failures is apparent all over his home, and so it is a good thing he has no eyebrows to burn.
A knock on his door startles him from his frustrated thoughts. He opens the door to find Ashea, his neighbor. She holds out a basket full of crystals. Stonemar prefer crystal for their diet, but the kind she brings him today is a rarity indeed. She examines his work area, perceptive enough to spot the new hole in the wall. She smiles what one might consider a motherly smile of encouragement and says, “Maybe today then. Keep it up Umber, I know you’re getting close.”
She places the basket on the only spot of the house not occupied by test tubes and alchemical components. Which would be, of course, the entry. She gives him a nod and hurries off to her work.
Umber sighs, scolding himself for not thanking her and retrieves the basket. Settling onto his dirt floor, he crosses his legs and takes one of the smaller crystals out. He places it between his teeth and bites it in two. Half of it shatters with a high-pitched “Ting!” He spits the other half onto his palm, stares at it, and then his eyes open wide.
Putting the basket aside, he grabs his scale and weighs the rare crystal. It is a bit too heavy. Biting off another small piece, he reweighs it, noting the change on a nearby scroll. It takes three more attempts to find the perfect weight. Dropping it into a large container, he adds a silvery reflective liquid to it, a blood-red fluid, and a bit of black, sticky sludge. He stirs the mixture over the fire with a large metal spoon. The solution becomes smooth as glass and then bubbles, as the crystal reacts with the liquid.
Using his pincers, he removes the container from the fire and gingerly sets it down. He watches it wide-eyed, knowing that it might easily explode. While it cools, he cleans his work area, never taking his eyes off the cooling elixir. Hours later, he dips a finger in; it is cold enough. He takes a deep breath and swallows a whole spoonful.
The effect is immediate, and he gleefully watches as the small cut on his arm from yesterday’s experiments heals immediately. A wave of rejuvenation ripples through his body. This brew is even stronger than what they’re selling in the cities!
Yes, he thinks proudly, the answer is five winters.
The Halfling's Warning
The imposing oak doors leading into the temple swung hard on their hinges, upsetting the tranquil setting that this place was so well known for. They opened with such force that dust swirled and pooled at their base. It was an astonishing thing then, to see such a diminutive figure cross the threshold.
“Korenthis, the Dead King has entered the city. The time has come.”
The wild creature spoke with a rough accent. She breathed a command and planted a walking staff into the ground. Behind her, a gigantic bear shifted into a lazy position waiting patiently for her to finish.
The troll Korenthis turned his attention away from the temple’s reflecting pool and stood to face his former comrade. His tall thin frame had very likely seen many decades come and pass. He looked wise, a trait especially rare for his race.
He pursed his lips and studied the halfling. After a brief moment, he stepped closer and knelt by her side.
“For years I’d wondered about the King of the Dead. Wondered if he was still active. We were naïve to think he had perished so long ago. You and I were the only survivors that day, though I doubt you’d remember it. Your parents would be proud to see you now. Have you gathered the others? We’ll need them all.”
The King's Lieutenants
With a grim expression, the ogre took note of the gash spreading in his side. It had already overtaken much of his torso and was now moving closer to his heart. Most would have fallen from such a wound.
He exhaled sharply into the cold air. His breath curled and churned as it escaped his massive lungs. The moon’s silver light had disappeared, causing the grove to feel darker, even sinister. It had been a hard hit; the large figure knelt awkwardly in the snow, still reeling from the dark magic.
The massive ogre rotated his head, his body trembling with rage. All around were signs of the skirmish. His mind was foggy and he struggled to maintain consciousness. He let the cold envelope him, then, its sting helping him focus. In an instant, the pain melted away, and he found that he was cradling his battle-mate Karanna in his other arm. They had all been hit; was he the last of his party left standing?
He knelt in the snow for another long moment, steadying himself with his arm, palm braced upon the cold ground. Reverently, he placed the sorceress down. Standing, he searched for his comrades. He was the last one standing! Fury fueled him, and despite the growing wound in his chest, he turned to face the last of the King’s Lieutenants. The undead knight was himself disabled, nearly beaten by the group. But nearly wasn’t enough, the city of Restwind Dale was not yet safe.
The ogre sneered and drew in his breath in rapid and powerful huffs, pulling in the air as if it were itself fueling his rage. Though the disintegration was spreading at a furious rate, he took a step toward his wounded adversary. Another dark bolt lashed out at him from the creature’s broken hand, but he did nothing to avoid it.
Instead, he drove into the undead warrior like a charging ox. He bellowed into the cold night, a sound that had the power to frighten even the dead. There was still work to be done, darkness to be driven out. And nothing, not even death, would stop him.
The Living Storm
Clouds churned far below her, rolling like waves against her sanctuary, the ruined mountain top. The air was thin at this elevation, though she showed no sign of discomfort and barely drew a breath.
She stood tense, waiting for something. Every so often a vague shape resembling a wailing face appeared in the clouds. They were slow to form and swift to fade.
Most would dismiss the occurrence as an oddity, but this demonborn knew better. Her adversary was a living storm, a primordial elemental force common to the Outlands, but quite rare at these heights. This was a powerful one, its churning influence extending everywhere for miles.
Content with her appraisal, she turned her attention to the ruin. The structures were tribal in nature, belonging to a civilization that must have disappeared long before. It was a calm place, and the spirits here preferred it that way. “Nearly perfect”, she thought. She planted her staves on both sides, bending them to form an “X” above her head.
Her movements were beast-like. The beads and animal skulls of her necklaces and bracelets clicked and clacked as she worked. Vibrant red tattoos stood out on her dark skin, matching the red feathers in her hair. As she worked, fiery symbols appeared in the air around her. They hovered there, ethereal and mist-like.
The storm began its assault. She roared as she hurled herself into the battering wind, dancing around her staves in a ritual to awaken her trusted spirits. Recklessly, they answered.
His boot crunched upon the dry sand. It was quiet here, but he knew his presence was not overlooked. He knelt down and felt the ground for a few moments. The slightest tremor sent a vibration through the earth, and he knew at once that he had found the right place.
The ruins were nearby, and so was.. she.
For days he’d been following their trail. The foolhardy group had set out from the City of Silver looking for trouble. Enterprising travelers could normally make it out here- survive out on their own without too much issue; but this particular trouble they were after was the Megapede: a terrible creature that plagued the badlands for many miles around.
He stood, gathered his belongings, and loaded his crossbow, pointing its magic sight into the distance. He spotted the ruins and knew they needed his help. They had no idea it was close. In a moment he was running, the hard earth cracking underfoot. He cared little about being discreet now, for he knew their adversary was about to strike. He had crossed half the distance when the monstrous beast lurched upward from below their camp.
A mountain of debris was upon them at once, swallowing their meager fire and all their supplies in the process. Then she emerged: a hundred feet long, a terror with a thousand legs. No, these adventurers clearly weren’t ready for this.
“Let it begin!” he shouted.
The Siren's Call
The rough sea churned and rolled, causing the Galleass to lurch wildly in the bay. Its Boatswain held his position at the fore of the ship and steadied his focus on the smaller vessel. He could barely see the faint gold glow from one of its occupants.
The sirens were calling, their delicate croon tugging the air, enticing the sailors to leap overboard. “T’would be a death worth dying...” he caught himself thinking; the implications sending shivers down his spine.
Just then a massive wave crushed the deck, dwarfing the topmast. A tense moment passed before the ship could right herself and when it did he found himself wondering if the foolhardy heroes could actually defeat the Siren Queen.
The sirens circled the two figures who were now treading water, their small boat smashed to pieces. It was the young woman who shined. Her skin emitted a soft gold light that reflected off the water as if there were shards of crystal dancing upon its surface.
She was illumon: a half-spirit, composed primarily of light. Her companion was nearby, brandishing a harpoon. They looked hopeless, facing the Siren Queen in open water. The Queen crested the waves ten yards from them, her monstrous presence an imposing thing.
She swam closer and purred a single command: “Oriul my love... kill her for me...?” Her resplendent voice commanded his attention. The half-elf strained against her control and locked eyes with his companion, bewilderment awash on his features.
He whispered “Amrien.... I’m sorry.”
Amrien’s eyes lit with power. She lifted herself out of the water, pushing on it as if it were a solid thing. She stepped into the roiling waves, steadying herself as if she were standing on a mountain peak. She hovered there, unwilling to let gravity influence her. She raised her arms high above her shoulders, the glow from her skin brightening the sky.
She shouted so loud it shook the heavens: “Oriul, you are free! And you...” She stepped over another wave and focused all her light on the Queen, this one a brilliant beam.
“Demon Queen, it is time you felt the righteous light!”
A long and distant rumble reverberated through the sky. Seemingly endless rain had made the foothills more treacherous than usual. Nearby streams had swelled, drowning the familiar trails. Vadrabrandt had been exploring the remote area, searching for the brigands who had betrayed the town. Today’s light was now waning and the sky was once again bringing its war to the earth.
“Good” he thought, “the rain will mask our passage.” The creature stood for a moment, near a cleft in the rock. He was clearly not of this world. He was what men called a shade, a half being made partially of shadow itself. His form, although physical, resembled dark bones covered in a thick layer of shadow, an ever-shifting mist that would struggle to appear human as he moved. He looked behind at his slow companions, and for a moment he wasn’t sure if they would make the arduous trip.
Sometime later when darkness fully took hold, he found what he had been searching for: a familiar carving on an old petrified stump. Vadrabrandt knew its significance. It was the mark of the Bandit Prince, a merciless thug who orchestrated a larger group of cutthroats willing to do anything for gold. This time “anything” had been to torch the town. There were many casualties; none of them were Vadrabrandt’s friends, but that wasn’t the point. He was here for vengeance for the innocent, plain and simple.
The ruins were close by, he could see their sentry in a short lean-to. It was evident that the brigand was sleeping. He would not be sounding any alarms this night. Vadrabrandt stepped into the clearing, no longer needing cover.
Then he boldly yelled into the camp: “Graylin.” The sound was sharp and meant to cut like a knife, “...pain is temporary!” These were the same words the brigand used in their last encounter. He simply waited while the camp came alive with activity. Sloppy arrows began to zip past him. He moved effortlessly, avoiding them.
Vadrabrandt’s dark legion came to join him, one by one. They were sluggish and rigid. They were animated corpses, but there were many of them. “Pain is temporary” he yelled again, and then growled under his breath to no one in particular: “This may hurt.”