Loch gasped as his senses rushed back to life from the healing potion coruscating through his veins; he felt pain in every part of his body. He slowly opened his eyes and the bright afternoon sun filled his vision. His mind was slow, and he couldn’t recall how he had fallen.
Loch sat up and analyzed his surroundings. Before him was the half destroyed dock, still smoldering as people worked to douse the embers. He stood and turned around, only to find himself surrounded by town guards.
“I can’t believe he died for you! You filthy dolphin head!” one of the men shouted.
Another yelled out, “he deserved a better death!”
Loch was taken aback. He had no idea what they were talking about. He confusingly looked around to find the reason for their aggression, and he saw Trevan, lying face up in a pool of blood.
“It is a great honor to die for another. I would help bury him with dignity,” Loch replied after a moment.
Two of the guards stepped forward menacingly. “You touch him. You die.”
The rest of the guards nodded their approval, and hefted Trevan’s body onto a stretcher, then onto a wagon which had just arrived. They shot Loch angry and hateful glances as they took Trevan’s body away.
Ayc stood near Loch. “Are you ok?” he asked.
“Yes I will be fine. Thank you,” Loch replied.
The man with no name walked toward the ship which had erupted into fire beetles. It was half sunken, but he figured he would investigate the interior, in case there was something of value.
The gap between the ship and the dock was only an arm-span across, so he took a few steps and jumped onto the ship. Just as his weight pressed down to jump, the board underneath him gave way, and he fell ungracefully into the ocean water with a loud splash.
“What’s he doing?” Loch asked Ayc as they watched from across the way.
“I have no idea,” Ayc replied.
The man popped above the surface, taking in a deep breath. He hadn’t expected that to happen. He looked at the side of the vessel, and saw a gaping hole through which he could enter. He swam over and pulled himself up into the side of the ship.
Inside, he saw large egg sacks dripping with a viscous red mucus. Each of the sacks seemed to have been burst from the inside. He looked around, and saw that there was nothing of interest on this ship. Whoever had sent it must have wanted pure carnage and nothing more.
He swam from the side of the ship to the pier, and hefted his body up. He walked across the dock to where Ayc and Loch were standing; both staring with a questioning look.
“Well there’s nothing on that ship,” the man said as he approached them. “Where is Celene?” he asked as he looked around.
Celene stood in the doorway of a shop, recently abandoned due to the battle. Her body shook as her mind soared through a euphoric state, yet every living creature around her made her blood boil. She wanted nothing more than to rip every one of them apart limb from limb, and watch in jubilation as their souls left their bodies.
She knew she couldn’t though. Some part of her mind kept her aware of the social norms of mass public homicide. A soldier approached Celene. “Are you ok miss?” he asked, noticing her visible shaking.
Her eyes met the soldier’s eyes, and for a moment, she pictured his throat open and gushing. She visualized the blood pumping from his severed neck, thickening the ground with every pump.
She snapped out of it. “I’m fine,” was all she managed to say as she stumbled toward the nearest alleyway, away from all these people.
Ayc, Loch, and the unnamed man walked up to her. “Hey Celene,” Ayc said, “you don’t look so good.”
Celene’s eyes darted from each of her comanpanions. Her mind raced as she saw visions of each of them falling apart. Her body yearned to be unleashed to indulge in the most primal of satisfactions: the bathing in the blood of freshly killed prey.
Again her mind snapped back, and she stopped herself from letting loose her desire to rend her friends apart. “I’m fine,” she replied in a hushed tone.
“You say so. We were thinking we should go back to Benny and cash in on that favor,” the man with no name said. “Plus he may have a way to hire a healer or something.” He glanced quickly at Loch. “We may need it.”
Loch ignored him. “Yes it is a good idea.”
The group walked toward where they had first met Benny. It was a long walk, and Celene kept jolting and muttering to herself. Just as they turned a corner near an alleyway on the boarder of West Haven and Nautilon, a familiar face appeared from the shadows.
“Well you are certainly good friends to have in these times,” Benny exclaimed as he stepped forward. “Thank you so much for help. And as a man of my word, I owe you a favor.” Benny stepped even closer, “none of you took from my wares right?” His demeanor darkened as he looked each of the members slowly.
“Nope. We don’t steal from employers,” the nameless man said confidently.
After a moment, Benny smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t. It’s just protocol.” He laughed embarrassingly and stared strangely at the man.
Benny’s shifted his gaze from the man to Celene. “Oh my dear, are you sure you didn’t partake? You seem to be under the influence.”
“She drank the blood of an intoxicated Kobold,” Ayc said.
The men all shared a puzzled look as that fact settled in. “That’s strange. I don’t judge, but that’s still strange,” Benny said slowly with a new expression on his face. “Here. Chew this.” Benny held out his palm and gave Celene a gnarled hairy root that showed signs of having been chewed before. She looked at the disgusting root.
“No,” she said firmly.
Benny giggled. “Trust me it will help you. Just chew it.”
Celene grudgingly took the root from Benny’s hand. As her skin touched his, she briefly felt his pulse, and her mind’s eye saw his body eviscerated on the ground with her hands around his still beating heart. She forced the thoughts out of her head as she threw the root into her mouth and chomped down. It was bitter, but instantly, she felt the dulling of her mind waning. Her body calmed, and her muscles stopped spasming.
She spit out the root into her hand. Benny held out his. “That’s expensive,” he said as she dropped the wet mound in his palm.
“Now that everyone is totally here,” he said as he motioned toward Celene, “we can get payment out of the way. What favor would you like from good ol’ Benny Gogood?” He smiled widely.
“Do you guys think we should use our favor now, or wait for another time?” the man with no name asked.
“Well we don’t really need anything right now,” Ayc said.
“Hold on,” the man replied, and he turned toward Benny. Without saying a word, the man began moving his hands about in a seemingly haphazard way. His companions stared in bewilderment as Benny began moving his hands in a similar way.
The group watched as the two stood in a dark alley and moved their hands around in strange ways. “What are they doing?” whispered Ayc.
“I have no idea,” replied Loch.
“Neither do I,” replied Celene.
After a short moment of watching their fellow member flick his hands around, and chuckle while Benny did the same, the two broke the silence by saying, “deal.”
The three exchanged worried glances as the man without a name regaled them their newest assignment.
“ok so I found a way to make some more money. Benny is being extra kind,” the man winked toward Benny, who’s face became red, even under the shadow of his hood. “He has given us a job that pays thirty platinum,” he continued.
“And what is this job?” Loch asked suspiciously.
“I’m glad you asked,” Benny interjected. “You see those Kobolds that attacked you were given a letter to carry. My men found it and it’s quite disturbing.” He pulled the folded parchment from inside his cloak.
The message read:
It seems my competitors are unable to guarantee the safety of their shimpments. Isn’t it about time you accepted my offer? Stop avoiding me Benny. Imagine if next time, there were more than three.
The letter was signed at the bottom with thick pen strokes, Wokshok.
As they finished reading the note, Benny said, “this guy, Wokshok the Ogre… Well he’s trying to take over turf in Edgetopia, but honestly I don’t trust the guy. He’s too greedy and I don’t know his angle yet. If you guys can talk him into calming down diplomatically, I’ll give you eighteen platinum each.”
Ayc turned to the man with no name. “You said thirty platinum.”
“Hold on. Let me finish,” Benny said as he waved his hands back and forth. “If you do the diplomatic thing, I pay you eighteen, but if you send a message to the boys in Edgetopia by killing Wokshok, then I will pay you thirty. I consider myself a diplomatic guy but sometimes you just gotta erase the problem. You know what I mean?” he asked as he watched the group’s reaction to the job.
“I don’t know that I want to be a hired thug who murders for platinum,” Loch replied after a long pause.
“Oh no you are doing Branterra a favor,” Benny retorted enthusiastically. “This guy is bad news all over the place. He’s way more aggressive and savage than my other sellers, so if he goes, there will be peace.”
Loch closed his eyes for a moment and thought about the situation. “What are your thoughts?” he asked as he looked at Celene and Ayc.
“It’s not something we need to do right now is it?” Celene asked.
“Don’t get me wrong, sooner is better,” Benny said quickly, “but no you don’t need to. Just know that there are others on their way to do the same thing, so if they beat you to it, you don’t get paid.”
“Alright then,” Celene said. The party turned their heads to Ayc.
“Sure. Why not?” Ayce said with a smile.
“Good. Good. Now on your way…” Benny began to say as he was interrupted by the man with no name. Do you know where we could find a cleric to travel with us?" he asked.
“Well you could buy a cleric from me. Only four hundred gold,” he said with a grin.
“I would love to help you. I really would. But potions are controlled almost entirely by the Altas Celeste,” Benny replied begrudgingly.
“What’s the Altas Celeste?” the man asked.
Benny’s face changed from its generally jovial smile, to a somber and serious look. “They are the ones driving the Humans above others craziness. They seemed to have good intentions at first, making West Haven a great place for Humans to be safe. Only now they have taken it way too far. They say that potions are made with ingredients from lesser races, so they need to be rationed. Apparently this is to stop Humans from being reliant on outsiders.” Benny shook his head.
“A word of advice. Don’t pick any fights with them. Especially you two,” he said as he motioned toward Celene and Loch. “If you want potions, you will need to go to the Healer’s District. Once again a word of warning. Don’t attract the attention of the Altas Celeste.”
Benny’s face quickly changed from stern to happy. “Safe travels, and don’t forget to find me for that favor later,” he said as he shrank into the shadows. In an instant, he was gone.
“Ok. Let’s go find us a healer then,” the unnamed man said happily as he started walked toward the Healer’s District. The party followed behind and they made their way through the lengthy streets of West Haven.
As they walked, Celene asked her companion, “just what is your name?”
The unnamed man answered quickly, “Khara.”
“Nice to officially meet you then Khara,” she said politely.
They continued walking until they found themselves before a magnificent archway, adorned with all manner of laurels and lavish designs carved from white marble. People flowed through the archway, many of them adorned in robes with religious symbols of every sort.
The group noticed that many of the robed men had the same symbol emblazoned on the front of their robes. It was a red sun with a hollow center. Within the center was a Human form reaching its limbs out in four directions. within a triangle.
“I think that is the Altas Celeste,” Khara whispered as they walked past a large group of men wearing these robes.
Ayc and Khara walked easily through the crowds of the entryway to the Healer’s District. Loch and Celene, however, were met with furrowed brows and hushed conversations. They walked until they entered the first street of the Healer’s District, and were awestruck at the beauty of their surroundings.
Hundreds of temples, mosques, and cathedrals lined the streets in every direction before them. Statues made from the finest materials littered the walkways of the road as people made their way through the district.
After they had taken it all in, Celene quietly exclaimed, “enough is enough! Stay here for a moment,” she said as she walked behind the nearest pillar. A dull flash appeared for an instant; luckily none of the onlookers seem to notice. From behind the pillar, Celene walked back to her companions, only her pointed ears were gone. They were replace instead by human ears, and her skin seemed less pale than before.
“This will make things easier,” she said as she continued walking.
“That’s a handy trick,” Loch said under his breath as they began walking. He could feel the mirth behind the eyes of those who looked at him like a heavy burden of guilt undeserved.
As they walked, they read the heading of each temple, not really knowing what they were looking for. Eventually they found a temple dedicated to Kiri Jolith. Above the arched doorway were two large bison horns protruding from the building. Both seemed to be made of solid gold. In the center of the horns was a huge upright mace made of marble with golden rays emitting from its head.
“Kiri Jolith: Clerics of War and Honor. That seems promising,” Khara said as they approached the tall doors leading to the interior. “Let’s see what we can find.”
They walked into a huge room with four large columns made of marble holding the massive stone ceiling. Upon the walls were tapestries and paintings of battles with white figures holding back hoards of darkness. Beside the door they entered were two young Human women talking and giggling in hushed tones. Their attention seeming to be on two men in robes standing across the corridor.
Beside the far pillar sat a man at a desk, his head down as he poured over a large tome. At the far end of the room stood a man in front of a door with two maces hanging at his sides. Each of the other clerics also carried a mace at their side, and from what the party could see, these were not for mere decoration.
Loch sat quietly on a bench, knowing that his mere presence made people uneasy. Ayc sat beside him. “I figured we’d let Khara do the talking,” he whispered with a small smile.
Celene leaned against a pillar and watched quietly as the clerics went about their business.
Khara approached the man sitting at the desk. He was older, with white hair and a large scar across his chin. He looked up as Khara spoke, “hello good sir. I wish to barter for potions if you would be so kind.” He flashed a friendly smile to the elder.
“Oh yes of course. These are trying times so I must ask for forty gold each,” the man replied as he set his book on the table.
“I know what you mean about trying times, however I will rephrase myself. I meant to say how much for a Duke of Upper West Haven?” He presented his hand, and upon his finger was the signet of the Duke.
“I see. What family may I ask?” The man raised an eyebrow as he spoke. “I frequent Upper West Haven frequently.”
Without hesitation, Khara responded, “the House of Fredrikson.”
The man pondered for a moment. “I am not sure that you know the boundary for Upper West Haven, but the House of Fredrikson is certainly not within it.”
Khara shook his head. “I see. I apologize for wasting your time.” He turned to walk away. He knew asking for a cleric to travel with would be foolish at this point. One of the girls near the entrance walked past him as he strode over to Ayc and Loch.
Celene walked over to the woman still near the entrance. “Hello. Is there a place where I can worship alone?”
The woman smiled. “Of course. Follow me this way.” She motioned to the southern wall behind the pillars. “We do ask for a donation for the use of our worship rooms,” she said with a smile.
“Yes it would be my pleasure. I’m sorry I didn’t ask your name,” Celene said as they approached a closed curtain.
“Suzanna Farlight,” she replied.
“It’s so good to meet you Suzanna,” Celene said with a seductive smile. “I know this sounds silly, but could you show me how to worship?” Celene looked down in shame. “It’s been a very long time, and I don’t remember if there are steps I need to take to do it properly.”
Suzanna put her hand over her mouth as she laughed. “I mean no disrespect. It’s just that worshiping comes from within. There is no wrong way.” She pulled aside the curtain to reveal a small room with a shrine to Kiri Jolith and thick blankets folded on the ground. “Simply kneel down and pour your heart out.”
Suzanna knelt down onto the blankets and smiled back at Celene. “See. Nothing to it.”
Celene rested her hand on Suzanna’s shoulder as she shut the curtain behind her. “Thank you for showing me.” As she finished her sentence, smoky black tendrils crept from Celene’s hand and burrowed into Suzanna’s shoulder. They winded their way into Suzanna’s very core, and she shuddered for a moment.
Suzanna turned toward Celene with tears in her eyes. “I am yours to command,” she whispered desperately.
“Where’s Celene?” Ayc asked as Khara finished telling them of the lack of luck they had found.
“I’m not sure. She was here a second ago,” Loch replied.
Just as he spoke, the guard at the rear of the room drew his maces. “Did anyone feel that?” he cried aloud as he stepped forward. “I felt something dark for just a moment.”
Suzanna walked out of the worship room with a smile on her face. “Act natural,” she repeated under her breath. She sat down on a bench near the entrance. Celene waited a moment, then followed suit, calmly approaching her companions.
“We should leave,” Celene said in a calm, yet urgent voice. The guard with two maces walked slowly toward the group. He looked to Suzanna, who was paying them no mind.
“Perhaps, if you are not here to worship any longer, and have no business here, you would leave,” the older man said in a surprisingly commanding voice. He bent his head slowly toward his book, but kept his eyes on the group; especially Loch.
“We want no quarrel. We were just leaving. My apologies if my friend has put you ill at ease,” Khara said as he bowed and moved toward the exit.
Celene made a slight motion at Suzanna to follow, and she promptly stood and followed the group. “Suzanna! Where are you going?” the other girl yelled out.
“She has agreed to show us to location where we can purchase potions. We don’t know the layout of this land, and Suzanna was kind enough to show us to our destination.” Celene kept a very cool demeanor as she spoke.
“Yes I want to please Lady Celene,” Suzanna said as she stared at Celene’s face.
“Your Suzanna is the epitome of your faith. You are lucky to have her,” Celene said to the young woman in the doorway. “She will be back before you know it.” The group walked away from the temple of Kiri Jolith toward the entrance to the Healer’s District.
“You want me to return?” Suzanna said after a moment of walking. “If you wish it I shall.”
“No you will not be returning,” Celene replied. “You are with us now.”
Ayc, Loch, and Khara exchanged skeptical glances. “Wait. So you got us a cleric?” Ayc asked incredulously.
“Yes,” Celene said simply.
“Wait… But how did you… What did you… When… Wait what?” Ayc stammered as he stared at Celene.
“She agreed to help us. I told you she is the epitome of her faith,” she replied curtly.
Ayc looked at Suzanna. “You’re just going to help us?”
“Anything for my mistress,” Suzanna said confidently.
“I’m not going to fight it. But that’s weird,” said Ayc as he let the subject die.
The group exited the Healer’s District as the sun was setting. “We can still make a ferry at this hour,” Loch said. “That way we can make good time to Falost. The port on the other side is called South Port, but from there I don’t know where we should go.”
Each nodded in approval, and the party set out back to the docks of Nautilon. The docks were lit with torchlight and lanterns as the hustle and bustle of the docks continued into the night. The distant flicker of lights on the ocean could be seen as ships arrived and departed.
“I’m surprised the docks are open so late,” commented Khara.
“This is really the only dock the Humans use,” replied Loch. “They can’t afford to shut it down that long.” He paused, “do you mind if we take a moment for me to make a purchase?” he asked.
They all nodded in a agreement as Loch walked to a fishing shop. “I need to purchase a net,” he said frankly.
The man near the entrance looked him up and down. “How big do you need?” he asked after an awkward moment.
“Just a simple river net would suffice. Also, I will need roughly seventy feet of rope,” Loch answered.
“That’s a strange combination, but yeah I got that. It’ll be six gold.” The man showed a hint of a smile as he said the amount.
“Of course. Here you are.” Loch handed the man the gold, and he gathered his purchase. “We may leave now,” he said to his companions.
The group approached a large ferry ship where other passengers were also boarding. “Four gold each,” said the gruffy man standing beside the gangplank.
“I believe our passage is already paid for,” replied Khara quickly.
The man pulled out a book and held it close to the firelight to read. “Who has procured your passage and what is your business?” The man’s voice was tired and bored.
Khara leaned in close. “We were sent by the king to find the heart.”
The soldier didn’t hesitate. He scanned down the pages until he came to a line of writing. He looked at the group, then looked back at the book. “ok, on you go. This doesn’t apply to the ride back though,” he said as he ushered them along the plank onto the ship.
The ship had one level, which was lined with bunks and chests. “Prepare to depart!” came a voice from the front of the ship. “We should arrive in six hours. There are cots and boxes to keep your valuables, and there will be no funny business on my vessel!”
The group found an area by themselves, for there were only twelve or so other passengers. After checking and tying the necessary knots in his new net, Loch sat and let his mind wander into a meditative trance. Celene also let her head nod into an almost coma-like state. Suzanna sat beside Celene, watching for any dangers that may lurk in their vicinity.
Ayc stood at side railing of the boat as it traveled forward across the dark waters of the Western Strait. The rhythmic up and down of the ship as it crested small waves was calming as he watched the stars move across the sky. Khara sat, watching the others; keeping an eye specifically on Ayc. He knew there was more to the man than met they eye.
The ferry arrived in South Port just as the morning light illuminated the land. The group saw that their docks had also been attacked recently, with dried blood staining the ground and shops. In the distance, thin columns of smoke trailed into the morning horizon. From the looks of it, an encampment of some kind had been built just beyond the outskirts of the port town.
The group left the ship and walked toward the small market beyond the docks. “Come see the wonderful magic items I have in store for you!” came a loud voice from a small shop. Druffel’s Oddities read a sign hanging precariously above the doorway. “Why right here I have a magical conch shell that allows you to translate the ocean’s language!”
The man’s wide grin faded as he saw the group approach, especially Loch, who was staring at his conch shell and shaking his head questioningly.
“That shell doesn’t really do that does it?” asked Khara as he watched Loch’s expression settle into dismay.
“No that’s a shell. He is a con artist,” replied Loch.
Khara walked straight toward the man, who’s body language showed fear and cowardice. “You are selling fake things to people, aren’t you?” he said angrily.
“N.. N… No,” he stammered.
“You are and now I am going to tell everyone about it. It’s their right to know that you’ve probably lied about lot’s of things here in this shop.” Khara looked around as he spoke, his eyes darting from item to item looking for the best purchase. His eyes rested on a cloak with runes along the hems.
“You can tell whoever you want,” the man said, obviously feigning courage.
Khara smiled. “Oh really. Well you will regret those words when you realize who I am. I am Duke Rufio Fredrikson of Upper West Haven,” he said as he flashed his signet ring.
“It’s true,” chimed in Loch sincerely.
“Sir I apologize with utmost apologies. Please accept my apology,” the man babbled. “I can afford a few people leaving my business, but you would ruin me. Please don’t blacklist me. I have children to feed.” The man continued his pleading until Khara raised his hand.
“We can make an arrangement, I think,” he said slyly. “What is the story of that cloak hanging on the wall?” he asked.
“That is a cloak of protection, infused with the scales of dragons,” the man responded.
“And how much does it cost?” asked Khara.
“It’s two hundred and fifty gold sir,” the man said sheepishly.
“I’m sorry I thought I heard you fifty gold. Did I hear you correctly?” Khara said more as a command than a question.
“That’s outrageous!” the shopkeeper exclaimed as he stood a bit taller.
Khara stood even taller, and with much more confidence than the shopkeeper had ever seen said, “I will pay you what I wish, and that is the way of the world. Do not try my patience. I will give you eighty gold based solely on the fact that your children’s worthless father has to con strangers for a living!” Khara’s voice rose in harshness as he spoke.
The man shrank as small as he could. “Of course sir. My apologies again.” He moped over to the cloak and removed it from is hook.
“Here. Eighty gold. Pleasure doing business with you.” Khara threw the cloak over his shoulders and walked out confidently with his companions. They each looked at him with quizzical expressions, but said nothing.
After walking a distance from Druffel’s Oddities, the group took a short pause under a large Oak tree. “So where should we go?” Ayc asked no one in particular.
“Well from what the king said, we can go to Mage City, the Midlands, or Torruga to start looking,” replied Khara. “But from the looks of that camp to the north, I don’t think the Midlands is such a good idea.”
“Mage City is very dangerous,” Ayc said quickly.
“Besides, I don’t think they would be able to hide the Heart with all those mages around,” added Loch.
“That leaves Torruga,” said Celene. “Which is smart because it’s also the closest.” She turned to Suzanna. “Do you know the fastest route to Torruga?” she asked.
“Yes of course. I have traveled there many times during my years as a cleric,” she replied joyfully. Her eyes never left Celene’s face as she yearned for approval.
“Perfect. You will lead us then,” Celene answered. Suzanna’s face lit up with exuberant joy.
“How far is the journey?” Khara asked.
“Well on foot it will take us eight days to arrive at Bourgeport where we can take a ship to Torruga. We can travel along the coastal route the entire time,” Suzanna replied.
“It would be faster with horses,” Khara said. The group nodded in agreement.
“Do we have enough gold?” Loch asked skeptically.
“Just leave that to me,” Khara retorted.
The group left the shade of the large tree, and set out toward the eastern edge of South Port. Eventually, they found a stable with nine horses grazing lazily on hay bales. A portly man was hefting large crates into the back of a wagon.
“Greetings and salutations!” Khara exclaimed to the man. He turned toward the noise. “I have need of horses to Bourgeport, and I heard you are the man to talk to.” Khara smiled a large and flashy smile at the man.
“Well then you heard right,” the large man bellowed as he set a crate on the ground. “I’m Henry, and my horses are the most dependable in all of Branterra.” The man beamed as he pointed at his horses in the stables.
“It is a pleasure to meet you Henry,” Khara said. “How much for your horses to travel to Bourgeport?” he asked.
“Well let’s see. With all the dangers that seem to be coming down on us, I would say ten gold each.” Henry smile wavered as he spoke the price, obviously upset at the amount he had to charge.
“How about four each?” Khara replied as he flashed his smile once again.
Henry let out a boisterous laugh. “That’s funny my friend. The price is non negotiable, so if you can’t pay ten each, then I’m not the man you were looking for.”
Ayc surveyed the stables as the men attempted to barter. He noticed a card lying in the mud, ripped on the sides, and no longer usable. He looked at Henry, and interrupted Khara’s reasoning for paying less. “How about we play for the horses? Do you know how to play beast and count?”
Henry shifted his attention from Khara to Ayc. “Of course I know how to play. But what could you possibly wager against my horses?” he said incredulously.
Ayc smiled and walked toward Henry. He set his pack down, and reached inside, cleverly keeping the opening away from Henry’s view. From the pack, he pulled his hand which had once been empty; a small flash of dark light appeared, and instantly, Ayc was holding his scythe. Its black sheen almost absorbing the light around it.
“Woah. That would fetch a copper or two,” Henry said as he greedily stared at the scythe. “I’ve never seen something so large shrink to such a small space. You my friend have a deal.”
Ayc followed Henry to a small table with three chairs around it. They sat, and Ayc pulled out a deck of cards from his cloak. “We’re playing best of three, and the wager is my scythe against five horses to Bourgeport,” he said confidently.
“Sounds agreeable to me. Deal,” Henry said with a huge grin. “You’re going to regret this. I’m one of the best beast and count players you’ve ever met.”
Ayc dealt first, and after a moment of taking cards from each other and laying cards on the deck between them, Ayc laid down his hand. “Count the beasts!” he yelled happily. “Looks like the first game goes to me.”
Henry threw his cards on the table. “I was so close!” he cried out. “The next game will be mine.” Henry’s demeanor had slowly changed from confident and happy to panicked and apprehensive. He shuffled the cards, and dealt the cards.
Ayc picked up his hand, and looked at the cards. He glanced at Henry’s cards, then at the deck in the middle of the table. His smile grew as he drew the third card from the left from Henry’s hand. Henry drew a card from the deck, and then Ayc drew a card from the deck.
“I am happily sorry to say that you are giving us horses for our travels.” Ayc laid down his hand to reveal three cards which had large 4 and three cards with horses printed on them. “Thank you so much for your generosity. It was a pleasure playing with you.” Ayc began gathering the cards.
“Best of five!” Henry burst out. His face was red and a look of dread had befallen him.
“The agreement was best of three. We are in a bit of a hurry, so if we could leave now that would be great.” Ayc bent down to his bag as he spoke, and put the scythe into the opening. A small dark puff of light appeared, and Ayc’s hand returned from the pack, empty.
“No I think best of five sounds much more fair,” Henry said with a darkened desperation in his voice.
Ayc leaned close to Henry, and in a raspy voice filled with hostility and malice replied, “the deal was best of three. Are you going back on your word? Because that would cause problems.”
Henry backed up slightly, taken aback by the sudden change in Ayc’s voice and demeanor.
After a moment of gathering his senses, Henry shouted, “Darrel!” angrily.
“Yeah boss,” an ironically scrawny Half Orc called back as he ran to his master’s summon.
“Saddle these five. Make it quick because I want them gone,” he said sternly; however his eyes gave away his unease around Ayc. Darrel seemed taken aback by Henry’s attitude.
A stout Human woman with fire-red hair came walking slowly toward the men as Darrel rushed to prepare the horses and Henry kicked a chair near the table.
“Oh I see we are renting some horses.” The woman glanced at the group. “Five? Oh that will be lovely. What did we pull in dear?” the woman said as she looked at Henry.
“Well Henrietta, I let them take the horses for free.” For such a large man, it was quite the impressive feat how small he made himself.
“Free!” Henrietta yelled. Her face turned more red than her hair as she stormed toward Henry with mirth in her eyes. “Why in all the heavens would you give away our livelihood?” she screamed. “If you lost to another damn card game I swear to every god I can think of that I will beat you from here to Chymeron!”
Henry’s face twisted into fear as he nodded slightly. Henrietta grabbed him by the hair and dragged him toward a building connected to the stables; the entire way, yelling obscenities and curses that would cause a soldier to flinch.
“I think we should leave,” Loch said nervously. Each of the members nodded enthusiastically and mounted their horses.
Darrel stood between Celene and Khara. “When you get to Bourgeport, just stable the horses at Goodwin’s Stable. That’s our partner, so they will make sure the horses are returned.” He glanced at the stables where Henrietta’s voice could be heard through the thin wooden walls and shook his head. “Good luck.” With that he turned and headed toward the stables to continue his chores.
The party began a semi-quick pace along the road; Loch, Celene, and Suzanna in the front while Ayc and Khara rode behind. The road was beautiful as it stretched over countless hills covered in thick grass and sporadic tropical trees. Roughly 300 feet from the coast on their right, they traveled in silence until they crowned a hill which looked over the edge of a large cemetery. Even from this distance, the group could tell the headstones were ancient.
The cemetery was quite large, spanning out of view behind another rolling hill. The group continued to ride, but Loch stopped his horse short. “Do you hear that?” he asked as he searched the horizon line toward the cemetery.
Just then, a woman burst into view from the nearest hill. “Help me!” she cried out desperately. Loch didn’t hesitate as he reigned his horse to a full gallop toward the woman who had just collapsed. Ayc, Celene, Suzanna, and Khara followed promptly.
Loch arrived first, and jumped from his horse. “What’s wrong my dear?” he asked. Right as he finished his question, he noticed shambling figures walking slowly toward them; behind them was a tall figure in black robes chanting in a foreign language. Below him the ground glowed a sickly bright green.
“I was visiting my father, and then he tried to kill me,” she whimpered. She held her hand to her shoulder, quivering.
“Let me see,” Loch said gently, yet sternly. He moved her hand to find a lemon shaped wedge of skin missing from her shoulder. Blood oozed out of the wound as the edges seemed to blacken.
“We need to heal her now.” Loch looked up at Suzanna. “Do it,” he commanded as he pulled out his trident and charged forward toward the walking corpses. Ayc and Khara also dove into action as they moved to flank the undead creatures.
Suzanna turned to look at Celene. She nodded, and Suzanna knelt down beside the woman. She put her hands to the wound, and a radiant white light glowed over the wound. When she removed her hand, the gash was no longer bleeding, and was now a small cut. The blackened edges, however, had not subsided.
Celene beckoned to Suzanna to follow as she moved slowly toward the creatures from a safe distance.
Loch pulled his net from his belt as he charged toward the figure in black. The man paid no attention to him, so he used his time and momentum to fling his net perfectly at the man’s center of gravity. The net hit, and entangled the man’s hand; the book fell to the ground and the glow from beneath the man faded.
The man turned his head to face Loch, his eyes burning the putrid green glow which had just diminished from the ground. Two beams of hot green energy shot forth from the man’s eyes. Loch jumped to the side behind a large headstone while the ground exploded from the impact of the beams.
Ayc moved around to the side. He noticed the robed man’s attention on Loch, so he charged forward and swiped hard at the man with his scythe. The moment his blade touched the man, Ayc’s vision blurred, and he found himself connecting only slightly instead of hitting his mark where he had intended.
The man shook off the net, and bent down quickly and picked up the tome from the ground. Instead of opening it and reading, he turned his glowing gaze on Ayc. Once again, two beams of acrid energy shot out from the man’s eyes, hitting Ayc squarely in the right shoulder. Ayc reeled back; not in pain, but in euphoria. The power radiated through his body as his muscles felt tighter, and his power felt unstoppable. He regained his composure to see the man staring at him with confusion and intent. Ayc rushed forward with a primal roar.
Khara moved forward, launching bolt after bolt from his crossbow. Each seemed to be headed for their target, but just as they reached the robed man, they seemed to shift and fly into the distance.
The zombies were beginning to gather as the group tried to hit the sorcerer. “We’ll take him. You guys handle the zombies,” Khara yelled.
Loch nodded as he watched attack after attack miss their aggressor. The slow moving zombies had surrounded Loch as he watched the robed man effortlessly and magically dodge projectiles. A decrepit hand grasped Loch’s shoulder. He swung his trident around and clipped the creature’s hand off. Another grabbed Loch around the waist from behind. He shoved his trident back, but the rotten corpse slid easily along the prongs. A third undead body appeared in Loch’s vision as he was pulled to the ground. He desperately flailed his trident from side to side with no avail.
He landed hard on the zombie which was clutching his waist. He felt an intense pain on the back of his neck as the near faceless creature chomped down. Loch felt the flesh rip as the gnashing teeth of the creature bit again; deeper into his muscles. The creature who’s arm he had severed thrust it forward, and Loch watched as it sank to the elbow into his abdomen. He cried out in pain and agony as blood spilled out of his body.
With his last amount of strength, Loch put his trident over his heart as his vision faded. He drifted from consciousness to the guttural growls of chewing mouths.
Celene saw Loch fall under a mound of writhing undead flesh. “Heal him!” she yelled at Suzanna, who was never more than an arm’s reach from her mistress’ side.
“As you command,” Suzanna said quickly as she thrust out her palm toward Loch’s fallen body. A beam of holy light raced forward and slammed into Loch. The resounding pulse pushed the creatures off of Loch’s bloody body, and their gaze slowly turned to the two women.
“Now kill them!” Celene commanded coldly.
“I shall for you Lady Celene,” Suzanna replied. Joy spread to her face at the thought of carrying out a command for her master. She raised her hands again, and another ray of white energy shot forth. It slammed into the nearest corpse, and with a slight crackling noise, filled the creature’s body with holy energy. The zombie’s skin began to split and crack and the light rushed through its body. Bits of dried rotten skin slumped off of the creature, but it held itself upright and kept its trudging toward the women.
Khara looked back at Loch and the girls. He knew they had to stop this sorcerer fast so they could help their friends. He looked back at Ayc who was charging headlong toward the sorcerer. Ayc swung with a might blow, and Khara could see it may be the finishing blow they needed. Instead of connecting with the man, however, Ayc’s scythe shook and hit far from its mark.
Ayc looked up in pure surprise. He didn’t understand how he could have missed. His eyes met the man’s eyes, and suddenly there was a flash of the familiar green light.
“Obey my commands! Kill these people!” a booming voice echoed in Ayc’s head. His body felt heavy and he was unable to move, like the gravity of a thousand worlds pulled him from every direction. He watched in a haze as his body turned from the sorcerer, and silently made its way to Khara, who had moved in close enough to strike without being detected.
Khara dashed forward on all four limbs. He jumped into the air, arching toward the unsuspecting sorcerer. His hands hit the man in the back, and sunk deep into his flesh. Khara could feel the blood dripping down his arms as he put all his weight into the attack.
Suddenly, Khara felt an immense pain erupt from his shoulder blade. He pulled his hands from the man’s chest and looked up to see Ayc standing above him, his scythe’s blade buried deep into Khara’s shoulder.
“What are you doing?” cried Khara.
Ayc stared back without expression, his eyes glowing the same green as the robed man. The man stepped back, clutching his chest in pain. His robes began to glow black, and a green mist began swirling around him.
“No one can deny the power of the queen!,” the man’s voice boomed over the hills.
With that the man disappeared with flash and a loud bang. Ayc felt the dullness in his mind begin to wane as his body felt much more normal. Before his senses could fully return, his vision flashed to a dark alleyway. Ayc watched from his own perspective as he stumbled into a building with a strange symbol which he had never seen before. From the setting, however, Ayc was able to tell he was somewhere in the Necromancer’s District of Mage City. He shuddered to himself at the memories this place brought back to his mind.
Violently, Ayc returned to the present, and looked around in bewilderment as he pulled his scythe from Khara’s body. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to do that,” he said to his hunched friend.
Khara was about to berate Ayc for his stupidity, when he noticed the woman they had first met slowly approaching Celene and Suzanna from behind. They had all of their focus on the small hoard they were fighting, and were not watching their backs as certain death edged closer by the moment.
He sprang into action; once again running on all four limbs to make good time. His shoulder ached incredibly each time his hand met the ground, but there was no time for him to whine. With almost demon-like speed, Khara ran around the corpses in front of his friends, and made a giant leap from atop one of the headstones.
Khara flew through the air for twenty feet and landed hard behind the now undead woman. He slammed his fingertips down on the woman’s shoulders, and they easily broke the skin and collar bones. His unseen claws ripped down through the woman’s chest and abdomen, slicing her into three ungodly pieces of former Half Elf.
Her body swayed for a moment as her ribs and entrails fell to the ground on both sides of her. Both knees buckled, and her horrific carcass melted to the ground to rest in a gory heap of body parts.
Ayc ran up to help the group dispatch the remaining undead creatures. Once they were dead, his attention turned to the disgusting mess that was once a person. He walked over, and pulled out a kerchief from his belt-pouch. Almost gingerly, he wiped some of the blood from her face, and set the cloth on her eyes. As his hand met her skin, a strange chill overcame his close vicinity, however none of his companions were near enough to notice.
“Is Loch alright?” Khara asked when he noticed the bloody blue body.
Loch floated in a state of euphoria along beautiful white capped waves. He could see a beautifully blinding light in the distance, like a lonely lighthouse beckoning him to safer travels. He could hear the voices of his ancestors calling out to him in harmonious tones, hinting at peace and calm in his native tongue. Loch pushed toward the light, but instantly found himself falling further from it instead.
Loch’s life flashed before him as he rushed backward through a vortex of confusion. Pain began to fill his mind and the euphoria was replaced with fear and panic. He jolted back to life gripping his trident with all his might, eyes darting to and fro trying to fight off the zombies that had just been upon him. He sat up after a moment and craned his neck to see around him, happy to notice that none of the zombies were still standing.
“We should go,” Khara said, holding his shoulder and staring at Ayc with hot daggers in his eyes.
Loch stood and wiped the blood from his face. His clothes were soaked, and he could still feel the pain of the bite on the back of his neck. It was a strange pain that seemed to linger, fade, then intensify in an uncomfortable cycle. “Yes let’s go. Where is the woman?” he asked as he looked toward where they had first encountered her.
Khara pointed to the messy pile of guts and bone. “She turned, so we took care of it.”
Loch looked at her with pity and remorse because he knew he had failed her. As he looked at the ground in shame, he noticed one of the zombies had a golden pendant lodged in its rib-cage. He bent down and plucked it from the bones. After a moment he spoke. “We are taking this girl to the next town. How far is it?” he asked as he looked to Suzanna.
“The next fork leads to Stockseth,” she replied. “I believe it is only a thirty minute ride from here.”
Loch looked at his horse, then back at the disemboweled body. “I will carry her.” He knelt down, and as best he could, lifted the remains of the woman over his shoulder. Fresh blood mixed with old blood down the front of Loch’s shirt as bits of her cascaded down. Loch didn’t flinch as he folded her flopping arms under his own.
The group shared a disgusted look, but did not attempt to stop him. They rode in an awkward silence as Loch walked with them, leaving a trail of blood and bits of body on the road behind them.
They took the next fork toward Stockseth, and after an awkward moment, Khara motioned for Ayc to hang back, and he slowed his horse’s pace. Once they were both out of earshot, Khara angrily said, “You need to tell me exactly what you are. You almost killed me back there.” He watched Ayc’s face for a reaction, but found none.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Ayc replied defensively.
“Don’t lie to me. I just watched you take a hit from a necromancer and it didn’t even phase you. Then he took control of you. They can only control the undead. So what does that make you?” He asked.
“What makes you think he was a necromancer?” Ayce asked. “He was a sorcerer who enchanted me to do his bidding. That’s certainly no evidence to show I’m undead or anything of the like.”
“It’s not just that. I’ve been watching you. I saw you do something to Trevan back at the docks, and it seems like everywhere there is a dead body, you are always there hovering over it. I want to know what you are hiding if we are going to be traveling together.” Khara said in a very serious tone.
“Well you have your own secrets, don’t you,” Ayc said cunningly. “I have been watching you as well.” He paused. “Rending flesh with your fingers. Now that strikes me as a secret.”
Khara paused for a moment, weighing his options. “What if we both tell our secrets? That way we both have leverage and closure.”
It was Ayc’s turn to ponder the situation. “I could live with that. When would you like to do this little exchange?” he asked.
“Now seems like as good a time as any,” Khara replied. "The vegetation is getting denser, so we could just step off the road for a moment.
“Riders are coming!” Celene called back, breaking the two men’s concentration. They looked ahead and saw four horses galloping toward them, still a few minutes out. Their pace indicated they were in a hurry.
Ayc and Khara exchanged glances. “Should we hide in case it’s an ambush?” Khara asked loudly.
“Yes. Good idea,” Ayc responded, also deliberately loud enough for Loch, Celene, and Suzanna to hear.
They jumped off their horses before a plan could be discussed and ran into the thickening treeline. The four horses quickly approached, and four soldiers dismounted aggressively in front of Loch and the two women, blades out and at the ready.
“Where are your companions!” the first soldier yelled. He was Human, and dressed in green and silver; fresh blood adorned his armor and drawn sword.
“I have no idea,” Loch replied honestly as he looked behind him to see two riderless horses grazing along the side of the path.
The Human soldier’s gaze focused on the bloody mess over Loch’s shoulder. “What is that?”
Loch slowly set down the messy corpse as the soldiers warily watched his actions. As he set her down, her head flopped back, revealing her pale, contorted face.
“Lady Isabella!” the man cried, and the four soldiers stepped forward to put their blade tips inches from Loch’s face. “You will tell us what you’ve done to her!” he yelled, his voice filled to the brim with rage.
“She was attacked at the cemetery back down the road,” Loch quickly explained. “We tried to save her, but she was killed in the battle because she turned into an undead…” His voice trailed off. “I promise if there was anything that could have been done, we would have done it. I carried her body here to put her at peace instead of being a feast for wild beasts.”
The man in front of Loch stood still for a moment while his eyes scanned the body, Loch, Celene, and Suzanna. “If what you say is true, we owe you a great deal of gratitude. Lady Isabella is the daughter of the Baroness of Stockseth.”
Loch nodded, and shared a nervous look with Celene. “We would simply like refuge for the afternoon and perhaps the night to tend to our wounds,” Celene said courteously from atop her mount.
“My apologies, but we are not in a state to offer hospitality. In fact, we must take Lady Isabella’s body back now, and continue the fight.” As he spoke, the group’s overall demeanor became more and more confused.
“What’s going on in Stockseth?” Loch asked.
“A necromancer appeared at our chapel, and raised the dead bodies of the people buried in the cemetery.” The man looked sadly at nothing as he spoke, his eyes expression blank and hollow. “They came out of the ground and started to attack. We had things under control, but then we found out if you don’t heal their bites fully, people turn into the undead themselves. The attack happened hours ago, but we’ve been unable to fully root out the curse. We were sent to find Lady Isabella and ensure her safety.” He paused. “But we failed.”
The three soldiers behind him shared the same sullen look as he recanted his story. “You owe us nothing, but would you be willing to help us?” the man asked with a hint of desperation in his voice. Then he stopped short as he noticed the bite mark on Loch’s neck.
“You’ve been bitten?” he exclaimed. “You must get that healed or you will turn. I will not bring more undead into my town.”
“It is a small wound, but I have no way of healing it I’m afraid,” Loch replied. “Do you by chance have anything that would help?” he asked.
“If it is indeed a small enough wound, I may be able to help,” answered a stout Halfling from behind the Human. He walked forward, and motioned for Loch to kneel down. After examining the wound, he reached into his belt-pouch and pulled out a small container of salve. He applied it to Loch’s wound, and instantly, Loch felt the pulsating pain cease. The wound’s black edges ebbed back, and the wound became nothing more than fresh scar.
“Thank you my friend. I am in your debt,” Loch said as the Halfling returned his salve to his pouch.
“I’m just glad we were able to heal you in time. Many are not so fortunate,” replied the Halfling.
“Now then. You will help us?” asked the Human soldier, looking intently at Loch.
“Lead the way,” Loch said, and the soldier’s eyes lit up slightly. They mounted their horses, then turned toward Ayc and Khara’s horses. “And what of them?” he asked as he pointed to the spot where they had left the road.
“Come on, we are going to the town!” Celene yelled. “You are acting like idiots. Just come out. They saw you already!”
There was no response.
“I guess they will catch up?” Celene said questioningly.
The soldiers rode to their horses and grabbed the reigns. “We’re taking your horses!” yelled one of the soldiers.
Still no response.
The seven of them rode toward the town with the body of Lady Isabella in tow, leaving Ayc and Khara alone in the woods.
“Do you think we should have just gone with them?” Ayc asked.
“No. You are going to show me your secret and I’ll show you mine. We’ve already committed to this, and I need to know.” Khara replied angrily.
“Ok you go first,” Ayc said with a smile.
“I know that trick,” retorted Khara. “What makes you think I trust you to go second?” he asked.
“On my honor,” Ayc replied simply.
“Fine.” Khara stepped back, and released his alteration spell he always kept on himself. With a dull flash, Khara became a Raksasha. His features resembled that of the Cat Folk, however his face was heavily disfigured. His nose bent at an unnatural angle and both cheekbones looked like they had been broken and healed hundreds of times over. The body of Khara was covered in patches of matted fur, and long claws protruded from each of his long fingers. Large tumor-like bumps dotted Khara’s body, and two short, stubby arms stuck out of his lower abdomen.
“This is me,” Khara said after a moment.
“I see.” Ayc’s body began to bend and twist in quick, sporadic motions. Khara could hear the dull popping sound of bones and cartilage breaking and reforming. Ayc slowly transformed into a mirror image of Khara, even down to the color of his fur.
“What?” Khara exclaimed in rage. “That’s not what I was talking about and you know it!”
“You didn’t specify which secret. You said we show each other our secret, then move on.” Ayce replied in a very matter of fact tone.
Khara hated to be mocked. “You promised on your honor. Is this what that means?” he asked.
“You’re right,” Ayc said quietly. “But in order for me to show you, there is a cost which I cannot control.”
Khara stood for a moment, then with a dull flash he became the familiar face of his Human form. “What is it?” he asked in an exasperated tone. He was weary from battle and lack of sleep, so his patience for this game had run out.
“It costs a small piece of you that you are never going to use anyway,” Ayc said coyly.
“I grow tired of your games and riddles. If you are going to ask for a piece of my soul just do it already.” Khara said angrily.
Ayc hesitated a moment. “You know?” he asked.
“Well come on, it wasn’t hard to put together. You are always looming over dead and dying people, you were controlled by a necromancer, and now you want, a piece of me,” Khara put his fingers up to show quotations marks in the air, “so obviously you are some sort of death reaper-like creature. I’m not scared, but if you misuse my trust there will be consequences.” Khara’s face darkened as he spoke the last part.
“Trust me this is a benefit for you and for me,” Ayc responded. “Shake my hand, and all your questions will be answered.” Ayc held out his hand toward Khara.
He waited a brief moment, then shrugged painfully and reached out his hand. As soon as their palms met, Ayc’s grip tightened uncomfortably. Khara’s brow drew down as he watched Ayc thrust out his free hand to produce a black light, then his scythe. Ayc brought down the scythe and Khara watched as the tip met with his chest. He watched as the blade soared through his body without leaving so much as a scratch. The scythe swung from one side to the other of Khara’s chest and he watched as a cloud-like figure of himself was wrenched from his body. Helplessly, his soul was dragged through the air then stopped short inches from Ayc’s face.
“Divine,” he whispered as he opened his mouth and devoured the transparent version of Khara. Khara’s soul spiraled into Ayc’s mouth until there was nothing.
Khara gasped as an death-like chill left his body. He blinked and reached out to strike at Ayc, but Ayc was faster, and hit him square in the chest, knocking him back onto his rear.
“I told you I would reveal myself and answer your questions,” Ayc said as he looked down at the infuriated Khara.
Once again, the sickening pop of bones and tendons burst forth from inside of Ayc as his body twisted and warped in ungodly ways. Instead of becoming a Human, he changed into a distorted being. Robes, blacker than night, spilled down over his shoulders which were writhing faces underneath the grotesque flesh. More faces crawled along Ayc’s skin; across his torso, Trevan’s face contorted in agony as it passed down his side and behind his hip.
“I am a reaper of death,” Ayc boomed in voice that sounded like a hundred tortured souls screaming in unison. “And you have parted with your soul.”
Suddenly, a rush of knowledge raced through Khara’s mind. He understood aspects of death and the soul that he had never even fathomed in the past.
A long moment passed, and Ayc forced his body back to his Human form. “Do you have regrets?” Ayce asked after bending his arm 120 degrees back to its natural position.
“No. I think I made the right decision,” Khara replied. “But I expect my little piece inside you to stay safe regardless of what happens to my body.”
“Most definitely,” Ayc responded. “Now should we catch up with our companions? They are probably missing our charm by now.”
They shared a laugh and made their way back onto the trail, and then toward the town of Stockseth; both groaning simultaneously as they realized how far of a walk they had created for themselves.